Kye Clayton doesn't like sitting still. In the last three years, the 19-year-old Halifax rapper — and high-school valedictorian — has co-founded a label, released three full-length albums and more EPs, and is currently working two jobs while waiting to start a music production and engineering program in the fall. So when quarantine interrupted his last year of high school in March 2020, he hunkered down.
"I try to be as productive as possible during quarantine because I was like, you're in the house all day," he said, over the phone from his home nearly a year into the pandemic. "I was just with my family. So I didn't want to be not motivated. There were certain times I wouldn't make music for a week and just chill out because I ain't doing much. But like, I try to make music as much as possible."
The byproduct of that focus is a prolific output for 2020, growing into 2021. Clayton just released his Hard Times EP (the first release of the new year), which followed two full-length albums last year (Sandbox and Temporary), as well as two EPs (Trapped in the House and Wish Came True), not to mention the stirring single "Black is Power," which dropped in June 2020 at the height of the year's global protests against anti-Black racism.
His mindset is to build it, and they will come. Clayton started building the backbone to his music when he was in elementary school, writing poems and entering them in competitions in Grades 5 and 6. He started making beats and producing music a few years later, at 14, and because he says "a lot of people weren't rapping on them, or rapping on them at all," he started to rap on the songs himself.
"And then [I] started writing my own story — and trying to put my poems on them, more than just like rhyme schemes, but a little more meaning to it," he said, adding that he used to freestyle a lot while now he writes "a lot more conscious."
Clayton names J Cole and Kendrick Lamar as his lyrical influences, and Travis Scott as a heavy musical and production influence. Closer to home, Clayton, who grew up in Halifax's Uniacke Square, looks up to local hip-hop artists King Wooz, Polaris longlister Aquakultre and East Preston rapper Maje as his biggest champions.
"They literally took me to their side and taught me certain things, all three of them, that helped me today," said Clayton, grateful for the mentorship.
It's that sense of community that Clayton's paying forward. In 2018, he and Kolade Boboye co-founded the record label Let Dreams be Noticed, which lists 12 up-and-coming artists on its roster and which released the collective album, Uncensored Tapes Vol. 1, in 2020. The label boasts in-house talent to shoot music videos, mix and master music and create graphics, as well as an artist business plan.
"There's no record labels really in Halifax and basically we wanted to start one from scratch at a young age so then we can build it," said Clayton. He adds that he thinks a lot more youth in the city are starting to record than ever before, and hopes Let Dreams be Noticed can be a boost for them. "That's what I'd like to see," said Clayton — and with a label goal to create "a new mindset for youth and adults to show that it doesn't matter where you come from, anything is possible," that seems likely.
'I really want to build this city'
While Clayton spends a lot of time by himself, focusing on his music, family and community are a constant inspiration and support in the work he does. In November 2020, he teamed up with childhood friend nelly2drippy to release Sandbox, a full-length album named for their tight bond.
"Since me and Nelly knew each other since we were five years old and we grew up playing in the sandbox together, we wanted to call it sandbox to have the nostalgia," Clayton explained. Clayton's low-key flow is buoyed by Nelly's punchy energy, drawing out a nice balance on the release. (The two had the record ready in late 2019, and re-recorded it before releasing it in late 2020 because Clayton had learned so much more about his recording process over the year.)
Clayton's first 2020 mixtape, while a solo release, did not see the rapper performing alone. Temporary digs deep into the temporal nature of life. The penultimate track, "July 26th," is named for the day his friend Triston Reece was killed in 2019. Over a piano and percussion bed, Clayton beautifully remembers learning of Reece's death, rapping, "Little did I know I wouldn't hear you no more/ I wouldn't see you no more/ my heart done dropped to the floor." The track features a heartbreaking interlude from Reece's mother, Dale Reece, with whom Clayton is still close. It ends with clips of friends saying "Long live King Reece," the words reaching out as one last hug to a treasured friend.
"When I saw Aunt Dale like the day after, two days after, I cried in her arms. So I just made sure she was on the song because Aunt Dale's the best." Clayton was later able to perform the song with Aunt Dale in the crowd. "She cried right there and gave me a hug. And I just felt so good to be able to make something that everyone was able to love, and she could actually feel what I was saying and stuff. It was amazing just being able to perform that reaction in person."
Another standout track on the album, "Find Your Way," has Clayton collaborating with R&B singer/producer Zamani. The two went to high school together, but hadn't hopped on a song together before.
Clayton's 2021 EP, Hard Times, takes another turn, this time showing off the rapper's vocal chops. Clayton, who grew up singing in a boys choir, embraces more of an R&B vibe within his hip hop on this release, adding opening vocals on "S4L" that have hints of a hymnal, later weaved into a trap beat. It's a project Clayton put together because he was having a rough time toward the end of 2020 — moving out of his family home for the first time, spending a lot of time at home, taking business classes virtually at Saint Mary's University that really weren't engaging him. "I was lazy some days, I wasn't doing a lot of things and just going through hard times," he explained.
But he adds quickly that by the end of March or early April, he'll have the flip side to the coin: a Good Times EP to lead us into spring. Because "lazy," for Clayton, doesn't seem to last long.
"Hopefully one day when I get older, I'll have a house in Halifax and hopefully I'll be able to travel with my music and stuff like that," Clayton said. "But my main hub will be in Halifax. I really want to build this city and have it as a music city one day, have a lot of artists come in and have festivals and do amazing stuff, hopefully in the future. But just trying to build the city as much as possible through music."