Inventive, inspirational Montreal producer in conversation...

There’s something about a Kaytranada instrumental that is instantly recognisable. Like The Neptunes and Timbaland in their mid-Noughties prime, they don’t require a signature sound effect or drop to flag up their maker. From his warm custom synths, to unquantised polyrhythmic drum patterns and a lo-fi mixing style that amps up the kick drums, Kaytranada has crafted a very unique sound. Whether he’s contributing house vibes to Chance The Rapper’s latest mixtape ‘Coloring Book’, remixing Disclosure and AlunaGeorge or making gritty rap beats for Mobb Deep’s ‘The Infamous Mobb Deep’, the Montreal producer always makes his mark.

When we arrive at XL Recordings’ office in West London, Kay, born Louis Kevin Celestin, finally has his hands on a physical copy of his debut album ‘99.9%’ for the first time. Right now only CDs have arrived, but he is given a house-bagged vinyl copy of the double A-side, ‘Glowed Up/Lite Spots’, which he places onto a turntable in the corner of the room. As the high-pitched vocal samples crackle to life on the latter cut, followed by the dusty soul sample that progresses to a thumping bassline, there’s a visible joy that the Soundcloud star has in the physical product, which has been absent from the million times he’s listened back to the digital file already.

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It was just an artistic expression that needed to happen sooner for me.

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This particular record has already been over two years in the making - a former album was shelved due to issues with his previous label. In total Kay has been waiting over six years to drop a debut LP, so it’s not surprising that he feels like some weight has been taken from his shoulders. The past couple of years in particular have been pretty turbulent for the 23-year-old; he’d been touring heavily and gaining recognition as a DJ, but without an album to back it up he felt like he was headed in the wrong direction. He yearned to be considered an artist, and while his incredibly eclectic DJ sets were building him a positive rep, he worried that it could be detrimental to his goal. “Everybody else was going on tour for purpose - they had albums coming out,” he remembers. “And I was seeing people's success and their releases. It was just an artistic expression that needed to happen sooner for me. I was pretty frustrated that I hadn’t put out an album yet.”

To add to that frustration, he was undergoing what he refers to as an “identity crisis”. He eventually came out as gay in an interview with The FADER earlier this year, but had been internally struggling with how this might affect his relationships and career. Now, with a few days to go until the album hits shelves, a new chapter begins and he is no longer nervous about its imminent release - however, he does admit that at one point he worried about releasing a bunch of music that he’s had in the stash for so long. “I used to play all of the songs when I was on tour in 2014,” he says. “So in my head those songs are very old. That was giving me the illusion that those songs are not hot anymore and I was tripping out.”

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Interestingly, one of the things that helped remind him of the anticipation for his music came from those that would bootleg tracks from live sets. “There’s a bunch of messageboard conversations where they’ve recorded tracks from a live set and tried to leak it. Like, ‘What is this track with Syd Tha Kyd?’ A bunch of questions about it, the mystery,” he says, but it’s not something that upsets him. “I love it actually. The fact that they had to record it and put it on YouTube means something, that the song is very powerful; it’s very touching. I feel the same way with Flying Lotus or Madlib when they drop demos or radio exclusives. It’s cool to feel that way. It causes talk around the artist and leaves people fiending for more.”

As well as his relief in finally holding a physical copy of the album in his hands, it also feels significant in the fact that he’s risen to fame as part of a generation of Soundcloud producers. While the technological advances that allow producers to craft compositions on a laptop and immediately share with millions of users is undoubtedly positive, it can sometimes feel like a swamp of mediocrity sifting through the hundreds of thousands of producers flipping their favourite ’90s R&B samples or pushing their latest trap-influenced productions. Even amongst the top stars of the Soundcloud beat scene, the number that make it to legit album status are minimal.

Despite the hefty line-up of impressive guest appearances (Vic Mensa, Craig David, Anderson .Paak, BadBadNotGood, AlunaGeorge - the list goes on…) on ‘99.9%’, it doesn’t come off feeling like a compilation - a true testament to Kay’s production skills, but also a nod to his abilities as a DJ. Tracks weave and blend nicely into one another, stitched together with extra beats or found audio - including a clip in which Skrillex recommends Kay’s beats to radio personality Sway Calloway, who says he’s never heard of him and then suddenly backtracks. “There’s like 15 tracks on my album, but if you listen there’s like 20 in total,” says Kay. “All of my favourite albums from N.E.R.D to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, they’ve been doing that for a while,” says Kay. “It was my opportunity to showcase some beats. I had plenty lying around that I was frustrated about because nobody wanted to rap on them. So it was a good way to sneak those out there.”

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For me it’s important to make dancing music...

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Aside from producing and DJing, Kaytranada’s creative background also includes drawing and dancing, the latter of which goes hand-in-hand with his music. When he works on beats - which he does every day when he’s at home in Montreal - b-boys, Soul Train line dances, house parties and Michael Jackson race through his head. “For me it’s important to make dancing music, but at the same time it’s hard hitting to the back,” he explains. “The kicks they’re going to feel in the lower back, and then the snare you're probably going to get it to the neck. I got that from a Neptunes documentary; when the kick is hard and the snare is very loud, they’re definitely going to feel it in the body.”

While he might idolise Madlib, Kay’s musical style has transcended his hip-hop background and he’s just as likely to find himself listed alongside house and electronic dance music producers as he is his fellow disciples of J Dilla. The space he occupies is a unique one, straddling the two worlds like nobody else does - something that one of his collaborators, Matt Martians of The Internet, sees as particularly important. “Me and Kay have discussions all the time as far as black producers and DJs supporting each other,” Martians told us backstage at a show last year. “We don’t have enough of that in the type of music that we do. If you look into house music and where it comes from, there’s not a lot of black kids doing it.”

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My mind feels green now, it’s the greatest...

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Kay can’t quite put his finger on the path that led him to experimenting with electro house and disco house, but he accredits the hip-hop influence for his unique take on the sound. “I try and make my music as black as possible I guess,” he considers. “I add a little more funk and soul, or some sort of more urban feel in a way, that is not strictly EDM clean. I took those elements from hip-hop. The fact that I’m black and doing it like that and people love it, it’s amazing. I never thought it would go that far but it’s definitely something new for the game.”

And yet, the same hip-hop influence might have held him back at one point. A huge fan of hardcore hip-hop, he was used to hearing homophobic slurs from even his favourite acts, and, while he isn’t bothered by the lyrical content, he considers that if he’d have come out sooner he might not be enjoying his current success. “Something needs to happen in hip-hop. A lot of artists are being stuck in like the gay scene because they chose to be that way, but there’s other artists that are trying to break through. For me I had this fear that if I came out before being known, I probably wouldn’t have the same success I’ve had right now.”

As much as hip-hop as a whole has had an undeniably homophobic past, it’s always been more concerned with identity and authenticity. This remains at the forefront of the culture while prejudices fade into the back and the future becomes more liberal and diverse. Coming out has allowed Kay to be happier than he ever was, and to feel free and creatively flexible, which has been received with unanimous positivity from his peers, collaborators and fans.

“My mind feels green now, it’s the greatest,” he says with a grin. “I can make beats now. There was a time I couldn’t make beats no more, but eventually everything went back to normal - a better normal.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Vicky Grout

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