All photos by Jacqueline Ashton
Backstage at Toronto's Echo Beach, I was sitting in a dimly lit dressing room with Kaytranada, the Montreal DJ and producer born Louis Kevin Celestin. It was just a few days before September's Polaris Prize gala, and, as members of his crew rolled joints and indulged in catered Popeyes in an adjacent lounge, the topic of conversation had turned to his odds of taking home Canada's biggest artistic merit-based award.
The circle included Louis-Philippe—Celestin's younger brother who raps under the name Lou Phelps and is the other half of their duo the Celestics—and his manager Will Robillard Cole, who started working with the then 20-year-old after he booked him for a Halifax show in 2013. The general consensus in the room seemed to be that Grimes would take home the Polaris for her 2015 art-pop opus, Art Angels. Still, competition for the award and the $50,000 Canadian in prize money was stacked: This year's ten diverse shortlisted records included Carly Rae Jepsen's pop blockbuster E•MO•TION, Jessy Lanza's electro-R&B odyssey Oh No, and Kaytranada's own debut album, 99.9%, a melting pot of neo-soul, R&B, hip-hop, and dance music.
When I posed the question to the soft-spoken Haitian-Canadian, who'd just finished playing his set at the city's tenth annual Manifesto Festival, he was equal parts diplomacy and humility. He rarely grants interviews, but tonight he'd agreed to two, the second being with a major Canadian newspaper. "I'm happy that I got nominated, because it's strictly Canadian," he said in measured English. "Drake's on there, Justin Bieber's on there. I guess they've sort of evolved and try to recognize more that's popping around the world."
Celestin has a somewhat complicated relationship with the Canadian music industry. The son of immigrant parents, he moved with his family from Port-au-Prince to Montreal shortly after he was born; they divorced when he was only 14. As a teen, he struggled with anxiety and depression—difficulties stemming in part from feeling like he had to hide his sexuality from his family and friends. "Growing up with a lot of friends who are making homophobic remarks," he told The FADER earlier this year, "It's kind of like, 'Damn, I don't want nobody to know that I'm that person.'"
After his brother taught him FruityLoops, he started uploading Dilla-influenced hip-hop instrumental tapes to YouTube as Kaytradamus, then built a loyal SoundCloud following with his elated remixes of Janet Jackson, Amerie, and Missy Elliot. The industry took notice quickly, but support for his music was stronger overseas than it was back home. Since entering his 20s, his funky, uptempo beats have been snapped up by the likes of Azealia Banks, Chance the Rapper, and Craig David, but Celestin ended up signing a deal with UK's XL Recordings instead of a major Canadian label. As for radio play, it was taste-making BBC Radio 1 presenter Benji B who was the first to play his tracks and reworks on air, rather than the CBC.
Canada hasn't ignored him entirely, however. Earlier this year, he'd received a MuchFACT government grant to make a music video for 99.9% highlight "Lite Spots," which flips Brazilian tropicália singer Gal Costas' "Ponto De Luz" into a roller rink-ready jam. Back in February, his springy, Chaka Khan-sampling single "At All" also received a JUNO Award nomination for Dance Recording of the Year. But then the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Science revoked it after learning the track had come out in 2013. The Academy publicly blamed the mistake on a clerical error, but the damage was already done, and the producer took to Twitter, typing "Shoutout to the Canadian music scene for being so out of touch."
While he was sore about the debacle at the time—pointing out on social media that they could have just as easily chosen a more recent song—the 24-year-old has since grown accustomed to the sacrifices Canadian artists often have to make to reach the next rung of success. Like another one of the bilingual city's most well-known electronic exports, Lunice—whose parents are also immigrants—Celestin cut his teeth playing shows and festivals overseas, which kept him from finishing his debut. "I think you have to move out of Montreal or go on tour definitely to get yourself known," he said. "The fact that I went on tour for like three years straight—that's what kept my name relevant."
I went out recently, and pretty much wherever I went I heard songs from my album. [I'm] like, what the fuck, this is crazy.
The 15 tracks that make up 99.9% weave together the threads of his disparate influences: early 2000s Neptunes, crate-digging Stones Throw producer Madlib, and Montreal's piu piu (translated from French to "pew pew" after the sound children make when pointing finger guns) beat scene. It all forms a cohesive whole that simultaneously sounds like the past, present, and future.
There's plenty of guest contributors on the album, but arguably the most important are Toronto jazz experimentalists BadBadNotGood and soulful singer-songwriter River Tiber, neither of whom, like Celestin, are making music that's buttoned down, guitar-centric, Canadian indie rock. All have been tapped for production duties by some of the biggest names in Top 40 rap, R&B, and pop, but they've refused to limit themselves to working within one genre, and are quietly making names for themselves beyond international borders.
After spending most of the summer on the road, the producer said he's learned to appreciate time spent at home. What's more, back in Montreal, he's finally starting to get the recognition he deserves. "I went out recently, and pretty much wherever I went I heard songs from my album. [I'm] like, what the fuck, this is crazy," he recalled. "I'm still the same guy, and I'm still very, not insecure, but you know [thinking] like, Oh shit, maybe they're not going to like my new stuff. It's always beating me in my head." He's a notorious perfectionist when it comes to his music—admitting to me he's at his most creative when he's alone making beats until 5 or 6 in the morning. "I'm like a vampire," he said.
At the same time, he isn't afraid of not taking himself too seriously, which might be his most Canadian personality trait. In the "At All" video he's carried like a baby by a muscular female bodybuilder; in the aforementioned "Lite Spots" video, he builds a robot and then teaches it b-boy moves. Watching a recent Pitchfork segment in which he evaluates various topics, including farting in crowds, cargo shorts, and Hilary Duff, he can barely keep a straight face as he sings the Disney star's 2003 teen pop hit "Let The Rain Come Down." Talking to the producer about his forthcoming projects, I was reminded of the triumphant chorus of "Glowed Up," his carpe diem summer anthem with Anderson .Paak. "Can't you see I'm livin'?" the West Coast rapper and singer asks. "I'm glowed up, I'm glowed up, goddamn I'm glowed up."
On the night of the Polaris Prize gala, Celestin was dressed casually in overalls and a backwards skater ballcap. The previous year's winner, Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, had just announced his name from an envelop as the victor, and he made his way to the stage of the Carlu accompanied by boisterous whoops from the room full of journalists, musicians, and suited industry folks. Later that night, fellow nominee Grimes would offer her approval of the jury's decision in a single all-caps tweet: "CONGRATS @KAYTRANADA !!!!!! MTL!!! <3 <3 ^_^"; Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, one of his childhood favourite groups, would even call to offer the young producer his congratulations. But on stage at the ceremony, all he could do was grin.
"I would like to thank everybody for believing, man. For me it's crazy to get this award, and it's really, truly a big honour," he began before switching to French. "Ça c'est pour Montréal."
99.9% is out now on XL Recordings/HW&W.
This story will appear in the October issue of VICE. Max Mertens is the Canadian editor of THUMP. He's on Twitter.