Deconstructing Reggaeton with Kelman Duran

By 21 November, 2018

Kelman Duran, a multidisciplinary artist born in Dominican Republic, is a man of many talents. Hailing from a tiny town called La Ermita, life has taken him through a childhood in Washington Heights, university in Los Angeles, a couple of years in South Korea and curatorial residency at an art space in Tijuana, before finally coming back to California where his musical career has fully blossomed. It was there that his deconstructed versions of reggaeton and dembow beats started to win over audiences at the highly influential Rail Up parties and last year his ideas were eventually enclosed within a record, a debut album titled 1804 Kids. The fresh sound that it brought resulted in an instant yet totally unexpected success that left people wanting more.

Now, Kelman Duran returns with a follow-up LP 13th Month that will be released on the 27th of November via Riobamba’s Apocalipsis label. The new album comes from a more conscious production process and opens up a new chapter in Kelman’s career as he not only composes the orchestral pieces of ethereal music best showcased by two extended-length opening tracks but also explores his African heritage by exploring elements of genres like South Africa’s gqom and Angola’s kuduro.

The conversation below took place on the day of Kelman Duran’s performance at the Unsound Festival in Kraków, Poland in October 2018.

You were born in Dominican Republic but grew up in Washington Heights, NY, so I was wondering what is the first music that you remember?

The first music that I distinctly remember and that I enjoyed was old school bachata. If I take my club experiences into consideration though, it must have been what they called underground music – and back then it meant Spanish rap. In fact, before Daddy Yankee was famous, he was underground and for example he has this really old song with Nas where he’s actually rapping. I listened to this stuff mostly at the house parties.

And there were also those DJ Playero tapes, there’s forty of them or something around that. Looking back at his music, it must be said that he was one of the first people to do the edits and he is definitely the first person that I remember who was doing that.

How did you end up producing music yourself? I think it was connected with being part of a crew back in Washington Heights?

Yes! It was just a thing to be doing, we never took it seriously to be honest. It was also at that time – and it was at a really young age – that I realized that I never want to be a part of the music industry.
Regarding music making and playing, I was in a jazz band since I was in a sixth grade. Actually I went the other way around as I started listening to rather sophisticated music. I also played bass in a classical orchestra. I fell in love with a lot of Russian composers, the stuff that’s in one particular minor key only and that’s why all my reggaeton sounds are in this minor key as well. I started producing music when I was seventeen using Fruity Loops but I never really played live until I was thirty.

With that crew you used to make hundreds of beats that were never published. I think that until this day you have a similar attitude – it seems that you’re producing a lot of stuff and then just put it on Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

First of all, I don’t think music should be privatized and even if it’s sold for $1 it becomes privatized. And as far as my production process goes, I literally just press record on Ableton and then I touch clips and whichever part I like, I’ll keep it. Just one take. I’ll do the whole song like that and just put it up online. I think it has to do with the fact that I want to make music for the DJs and that’s why I make it downloadable. So when I realized that people are playing my stuff I thought to myself that this is something I want to make the music for.

There are very few tracks that I took a long time to work on them. The only song that I did for a month maybe was the track “Gravity Waves” that is twelve minutes long. I don’t really know why but with this track I was really specific about what I want to achieve. So there’s over fifty samples in that song including the stuff that I never sampled before, like for example Radiophonic Orchestra of London.

From New York you moved via South Korea to Los Angeles and you described this as liberating. Was it also something that influenced your music?

Yes, for sure. In Los Angeles you can see the horizon, you can see something past ten feet from the place you’re standing. In New York, on the other hand, the first thing you see when you wake up is another building. It’s not only physically suffocating but cognitive-wise it messes with your brain and emotions as well. I don’t understand why somebody thought humans were made to live on top of each other and not see the space or sun. I guess people are used to this because they’re used to capitalism. New York likes to be seen as the greatest city in the world whereas for me it’s the worst place to live. When I go back I don’t even remember what that city is anymore. It’s impossible for me to live there. That’s why a lot of people move to Los Angeles. That’s also why a lot of music made in New York is kind of short. The loops in rap beats are repetitive but in a way that is not dynamic for me and I think it has to do with the fact that when you wake up there’s always a wall right next to you.

