Kaytranada Wants to Be Just a Little Bit of a Superstar
With two critically acclaimed albums and a phone full of A-list collaborators, the wunderkind beatmaker from Canada is taking the spotlight. Here, he talks shyness, coming up as a gay hip-hop fan, and turning down Dr. Dre.
BY JORDAN COLEY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT MARTIN
Kaytranada is quiet, to the point where I keep missing pockets of Quebecois-inflected words as they fall gently from the 27-year-old’s mouth. It’s a fitting coincidence: up until now, the soft-spoken producer, born Louis Kevin Celestin, has let his beats speak for him. In the early 2010s, his bedroom tinkerings felt revelatory to SoundCloud treasure hunters, dance music fans, and old school R&B lovers alike, and caught the ears of Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin. Kaytranada’s full-length debut, 2016’s 99.9%, showed just how far and wide his sonic influences could go—Haitian drums, wobbly R&B bass, extraterrestrial EDM synths, power-pop hand claps—and how big his features could get right out of the gate (Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, Craig David).
His new album, BUBBA, is less shy. Where 99.9% bopped between disparate styles (a trap number here, an R&B ballad there), BUBBA—which topped Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart—is 50 minutes of expertly chiseled groove. It condenses the Kaytranada nebula into a sound that’s so concrete and confident, it steals the spotlight despite a run of features that reads like a Now That’s What I Call Music playlist: Pharrell, Estelle, Tinashe, Mick Jenkins, GoldLink, Kali Uchis, Masego, and more. Since 99.9%, he’s also notched his belt with in-studio assists for Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys, Chance the Rapper, Mary J. Blige, and Madonna.
BUBBA doesn’t just create a moment for Kaytranada the producer, it marks a waypoint for Celestin the person, whose life has come together over these last four years. He left his childhood home in the Montreal suburbs, signed his first major-label deal, and came out. Confidence followed, and you hear it in BUBBA.
Late last month in lower Manhattan, GQ spoke to Kaytranada about overcoming his shyness, coming up as a gay hip-hop fan, and turning down Dr. Dre.
GQ: How have you been since the album came out?
Kaytranada: It’s been good, man. People love it and I’m happy ’cause I didn’t know if I still had it. I dropped the EP last year, but I felt forgotten, in a sense.
What made you feel like people forgot you?
The collaborations I was doing. There were a lot of successful collaborations, of course, but at the same time, there were a lot of them that were unsuccessful. Having people on the last album, I was just trying to get them on [BUBBA] and some of them… it didn’t succeed. I just felt like maybe my beats were wack. It played with my mind.
In the lead up to the first album, you became known for your signature “Kaytranada Sound.” Did you feel like you had to try to distance yourself and resist the urge to go back there on this new project?
I mean…[hesitates] how can I say this? That became the Kaytranada signature sound in a sense, but, at the same time, I was still trying new things. That [sound] was just one new thing I was trying.
But now I’ve seen it evolve. [My sound is still] the same, but it’s just me understanding more dynamics of how people wanna hear stuff.
You’re completely self-taught. Do you feel like you’ve become a more sophisticated musician?
Yeah, in a sense. When I did 99.9%, a lot of the beats in there were just beats that I had made in the beginning of my career. I first started the process in 2012 and it came out in 2016.
I don’t think I’ve changed my sound; I just think it evolved. It just got better and better. People still want that old sound. I understand, but people evolve.
You close out BUBBA with “Midsection” featuring Pharrell. As a producer who grew up in the early ’00s, it must have been a dream of yours to work with him.
Of course. Of course. Just doing that interview [on Pharrell’s Beats 1 Radio show OTHERtone] and hearing him say, “Oh yeah, man I’m gonna be on your album,” that was the first time he told me that. Everyone probably caught me on tape tearing up behind my glasses.
Did he reach out to you or did you have to reach out to him?
I had to reach out to him. We made a beat and he’s like, “Yo, put me in the studio!” and he was singing all this stuff. And you know Pharrell—he’s a chameleon. He’s put himself in everybody’s world. And he kind of put himself in my world.
So I just played the beat for “Midsection” with the kick and all that. When the beat drops, you hear the kick coming up with the claps and stuff. But he just liked the sample loop that’s going on in the beginning. Dude was just vibing. He was just going crazy and he was coming up with ideas so fast. It was amazing, man! Just like seeing him for real—PHAR-RELL—doing his thing, you know? It’s like, oh shit!
He’s very quick. I wish I could be quick like him, ‘cause that’s how successful sessions happen. Me, I’m so not quick. I always take my sweet time.
When you first began to pop in 2013, I imagine a lot of musicians were trying to work with you. Were there artists that you turned down or decided not to work with because you didn’t think it would work?
