Born in the Dominican, Kelman Duran was raised in Washington Heights. But it’s in Los Angeles where he’s become a vital figure working at the crossroads of different artistic mediums. As a visual artist, he’s directed and produced several short films, as well as a long-term project with the Oglala Lakota communities in South Dakota. As a DJ and producer, he’s been a fixture in the Los Angeles’ warehouse party scene, as well as part of the now defunct Rail Up collective, where he championed Afro-Caribbean sounds in L.A.
It was only in the mid-2010s when his passion for music became something more. That’s when the late Nacho Nava started frequently booking him at Mustache Mondays – a breeding ground for many L.A. artists and crews in the last decade such as Total Freedom, Fade to Mind, Kelela, Maluca, and also a variety of dance, performance, and visual artists in the LGBTQ community and beyond.
Drawing from rarely fused influences, Duran’s music has immensely enriched and redefined the sonic vocabulary of dance music over the last half decade – an impact that still remains little acknowledged. If the producer’s albums 1804 KIDS (released by Hundebiss in 2017) and 13th Month (released by Apocalipsis in 2018) are his most publicly known works, they overshadow a long list of self-released mixtapes, which sometimes lack the full development of an album but be more stylistically raw and experimental, like 2PAC (2015), Moon Cycles I (2017), and They Are Afraid of Her (2018). For those who missed out, Duran recently made his prolific output of the last decade available as 25 Mixtapes (2012–2020), the 000 catalog number of his new imprint Scorpio Red Records.
Duran’s musical process stems from a strong and honest creative ethic. His perspective reveals a politically conscious disillusion with the art world, the music industry, and their inherent ties to racial capitalism. Making music is for him first and foremost about self-expression and feeling good. Duran’s music inhabits and brings together very different musical worlds. His approach is extremely personal, and that is essentially why it is hard to describe with words, other than resorting to the limiting figure of the “patchwork,” commonly identifying influences like Dembow, Footwork, Ambient, Rap and Afro-Diasporic sounds, or practices like sampling, remixing, digital digging and Ableton as the DNA of his style, but missing everything about its singularity
This conversation from 2019 took place in East Los Angeles, at our mutual friend David’s house. Among various things, we talked about the importance of Afro-Caribbean sonic culture, and what it means for an artist today to engage with these sounds in places where that culture has spread, whether in L.A. or in London. We also discussed the high profile artists that have at times requested his services. Published as an interview, this conversation is a chance to celebrate the significance of the work of the elusive producer. Kelman Duran released a new project in September 2021 titled Night in Tijuana on Scorpio Red Records, his own imprint which he co-runs with Annie Mackinnon (Ans M) from the U.K. – Samuel Lamontagne
You were born in Dominican Republic but grew up in NYC. So what brought you to L.A?
Kelman Duran: Yes but right before moving to L.A I lived in Korea. One day a friend was just like ‘Quit your job, be an artist’. It put me on the path of making a movie. It was just a movie… Then I applied to school. And I got accepted to CalArts.
So art studies brought you to L.A. At what point did you start working on music?
Kelman Duran: I finished film school and I started making music again in 2015. But I made music ever since I was a kid.
How did you get to what you do now – music rooted in dem bow and reggaeton?
Kelman Duran: To be honest I think back then I was a bit more naive. I was just happy to be DJing, which I think was great. And then at a certain point I realized what I was doing and I told myself I need to quit all my jobs and just make music. I don’t know if it was a good choice. But I’m happy with what I’ve made so far. It’s a conscious decision at this point.
Through your music but also the Rail Up party that you were doing you’ve been able to push Caribbean sounds in L.A, where Caribbean people and culture are not really prevalent.
Kelman Duran: Every scene is different and I feel that in L.A people are happy that I’m doing okay. But I realized that there’s other places in the world where people really care about that culture. Like in London for example, they’re really about it. I feel like that’s the place where people – it’s hard to contextualize this – but London is the place where people understand what I’m doing the most. And in L.A it’s like ‘Yeah Rail Up was a dope party for 2 years’ – ‘Pat on the back’ – ‘Good job’. And it sounds fucked up because I love L.A. But in other places, people care about what I do, even more than I do. Europe especially. But I think historically it’s always been the case with American artists.
So what were the motivations with Rail Up?
Kelman Duran: Samantha [Blake Goodman] started Rail Up. She grew up in Puerto Rico and Brazil. She wanted to make parties where people danced and she just invited me to play. But I’m not really calculative so I wasn’t like ‘Alright this is what I’m doing, and I’m going to push this Caribbean sound’. Plus I was pretty high back then. But after a while I realized that we were throwing a party that people cared about and I guess it was a thing. But also I wasn’t trying to stay. I don’t think I ever stayed for a whole party.
You were playing Mustache Mondays a lot back then too.
