The first time I saw Kaytranada, I was sopping in other people’s sweat, blindly and wholly relinquishing myself to the groove in a sizable Chinese restaurant on the Lower East Side. Booked as the headlining act for the infuriatingly sporadic event series Dark Disco, this time at the 88 Palace restaurant, Kaytranada was supported by HW&W labelmates Sango and STWO along with New York-based producer duo DKDS. Even before the headliner’s set, which picked up around 1:30 in the morning, the venue was dense with wet, gyrating bodies.
For Kaytranada’s set, one of his first major appearances in New York, I noticed a definitive swerve in atmosphere. People were still hot, sweaty and uncomfortable–the restaurant’s ventilation system doing little to filter out the weed and tobacco smoke infused in the thick, impossibly humid air–but now they were caught in a subliminal trance, made more forceful and undeniable with each successive cut. The set was body-inhabiting, absolutely irresistible, emanating with titillating sexual energies. The music beckoned me through the crowd and up to the front row, a few feet away from the producer, where I proceeded to dance my ass off. Kaytranada’s beatwork, like the lump sum of all electronic music, is experienced most effectively on good-quality headphones or very large, very loud speakers. Letting his music take you over, utterly subsume you from every conceivable direction, is something I highly recommend.
Hardly a month into his twenty-second year, the prolific Montreal-based electronic and dance super-producer Louis Kevin Celestin sits coy and confident at the cross section of electronic, hip-hop, and R&B. Releasing beat tapes under the name Kaytradamus as early as 2010, Celestin eventually settled on the moniker Kaytranada in 2012. His initial contributions as the virtually unknown bedroom producer Kaytranada were remixes of tracks like Danny Brown’s “Lie4” and Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life.” His third rework, however, is inexplicably what resonated with the Internet: the elastic synths and wobbling bass of the determinedly grooving 1993 single “If” by Janet Jackson. It racked up tens of thousands of plays overnight, offering Kaytranada his first glimpse of the success that would soon follow. The year 2014 belonged to Kaytranada: He signed to XL Recordings and dropped his first single with the British independent label, released a collaboration with The Infamous Mobb Deep and singlehandedly innovated a new and exciting genre of music–one that’s barely manifested, hardly made itself known to the world at large. But the evidence of it, in spite of this, is incontestable.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Celestin soon relocated to Montreal, Quebec where he was raised with his older sister and younger brother; the former exposed him to the provocative allure of psychedelic neo-soul and the latter introduced him to production software at the age of 15. Before Kaytranada, before Kaytradamus even, Celestin and his little brother Louie P recorded each other freestyling over beats like 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” Late this spring, Kaytranada and Louie P released the Supreme Laziness mixtape under the pseudonym The Celestics. Featuring guest appearances from Goldlink, ST and Costa Joe, the fifteen-track mixtape is a compelling, tenacious debut with production duties solely credited to Kaytranada. At times silly and self-admonishing (“Fuckit,” “Dudley Talkin Shit1,” “Dudley Talkin Shit 2”), Supreme Laziness generally settles on a cogent flow with distinctly non-impressive rapping. Louie P alone takes the mic on this effort but, allegedly, the producer is just as capable of an MC, if not more so.
The Celestics mixtape production harkens upon Celestin’s two years releasing dense mixtapes of instrumental hip-hop beats as Kaytradamus, significantly influenced by J. Dilla’s Donuts and presumably every other salvaged article of music by the late great hip-hop producer. “This album is like a spiritual–like a prayer to me. It’s kind of religious. We have to praise this album, how great it is,” said Kaytranada on Donuts when asked about his favorite record by Fact Mag. Between 2010 and 2012, Kaytradamus offered up nine official releases, seven of which are still available on Kaytranada’s bandcamp page. With names like TERIPHIKNESS, Kaytra LaBoom and Kaytra Da Mouse, these releases are but relics, mere blueprints of the expansive and singular strain of sound he would eventually cultivate. It’s easy to observe the aesthetic evolution on tracks like “Why Don’t We Fall in Love” from Kaytra Da Mouse or the subsequent track “Sea Heavens,” where dense, simplistic instrumentation takes precedent over pristine mixing and mastering. “My bad for the EQ,” Kaytranada notes on the Bandcamp page, “i didnt care of what people think.”
