Piled close between the blue and yellow walls that box in The Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, young, grinning concert-goers wait patiently for the spot behind a single MacBook and drum machine on stage to be filled.
The table is first manned by Lou Phelps, the headliner’s own little brother and a fellow musician. After a brief DJ set from Phleps to warm up the crowd, Kaytranada walks on stage and into the blue spotlight.
Before the crowd can really begin to cheer, the 23-year-old producer disappears behind the table holding his simple setup. There’s some technical difficulty.
After less than a minute of tinkering, Kaytranada bolts up without warning and silences the crowd with a few snips from “I Just Wanna” by Alton Edwards, firmly marking his place on the musical spectrum for the night — jazzy, funky, twisted club beats is on the itinerary. From there he starts with the lead track off his recently released album, 99.9%, and the audience waits in anticipation for more from the already acclaimed project.
Focus seems to be how the young producer has made such waves in less than five years.
The entire crowd sways, throws hands haphazardly and looks to be in a trance that contrasts Kaytranada’s demeanour. Head down over the drum machine and hat low on his forehead, he hardly looks up until the last quarter of his set. His fingers pound out a beat. He controls the crowd like a puppet master, manipulating his ravenous audience’s movements. He doesn’t say much to them other than a quick “Hello, Toronto”. The entire time his gaze is fixed on his equipment, moving to a beat heard in his head even before the sound comes through the speakers.
Focus seems to be how the young producer has made such waves in less than five years. Starting out DJing at 14 and producing SoundCloud remixes from his Montreal home years later, Kaytranada, then using the moniker Kaytradamus, quickly developed a following going into the 2010s. He offers up a distinct brand of house music that is a combination of soulful, dynamic influences.
With his songs, you sink deep into the beat and wade through genre after genre that make up the layers of his music — drifting from disco to jazz then back to funk. You get lost in Kay’s concoction and you’re OK with it.
Kaytranada’s eclectic take on house music has made him a sought-after collaborator in just over three years on the scene. Everyone from rap duo Mobb Deep to The Internet and Canadian musician River Tiber have worked with the Haitian-born beat maker to introduce his smooth neo-soul and groove into their sounds. Kay’s viral “If” remix has earned him praise from Janet Jackson herself, and in 2015 he opened for Madonna on her Rebel Heart Tour.
His remixes and original sounds cloak you in decades worth of musical prowess that he’s compiled into unique, complex hits in their own right.
His remixes and original sounds cloak you in decades worth of musical prowess that he’s compiled into unique, complex hits in their own right. Much like producers Madlib and J Dilla, his sound is tinged with neo-soul and funk, but Kay sets himself apart by making primarily house and club music — a genre he has turned inside out with his influences that are unconventional for the category dominated primarily by white, male DJs.
His one-off collaboration tracks and mixes have been more than enough to sustain his solo concert tours over the last few years, but with the release of his first full-length studio album, 99.9%, last month, Kay has much more material and choice to curate a show that’s authentically him.
A 10-foot tall LED screen provides a backdrop for his set, displaying his name in neon cursive for a stretch of time, then switches to his latest album art. The rest of the time pixelated graphics of palm trees, blinking eyes, marijuana plants and suns crawl by looking like a tiled Windows 95 screensaver. It creates a trippy and nostalgic atmosphere that mirrors his musical taste.
Breaking only once more for a minor tech glitch, Kay goes non-stop. He maintains a steady pace of both new hits from his debut album and old hits his fans already love.
It doesn’t quite match the unabashed dancing he pulled out on his new music video, “Lite Spots”, but he definitely opens up.
The audience erupts as he transitions to his popular rendition of Teedra Moses’ “Be Your Girl” and again when he moves on to “One Too Many”, his original funk and disco laden collab with North Carolina rapper Phonte.
Kay elicits some ’90s memories with another popular remix of “Creep”, complete with clips of the original TLC music video shown on the LED screen behind him. He also treats his fans to a recently released club mix of Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” with an entirely new tempo and drum sequence.
It’s not until halfway through his two-hour set that Kay seems to get comfortable. He sheds his dark hoodie in favour of a white T-shirt underneath. He straightens from his hunched position over his drum machine, and lifts his head, so his dancing audience can see his face from beneath his hat brim.
Soon, his restricted two-step dance spans more area behind his table and he throws in a Bogle-style jump to throw some dancehall flavour reflective of his Caribbean background into the mix. It doesn’t quite match the unabashed dancing he pulled out in his new music video, “Lite Spots”, but he definitely opens up.
Shortly after, he closes the show, walking off to the repurposed Janet Jackson track that catapulted him to fame. But 10 minutes of applause later, he relents to the encore plea and gives his fans an exclusive listen to Chance the Rapper’s “They Say”. Finally, he walks off again, clasping together his hands, thanking the audience for their energy.
Photos © Angelyn Francis + Urbanology Magazine