Beat Construction: Matoma
This tropical house producer with a military background accidentally carried Biggie into the streaming age.
Tropical house, the lilting genre of electronic pop with a beachfront-friendly feel, has, over the past two years, leapt to Top 10 from not mentioned at all. (First there was the Robin Schulz 2014 remix of Mr. Probz's "Waves," then Felix Jaehn's 2015 remix of OMI's "Cheerleader,” Major Lazer’s "Lean On,” and Justin Bieber’s "What Do You Mean.")
Among the producers that tropical house has propelled to international renown—from Jaehn to Kygo to Thomas Jack, whose Soundcloud mix series was the source of the genre's name—Norway's Tom "Matoma" Lagergren is not yet the biggest star. But Matoma’s sound may perhaps best capture the warmth at the heart of the trend. His reworks of of well-worn songs by Will Smith and Tom Petty (as performed by John Mayer) draw out surprising emotional resonances from familiar material. And his remixes often incorporate classic ’90s hip-hop records in a way that shows a deep understanding of the source material.
Perhaps the best example of this trick is 2014's "Old Thing Back," Matoma's first proper hit, a remix of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "One More Chance" with additional (lifted) vocals from Ja Rule and Ralph Tresvant. First uploaded to Soundcloud, the record currently sits at the top of Biggie's songs chart on Spotify—no doubt to the consternation of some traditionalists, but even in its beachy reinterpretation a reminder of Biggie’s lasting power and cultural relevance.
Since that song's success, Matoma released a debut solo album via Atlantic’s Big Beat label and produced a stateside single for Jason Derulo and Jennifer Lopez. Speaking with a slight accent over the phone from Philadelphia, where he was headlining a U.S. tour titled Living The Dream, he said that he’s since been working on new original songs with major pop artists, but wouldn’t name names.
What kind of music did you listen to as a child?
All types of music. I listened to pop, I listened to rock, I listened to classical. I listened to hip-hop. Hip-hop was probably the genre I listened to the most, because my brother was really inspired [by] and listened to a lot of old school hip-hop. When I was six years old, after hearing Biggie beats and 2Pac and Snoop and Warren G, I was sold.
How did you start producing?
I started when I was 16. It was really really basic. I just bought myself a laptop and started mixing and doing sample[-based] stuff. But after I was in the military, I decided to apply for music school at the university. So I [got] a bachelor’s degree in musical production. During that period, I fell more in love with the production side, and the technology behind the production. I became really interested in how sound behaves in nature. When I wrote my thesis, I was a little tired of all the reading and all the studying, so in my spare time I did remixes. I was a resident DJ, at the club Society. I played my remixes there. And then I put up some music on Soundcloud, and my fan base grew, my listeners got more and more—I think it was just my friends that started spreading my music and their friends spread the music further. And now I have 185,000 followers just on Soundcloud.
When you were 16, were you making dance records?
I think I was making bad music, trying to just create something. It was very pop-inspired, piano, urban R&B. But it went in the trash can right away. This was eight years ago.
Then you went into the military.
I was in the military for one and a half years. In Norway at that point, we had mandatory service for the kids that scored well on their tests. I decided to stay a little longer, but then I got sick so I [was] discharged, and I decided when I was laying in the hospital to pursue my dream of becoming a music producer. And from that moment I started DJing.
What was the club like, where you were the resident DJ?
It was like the student club in Trondheim. I played house music, techno, deep house, nu disco. I always tried to—at the Society, they had different clubs, because it was so big. They had a lounge club, a house club, a pub. At the pub I had to play more rock music and more commercialized radio music. At the lounge I played more nu disco, Ibiza tracks. And at the house club I played more nightclub tracks. So I just tried to adapt and become a better DJ, reading the crowd so every set was different. I didn't play my own stuff until really really late in [my time there]. The last few months, because I just wanted to play good records. I wanted to develop and become better.
You've done a lot of hip-hop remixes, which isn’t common among producers doing your style.
The kids these days don't know about the old school music. I just wanted to create something that maybe could [lead kids to] discover the door to old school music. If you go on Biggie's page on Spotify, "Old Thing Back," my [remix], is Biggie's most played song. But when that track got released, "Juicy" was number one on his page with 32 million plays. Since "Old Thing Back" got released and has been so popular, his other songs have also increased a lot. You see his page has been boosted by that song. I'm really glad that happened.
