In February, when Kaytranada’s stage manager, Tamir Schlanger, texted him to ask if he had a vision for his Coachella performance, the artist responded with screenshots of the giant metallic head from The Wiz, the 1978 musical film featuring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. He wondered: Could Schlanger replicate it, but with his own head?
Out of context, the images were menacing — the almighty wizard, spewing smoke and lasers — but funny, too; one featured Richard Pryor’s character, a failed politician from New Jersey named Herman Smith, peeping up sheepishly through the hole in The Wiz’s eye. All smoke and mirrors. Was the 30-year-old producer-DJ commenting on the steely facade of celebrity? Was the production meant to highlight the dichotomy between Louis Kevin Celestin, the shy kid born to Haitian immigrants who grew up in a quiet Montreal suburb, and the Grammy-winning musical wiz better known as Kaytranada?
“There really was no thought process at all, honestly,” Kaytranada admits about a month after his performance, emphasizing that the decision was purely aesthetic: He was just a fan of the movie and noticed his own physical resemblance to The Wiz’s face. “I just wanted to make something iconic,” he says.
Prior to his Coachella performance, there was little disputing Kaytranada’s accomplishments behind the scenes, where he had cultivated a reputation as a personally reserved but musically boisterous tastemaker. Over the course of two albums, 2016’s 99.9% and 2019’s Grammy-winning Bubba, he established himself as a go-to producer and deft collaborator, a singular artist able to adapt his sound to the strengths of everyone from hip-hop stars like Chance the Rapper to experimental R&B singers like Kelela while still maintaining his distinct style: a feel-good blend of dance, R&B, Afrobeats, disco and hip-hop. In the process, he also became one of the biggest gay Black artists in a genre of increasingly influential music founded by gay Black artists.
Kaytranada has jokingly called his music “Black tropical house” and “futuristic disco,” though today, speaking to Billboard, he describes it as “a new era of new jack swing.” And there is a definitive swing that distinguishes his production style, which borrows from elements of the Haitian dance genre compas, including the slightly off drum placements that imprint his otherwise sleek productions with a soulful, human touch. What has become known as the “Kaytranada sound” — a term he feels sometimes boxes him into the past — lies in the tension between the comfort of nostalgia and the excitement of the future, and has earned him collaborations with artists he aspired to be like growing up, like Pharrell Williams.
“He has a refreshing energy and approach to music,” Williams says. “And we’re all so blessed that dance music is at the center of what he does — which is, make us dance in color.”
Since he caught the internet’s attention with early SoundCloud remixes of Missy Elliott and TLC, along with a freewheeling, widely memed 2013 Boiler Room set filmed in Montreal that has amassed 19 million YouTube views (Top comment: “This party should have its own Wikipedia page”), Kaytranada’s vibrant dance music has captivated audiences across the world. But there was something different about the Kaytranada who DJ’d in front of a giant sculpture of his own head during a prime-time slot at Coachella’s massive Outdoor Theatre.
It wasn’t just that lasers shot out of that head as he danced playfully to hits spanning his discography or how he hyped up the crowd while premiering his remix of Beyoncé’s 2022 disco-funk banger, “CUFF IT.” Nor was it the guest appearances from Kali Uchis and Aminé the first weekend or H.E.R., Tinashe and Anderson .Paak the second — all Kaytranada collaborators whose relationships with the producer extend beyond the studio. Instead, it was the unmistakable confidence fueling his showmanship, which finally mirrored the assured and sprightly pulse of his music.
As someone who came up DJ’ing in Montreal’s experimental hip-hop scene, Kaytranada says he used to judge other DJs for “overdoing it” onstage. “I was like, ‘I want my ones and twos, and that’s it,’ ” he says. “I have the music, and I understand it. I just didn’t want to go extra.” Looking back on his reservations, “it was probably my confidence,” he admits, noting that having a stage manager like Schlanger who is able to bring his “random ideas” to life has also been a tremendous help. “I just didn’t think I deserved to go that far. But now that I have accepted myself, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll perform with a big crowd. I’ll perform at a stadium.’ That kind of inspired me to do a larger-than-life show.”