Kelman Duran: I feel like after I played Mustache people started taking me seriously because they respected this night. I think the queer scene anywhere is always where people take risks. Nacho [Nava] would always book me. He kind of made it his business to help me out. And it’s nice being accepted in that community. Mustache was a culture and Nacho was responsible for that. If he liked you, he would put you on. He was one of the few promoters to be honest. He was also one of the few to just ask you ‘How are you doing?’. Maybe this is me being emo but I feel that after he passed, there was a huge void, and less of a reason to do anything.
I know that you’re pretty politically conscious. How does that play in your music?
Kelman Duran: [Laughs] I don’t want to be negative but I don’t think music has that much agency. I do it because it’s personal, and because it feels good. I can be as political as I want but when I put something out I’m not really in control of it. People can say what it’s about and what it’s not about. But I also don’t put it on music like ‘Oh this is what I’m doing’. A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but I don’t have a message. It’s more interesting to hear what people have to say about it afterwards.
Your music is rooted in Afro-Caribbean dance music, but seems to be labeled as electronic dance music, and associated to a white audience. How do you feel about that?
Kelman Duran: You’re totally right. I’ve never played in Puerto Rico. My worst show has been in Dominican Republic. But I think that has more to do with the political landscape of those countries because they want to be European so bad. But yeah Europe is where people are the most receptive to my music. But also like I said, in London, Caribbean culture is big. You can see white boys driving by, listening to Tommy Lee Sparta or Vybz Kartel. And it’s not like here where we’d be ‘Oh this person is a poser’. It’s kind of integrated. It just has to do with the music, like jungle music or even grime – it’s all rooted in Caribbean culture.
Being Dominican and making reggaeton-influenced music, you’re able to connect to the UK-Caribbean sound culture.
Kelman Duran: Yeah, but I think that if I didn’t live in Los Angeles, like if I was Dominican Dominican and I didn’t speak English, I’d get less shows. Like if I lived in Dominican Republic and I wasn’t American and didn’t go to art school, I’d definitively get less shows, for sure.
Your music has been put under the ‘Global Bass’ category. How do you feel about that term?
Kelman Duran: No. I don’t know where that term comes from. I know what it sounds like. Nothing is global, I’m sorry. Everything has its own thing, its own language. I like Spanish reggaeton that comes from Barcelona. I’m not going to be like ‘This is terrible’. As long as they understand what is going on, and I feel like a lot of them do. Plus I really can’t stop someone from trying to make money.
Your music has been compared to Burial, people refer to it as ‘ghostly reggaeton’. How do you feel about the comparison?
Kelman Duran: It’s nice, to tell you the truth. I love Burial. But I think the reason people do that, it’s when they want to sell the record. I don’t think it has that much to do with the music. I mean I can see how the format makes sense because he samples, I sample. It’s kind of heady I guess but… I don’t know if Burial would even sample reggaeton. But this is fine I get it.
You’ve been solicited by high-profile artists to produce for them. How do you negotiate that when that happens?
Kelman Duran: I want to do more of it. My favorite one I did is for Florentino, it’s a MC Bin Laden remix. He asked me to do a remix. His version is a baile funk track but I just kind of wanted to make a fast club track with congas. It’s much faster than the original. I didn’t listen to the original when I made it. It’s for Mixpak Records, a label in Brooklyn. They kind of always supported me from the beginning. Or I told you about this, Rosalía asked me to be her DJ.
I also worked with Kanye. I got a message from his team like ‘he wants to hang out, he thinks your ideas are interesting’. I made ambient beats. That’s what I sent them. And then one day they were like ‘Come to Chicago’. They played my beats in the studio and people were down. It was special, it was like Mike Dean, Ty Dolla $ign, Kanye… They listened to all the tracks and were like ‘Wow this is fucking dope,’ no drums, no beats. So I realized they actually cared about music beyond the industry shit they have going on. It kind of humbled me. Like Ty Dolla $ign played me his album and it was insane.
What is the direction of the project you’ve been working on lately?
Kelman Duran: It’s basically a very slow album of covers that I’m singing on because I recently discovered auto-tune. So it’s like 4 or 5 songs that are covers. I basically take one phrase and I repeat it. It might be boring. It’s super emo.
Are there interactions between your music and other projects in different mediums? Because you’re also a visual artist.
Kelman Duran: They’re totally separate. But to tell you the truth, it’s the same approach. I don’t think about it much. I just do it, I put it out. I don’t have this big overarching message. I don’t really calculate. Artists are usually very motivated and task-oriented, and I’m really not like that. With my project on the Indian reservation in South Dakota, I just drove there. It’s just diaries, I have friends there, I’m lucky to be there. I turn on the camera sometimes, and sometimes I don’t… I’m here ‘Cool,’ if I’m not here ‘It’s fine’.