Biggie’s translates really well. It sounds good over almost anything. What do you look for when you're remixing a rapper?
The passion of voice, their flow. When you pick up a track and you hear Biggie’s voice, you know immediately that it's him. Because he raps in a certain way. Same with 2Pac. He had his own style. And I think it's the same as Jay Z too. There's a few rappers who have that unique sound that nobody else has. And also Biggie raps with swing a lot—his flow is just incredible. And tropical house as you call it—I call it more nu-hip-hop, nu-disco—that also has swing in it. So it's a perfect combination. People want to dance! When people hear those songs, people start to groove. The old school hip-hop, when you listen to that, you can't sit still because the beats are so groovy. They have a lot of influence from funk, from soul, from R&B.
When you’re producing, how do you go about making a record? What equipment do you use?
I'm actually really simple. I use MacBook Pro and I use Cubase as a software. I have some powerful plug-ins and tools, synthesizers and plug-ins to make the sound quality sound better. When I'm in the studio, we use recording studio stuff, the record companies or the labels or the publishing provides that. I have a big, big sample library that I recorded during my years at the university. I have over two terabytes with just samples from all kinds of sounds. From drums, to steps, to shouts, to car noises, to shots, to whistles—everything you can imagine. I always had a hand recorder that I brought with me and if I heard a sound, I recorded it. I tried to be inundated with my sounds.
What about your style distinguishes you from other tropical—or nu-disco—producers?
It’s hard to explain that. I think I'm really picky. I want everything to sound perfect. My ideas come quickly. I can be finished with a track in one day. But then I will close the project, I will look at it again in a few days, and start refining and polishing the track to make it sound like a diamond. I will also always respect acoustic elements like piano, guitar, and vocals. I always try to build around that. I think my production has heart to it.
When you were forming your own sound, who were some of the artists you were inspired by?
I really like folk music from Norway, Edvard Grieg and the national romantic music from back in the days. Thomas Jack, I listen to him. I also like a Swedish guy called Oliver Nelson, who does disco music. But it's hard to know where you get inspiration from, because you get inspiration every single day. One thing I really don't like with how the industry is going is—if you've grown up with Marvin Gaye, and you've been listening to him from when you were a kid, and then you become an artist yourself, of course you will make music that has that sound. Because you've been listening to that and that defines who you are! So when people start suing you—it's scary. People can sue you for a drum sample, or for using a song that sounds the same as a song from the '70s did. There's a creative process going on. Of course if something sounds totally the same, and it sounds like they just ripped it off, then I can understand. But [generally], I think it's wrong. Music is feelings, it's heart, it's love. I hope that the music industry doesn't become like a money factory. Everyone trying to make as much money as possible.
Everyone suing everybody?
Yeah. Taylor Swift is really really talented, and I'm really happy that she has her success or something. I read an article that she makes $1 million a day, or something like that. When you're an artist and you make $1 million a day, then you know how much money there is in the music industry. One million dollars a day! But there's not many people that can make one million dollars a day. Like how Sony and Universal treat Soundcloud, for example, shutting down every remix, every bootleg. It's just—it's not nice. I have a lot of friends who have been banned from Soundcloud because they did a remix of a famous song and Sony shut it down. [My label] Warner has a really good policy with Soundcloud—they’re always trying to get their music remixed and put out on Soundcloud.
Can you tell me a little bit about your new music?
I've been working eight months right now. Probably making 40, 45 songs. They're not all finished. I'm talking with the label, finding out what's best for me to take it to the next level—getting artists to sing on it, being in the studio working on collaborations and stuff. When I was sitting in my bedroom producing music, I could just create remixes and put it out right away and get feedback from people. But now we're a team that works day and night to accomplish original music, not remixes. Making tracks from nothing, that takes a little more time. If you want to have an artist to sing on a track, there's deals that have to be made, there's publishing. It’s a long process. But it's totally worth it, and it makes it special. I'm really confident I will touch people with the music I'm releasing soon. I think successful artists, over time, appreciate every moment in their career. If they played for 10 people or they played for 50,000. It doesn't matter as long as you have touched the people you play for.