Kelman Duran Puts a Ghostly Spin on Reggaeton
It should have been a celebratory homecoming for Kelman Duran. Born in the tiny village of La Ermita in the countryside of the Dominican Republic, Duran had since traveled the world as an in-demand hip-hop and reggaeton party-starter. He was returning to play a celebratory 2017 New Years Eve show in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial — there was just one problem. “My music didn’t connect with them at all — and I was playing reggaeton!” Duran, 34, tells Rolling Stone, punctuating his quote with a drag on a Camel Crush Menthol. “I could hear people in the audience asking: ‘What is this?’ They couldn’t wait for that techno to come on.”
Luckily for him, Duran’s hazy, often harrowing take on reggaeton and other Afro-Caribbean sounds regularly draws enthusiastic crowds in New York, Europe and Los Angeles, where he’s lived on and off since 2009. His first album, 2017’s 1804 Kids, was a speedball of chirpy vocal samples and screwed-down riddims that caught the ears of adventurous DJs from Demdike Stare to Equiknoxx.
His follow-up, 13th Month, reveals a more ambitious and compositional side to the producer. On it, Duran pushes festive, raucous sounds from the African and Afro-Caribbean diasporas — reggaeton, dancehall, gqom, kuduro, and hip-hop — into a more fraught and phantasmal space. Imagine Burial hailing from New York’s uptown melting pot, and you have an idea of Duran’s brooding sound.
Like Burial, he uses samples in a cagey manner, so that at one particularly crushing moment on the new album, Duran utilizes the voices of the Notorious B.I.G. and indigenous elder and activist Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail (whom you may recall from a viral video of her telling off a journalist at a press conference). “I wanted to make a connection between people in the ghetto and people on the reservation because of the crazy suicide rate,” Duran says. The tracks bring together two different aspects of Duran’s art: Biggie’s Ready to Die was the first album he ever heard (“That album still has a very strong desperation in it, which I connect to”), and as a filmmaker he’s been working on a long-term video project about life among the Lakota Indians of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation called To The North.
Duran came to the States when he was five years old, relocating from his rural hometown to a bustling Washington Heights circa 1989, near the height of the crack epidemic. “Back then, 163rd [Street] and St. Nicholas [Avenue] was like the Wild West,” he says. “At some point we moved from 163rd to 188th, and it was like a new city. The drug dealers there kept it safe. They told the kids they didn’t want any petty crime.”
Duran picked up a guitar early on, but soon switched to playing bass in the band at La Guardia High School (widely known as the Fame school), where he graduated the same year as Nicki Minaj. At school, he was forced to only play classical music, and as a teen of Afro-Caribbean heritage, Duran bristled at the western canon. Then he came across heavyweight Russian composers like Pyotr Tchaikovsky, whose sense of scale and minor keys have helped inspire his current productions. When one of his teachers caught him listening to Nas’ “New York State of Mind,” he informed the young Duran about sampling, opening up a whole new world for him.
Duran moved out west for graduate studies at Cal Arts, and after a few years bouncing between New York and Tijuana, he became an integral part of Los Angeles’ underground Afro-diasporic Rail Up party, which came to an end a year ago, coinciding with Duran’s change of approach to his own music. “I was tired of people booking me just because there was an opening for an artist of color, or they needed a Latinx to fill in the roster,” he says. “Maybe it’s egotistical, but I just wanted people to listen to my stuff.”
Duran made 1804 Kids in the span of a week, but wanted to spend more time on 13th Month. “I told myself I would put a full year into it,” he says. He worked at night in his studio in the Fashion District of downtown L.A., in a part of the city where produce trucks rumble and beep all night. “I would usually record during a full moon,” he says. “I learned from being on the reservation that certain moons meant different things. It’s subjective, but the full moon gave a different energy.”
His time spent on the reservation also imparted its own darkness. “On Pine Ridge, their water has uranium in it, so it’s worse than the oil [at Standing Rock],” he says. “The life expectancy for men there is 42. After two weeks there, goddamn, I have to leave, it’s so heavy emotionally.”
This year, Duran is looking forward to more gigs and new music. “Some people say that [my work] sounds melancholy,” he says. “I don’t know what that means. It’s not any darker than where I am now. I feel good when I’m making this music.”