It’s safe to say the producer’s opinion has changed, as is expected when confronted with the deliriously imposing consequences of fame. As an artist, Kaytranada generally remains affable and good-humored, but during last year’s Boiler Room DJ set in New York, just two minutes in, the producer’s voice sounded equal parts vexed and vulnerable as he addressed the crowd’s unforgivable lameness, “I see you motherfuckers are not dancing and shit. Y’all motherfuckers better dance and shit, instead of bobbing your heads and staying on your goddamn phones. Get buckwild motherfuckers!!” With each imploring sentence, he mutes the volume of his 2013 instrumental cut “Hilarity Duff”. Twice more Kaytranada scolds the crowd: “How come y’all motherfuckers ain’t dancing? How does that make sense?! Move your motherfuckin’ ass, shiiiit!!!” where he sounds personally and definitively offended spliced between his famed Janet Jackson rework, and “IS YOU OUT THERE? I SAY, IS YOU OUT THERE?” in the last minutes of his set as a final, infuriated attempt at redemption. His refusal to accept the lackluster demeanors and lifeless expressions of a too-cool-for-school audience is both refreshing and inspiring, but it also attests to a deep personal investment in his own sense of artistry.
When Kaytranada speaks in video interviews, his English is slightly muffled under the strain of a French-Canadian accent, but his sentiments are far from incomprehensible. The self-assured and sanguine manner in which he discusses his own music is practically unparalleled in the world of dance music. He defines his own music as starkly distinguishable from EDM. In fact, he hates it when his music is pigeonholed as EDM. Kaytranada’s initial releases bear much more similitudes with UK garage and house (England warmed up to the Canadian producer long before its transatlantic counterparts) and trap than EDM, and before that his initial offerings as Kaytradamus we’re built around craggy, uncompromising cuts of blues-based guitar music.
His most recent singles stray even further. The Shay Lia-assisted track “Leave Me Alone”, released earlier this year on XL Recordings as the lead single off his forthcoming EP So Bad, is an insistent rejection of EDM sensibilities. Instead, Kaytranada churns out a salacious, funk-abiding groove: slinky, low-end basslines that warble and confound everything in their path, a pair of restless, larger-than-life handclaps. Up-and-coming vocalist Shay Lia (also from Kaytranada’s hometown of Montreal) fills the ensuing madness modestly and skillfully.
In a one-two-punch effort, Shay Lia dropped another collaboration two weeks ago, her first official single as a solo artist. Similarly, the Portland-based singer-songwriter Reva DeVito enlists Kaytranada’s idiosyncratic production work for her HW&W-released single “Friday Night”–it’s a standard, white-girl-does-faux-neo-soul, pop effort positively redeemed by the producer’s swerving, boogie-abiding swag. If there’s one word to describe the uptempo rhythms and re-commodification of traditional R&B employed by Kaytranada’s singular, forward-thinking brand of dance music–it’s boogie.
Still, it seems the kind of incredulous dynamicism brought to his reworks of other people’s tracks has yet to transpose to his own original material. At least that’s what the numbers attest. Tackling and effortlessly re-inventing the likes of Common, Jill Scott, Teedra Moses, TLC, Missy Elliott and Robert Glasper, Kaytranada had racked up a significant number of more plays on reworks of Janet Jackson and Teedra Moses than most of his original material (each track boasts approximately 2.5 million listens). The first track I heard from Kaytranada was his remix of the London producer-duo Snakehips’ remix of “On & On,” maintaining a deliciously pedantic pulse against the riveting vocal chops of George Maple.
