- Words Ben Broyd
Dominican-born, musically driven, Kelman Duran on his distinctive sound, studio time with Kanye West, and musical education across the world.
So, you’re born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in New York City, lived in LA and now currently based in London. How has living in such a variety of different locations influenced your musical style?
There’s definitely been a change, I guess the most recent one I could talk about are the changes to the UK, just because there’s such a rich tradition, and the Caribbean influence here is incredible, I felt like audiences were very understanding. I’ve definitely been influenced by more drum and bass music since I’ve been here. I always started with the harmony first, before I didn’t even add drums, whereas when I came here, I started focusing more on drums, it’s such a different process, but it’s also really fun.
What are some bodies of work that you feel have inspired your sound?
Honestly, it’s going to the club and just listening to DJs here. I really like OK Williams, I really like Lil C, I listen to a lot of NTS, and I listen to a lot of music from Manchester where they’re starting to do performance experimental stuff.
You graduated from the prestigious LaGuardia High School with Nicki Minaj also in your class, that’s pretty crazy. How motivating was it at this stage of your career to be surrounded by such talented musicians?
Not at all. I played jazz in high school, and I guess I should have been more grateful that I was a jazz guitarist and one of the few in that school because they literally only accept one a year. I didn’t really like the culture of music at that time, it wasn’t really until I started going to the clubs and I started feeling like I was part of a community. Just because a lot of decisions, for better or worse, are apolitical, a lot of them are just trying to survive with gigs, especially Jazz musicians. So, I was like, fuck this, dude. I’m not doing shows for $100 a day, just playing a guitar, you know. That’s fucking boring.
What was the turning point then? When did you change your mind on music?
I think when I went to college, I went back to my neighbourhood in Washington Heights and I started a rap group with my friends, I made the beats and they rapped. When I came to LA, that’s when I started actually playing out, and then I feel when I moved to Europe that’s when I finally started to get a hang of being a DJ, I learned a good compromise between playing my own stuff and making people dance.
Did you move to LA to pursue a musical career?
No, no. I was going to art school there. That just happened because of the Rail Up parties that DJ Samantha Blake Goodman and Foreigner used to throw, so it kind of happened naturally there. So, I started making music when I was playing in the clubs there.
In your music, you promote the sounds from the Caribbean, how does it feel to be promoting your heritage on the public stage?
I mean, when I talk about it, yes, but sometimes I’m not so concerned with it, because I feel like with a lot of artists, you have to listen to them more than once to really understand what they’re doing. Like you can go to a party and you can really enjoy it, but you’ve really got to sit down and listen to the artist’s catalogue. But recently I’ve been making more soundscapes. Yes, some people don’t like it because there’s no beats anymore, but that’s the way it’s going for now.
From what I’ve read, for you, music is all about self-expression and feeling good, to leave all the noise behind and just immerse yourself in the music. How important is it to have that kind of outlet?
I think it works for me because I just have a laptop, but for some people, they can only produce in the studio and have to be around people, I got to be by myself, I can’t really make beats around people. Just because I feel like it’s rude if I’m not paying attention to someone. Or if you’re just hanging out with people, you’re just on your computer, it looks quite rude. But I also have to have time and space to be alone, because I feel like naturally people get self-conscious, so you don’t try certain things when around people.
What advice would you give to others to help them embrace a similar outlook?
Fuck. I don’t know if I’m the person to be giving advice. I have pretty bad habits when it comes to making music to tell you the truth, so I can’t really promote that to anyone else. But I feel like you just have to spend a lot of time. I feel like you shouldn’t really worry about trying to make something good. I think it’s best just to put it out and let people figure it out for you. I feel like a lot of times artists are very like ‘No it’s my work. This is my self-expression, it needs to come out when I want it to come out’, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. For me, I feel like the more stuff I put out the more people respond to it.
As an individual you’re very politically conscious. Do you feel like your beliefs manifest themselves within your music? Do you actively try and try and get these political views into your music?
I actively try to reference them, but is my work social practice? No. It’s just music. I’m not really making a change on the dance floor, except for hopefully a good night out.
You say that though, but I think obviously music can have quite an impact.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. It definitely can. But I haven’t really put out a project where I’m like, this is exactly what I’m speaking about. I’m still figuring out what I want to speak about, and I feel like this next album that I’ve finished, I feel like I’m finally getting there a little bit.
How important do you think it is for musicians to be politically aware?
Oh, I think being aware is enough, I think just being conscious of it. I mean, my thing is, as long as I’m not one of those people like, ‘oh, you can’t sit at the table if you have a different colour of skin’, that’s not really how I roll. As long as people are polite, I’m pretty chill. But my problem is when people have this political image on the internet, and then they go and do a show sponsored by the Sackler family or something, you know. I get you need to pay bills, I know it’s more complicated than that, and obviously we all play in countries that have terrible governments, but that’s the only real time when it bothers me.
Do you think musicians have a responsibility to educate and lead others through music?
Oh, yeah. But I feel like educators do that better than us. I think really it starts at school. I think the club is a different school, but I don’t necessarily know if we have that much dedication, unless that’s your practice.
