AGENT OF CHANGE
Josh O'Kane explains why Polaris Prize-winner Kaytranada – a gay black man from an immigrant family steeped in the worlds of hip hop and R&B – is the new face of Canadian music
Kaytranada was just in Rio de Janeiro, crate-digging at a private record shop. He's an astute student of sound and texture; he spent 10 hours unearthing bossa nova and Brazilian pop records to take home, study and, perhaps some day, build upon. "There's a lot of good stuff hidden that you don't know about," the 24-year-old says backstage at Toronto's Echo Beach on a humid September night. "I'm looking for all types of sounds. Anything that has soul and funk in it, no matter the genre."
The Haitian-Canadian producer and DJ, born Louis Kevin Celestin, has his own way of bending genre, stretching it, making it his own. Calling his music "electronic" doesn't really get to the soul of it. His beats have a rigid backbone and spastic limbs, flittering into funk and hip hop, house and R&B. 99.9%, his debut full-length album released earlier this year, encompassed all these worlds, with vocal contributions from the likes of Craig David, Aluna Francis and Vic Mensa. After a half-decade of full-time touring and beat-making, it was a sign that Kaytranada had arrived.
Except he'd been here the whole time. The artist has received co-signs from his American heroes, among them Janet Jackson, Madonna and Rick Rubin. He's been the subject of fawning American and British magazine profiles. He's played for growing crowds the world over. But until this week, one of Canada's most celebrated beat-making exports was best known by many in his home country for being snubbed for a Juno nomination.
Then, this past Monday, recognition rained down. With the rip of an envelope, folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie announced he'd won the 2016 Polaris Music Prize. Coming to the microphone, Celestin – who's more accustomed to passing the mic to others – was dumbfounded. "It's an honour, man," he said, before turning to French to shout out Montreal, whose South Shore he grew up in. At a news conference soon after, his thoughts were a little clearer: As excited he was about his win, he was excited about what the win represented.
"I'm happy that, finally, it's an artist that does it himself," he said. "In hip hop, dance music, house music, electronic music. … The Polaris finally recognizes what it is."
There's more, though. Canada has a long history of championing rock and pop, and the Polaris Prize has had a habit of affirming that. Celestin is a gay black man from an immigrant family whose winning album is schooled in the worlds of hip hop and R&B. None of these descriptions are new for a Canadian artist, but many of them are firsts for a Polaris-winner. Canada is changing. Its music is changing. Kaytranada is changing the rules.
Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Beat-making as a defining obsession
After last Saturday's blustery weather melted into a neon-orange sunset, Kaytranada walked onto the stage at TD Echo Beach. He's kind of a shy guy, the kind who takes a little while to warm up to someone new. The audience was that way, too, as he started his set – well, until he cast a proclamation across the crowd: "Y'all ain't dancin'?"
So they started to. And while he started the show looking like a stage-bound scientist – head down, twiddling knobs and pushing buttons, all eyes on the experiment – he warmed up, too, dancing, jumping and dabbing. For an hour, he seamlessly ripped through his catalogue of songs and remixes such as Drive Me Crazy, from 99.9%, and All Night, his standout track on Chance the Rapper's latest album.
Backstage a half-hour later, Celestin brushes off the show as just okay. "I guess because it was raining," he demurs. He speaks English slowly and patiently, regularly peppering his thoughts with that kind of humility. It comes across not just in our interview but two nights later, too, when he told Polaris media how jarred he was at winning, and how "random" it was that a kid from Saint-Hubert could wind up opening for Madonna.
He's come far. Celestin was born in Port-au-Prince in 1992; his family immigrated to Canada a few months after. At the age of 4 or 5, his father started showing him music: Haitian songs, Bob Marley songs, Michael Jackson songs. "That shit was blowing my mind at the time," he says. A few years later, his sisters visited their "rich" aunt back in Haiti – "she had a satellite" – and came back with a tape full of music videos from TV stations around the world. Rap entered his life.
