“A Georgia rap collective’s single gains more than three million streams on YouTube.”
Who’s in this group? Gucci Mane? Future? Wait, Playboi Carti? Surely Migos? Young Thug? Is Andre 3000 back? On this occasion, it’s worth expanding your horizons. While the US state of Georgia may be one of the greatest exponents of modern hip hop, it’s rap music made in the small eastern European republic of Georgia that’s popping off online.
Killages formed in 2017 in Rustavi, a city close to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where they’ve grown a devoted fanbase since winning a Georgian battle of the bands-style contest called Newcomer 2017. The same year they released their viral single “On / Off” — a slice of post-Drake, downbeat pop-rap, the instrumental for which would not feel out of place on a lo-fi chill beats playlist. Some 900,000 YouTube streams in 2019 has now swelled to five million. It’s certainly enough to get noticed.
“Of course, the views and streams are important to us — it’s evidence that we’re growing our audience,” says Giorgi Liparteliani or, as he’s better known, Lipo, who plays bass in Killages. The band name, a combination of “kill” and “ages”, was chosen to signify the dual meaning of “killing time” and “never wanting to grow old”. Like any classic rap group, from Wu-Tang Clan to Brockhampton, each of its members has their own stage name.
When I log on Skype to connect with the crew in Rustavi, Lipo is separated from his bandmates. He’s joined on the call by Guga Matcharasvhili (or Gugamchr), who describes himself as the band’s “MC, storyteller and main lyric writer”, and Anri Kavelashvili (or Anrihudson), who plays guitar and mixes and masters the band’s music (meanwhile, drummer Rati Ratiani, or Softwood, couldn’t make the interview).
“After we became friends, we talked a lot about music and realised that we’ve all shared this desire to win a Grammy, ever since we were kids,” says Guga. At this moment, his phone camera flips and Lipo yells, “I don’t wanna see your feet bro!”. The boys break down into laughter. Together, they give off a happy-go-lucky, “friends hanging out” kind of vibe. Their music is just as relaxed.
While online streams are the modern barometer of success, the jury is still out on whether that initial popularity can translate into something more grandiose over time. Killages have been experimental with their approach: instead of replicating the sound that brought them virality, they’ve moulded themselves in different genres, “searching for something new and special that people can determine as our sound.”
The fact that sound hasn’t quite solidified yet is a sign of how fledgling Killages really are. When we spoke, they were in the middle of a string of shows, something which still seems rather out of step with reality.
“Because of the Covid-19 pandemic there have been no concerts, but since the regulations and restrictions have gone away [in Georgia], we’ve had six live performances. We have four or five more events planned,” says Guga [of their schedule at the time of writing]. “We missed live concerts a lot. These ones we have done have had full attendance, people are so motivated, singing and dancing and shouting and supporting. We played the seaside city of Batumi, where many tourists and Georgians gather alike. There was so much energy coming from them; it was fire.”
But a potentially Grammy-winning sound is a more complicated prospect. One-off releases like ‘Dateoff’ could be described as breezy Spotify-core — a term directed at relatively inoffensive, mid-tempo, pop that has become so ubiquitous with playlists and algorithmic curation. Killages started making music long before such streaming services launched in Georgia. But their rise to prominence has hinged on the kind of Spotify playlist-baiting music that has become so popular — no mean feat, considering that that the platform only just officially launched in Georgia in February of this year. When they say they are compared to Twenty One Pilots — the only group to have every song on an album reach over 100 million streams on Spotify — what they are really alluding to aren’t the musical similarities, but the journey they have ahead of them.
Spotify’s presence levels the playing field for Georgian acts, and the band see it as an essential stepping stone toward their aims. “We hope to get more listeners there. Spotify isn’t so popular here yet,” says Guga. “People are still addicted to downloading and pirating music here. We hope that [streaming] will grow. The interface and ease of Spotify is beneficial to all kinds of people.”
When they mention influences, it’s a real mixed bag: Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Oasis, The Beatles, Georgian electronic group Kung Fu Junkie. Guga names Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad. None seem particularly obvious inspirations for the singles that have made them famous. But when you hear the band’s debut album, last year’s Original Brothers, there are more breakbeats and fast rapping; singing is comparably minimal and the production leans less heavily on electronics made with live instrumentation. It falls a little more in line with a trend of Georgian artists moving from avant-garde techno to more melodic, though still experimental, rap. Yet despite being the first real compendium of what Killages can do, it seems like an outlier. The band also performs their vocals in English, eschewing the desire of many new wave Georgian MCs to use their native language. At best, you can tell that a sonic identity is still being worked out; a harsher assessment would be that it’s a little muddled. A cynic might say it was a grab for easy streaming plays abroad.
“In Georgia, the songs that are popular are Georgian songs, with Georgian lyrics and a more quintessential Georgian sound,” says Guga. “We are the first really well-liked English-speaking band. The point was to reach a larger audience, but honestly, I write lyrics more easily in English than Georgian. We want to be a worldwide band, so it made sense to write in English.”
Anri adds matter-of-factly: “We are just trying to make good pop music.”
It isn’t just a pipedream that a popular band from Georgia could go on to global success. South Korean boy band BTS were nominated for a major Grammy this year, a huge step for a major music award that remains notorious for snubbing non-Western artists. Killages say they are sitting on a pile of unmixed, unreleased tracks. And with western rap artists saturating Spotify and other streaming services with material to game streaming algorithms, perhaps Killages are simply following in the footsteps of a new tradition.
“We don’t really have a plan [for the future],” says Guga. “But we won’t stop working and grinding.”