There’s a lot of artists that wouldn’t have made sense. A lot of pop artists. There’s a lot of artists that I used to love their music, but I don’t think, like, today it would make sense if I collaborated with them. Maybe I was trippin’! [Laughs.]
Can you remember any?
Dr. Dre wanted to meet me and play beats and, I didn’t think I had the beats to play, and I was just like, ‘You know what? Nevermind. Maybe next time.” And I kind of regret it today.
You first gained notoriety for the remixes you posted on SoundCloud. You’ve since worked with some of the artists whose songs you remixed. Do you feel like making remixes was a way to get your favorite artists to notice you?
[Laughs.] Maybe! Honestly, I just had ideas man. I really had ideas. Like, when I did [the remix of Janet Jackson’s] “If,” it was really me. I listened to the [song’s] a cappella eight months in a row. It had just the harmonies in there, the ones I looped on the remix. And it was just nice to hear.
And then I went to a Flying Lotus show and got really inspired at 3 a.m., making beats ’til 6 a.m.. I put it on SoundCloud. Go to sleep.
Wait, you just put it on SoundCloud that night?
That night! Put it on SoundCloud, go to sleep, and then I wake up at noon and I had all these notifications on my phone. And I’m like, “What the hell?” I put my phone away like, “I don’t believe what’s going on.” Suddenly, people were waiting for my next drop.
It’s so funny, ‘cause it’s just like, ideas I had, and then those people actually liked it. Teedra [Moses] reached out. Janet reached out not too long ago. It took seven years, but she reached out, actually.
Do you and Janet have plans to work together?
Yeah, we’re tryna collab. We’re tryna link up, but she’s very shy, I’m very shy, so it’s a problem. [Laughs.]
It seemed like back when you first started to pop, you could’ve had your “it producer” moment where you were on everything with everyone. That never quite happened, though. Was that something you thought was possible for yourself?
I mean, it could’ve been possible. But it’s also ‘cause this style is really hard, and I’m not one of those types of people who just do it on the spot. It played with my head, like, “Why don’t they like my stuff? Oh, maybe cause I’m not quick enough? Maybe it’s because I’m not in the studio with them? Maybe because I’m not in L.A.?”
Before I dropped 99, it was easier to just send beats and have artists send something back. And then during the process of when I dropped the album to making [BUBBA], it was kind of evolving. People wanted to be in the studio to collaborate. Things were never gonna happen if I was not in the studio. They didn’t want to work remotely at all.
You think your difficulty with collaborating in a room with other artists is a byproduct of you growing up making stuff alone in your bedroom?
You know, I’m a really lonely guy. I don’t have a lot of friends. And I’m fine with that ‘cause that’s who I am. I’ve always been this loner guy. And I never liked being on teams. That’s why I have a lot of problems collaborating with [other] producers, personally.
If that person happens to be my friend, it would be much easier! It would be fun and exciting! The session would be perfect. But like people I don’t know? I’m gonna be very shy. It will take a while for me to open up. But I’m doing my best to fake that, so it happens.
Coming out as a celebrity and as a black man from a West Indian family must’ve been difficult. Have you felt encouraged by seeing younger artists, like Lil Nas X, coming out and being embraced?
It’s inspiring, but it’s also amazing to see. I just saw Nas with Lil Nas X onstage at the Grammys. I don’t know about the music, but I thought it was amazing to watch. Like, a rapper who has probably said homophobic stuff, but just seeing them balancing each other and singing their song? I thought it was amazing. It’s inspiring.
Seeing BROCKHAMPTON as well, it’s really crazy. Like, very dope. Also, it’s not the cliche. That’s what I dealt with coming up. I was like, Yeah, I’m gay. But am I really gay? ‘Cause I don’t have the culture down. I’m not like, “Yes, queen!” and stuff like that. So that was really hard to deal with.
Do you find it helpful having representations of gay blackness that are different than the ones people are used to seeing?
I don’t wanna categorize—just, like, why not just be gay and that’s all? You happen to be attracted to men and that’s it. The culture around it took me a while to understand. When I came out, I didn’t really have gay friends and stuff. I had to learn a lot.
It felt like there was this pressure for you to know certain things?
Yeah, exactly. There was this pressure. Especially not knowing the history. I had to learn a lot about gay history and, you know, [gayness within] the black community—especially with me having a white boyfriend. There’s a lot of crazy things that comes with it. I had to get away from social media, get away from a lot of things, the Internet.
People were talking shit about all the time. A lot of gay men were not happy, calling me “white man slave” and stuff like that. [Laughs.] And I’m like, “Damn, ok!” That’s what it is, man. I had to learn a lot.
I’m just gay and I love hip-hop. I love Mobb Deep, and I’m happy to be gay. I hear their homophobic raps and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s sad, but the beat is crazy.” [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs by Matt Martin
Styled by Taryn Bensky
Grooming by Barry White