from montreal with love: kaytranada on life in the suburbs and music on the world stage
The man behind some of the hottest tracks of the last five years, producer Kaytranada is stepping out on his own with his debut album, '99.9%.'
Listening to the sounds of Kaytranada, one might assume there's a cocky man behind the music. Think about it, surely you've got to be pretty audacious to remix beloved jams such as TLC's "Creep," Janet Jackson's "If," Teedra Moses' "Be Your Girl," and Missy Elliott's "Sock It 2 Me," with no fear of the consequences that may come with taking the skeleton of beloved generational R&B classics and reworking them into your own signature part-funk, part-soul, part-dance, part-hip hop hybrids. On the contrary, meeting 23-year-old Louis Kevin Celestin (Kay to those close to him) in leafy Ladbroke Grove at the headquarters of his record label, XL, we're greeted with someone who is painfully shy, struggling to make eye contact, almost withdrawn in his body language; at least to begin with. As we get into the swing of the interview, his eyes illuminate. Engaged, animated, funny, and, most of all, completely loveable by the end, it's clear Kaytranada's at his most comfortable — his most natural even — when he's simply talking about the music. He recounts as a child, "I was always very shy growing up, I would even say reserved, I feel like I'm still like that today. I didn't have many friends when I grew up except my brother, I was pretty much alone in my own bubble but I enjoyed it."
Born in Haiti to a traditional family and raised in Montreal — after his father unceremoniously upped and left — his mother struggled to make ends meet for him, his brother, and his two sisters. Amongst it all, he recounts the music that filled his house and the osmosis of his two older sisters' musical tastes to him; listening to the golden age of neo-soul, R&B, and hip hop in the 90s. " D'Angelo, Biggie, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu...rappers like Jay-Z, 50 Cent...you could not escape music in my house."
With the suburbs of Montreal providing little to do, Kaytranada spent most of his time with his brother, two years his junior, dabbling with making music. "I first wanted to be a rapper, like in the 6th grade. Thinking back now I wasn't paying attention to the rhymes, I was really paying attention to how good the music was," he reminisces. After retiring his rap ambitions, he started DJing at home, making his first beats around "14 or 15." "I was inspired by the Neptunes, Just Blaze, J. Dilla... I was just learning who they all were and was so inspired by the music." However, a protective mother largely kept him from going out until the age of 19. Going by the name Kaytradamus at the time, he played his first gig of homemade Fruity Loops melodies (he still uses the software to this day) and the buzz was immediate. "All the Montreal MCs were there, all the popular ones at the time which was an honor to me; it gave me confidence and more push that I needed. That was around the time my brother knew what was going to happen and said to my mom, 'yo Kevin's the one that's going to put us out of this misery!'"
Recognition across Canada followed, but international acclaim didn't come until a breakthrough moment while Kaytranada slept after attending a Flying Lotus concert. "I was so inspired that I did the 'If' remix from 3-5am and then went to bed. By the time I woke up at noon, I saw a bunch of notifications on my phone from SoundCloud and Majestic Casual had posted it. Even today people still lose their minds [over it], I don't get it but I appreciate it though," he laughs.
European and American tours followed, as did a dozen EPs and mixtapes, production on tracks for The Internet, Rejjie Snow, and Katy B. Remixes — for the likes of AlunaGeorge, Amerie, Beyoncé, Snakehips, and Flume — have became one of his trademarks. He signed to XL Recordings in 2014 and began work on his first full length album, 99.9%. "It's been two years since I started working on it. I was really frustrated because I was just putting out singles and all I ever wanted was to put out an album but I was touring so much. The album is a result of all of that, it's an expression of how I felt. I knew I had something to prove, mostly to myself." The stop/start nature of the making the album inspired its name. He explains, "when I would go back home from tour to work on the album, I was always saying to my label or my manager 'yes this is the final cut.' It happened like 10 times, but I was always only 99.9% sure. So I just thought I am gonna name this album 99.9%. I just the liked the way it looked too, it looks fresh."
You can't help but feel 99.9% serves as the sonic narrative of his 23 years. Nods to the old-school hip hop and R&B of his childhood are interspersed with dulcet funk, soul, and dance. From the scatty groove of Karriem Riggins' drums on album opener "Bus Ride" to his collaboration with man of the moment Anderson Paak, ("he did like 10 demos over my beats. I was like, 'yo this is some hot shit, all the stuff he did was crazy!'), there's a constant feeling of surprise over what you'll hear next. This long list of collaborators helped elevate the album, the result being a more mature sound than his freshman release. Craig David croons seamlessly over a trippy beat for "Got It Good," despite never having met in real life. Vic Mensa's vocals perfectly juxtapose the melody of the almost-transcendental "Drive Me Crazy," ("we've worked together a bunch of stuff, there's so much dope stuff people haven't got to hear.")
Going almost full circle, when asked what he's got in the works next, his shyness returns, responding almost as if the 15-year-old Kay listening to his sister's albums was speaking: "I honestly just want to work with all of those neo-soul sisters, Jill [Scott], Erykah [Badu], Teedra Moses. Also if The Neptunes called, I'd like cancel my tour," he laughs. "I'd be so interested to see how it sounded as we are both producers but I would just let them do their thing." The momentum he's created has no signs of stopping, this month has seen him gain a production credit on Chance The Rapper's new EP, Coloring Book, and his immediate future sees him working with Canadian jazz trio BadBadNotGood, finishing off a project with his brother Lou Phelps, as well as starting work on album number two. And with his answer to what he wants his legacy to be, his humility shines through — a refreshing trait for one of the world's most sought after producers. "I'm just trying to make people dance. I always play with the crowd and regardless, if they've had a break up or if they're in love, I'm trying to make them feel something with me."
Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Liam MacRae