The first track that convinced me of the producer’s potential, though, was his rework of Azealia Banks and Pharell’s “ATM Jam.” I have no reservations in saying the original track was a complete flop, a perfect idea in theory that was somehow insufficiently rendered. It’s not her fault, either. Pharrell’s production feels negligent and lazy beside the boisterous future-funk of Kaytranada’s revisitation. I can’t hear the original song now without subconsciously inserting all the muscular, side-chaining embellishments of Kaytranada’s version, as is the case with the majority of his remixes. Most likely attributed the London-based electronic duo Disclosure, the most-played track on Kaytranada’s SoundCloud is a remix of the group’s “January,” featuring a bevy of delicate, emotive falsettos by Jamie Woon.
The most striking of Kaytranada’s contributions, however, reside just outside the parameters of dance music. On the border, really. It commenced last year on Cyber’s hip-hop-cum-dance-banger “Down Low,” featuring rapper Green Hypnotic and a Kaytranada production, persisting with the brackish, whistle-toned crunk of Vic Mensa’s dope-to-the-power-of-dope single “Wimme Nah” (1.76 million plays), a month-old track that openly invites aggressive bouts of senseless debauchery. This is where the producer’s undisputed dance sensibilities are incorporated seamlessly and innovatively with hip hop, varying wildly from the comparatively stagnant and meager productions on Supreme Laziness. The most recent contribution by The Celestics, featuring Michigan-based rapper Waldo, is a searing, harrowing loop of agitated strings and sputtering bass processions, evoking a similar if slightly disturbed incarnation of the same variety. It speaks to the expansive and strangely distinctive appeal of Kaytranada.
There’s something absolutely distinctive and peculiar about Kaytranada’s visual aesthetic as well, however sparsely it might be implemented. As a solo artist, Kaytranada currently sports just two music videos, both visuals derived from equally eccentric concepts. The first video for “Holy Hole Inna Donut” was released in May of 2013 and devotes the entirety of the visual to capturing the elusive, but nonetheless fascinating sport of jai alai, praised as “the fastest sport in the world” by the Basque Government of Spain, being played and observed. It’s somehow menacing and brooding.
Released five months later, the second video “At All,” features weight-lifting and sunbathing female bodybuilders and Kaytranada himself with the impossible-to-dislike, shit-eating grin that’s donned and distributed on promotional stickers (three of which are adorned to his laptop in a shamelessly aggrandizing display of self-assurance). The undisputed climax has three especially hulking, beef-caked women pulling an idle Jeep Cherokee with chain links tethered to the grill. One shot has Celestin being carried through the woods by one such woman like a small child. It makes me curious as to what kind of artistic persona he’s attempting to project, safely assuming that these music videos aren’t random for the sake of being random. It certainly adds a kind of bewildering fascination to the wholly transparent legacy of Kaytranada as an artist and a musical icon for the world of underground dance and hip-hop music. As much acclaim as he might possess, Kaytranada boasts a whopping five tracks on Spotify, something that confounds me. Another 28 tracks are available for streaming on his SoundCloud, as with another 119 cuts of original and remixed material on his Bandcamp. All the evidence is there. It just requires a little digging.
Last night I saw Kaytranada headline a show at the Bowery Ballroom, just a short walk from 88 Palace where I saw him first. The crowd was wild, absolutely mad, teeming with smoke that was heavy enough to cop a contact high. Celestin, in the most endearing sense, looks a little messed up as he takes the stage, spending a few minutes struggling to get sound out of his setup. When the issue is resolved, he beams at the crowd, “Brooklyn, how you feel?” We are most certainly not in Brooklyn, but no one could give a flying fuck. He does this a few more times later in the set. You can’t help but love the guy. He really gets into the boogie, working his whole body into the rhythm as he programs the set. At one point he abandons his post altogether, busts a few moves for the crowd at the foot of the stage. Along with some deep, obscure disco cuts, Kaytranada also previewed a new song off his upcoming EP. It was more of that wily, wonky supersonic boogie, completely and absolutely galvanized by robust vibrations of bass. It really boils down to the bass, hard and dominating and contentious. While hearing Kaytranada, eyes clasped shut, extremities bopping and shuffling as if of their own accord, it was all I could cling to.
Cover illustration by Jacob Garner