switched on pop

Kaytranada’s Decade-Long Journey to Best New Artist

“I’m always speechless when I talk about being nominated. I can’t really wrap my head around the fact that I’m making stuff here, where I’m sitting.” Photo: Iris Gottlieb

Kaytranada has what every producer strives for: an in-demand signature sound. His records glide fluidly between four-to-the-floor house beats, hip-hop sample-flipping, and P-Funk style 808 bass lines. He honed the technique as a teenager, and it has since grabbed the attention of some all-star collaborators: Pharrell Williams, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Anderson .Paak, and Kendrick Lamar. This year, he’s nominated for three Grammys, including Best Dance/Electronica Album for his 2019 sophomore release, Bubba, and Best New Artist. But Kaytranada is hardly new to music; at 28, he has been building a career in the industry for more than a decade. Although the recognition may be overdue, the thrill of it hasn’t worn off. “I’m Kaytranada, all the way from Montreal, Canada — been making beats since I was young. And now here I am, [one of the] Best New Artists for the Grammys. It’s really crazy and exciting,” he says. On this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, co-host Charlie Harding spoke with Kaytranada about how his DIY approach to production led him to music’s biggest stage.

Charlie: Take me to the start. What got you into making music?

Kaytranada: Music was always in me. I always wanted to make music. When I was 14, I found out about software like VirtualDJ, Traktor, and FruityLoops, and I just really went into production and making beats. In my mom’s basement, we had a PC that we had to share with the whole family, and I was making my beats there.

Charlie: And you were heavily into DJ culture and remixing songs for SoundCloud; it’s how you took off. What’s the backstory to the one that went viral first, your 2012 remix of Janet Jackson’s “If”?

Kaytranada: I was really inspired by this Flying Lotus show that I’d just seen. And that night, I made that remix. Posted it at 5 a.m. I go to sleep. And then it’s like 12 p.m., and I get notifications off my phone, like a hundred notifications on SoundCloud. That was unimaginable. The remix eventually blew up, and it got bigger. So that’s where the SoundCloud fame came from.

Charlie: Then each remix seemed to pop off bigger than the next. What happened to take you from SoundCloud to boardrooms and stages?

Kaytranada: I met my manager [William Robillard-Cole], who booked me for this show in Halifax, which was my first plane trip and my first show outside of the city. And I think in one week, people were starting to talk about me; I was starting to make noise. I do this EP [Kaytra Todo] and then I go on tour in Europe, and that really changed my life. I was not the same after.

Charlie: You were on the road opening as a DJ for Madonna. So what pulled you back home to record your first LP [2016’s 99.9%]?

Kaytranada: I was still on tour at the same time while working on my music, and I was burned out. So I was like, Okay, I need to stop touring. And then I went back home, still in my mom’s basement, and put everything together.

Charlie: 99.9% has a lot collaborations — “Glowed Up” with Anderson .Paak is a particular standout. How did it come together?

Kaytranada: I made the beat around 2012 before I blew up. I had a phase where I used to sample library sounds and just [add] trap beats over them.

Charlie:  What do you mean “library sounds”?

Kaytranada: Like music for movies is: It’s like instrumental music for moods. Those vinyls always have amazing samples. If you check on the sci-fi section, that’s where they use the synths or vintage sounds.

Charlie: Sampling is core to your sound. What drives you to produce in this fairly laborious form?

Kaytranada: I come from listening to J Dilla, Just Blaze, Madlib, and they all sample a lot of records and they do crate-digging. From the beginning, I sampled and sampled and learned from my favorite producers. At the same time, you discover a lot of music, and your knowledge of music expands on a crazy level just by discovering those records, just by crate-digging.

Charlie: What happens from 2016 to 2019, between 99.9% and Bubba?

Kaytranada: I was constantly making stuff. And I was making terrible beats for two or three months in a row, and I just couldn’t figure out why I was not the producer I wanted to be. I also moved out of my mom’s house. I was going out partying more.

Charlie: Sounds like there was a moment of maybe a crisis of confidence. How do you know when a beat is ready?

Kaytranada: There are some times that it just don’t hit. Some nights that it’s like, Oh my God, it’s the most amazing shit I ever did, and then you wake up the next day and you’re like, Ah, maybe not. Sometimes you feel a kind of vibe. You feel it in your body. I just base it on whatever I feel in my heart. If it makes me happy at another level, that’s when I’m like, Okay, I feel it now. This is great. This is good.

Charlie: Is that how Bubba starts to come together?

Kaytranada: Around 2018, on my birthday [August 25], [singer-songwriter] Teedra Moses sent me the beat for “Culture”; it was the first beat. And then I was like, Okay, an album is coming. I had enough material, and it was all dance music. So I was like, You know what, I’m just going to do a dance-electronic album and focus on that. The hip-hop all the beat stuff that was I making is gonna wait for a while. And that’s how Bubba came together.

Charlie: Over the last decade, there’s been many different stages of your career, from remixing to getting signed to XL to releasing 99.9%. But now with Bubba, you have Grammy nominations for Best Dance Recording, Best Dance Electronic Album, and Best New Artist. How does this external validation change things for you? Does it even change anything?

Kaytranada: It’s amazing, man. It definitely gives you a secure feeling that your stuff is dope, officially. We know the Grammys have their controversies, but it’s still dope to be recognized. It’s something that is really historical, whether you like it or not. Especially coming from where I come from. I’m always speechless when I talk about being nominated. ’Cause it still feels a little weird, you know? I can’t really wrap my head around the fact that I’m making stuff here, where I’m sitting.

Charlie: You’re no longer in your mom’s basement.

Kaytranada: Yeah! But I even come back to my mom’s basement and make beats sometimes when I’m bored.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Kaytranada’s Decade-Long Journey to Best New Artist