But I think more people are listening to music, rather than teachers?
See that is true, but I think the way it’s going, the industry is going to promote a lot more trash than teach. So, it’s always going to be drowned out to a certain extent, but who knows? I mean, there’s so many ways to access music.
Yeah, of course. Your sound and your musical style has been referred to as “ghostly reggaeton”. How do you take this, do you like this label?
Yeah, I don’t mind it. I understand it but I mean, if I could put it into a genre it’d just be Caribbean music because I feel like a lot of those terms are just used for marketing, which I don’t mind, it’s how websites sell products. But, I mean, I like it better than some of the terms, but I don’t really want to see it. I don’t pay attention.
Okay, that’s fair enough. In your second album ’13 Months’, the first two tracks run for 11 and 14 minutes. What’s the creative process behind creating these kinds of tracks?
They were supposed to be like not small mixes inside an album, but I mostly made them for dancers, for contemporary dancers, that’s what I had in mind. Just because I’ve been seeing dance shows and I saw the way the DJs made dance music was a lot longer and a lot more drawn out and a lot more buried. So, I wanted to do that. But it was actually the first time I started really digging larger soundscapes, instead of just making beats, you know? It’s pretty simple.
In 2021 you played the Boiler Room, which is huge – congratulations for that. What was it like to play such a high-profile event?
The first one I did in LA I was really nervous. And I totally forgot that Boiler Rooms film, so I was pretty fucked. The second one, I remember I didn’t even drink a beer and I still had a great time. Yeah, I really, really enjoyed it, because I made it a point to really memorise this and really practice it. It was awesome, it was at Elephant and Castle, which has like a big quote unquote, Black community, like I saw people I’ve never seen in London, and there was barely anyone that spoke English, I remember people going around asking “how do you say guestlist in Spanish?” and I was just like … “what, why?” because there were some people that were meant to be on the guestlist, but they didn’t know what to say, so that was really kind of cool.
Is that the most prepared you’ve ever been for a set then you think?
Yeah, yeah, because I was really nervous, you know? Because I play on a laptop, the first Boiler Room the people went in on me, you know, they were like, ‘this guy’s not a DJ he’s playing on a laptop’, so it was kind of hard for people to figure out what I was doing, and then slowly people realise I was playing live on Ableton, so they were able to give me a bit more respect.
So, they learned from the past time when they saw you the second time, they knew what you were actually doing?
Yeah, exactly, and there’s people asking you for track ID’s and we’re responding like oh, no, these are edits, so then people got it.
You started your own label, Scorpio Red, what’s the end goal for the company?
I have so many friends that make music who don’t believe they make music, and it’s actually really good. And I figured it was easy enough, just to let it do what it does. Hopefully print some vinyl’s, but also to start a night in London.
That’s wicked. What would you say your biggest achievements are throughout your musical career so far? Say like, in 20 years’ time when you look back, what’s going to make you say, ‘yeah, that was cool’?
To say the truth, I think it was probably the parties in LA, because that’s when I really started playing. It started with 20 people, and by the end, we had like, red wine, and 40 grand given to us after the show, so that was crazy. I mean, it’s just surprising. Like you think it’s hard to throw a party, but it’s not that hard. I feel like in LA things appear and then disappear. It’s really crazy, like the city could be amazing for two years and then you don’t hear shit for a while, but I feel like that time was really special, and a lot of DJs came out of that scene. My biggest achievement would be if I could somehow make a living off this instead of struggling. That’s the only thing I would be proud of.
I also met Kanye once. He wrote to me on Instagram and flew me out for a couple days.
You hung out with Kanye?
Yeah, but he wanted me to do some work.
That’s still a crazy experience in itself though…
Yeah, of course, because he’s my favourite producer, and for someone to call you and tell you what they think you’re doing is special is incredible, whether it worked out or not, it didn’t really bother me. So that was a big experience for me, and also just being in the studio with all those people, the fact that they actually really liked things that are different, it was almost like show and tell, they’re kind of curious about what everybody else is doing, it was really cute in this weird way.
That’s so cool, I love that, I would have been there taking notes all the time.
Yeah, and I got to listen to other people’s albums that still haven’t come out yet, and I noticed that these people were like musicians you know, their persona has nothing to do with actually their work. Same thing for Kanye as well, he’s very easy going, very positive.
When we close at the end of this year, what would you like to achieve so you can step back and say, ‘Yeah, that was a good year’?
I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter to me to tell you the truth. Every year is different, especially now the way things are going. I was a bit hopeful before COVID, but I feel like even now everything around the world is still closing. The governments are just like ‘Oh right, good time to close this community down.’ It’s been happening in a lot of countries. A lot of my friends have told me they’re not DJing anymore.
What if everything does shut down again once more? What’s the plan this year, just studio time?
Yeah, always, yeah. I think my goal for this year is to work with some artists who haven’t put out music, who are doing really good things in the UK, but since I’m here and my partner’s here, it’s more meaningful if you can see the person be with them instead of being stuck at work. Right now, we would like to do more releases from some artists and put on more music than before so I’m excited about that.