“That show is really a visual representation of a decade of hard work,” says William Robillard Cole, Kaytranada’s manager since 2013. The Coachella set, he says, proved to be a “pivotal moment” in not only solidifying trust with the team at RCA, which Kaytranada signed to in 2018, but in establishing the artist as a “true major hard-ticket act,” noting that offers from bookers started pouring in almost immediately. “People are like, ‘Bring the head! Let’s do a tour with the head!’ ”
Robillard Cole attributes Kaytranada’s newfound confidence onstage in part to opening for The Weeknd on his 2022 After Hours Til Dawn stadium tour but also cites two pivotal things that happened long before: Kaytranada coming out publicly in 2016 and moving from Montreal to Los Angeles shortly after, where he has bounced among a series of long-term Airbnbs when he’s not on the road. “As he has gotten older and more comfortable with himself, he has really been able to develop a performance attitude,” says Robillard Cole. “Kay is an entertainer. It’s true to his soul. That dude loves to dance, he loves to entertain people, he loves to DJ, and to see the progression as a performer over the last few years, it has just been incredible to watch.”
In 2023, that progression promises to continue as Kaytranada heads to Europe in June to support another leg of The Weeknd’s tour. Later this year, he plans to release his third album, though he says it’s too early to discuss particulars beyond the heavier influence of new wave and industrial. And in May, he released a breezy collaborative record with rapper Aminé called Kaytraminé (get it?) that evokes that first sip of a frozen piña colada. Aminé says they selected album guests such as Williams, Big Sean, Amaarae, Freddie Gibbs and Snoop Dogg out of “pure fandom” and connected with each organically, with texts and phone calls rather than working through A&R — a testament, he adds, to Kaytranada’s likability. (The producer says his collaborations are now 60% people who approach him and 40% him reaching out to artists.)
“His master collaborator effect to me is because he’s so nonchalant about everything,” says Aminé, who met Kaytranada through SoundCloud in 2014 when he rapped over the producer’s early breakout, “At All.” “He’ll play the craziest beat and just be like, ‘Yeah, that was pretty cool.’ It’s so funny. I feel like a lot of artists go into sessions with producers who have big names or whatever, and the producers are really f–king intimidating sometimes. They’re like, ‘This is going to be a hit record, man! This is going to get you to the top!’ Corny sh-t that doesn’t really feel like yourself, and I think Kay is really good at giving artists room and just letting them flourish.”
His last album, Bubba, which showcased artists like Estelle, Masego and GoldLink, earned Kaytranada three nominations at the 2021 Grammys, including for best new artist, and a landmark pair of wins: best dance recording for “10%,” his funk-tinged, pay-me-now collaboration with Uchis, and the other for best dance/electronic album. The latter put Kaytranada in the record books as the first Black producer and first openly gay artist to win the category since it was created in 2004.
They’re notable distinctions, considering the foundational role gay Black men have played in dance music for the last 50 years. In places like Chicago, the birthplace of house, dance music was forged out of resistance, with underground clubs functioning as spaces of relative safety and freedom from the racist and homophobic status quo. While smaller clubs, festivals and labels across America center queer Black DJs, that history is rarely acknowledged at today’s typical major dance festivals, where straight white men overwhelmingly dominate lineups. As Chicago DJ Derrick Carter put it in 2014: “Something that started as gay Black/Latino club music is now sold, shuffled and packaged as having very little to do with either.”
“Being a queer artist, being from Canada and of Haitian descent — he’s an outsider in every respect,” explains Def Jam Records CEO Tunji Balogun, who says it was a “no-brainer” to sign Kaytranada to RCA when he was vp there. “But he’s still redefining what an electronic DJ is supposed to look and sound like.”
