“I caught a hot streak”: Meet Akintoye, the TikTok rapper turned IRL star
The buzzy musician talks falling asleep to the dulcet tones of Biggie, his recent collab with Idris Elba and why he’d rather be your fun cousin than yet another aloof celebrity
In 2021, when Akintoye Asalu, a 23-year-old rapper from Vaughan, started sharing a song a day on TikTok, he wasn’t chasing fame—he was just trying to manage his anxiety. But his follower count soon ballooned from a few thousand to 2.7 million, and he quickly became one to watch. In two years, his high-energy tracks have garnered more than 350,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, inspired a Hot Docs film and snagged him a spot rapping alongside superstar actor and DJ Idris Elba on the track “Aces.” We talked to Asalu about what it takes to become a rap star these days, why cultivating a sense of mystery is overrated and how he ended up collaborating with Stringer Bell himself.
At just 23 years old, you’ve broken into the rap industry. What’s your secret?
In a way, this has been years in the making. Rap has always been in my life. I cried a lot as a baby, and my dad would sing “One More Chance” by Biggie Smalls, his favourite rapper, to get me to sleep. Growing up, I rapped and recorded videos, but it was never a serious thing. Turning my thoughts into lyrics and beats helped me organize them. After graduating from McMaster in 2021 with a degree in commerce, I moved back home to Vaughan. It was during the pandemic lockdowns, and I had no job and unlimited free time, so I started throwing a video up on TikTok every day. Eventually, I caught a hot streak—viral video after viral video, anywhere from 100,000 to 29 million views.
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Did you start pursuing music full time right away?
No—having a few popular videos doesn’t make you a big-time musician, and TikTok success doesn’t necessarily cross over to real life. But a brand did offer to sponsor me for $2,000, and that felt like the big time. I immediately bought a Nintendo Switch. I had no idea if this could become a career, but it felt good to make money doing something I loved. So I ditched my plan to go to law school and decided to see if I could make it.
Is it easier to break out than it used to be?
On one hand, the barrier to entry is much lower. What I’m doing–selling tickets to shows based on music I recorded and mixed with four friends in our basements—wasn’t possible a few decades ago. You no longer need $2 million or a record deal to make an album. On the other hand, that makes the competition way more intense. You’re going up against label artists and against a kid in Tennessee who’s making fire beats on his 2007 Dell laptop and singing over them with autotune.
So how does an aspiring rapper stand out?
To turn somebody from a listener to a fan, you need a personal brand. My commerce background has been helpful because entrepreneurship skills, like knowing how to grow your following on socials, have become a huge part of the equation. But it’s important to stay true to yourself and not let your artistic integrity slide for the sake of making money. The industry sometimes seems to be more about getting rich and flaunting it on social media, but for me, I feel like I’m already winning if I can get by doing something I love.
What’s your brand?
Complete honesty. I didn’t start writing to be a successful artist—I did it to clear my mind. In university, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety, and writing every day was the only way I could make sense of things and maintain my sanity. For a while, I struggled to share my writing because I didn’t want to be judged. I had to unlearn the ridiculous notion that mental illness is weakness. But I realized that, if I shared my real thoughts in my songs for people to hear, that made me accountable and I had to deal with them. I don’t want to be an inaccessible or mysterious artist. I’m more like that cousin you’re excited to see at Christmas, who also happens to rap.
Of all your songs, which are you proudest of?
That is so tough—it’s like picking a favourite kid when you have 70 of them. I like “Bad Day Ballad.” It’s clear and funky, and it juxtaposes a super-serious topic—dealing with tough thoughts—with a beat that makes you want to dance. “Cold Winter” is also up there. For the longest time, I struggled with the idea that I had to dumb down my music. Like, is it bad if I write a line and people don’t understand what it means? With “Cold Winter,” I just went for it. It’s got metaphors and wordplay, and you have to break it down line by line to get to the nitty gritty.
Who are your musical inspirations?
Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and, well, the number-three spot is always changing. Today it’s Big L. He was a New York rapper in the 1990s, and he died in his early twenties, unfortunately. His pen was so ahead of its time. He was one of the first people to craft stories from beginning to end for all his songs, all while maintaining a terrific technical skill set. His music is unreal.
Is Biggie still your dad’s favourite rapper, or have you taken the top spot?
He plays my music in the car, but he doesn’t take it easy on me. He’ll tell me that it would be good to get this or that famous rapper on a track. Still, I know he listens to my albums when I’m not around, and that feeling never gets old.
Last year, you appeared on the track “Aces” with Idris Elba. Do you know him?
We’ve never met! It started with 4Korners, the DJ for the Toronto Raptors. He’s very supportive of people in the Toronto rap scene. One day, he texted to ask if I would rap over a new beat he was mixing. I recorded it, sent it and then forgot about it. Fast forward a few months, it’s Canada Day and I’m at my friend’s barbecue. I get a FaceTime call from Connor Price, another Toronto rapper. He tells me that he’ll also be on the track and, oh, so will Idris Elba. I was so confused—like, whoa, how did I even get into this situation? The final result is incredible.
What’s next for you?
Next month I’m in Calgary at Sled Fest. I’m hoping to tour the US next year, if the work visas come in on time, and then maybe do another Toronto show. There is a lot of stuff in the pipeline. I’m fully in the swing of creating.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.