Now, LA starts to be a little bit suffocating to me as well. The Rail Up parties that we did there became a thing. People were reaching out to us saying that we saved the city, that there’s finally an event with really nice people and that the queer community finally has a safe place to have fun. After that Los Angeles became saturated so we weren’t needed anymore. Everyone started playing the music that we were playing – people started to play baile funk and make edits. Everyone was becoming a DJ and if you were good on Instagram, you could skyrocket into the DJ world very quickly. That’s when I lost the love and naiveness. I enjoyed doing everything when I didn’t know anything – how DJs work, how bookings are made and so on.

That’s why I feel lucky whenever something like playing a festival in a distant country happens to me. I’m not here because I deserved it or because I worked hard. There’s plenty of people who work hard and they deserve much more because they’ve been doing something their whole life. I just did something and people started to like it but I also know that the reason I got booked is because I’m brown and I make reggaeton and they might feel guilty booking a white person who makes reggaeton. But there are lots of places that don’t care. There’s this festival in Mexico – they wanted to invite me one year which eventually didn’t happen so in the end all three headliners were white people doing reggaeton. And this is the reggaeton festival in Mexico!

You’re not only a DJ and producer but also a multimedia artist. How did you start working in that field?

My ex-wife’s mother told me one day that I’m simply not a worker and that I should be an artist. I thought she was crazy but she kept on telling me that I need to make films. Well, I thought this was simply impossible for me to do because I’d need a lot of money to shoot something. But one day I got myself a 16mm camera and I learnt how to use it. I got accepted to only one arts school out of all the ones I applied for but it turned out it to be best one. Its name is CalArts. However, after some time I started to hate it because it ruined my marriage. It was just too freeing, too liberating.

After I got divorced I thought to myself that I got nothing to lose. I didn’t have anything anymore, I didn’t have my equipment, no car. I literally just had my computer so I realized the only thing I can do is music and that’s how I switched to that.

You met Simone Trabucchi, head of Hundebiss Records, when he played Otras Obras [where Kelman previously worked] as Dracula Lewis. He told me that it was a strong friendship from the first instance. How did you take it from there to Simone releasing your debut album last year?

I disappeared for a while after that and he just found me on the Internet somewhere. Simone really liked the more abstract reggaeton stuff that I was doing. He enjoyed the straightforward reggaeton as well but he particularly liked this one song that’s really romantic and lyrics are also rather banal. One day he just told me that we should put this out. Obviously, I didn’t know what he was seeing in my music. I think he was also surprised how well the album was received and all the stuff that happened after its release.

That’s why I’m really excited about my second album because I kind of want to break free from that. I don’t want to make “6 De La Mañana” all the time. Sometimes I go to a party and that’s the title people start to scream and urge me to play it. I understand why people like it but I want to step away from that format and I want to make something deeper, something that I really thought about and not just recorded in three days. Of course in some of the songs from 1804 Kids there is a certain depth but in a lot of them it was literally just me finding something and then sitting on it for the next couple of days.

With this album I just sent a few tracks to Simone, that he didn’t really respond to, and then a week later I sent him a whole album. He told me he cried. He basically listened to the record twice and started crying. I thought that this is exactly what I should be doing then.

The title of 1804 Kids contains a strong reference to the Haitian Revolution. Do you feel a legacy towards those events?

I have a speculative theory that trauma gets passed down genetically, from generation to generation, so the answer to this question would be yes.

For me the 1804 reference is very lazy. There were journalists from New York that were very angry at me for making my album conceptual. They were accusing me of selling out a culture, saying that this album is not me, that I don’t have an idea what the year 1804 is about and that I don’t deserve to call a record that. To a certain extent I think they’re right, but for me 1804 Kids is about being a kid that learnt how to go to those house parties and be bad. Just a 7th grade kid being bad and feeling sexual. In Caribbean culture we become sexually active very early and that is because of the music.