There’s a dexterity to Kaytranada’s interdisciplinary output that offers multiple points of entry into his work. “I always tell people Kay has three parts to his career: He’s a DJ, he’s a producer and he’s an artist,” says Robillard Cole. “Obviously, that’s not something that’s super common in the music business, and to run a career that has three parts, we’ve had to put in just as much work on the producer side as the DJ side and as much work on the artist side as the producer side. It’s all about strategic partnerships and relationships.”
Those different but connected roles have singularly situated Kaytranada in the dance world. He’s the rare artist who can release a hip-hop record on Friday, then DJ Electric Daisy Carnival on Saturday, as he did in May; someone who’s big enough to headline dance festivals but still eager to work with niche and emerging artists. “He’s either the biggest pop star in the underground or the best-kept secret in the pop world,” Balogun says. “He has dual citizenship. I think he’s becoming that go-to DJ that a pop star will call to freshen up a song, but he’s also still in the trap.”
When Balogun began following Kaytranada online after the latter released his sample-heavy 2013 mixtape, Kaytra Todo, on Jakarta Records, he at first didn’t even register him as a dance artist because he was “on some futuristic hip-hop sh-t. He definitely reminded me of a J Dilla descendant.” Today, he sees Kaytranada as a bridge, someone whose intersections connect music lovers across genres, cultures and generations, like introducing younger listeners to influences such as Madlib and J Dilla — legendary producers who themselves sat at the intersection of hip-hop and dance music and informed Kaytranada’s approach for Kaytraminé — or collaborators like Teedra Moses. (His remix of her 2004 song “Be Your Girl” has far surpassed the original in streams.)
While Kaytranada has intentionally operated “on the outer realm of the industry,” as Robillard Cole puts it, going forward, “the goal is to be the biggest dance artist in the world,” he says, “but [while] staying true to himself. Never compromising. It’s not a monetary goal for us. It’s more respect and critical acclaim than anything. I always tell people that cream rises to the top. It’s the same with good music.” He’s trying to help Kaytranada build a legacy, and paints the image of 25-year-olds flipping through a vinyl shop in the year 2080, geeking out over a Kaytranada record. “That’s what legacy is,” he says.
No matter his accolades, some professional moments still send Kaytranada spiraling into self-doubt — he’s a Virgo after all, and identifies with the sign’s perfectionist tendencies. But he has increasingly come to understand his value. When I ask him if the remix of “CUFF IT” he premiered at Coachella will ever be released, he shrugs. Parkwood Entertainment, he explains, approached his team about the remix and sent him the vocal stems, but he disagreed with the terms of the proposed contract. (Negotiations are still pending; Parkwood did not respond to requests for comment.) He looks visibly disappointed. He worked hard on the remix and knows it would mean a lot to release it, both to the culture — when Beyoncé’s 2022 album, Renaissance, deeply indebted to house and disco trailblazers, won the Grammy for best dance/electronic album, she thanked “the queer community for your love and for inventing the genre” in her acceptance speech — and to his own career. But he also seems resolute.
“I know my worth. I know they reached out to me to do the remix for a reason, and then to be treated back like I wasn’t all that, it’s kind of weird,” he says. “I’m going to keep it at that. I know my worth.”
A different remix jump-started Kaytranada’s career over 10 years ago: his high-octane club rework of Janet Jackson’s “If,” which sounded like the singer had fallen into a vortex. He worked on the song all night in his bedroom after attending a Flying Lotus show in Montreal, inspired by the producer’s ability to fuse electronic elements with hip-hop. Under the moniker Kaytradamus, he uploaded the remix to SoundCloud at 5 a.m. before passing out.
This was in 2012, when SoundCloud was an influential hub for experimental dance music, and Kaytranada woke up that afternoon to an avalanche of notifications. He recalls peering at his phone and thinking, “What the hell is this?” before going back to sleep, too frazzled to comprehend the attention.
Offers to DJ started trickling in, including an invitation from Robillard Cole to play in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was a business student at Saint Mary’s University, in January 2013. (It was the first time Kaytranada flew on an airplane since immigrating to Canada from Haiti as a child.) “I just never heard music like his before — ever,” he says. “The way he puts synths together, his basslines; everything was slightly offbeat.” After the gig, Robillard Cole asked Kaytranada if he had a manager, promising that he could double his rate at the time to $300 a set. He started organizing Kaytranada’s first tour from his accounting class.
