Few Montreal artists have had a year like Kaytranada’s.
The May release of his debut LP 99.9% heralded the breakthrough of a talent that had been building, locally and globally, but never quite in the spotlight. The now 24-year-old Montreal producer spent two years fine-tuning the record in his St-Hubert home studio since being signed to the influential U.K. label XL Recordings, creating a dazzling but deep fusion of hip hop, house, R&B, soul, jazz and tropicalia that went on to win one of Canada’s top music awards.
“Winning the Polaris Prize was a big deal for me,” says Kaytranada (aka Kevin Celestin), speaking by phone from the South Shore late last month. His win in September marked the first time that an artist from the hip hop or electronic realms had been awarded the critics’ choice prize (which comes with a $50,000 cheque). “I wouldn’t have ever expected to win — it’s still crazy to me to this day,” he says.
Though many casual viewers of MuchMusic probably caught their first glimpse and first strains of Kaytranada via the video for 99.9%’s lead single “Lite Spots” (which appeared to be on regular rotation throughout the summer — it also has nearly two million views on YouTube), radio play and media recognition in Canada has remained elusive and been a long time coming, respectively. This despite the fact that his international profile has grown steadily, with a string of remixes being written up by tastemakers as far back as 2012, and a series of increasingly sold out international gigs since 2013 — he even opened for Madonna on two of her tour dates last year.
“Most of the other artists from the Polaris Prize list don’t get much radio play either,” Celestin says, noting that it’s more than a matter of a guitar-music bias — it comes down to institutionalized payola, a dubious relationship between radio stations and major labels. “I feel that we should all get recognition, no matter what label an artist is on, even if they don’t have a label.”
Celestin doesn’t have high expectations for much broadcast exposure in Quebec given the English-language vocals all over his record — by guests including rappers Vic Mensa, Phonte, Syd tha Kid, Anderson .Paak, Aluna Francis (of AlunaGeorge) and Craig David. Print and online media outlets in this province have been slow to cover Kaytranada, too, which is somewhat surprising given the fact that, as a fully bilingual Quebecer, he’s an easy interview. (Despite his mother tongue being French, however, he modestly claims that his vocabulary “is not all that.”)
“I feel like Montreal (media) is still led by the older generation, and when younger people take over there will probably be more diversity,” he says. “Right now it still feels like the 1970s.”
Studio to stage, private to public
Kaytranada played his first DJ gig — using his original stage name Kaytradamus — in April 2012 at le Belmont, opening for L.A. producer Teebs. Prior to that he’d showcased his own beats in front of an audience as part of the Artbeat Montreal collective. It was at these events, he said, where he met the major players in the local hip hop scene: the rappers, the beatmakers, the visual artists. But being on stage, and especially being on tour, isn’t exactly an easy fit for Celestin, who generally prefers laying low and working in the studio.
“I’m definitely getting non-stop requests for tour dates but I’ve decided to take time off,” he says, having been on the road for the better part of three years. “I feel like I’ve been partying for two years straight, drinking and smoking all the time — it’s been very exhausting.”
Though he’s been going out more in recent weeks, Celestin took a long break from Montreal nightlife after his last tour wrapped, and is considering staying on the South Shore when he finally moves out of his family home (something he expects to happen soon).
“When I’m in the city, people know who I am and sometimes that puts me… not in an awkward place — there’s a lot of people praising me and showing me love, which is all good — but I don’t wanna be in the middle of that every day.”
Aside from a few dates here and there (including a Montreal show this month), Celestin will stay focused on “moving on from the 99.9% era” — an epic period for him, as fresh as it might be for a legion of new Kaytranada fans. The record will no doubt appear on dozens of critics’ best-of-2016 lists, among what Celestin feels has been a pretty strong batch of releases.
“I can’t say it’s been a good year ’cause we lost so many musical legends, but in new music there are so many good projects,” he says, mentioning Solange, Aesop Rock and, to his own surprise, a certain Toronto rapper (who has no trouble getting radio play). “I wouldn’t have expected to love a Drake song so much (laughs).”
The other momentous event in Celestin’s life this year was admitting that he’s gay — to himself, his family, his friends and to the public in an interview with The Fader. When asked how he would advise people facing the same issue — one that created an intense identity crisis for him, coming from a religious Haitian family and community — he reflected on the positivity that got him through a depression.
“I would tell them to stay strong and to keep on fighting. (Coming out) is a big relief, and don’t be scared because real friends will stay and the fake ones will go, but that’s a good thing for you. That’s what I would say to people struggling the way I was struggling. Keep on believing that the day will come when you’ll see the sun shine, ’cause I’ve seen the sun shine.” ■
Kaytranada plays l’Olympia (1004 Ste-Catherine E.) on Saturday, Dec. 10, 9 p.m., $30