I feel I inherited an unfair legacy, similarly to all people of colour. There’s a certain kind of trauma that will never be repaired. There are ways that you can do it and for me it was about learning my body again. I used to be a very cold and distant person, very quiet. I didn’t talk too much, I was always home at 10pm, never did drugs, never drank alcohol. I was thinking that I need to survive somehow in this world, I have to take care of my wife. When I lost everything I felt liberated but I needed to do bad things in order to understand that.

Using the year 1804 also refers to a special kind of rhythm. For example, if I wanted I could easily do a gqom track – I can just copy it on Ableton. But I cannot achieve the dirt and feeling that there is in those tracks. The same thing applies to reggaeton.

I think the reason why I wanted to reclaim something is the same as in the countries that have no history of reggaeton and oversexualized dancing – it’s about reclaiming our bodies and erotics. Chile has a big reggaeton scene, Mexico as well and those are catholic countries. People never danced together there and if they did it wasn’t in this kind of sexual way. I think that’s why a lot of people moved into reggaeton because they feel this is a way to express their sexuality and it can be ok. Because the music makes it ok.

I wanted to find some depth in my music because I didn’t really care about anything. In the USA they really care about politics but I don’t even want to live in this country so I didn’t want to engage in the political system. I wanted to have a purpose in my music so I decided that I wanted to contribute to Afro-Caribbean music specifically. But I do mean with this, music that doesn’t belong to America or to the Dominican Republic, because I can’t hide the fact that I’m basically from New York. That’s where I was raised, that’s where I got my education. I’m a Western-educated person. It’s a fact. There’s no way to escape that but there are ways to disrupt it. For me making music was about connecting with people right away instead of writing essays or being out in the streets handing out political slogans. And also it was a thing that literally made me happy.

Your new album 13th Month has a completely different format and style than the debut release. How would you say those two records differ from each other?

I think that the new album is actually personal. 1804 Kids is a beautiful album, I like it but I don’t listen to it. Almost never! I have this repulsive reaction to the conditions that it was made in. Every time I think of this album I think of myself in that room. I have an averse attitude to that record and maybe that’s why I don’t take it seriously.

Also, I don’t want to be a reggaeton kid so I decided to make it more difficult this time. There are in fact some tracks on 13th Month whose format is taken directly from 1804 Kids, for example the song with the TLC Fam sample is to begin with a kind of remake of “6 De La Mañana”. The last track on the debut album is as well a kind of preview of what is happening on 13th Month. This time I wanted people to invest more in the lyrics of reggaeton rather than the rhythm so that’s why the new record is more ambient. This way the lyrics come out stronger. 13th Month was also an album made with a purpose. I feel like I had a duty. I put myself in the situation where I had to respond to fans.

On 13th Month there are also some new inspirations in your music – namely gqom and kuduro. How did you end up implementing African influences into your tracks?

I think it comes from the same idea that I inherited something from the Haitian Revolution but there are no Haitian rhythms on the debut album and there are none of them on 13th Month either. With gqom it resulted from the fact that I was looking for a specific music that would sound like reggaeton when slowed down – and gqom does that and kuduro as well. What’s more, I wanted to get away from these melancholy synths that some people said sounded like techno or some other electronic music genre that I can’t remember now. I wanted to make the new album more rhythmic. My concept was to incorporate rhythms that were a little bit foreign to reggaeton. Also, there’s a track with AMAZONDOTCOM on the album and I wanted it to sound like a drum circle. In the future that’s kind of what I would like to make.

Gqom to me is like a post-apartheid music. Even though they don’t describe it like that, I think it comes out of apartheid. They have this low note in their music that’s really scary, it makes it sound like a movie sometimes. It makes you feel like something’s coming and for me it was instantly obvious that this totally comes from the state of being afraid.

So what’s next for Kelman Duran?

I don’t have any future releases planned right now but what I’d really like to do is to take the format of “RARA”, one of the tracks on 13th Month, and make a deeper connection to this heritage from Africa that we’ve inherited. Also, I don’t want to make reggaeton respected because I have a right to do it because I’m brown. As a genre I want it to be taken seriously.

13th Month will be released by Apocalipsis on November 27th.

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