Because touring in America required visas, they went to Europe instead. Their budget was $7,000 Canadian, which meant sharing hotel rooms and traveling by bus. The venues were small; Robillard Cole recalls Kaytranada DJ’ing in a jerk chicken restaurant in Manchester, England. But the risks — which included Kaytranada and Robillard Cole eventually dropping out of high school and business school, respectively — paid off. The tour got Kaytranada in front of influential people in the music industry, which led to his 2014 signing with XL Records, the storied British label that has been home to Radiohead, M.I.A. and Arca.
The deal let Kaytranada expand his clout in Europe, which at the time was more receptive to his music. (The United States is currently his biggest market.) It also helped connect him with bigger collaborators for his debut album, 99.9%, which features artists like Vic Mensa, AlunaGeorge and Craig David. “It was a super-big blessing to be signed with XL back then,” says Robillard Cole, “and we just did it as a one-off, which to this day is one of the best decisions [we’ve] ever made because it allowed us to come over to America and sign with RCA Records next and really grow commercially.”
Kaytranada came out in The Fader in 2016, shortly before the release of 99.9%. To his surprise, he found that as his career started to grow, so did his unhappiness, and he recalls thinking, “I’ve got to come out, or I’m going to go crazy.” “At the time, it was just to confirm to myself and to my brain and to the world that I am indeed gay, because I was gay all my life but I definitely suppressed it,” he says. “Growing up with a lot of kids who are just like, ‘Being gay is hell naw.’ In Haiti, hell naw. You cannot be gay.”
Though his anxiety spiked pre-publication, “his whole mentality and energy changed as soon as that article came out,” says his brother, rapper Lou Phelps. “Like he felt more free. He would be less reserved, less shy with the family.”
Though his success has played an important part in realigning mainstream dance music with its gay Black roots, Kaytranada doesn’t necessarily frame his impact in those terms. He recalls learning about dance music’s history in his early 20s through Maestro, the 2003 documentary about DJ culture featuring luminaries like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, and thinking, “Duh — because [house music] sounded very Black,” he says. At the same time, it helped him to better trace his influences; as someone who grew up feeling like “a little weird Black dude” for listening obsessively to acts like Justice and Daft Punk, Kaytranada came to realize that those French electronic artists were themselves borrowing from Black musical genres.
Although he was bullied at his mostly white high school for being small, Black and quiet, kids also regarded him as a tastemaker, someone they approached in the hallways about what they should be listening to — which included everything from Kenyan rock to Linkin Park and the Black Eyed Peas. “I always thought I knew music better than anybody at my school,” he says.
When I ask Kaytranada if he thinks people who come to his shows or participate in dance culture should know about the music’s history, he seems ambivalent. “If you’re into house music, you definitely need to get educated,” he says. “But if you just love the music, that’s cool, too. I don’t really judge when it comes to that.” It’s the kind of noncommittal answer that he tends to give for questions about identity in general, a reticence that suggests he would rather let his work speak for itself. Later, when I ask if he has been able to find gay community in Los Angeles since coming out, he says, “Yes,” then pauses haltingly before acknowledging that he sometimes feels overlooked by the gay community at large for not “proving” that he’s gay enough.
“I thought it was going to be fun,” he says. “[But] it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re not the gay man I thought you was going to be. Oh, your taste is not like my taste. You need to be more gay.’ And that would affect me — but not anymore, because I know I’m really unique at this point. I’m just onto different things.”
It’s a charge he still seems sensitive about — not being as visibly queer as some other artists — though he insists he’s just being himself, the role model he felt he needed before he came out. Growing up as a hip-hop head, he recalls listening to Mobb Deep’s homophobic lyrics and questioning how he could ever be accepted in the industry. (It might be one reason he always listened to the beats of his favorite rap songs before he delved into the lyrics: “I was always looking at the credits,” he says.)