"There was Lil' Kim videos, Puff Daddy, D'Angelo, Fugees – the holy grail of hip hop," Celestin says. He was smitten, and began rapping in English with his younger brother, mimicking words and cadences. In his early teens, his cousin introduced him to VirtualDJ software, which let him scratch digital records with his mouse. "It really blew my mind," he says. "I'd never seen a vinyl before in my life."
Soon came beat and sample looping, and an obsession with FL Studio audio software that forced him to install and delete its free-trial demos at least three times. As he cruised toward the end of high school, beat-making became a defining obsession. At his first show in Montreal to show off beats, he says, "people were mind-blown." He began to post music online, first under the name Kaytradamus, earning accolades from taste-making YouTube channels. His parents thought he was only DJing, not producing. He told them it was just a hobby. He tried nudging his mom about trying music as a career, but she wouldn't have it: "Especially for Haitian immigrant parents, being a musician is not a job." It was only at the age of 19 that he got his mother's blessing, after his younger brother Louis-Philippe – a.k.a. rapper Lou Phelps, with whom he performs as the Celestics – talked her into it. "Kevin has a gift," he told her.
Making music and coming out
When Halifax party promoter Will Robillard-Cole heard the Kaytranada and Sango song Down4U, he reached out and flew Celestin to the East Coast city for a show. It was the first time he'd been on a plane since moving to Canada. Robillard-Cole, then still a business undergrad, liked the producer's music so much he offered to manage him. "Hearing his music, I had never heard anything like it before," Robillard-Cole says. "I was just like, 'Why isn't he famous?' "
Celestin, by then, had dropped out of high school in order to tour. "I was that close to finishing history, but I had to do the exam earlier than everybody else," he says. "When I came back from tour, and they told me, 'You didn't pass the class.' " He kept putting out releases, through SoundCloud and mixtapes such as Instrumental Hip Hop Is Dead. With a manager to steer his brand, word of Kaytranada just kept spreading. Soon, touring consumed his life.
But the rush of it all – the drinking, the smoking, the travel – consumed him. He almost put out a proper album, but got stifled by the label. He felt as though his life wasn't going anywhere. And there was something else that he'd avoided admitting – that he was gay. "Growing up in my hood, people were like, very masculine, and when you're not masculine, you get bullied and shit like that," he says backstage at Echo Beach. "I used to be bullied all my life, and I was like, I'm not gonna let myself get bullied again. So for me it was, like, out of the question."
Last winter, though, he hit a breaking point, and began to tell people. There's a lot about coming out he's still getting used to, including the word gay itself – in our conversation, he prefers to use the word homosexual – but being open has helped him shed a long-standing discomfort. "It was like denial, denial, denial. Like, damn – am I gonna be like that for the rest of my life? I don't know about that. So I guess it was a good thing that I came out to my parents and my family."
His life had other complicating factors, though. He wanted desperately to put out a longer project, and he'd landed a deal with XL Recordings, the British label that has shepherded releases from Adele, Radiohead and the White Stripes. Plans for an EP soon ballooned into plans for a full-length, and he faced pressure from both the label and himself. "I really wanted my own music out – I was playing all those songs from 99.9%-in-the-making, and nobody knew what it was."
So he hunkered down for half a year and began honing his songs. He made the whole thing at his mom's house, where he still lives – "like, the whole production, and mixing, and everything." The result was 99.9%, an album at once patient and frenetic, with bass both slinky and pulsing, drums both sparing and breakneck and synthesizers pushed to their limits. He incorporated contributions from the likes of BadBadNotGood and River Tiber, and guest vocals from the worlds of hip hop, R&B and synthpop.
He called it 99.9% for a few reasons. "There were times I was like, 'Yo, I'm done with the album – this is it.' Then I was like, 'No, there's something wrong with that track, I gotta fix it.' And it came to the point where I had to fix the whole album. It's also a double meaning about myself. Like, am I gonna fulfill my dreams – but I'm not there yet, quite."
