Published Jun 06, 2016"You gotta be versatile, man." It could be a mantra for Kaytranada. Though he's only 23, in the last couple of years he's worked with rap stalwarts Mobb Deep and Freddie Gibbs, and opened for Madonna on her 2015 Rebel Heart tour. His seamless blend of groove-centric hip-hop, retro-tinged club music and buttery neo-soul is in the sights of almost every vocalist and rapper looking to make a name for themselves. First, he's making his own name on his long-awaited debut, 99.9%.
He may be Montreal's hottest export at the moment, but he's quite humble, just like his beginnings. Kaytranada started DJing at about 14, before he was introduced to Fruity Loops and got locked into his own world of beat-making. "I'm from the suburbs really, so I actually didn't go to Montreal until I was like 19," Kaytranada says. "I wasn't allowed to go to the city at night or really be in the scene with other producers. It was hard for my parents to understand what I was trying to do as an artist, but it didn't stop me. They eventually saw that it wasn't a joke."
At the time, Kaytranada stepped into a movement known as piu piu, a phrase coined by Vlooper of the Alaclair Ensemble after he started a show by saying "Bonjour, mon nom est Vlooper and I'll play some piu piu music." Of course, the scene evolved beyond laser sounds to incorporate a host of forward-thinking, experimental and soulful beats that were uniquely cultivated in Montreal. Piu piu was the city's answer to the L.A. beat scene, where artists like Flying Lotus and Samiyam came up with the Low End Theory club nights. It was a community that nurtured the young Kaytranada, allowing him to grow within a tight-knit group of like-minded individuals.
"We pretty much tried to make our own Low End Theory," says Kaytranada. "It was so crazy, there were so many events going on, we were such a big family. People like High Klassified and Da-P were around me, making music and DJing, and just trying to break through, which was huge for me 'cause we had the same upbringing, we came around the same way.
"The support within the group was a huge help to me," he continues. "We would always be giving each other pep talks and even just showing love to each others' beats, which gave everyone a lot of confidence. To have this whole community giving us a lot of push made us better at what we were doing."
Though it's now been relegated to just whispers in the smallest of circles, piu piu gave Kaytranada enough momentum to slingshot onto bigger and bigger projects, laying the foundation for what would become 99.9% — a play on perfection. Never happy, always tweaking, Kaytranada is pedantic about his craft, to the point where the album was supposedly "finished" about ten times.
Whatever the strategy, it's working. In addition to featuring homegrown talents like River Tiber and Shay Lia, 99.9% plays host to a plethora of international gems like Vic Mensa, Anderson .Paak and AlunaGeorge, to name a few.
Constant tinkering and reworking also left a bunch of recordings that might only see the light of day in the confines of a DJ set, including another three tracks with Little Dragon (separate from the album closer "Bullets") and upwards of 20 tracks with jazz darlings BADBADNOTGOOD that are apparently not for general consumption. "I really don't think people would be ready for those tracks. They'll definitely be either confused or surprised."
Listening to 99.9%, its widely differing origins aren't all that surprising. It's a true melting pot of sounds where R&B flirts with house, hip-hop wades in funk and pop hobnobs with disco and soul.
"Every experience I've been through is sort of coming together as my current sound," says Kaytranada. "99.9% is the end product of years and years of me going through multiple styles and interests. Some people say I make hip-hop, others see me as doing EDM, some people might look at me as a trap artist, but I'm not really stuck to any of those. Really, what I'm trying to do is make soul music, but I don't even think of it as a genre. It's more of a feeling."
International acclaim aside, Kaytranada feels that Canada has yet to give him and his peers the recognition they deserve. After the Juno Awards rescinded Kaytranada's nomination for Dance Recording of the Year (on a timing technicality), Kaytranada posted "Shoutout to the Canadian music scene for being so out of touch," which looked like a direct attack on the organization.
"I wasn't directly talking to the Junos. I'm still blessed that they nominated me. The reason why I was saying that the Canadian music scene was out of touch was because it's super hard to get recognition here. I feel like no one's stepping up and talking about urban music. There are exceptions like Drake or Tory Lanez, but other than that, you don't really hear much on the radio or anything."
He'll embark on tour dates globally this summer, though he feels he's yet to unlock the key to performance. "I don't feel like a live set even seems super real for an electronic act like me," he says. "It's not really that entertaining. I've seen a lot of my favourite acts take it to a new level with a live band and stuff, which is amazing, but for me, a live set would be boring to watch. A DJ set is much more of an in-your-face, cut-the-bullshit, raw expression of what I wanna do."
Kaytranada still sees DJing as an art form. "You gotta analyze the crowd well and somehow play what you want at the same time. When I'm playing, I play what I want, but I make sure that the crowd is going to love it at the same time. It's like a balancing act, a mix of two, a perfect circle... if you do it right."
There are plenty of Kaytranada projects in the works too — a deal with hugely influential producer Rick Rubin, and lending a helping hand to younger brother Lou Phelps' upcoming record. There's always that BBNG union too, unless the universe makes him an offer he couldn't refuse.
"I don't have much of a wish list, but I'm dying to work with Erykah Badu. That's pretty much my dream collaboration. I almost got it once, but it didn't work out. Some day..."