“Like, how are you going to accept a gay producer?” he recalls thinking. “That was not seen at the time. It seemed impossible.” Mainstream representations of gay men sent him into an identity crisis. “I couldn’t relate to that. I just couldn’t, and I was like, ‘I cannot be gay,’ because I was not into those things,” he says. “That was really a confusing period of my life.”
He points to Frank Ocean coming out on Tumblr in 2012 as a significant turning point in his own self-acceptance. “It kind of made things more possible,” he says, particularly in the world of R&B and hip-hop. And he knows, at this point, that he has become that person for others, too. “When I came out, a lot of musicians secretly came out to me, saying, ‘The [Fader] article moved me.’ And I was like, ‘Word.’ ”
In person, Kaytranada expresses himself with an ease that’s neither flashy nor restrained. Sitting outside of a restaurant on Melrose Avenue, he’s soft-spoken and reserved, burying his hands in his brown Martine Rose track jacket. But over the course of a couple of hours, he grows looser and more expressive, calling the finger sandwiches he orders “cute” (they are cute) and making casual reference to his boyfriend, a photographer he visited Universal Studios with the day before. (Kaytranada’s still a little shaken up from riding Revenge of the Mummy.) They were friends for a year before they started dating in January, and though he’s trying to implement lessons he learned from his last relationship, namely about boundaries, he says they’re together all the time.
At Billboard’s cover shoot the next day, he lies on the floor in a bright orange crop top, balancing against a fallen chair before ending up on his back in the yogic plow pose, his legs flipped over his head. (He started working out two years ago with the help of a trainer and considers himself a “gym rat” now.) Later, he struts out of the dressing room wearing a black suit with a pink wrap around his waist, steps up onto a table and poses like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, his right pointer finger directed skyward. He breaks into a grin as the camera flashes.
Kaytranada’s hands are studded with rings, including the two he bought the night before he won two Grammys. He’s still kicking himself for not superstitiously buying another one before this year’s ceremony, when he was nominated for best dance/electronic recording for “Intimidated,” his silky-smooth collaboration with H.E.R. (He lost — to Beyoncé.) “I bought chains instead,” he says. “I ended up f–king up.”
Recognition from the Recording Academy, he explains, was never the goal. “My idols, the people I looked up to, they never really had Grammys, so it was whatever. But being nominated, it’s a whole different thing. It kind of alters what you’re aiming for.” Now, he says, he’s “trying to make Grammy-winning albums.”
He gave his two trophies to his mother. They are on display in his childhood home, on top of the piano he grew up playing. The awards feel symbolic, not only of his success as an artist, but as a son. Dropping out of high school was a sore spot for his mother, who didn’t see how music could be a viable career. “When I won a Grammy, it really felt like I graduated or something. Like, I have something that means a lot,” he says. “Your name is in history forever.”
In the beginning, when his parents failed to understand what he did, Kaytranada would show them a documentary about The Neptunes to help demonstrate. But “they understood the Grammys — we had a compilation Grammy CD,” he says, grinning. There was no explanation needed.
“I just want to be remembered as one of the greats in terms of producing, not only dance and electronic but also just production in general,” Kaytranada says. He has his wish list of artists he would still love to work with, but says his dream collaboration would be to produce an entire album for a pop star looking to rebrand his or her sound, similar to how Timbaland reoriented Justin Timberlake’s style when he produced 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. He throws out Justin Bieber’s name as an example. “It’s a matter of longevity, too — and, you know, just happiness. Like, as long as you’re comfortable and you’re happy with your life, that’s a form of success — but don’t forget the money part.”
I ask him if he’s happy, and his voice goes up an octave. “Yes, I’m happy!” he says somewhat apprehensively, as if to acknowledge the corniness of the question, or maybe its impossibility, before dropping back down to his normal register. “I’m saying that looking away, but naw, I’m really happy.” He laughs, then tries one more time: “I’m definitely the happiest I’ve been.”
Additional reporting by Heran Mamo.