In virtually all facets of life, being a college-educated white male, like New York City-by-way-of-Stanford rapper Jay Kila, gives you a leg up. Just look at Fortune 500 CEOs, members of Congress, tenured college professors — the list goes on. One of the few areas this might not be true is in the rap arena, where authenticity, for a long time, was everything.
And even that’s not strictly true. Many of the genre’s biggest commercial successes, from Vanilla Ice to Eminem to Macklemore, have all been white, despite the vast majority of hip-hop artists being black. And despite the success of these white rappers, there’s also been an additional layer of scrutiny applied to them, a sense that they might be more interlopers than apostles of the culture.
Interestingly enough, white rappers began proliferating in the late 2000s by largely side-stepping these concerns and making music for their own, closed off, and fairly entitled world. The music was dubbed “frat rap,” in large part because it celebrated the excesses of college life and the entitled, never-been-street lifestyles of the college-educated (or would-be college-educated) white males who made it. Asher Roth and his fatuous single “I Love College” began the movement, but it has since been populated by artists that range from pretty good content and lyrical technique — like latter-day Roth and the Donald Trump-feuding Mac Miller — to the quite regrettable, like Mike Stud and Huey Mack.
It’s in this world that Jay Kila must make his way, for better or worse. Kila started making music while in college at Stanford and quickly made his passion his pursuit, giving up his business degree for film and video production to create his own music videos.
“In college I got my first MacBook, and that was the first time I could ever make music, because it had Garage Band,” he recalls. “So I started making songs there and realized that I actually liked making music more than the video part. I would make a lot of comedy-rap videos, and then I got more serious about making music.”
Growing up, Kila was into Eminem and “New York rap, mostly Wu-Tang and Jay-Z and Biggie,” but also professed a love of alternative rock and punk, citing favorites like Green Day and Offspring. His relatively late interest in the genre and the aforementioned scrutiny of privileged white rappers looms large for him, and it’s something that clearly motivates him.
“When I started, my main motivation was to show people that I was good at rapping,” he admits. “A lot of my earlier stuff, it still wasn’t hardcore, but it was trying to be like, I guess, trying to show people I could connect it with the lyrics and wordplay.
“As I kept doing it, I got a little more aware of the content itself and how to be true to who I was,” Kila continues. “The artists I like are the ones who always come across as the most authentic, and that’s in rap and in other genres of music. In rap, when people try to be too hard or something that they are not, to me it’s a turn-off.”
For Kila, that means songs like “It’s Better to Spend it on Beer,” his most recent and biggest single with Cav, his rap partner and current tour mate. The song is a bit crass in its celebration of twentysomething bro hedonism, but there’s no doubt that Kila is a hyper-competent rapper with a crisp flow and a honed sense of dynamics that sound quite comfortable over a post-trap beat that would fit snugly on hip-hop radio.
“I always try to maintain the technical wordplay part and have complex rhyme schemes and stuff, because that was the kind of rap I liked growing up,” he explains, again citing his love of New York hip-hop. “So I’m taking that and applying it to more natural or real parts of my life.”
And Kila also doesn’t just limit himself to party anthems. His 2014 mixtape Kila Dem Softly chronicles romantic heartbreak, for instance, but it’s clear he’s always got a nose and a hunger for what can sell.
“Usually what will happen is I’ll come up with a hook and then find a beat and make a song out of that. But I’m usually thinking about the video, too,” he says of his creative process. “Right now I’m doing a rap duo with my friend [Cav], who is also a filmmaker. In today’s world, YouTube is incredibly important for engaging the audience, so we’re always thinking about the video early on.”
Kila also mentions the importance of the live show as well of his mentorship with veteran Atlanta rapper Daddy-O (of Southern hip-hop pioneers Stetsasonic) as being pivotal to making a career for himself. He’s determined to make all the right moves, whether that’s staying independent or signing with a label.
“I respect people today who are doing everything themselves, who have had huge success without being signed to a major label and maintained control, and I’m proud of doing that, but I’d still be down if the right situation came up,” Kila says.
In the short term, though, it’s about the hustle. He’s got a new mixtape out with Cav, Talking Shit Volume 2, billed under the name Highly Funktional Addicts, and he’s focused on the current tour.
“We are just going to try and come and play the show,” he says.