There's more to this producer than ambient reggaeton, as Max Pearl learns when they meet up in Queens.
"That night I played the acapella from 'Suicidal Thoughts' by Biggie Smalls," he says—a bitter, nihilistic song that ends with Biggie taking his own life—"and I remember the impact it had on the room. The crowd was just looking at me, like, 'Why are you playing this in the club? And why is it an acapella?'"
So you could say Duran's approach to performing came about by accident. When he plays he stands completely still behind his laptop—no MIDI controller, not even a mouse, just the trackpad—pairing loops to make on-the-fly ambient edits of the Caribbean music he grew up with. It's incredibly moving, the way the vocals take on a new energy with the shift in context, and though it may it sound like a gimmick, it clicks so comfortably that they don't even sound like edits. By submerging dancehall and reggaeton in a warm bubble bath of ambient tones, he highlights the resonances between two musical modes that can be tough to reconcile: party music and the transcendent.
"I started making reggaeton because I missed New York," says Duran, who's been living on-and-off in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, bouncing between teaching jobs, graduate schools and art residencies, where he makes experimental films. Born in the Dominican Republic, in the lush, isolated village of La Ermita, he immigrated to live with his mom in Manhattan at age five. "I used to wander by myself for miles back in the DR," he tells me, spending days jumping in rivers and rolling around in the mud, totally unsupervised. His family lived so deep into the island that, when he came home one afternoon with a skin-eating staph infection, they had trouble finding a nurse who could treat it.
They moved to 163rd Street and Broadway in Washington Heights, a Dominican neighborhood north of Harlem, in the late '80s. It was a tough time for New York—the tail-end of a crack epidemic that hit especially hard in the Heights and Harlem. "It was a warzone," Duran says. "I remember fights in the streets, police breaking down doors. It was shocking, coming from the countryside, from this beautiful place where I didn't even know about poverty."