That and he likes the way "99.9%" looks. There's a symmetry to it – not quite perfect, but in breaking some established rules has an aesthetic to call its own.
Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS
First a snub, then 'recognition'
In the weeks leading up to the 2016 Polaris Prize, four names kept popping up in Canada's music-journalism echo chamber from the 10 artists short-listed: Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen, U.S. Girls and Kaytranada. The short list is determined by the music media, but only a small group – 11 jurors out of 196 – picks the $50,000 winner, and there seemed little consensus. Each of those four artists had strong grounds to win.
Celestin and Robillard-Cole assumed Grimes would take it, given the accolades around her album Art Angels and the fact she'd been ignored by the Junos, unintentionally turning her into the figurehead of a campaign for the awards to nominate more women. But in truth, Celestin may have had a worse snub. His song At All was nominated for the dance recording of the year Juno, then quickly relinquished after the Canadian recording academy realized that it came out in 2013.
Given that Celestin had released other material during the nomination window, he wondered if the nominating panel just put him on there to seem in touch. "Just 'cause of the name, and not really about the music," he says. He'd built acclaim around the world, but felt unrecognized at home. "For me, it's like, 'Ugh, here goes Canada again.' "
Canada has a long legacy of hip hop, the mainstream slice of which is built on a foundation set by artists including Michie Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes, Rascalz, Choclair and Swollen Members. While these artists collected many awards and accolades, they were usually genre-specific. Since the genre-agnostic Polaris Prize started in 2006, artists such as Drake, Shad, K'naan and Cadence Weapon and hip-hop-embracing projects by A Tribe Called Red and BadBadNotGood have received nominations, but never won. Then, this week, Kaytranada pulled it off.
"It's good recognition," he told reporters after winning. But the win was less of a turnaround than the start of a slow sea change. "It's going to be an evolution, for sure, in the Canadian music scene."
He sees lots of other Canadian artists in dance, hip hop and R&B – he namechecks Toronto's Jazz Cartier and Roy Wood$ – who get far more recognition abroad than at home. But this, he says, might be an advantage. Canada as a touring market has roughly the population of California. It's limiting. And, as Celestin points out, artists with enough support to survive just playing Canada tend to be "people who play guitar all the time." Even Drake, our country's golden boy, went to the United States for a co-sign from Lil Wayne to blow up.
Being the first artist affiliated with hip hop and R&B to win the Polaris hardly means Kaytranada is Canada's first world-class producer to play in those worlds. Toronto's Frank Dukes and Boi-1da have laid fingerprints on most of 2016's best albums, lending a hand to Drake, Kanye West, Rihanna and more. Within Drake's orbit alone you'll find work from 40, PartyNextDoor, WondaGurl, Nineteen85 and Rich Kidd. And there's Lunice, Doc McKinney and countless others in or from Canada who've made waves in production.
Canada isn't just a country full of dudes playing guitars any more. Kaytranada's Polaris win is an early sign that the structures upholding Canadian music are recognizing that change – that anyone, of any background, with any group of influences, can make meaningful music.
Celestin, for his part, seems happy that his success came from taking fate into his own hands. This, he says, is the future of all music – not just Canadian. "I always say I want creative control," he says. "A lot of people don't think about that. And that's what every artist should think of – being creative and not just a puppet."
He's already mentally moved beyond the sounds of 99.9% – he dropped a new mixtape, called 0.001% ???, on Wednesday – and is eager to make a new album. He's plotting out music that would embrace his Haitian roots, with broader Caribbean influence, and some inspiration, too, from the samba and bossa nova he heard in Brazil. A fusion, he calls it, putting it all in his own mould. But first he needs to find some time to slow down again, and maybe a place to rest his head that isn't his childhood home. "I'm looking forward," he says, "to getting a crib."