Tom Straete didn’t get into remixing hits simply as an easy way to rack up SoundCloud plays. The man behind Matoma was raised in Norway on a steady diet of classic rap, earned a degree in music, and applied that knowledge to pinpoint a congruency between house, disco, and hip hop–one that he uses to his advantage in each of his streetwise tropical house productions. But when one of his warm, playful fusions reached nearly 7 million plays on SoundCloud, it resulted in an unprecedented move for dance music staple Big Beat, crowned another unlikely hero of the booming new sound, and revealed the grand potential for Atlantic Records to help bring more of it to the masses.
The classically trained Straete recognized early on that most hip hop has considerable swing, much like nu disco and the relatively newer tropical house style, making them fundamentally compatible. He tested his hypothesis successfully on an acapella of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West and followed that by turning to hip hop, which had an enormous impact on his music taste since being introduced by his brother at the age of eight. After posting a handful of bootlegs from Bone Thugs n Harmony to Wiz Khalifa, he went in search of something by his all-time favorite, hip hop hero The Notorious B.I.G, and came across the acapella for Want That Old Thing Back. He deciphered the melody of the vocal itself and wrote his own instrumental using Biggie’s lyrics as inspiration, but he had no idea the result would be his fateful breakthrough hit.
“At the time, I didn’t think the track was so special,” he said.
The music world begs to differ. Senior Director of A&R at Warner Music Group Ian Hunter fell immediately in love, and he saw his sentiments echoed millions of times over in the track’s play count, now approaching a staggering 7 million.
“You see remixes of Biggie all the time that pop up on the Hype Machine and on the Internet, but with this one, the reaction was so much stronger.”
Hunter brought the tune to the attention of Gina Tucci, head of A&R at Big Beat Records, WMG’s dance music specialty label under Atlantic.
“It just feels good when you listen to it,” Tucci said. “I was like, ‘there is no way I am letting anyone else sign this. I have to have this record.'”
When Atlantic reached out to him initially, they planned to make the tune an official remix.
“I just sat down in my apartment and started crying,” Straete said. “It was so huge because The Notorious B.I.G. has been, like, the biggest influence for me in music.”
While the idea of having his name on an official remix of his childhood hero had him more than a bit choked up, nothing could prepare him for the reality of seeing “Matoma & The Notorious B.I.G.” on a legitimate release. A month later, they informed him of their plans to make it an official, standalone single.
“So, imagine when I got the email that said, ‘no, we want to make it an official single instead.’ I just went mental.”
A mashup in its own right, the original Want That Old Thing Back came out in ’07 on Biggie’s posthumous Greatest Hits album, combining his lyrics from One More Chance with a new verse from Ja Rule and a hook by Ralph Tresvant. But when Big Beat began the standard process of licensing the late lyricist’s samples for the Matoma single, they discovered something very interesting: They already own it. Big Beat and its parent company Atlantic Records belong to America’s largest music conglomerate, Warner Music Group, who happened to acquire a 50 percent stake in P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records in 2005, and with it came the rights to the original song used in Matoma’s Internet-breaking bootleg.
“It dawned on me that Atlantic Records has such a deep catalog of these releases, and when I heard this, I was like ‘oh, my gosh,’ because it felt like such a good marriage for Big Beat… it just felt right,” Tucci said.
With virtually no effort spent licensing the sample, Big Beat signed a previously released bootleg for the first time in its 27-year history, and a staggeringly popular one at that. While they’ll know more after the track’s Feb. 17 release, Tucci and Hunter both expressed excitement for what the future could hold for Big Beat in the G house and similar bootleg realms with access to such an unmatched library of classic hip hop. In theory, Atlantic with its extensive back catalog could set the tone for a new era of major labels rewarding the Internet’s wealth of bootleg talent with something historically peculiar: money.
The advent of digital production tools, music blogs, and DIY social media promotion have blazed broad new trails to lead the talented producer to dance music notoriety, as has been the case for the greater part of the North American dance explosion throughout the ’10s. Scene influencers like Big Beat are now fully embracing these avenues as primary talent streams and positioning themselves as the pot of gold at the end of the previously disappointing web virality rainbow.
“It’s made it so exciting, because you can reach a lot more a lot quicker,” Tucci said. “I’m so thankful for all these producers posting things up on SoundCloud–if they can’t get their hands on original songs, they’re taking vocals and putting their flips on it–because it just shows you the evolution of music, and it’s nothing but exciting… so much more than just getting an MP3 in your inbox from someone who found your email.”
While tropical house continues to gain steam with major label deals going to a handful of its top artists including SNBRN and his Ultra debut earlier this year, nobody seems to be able to combine it with gangster rap quite like Matoma.
“It’s just interesting for me that with this whole tropical house thing that he’s chosen to do lots of remixes of hip hop, and they’re so well received,” Tucci said.
Matoma and an overwhelming majority of his tropical house peers craft their warm, beach-ready tunes in some of the coldest climates on Earth. But when asked about this curious, counterintuitive trend, Straete explained by pointing out the extreme contrast between seasons in Norway–from -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to nearly 100 in the summer.
“We always look forward to the summer. In the springtime, we always prepare ourselves for the summer. We’re watching surf movies and playing tropical music, because we have the huge difference between winter and summer, so I think the contrast there is really nice.”
But Matoma has no plans to restrict himself to the sound that made him famous, although he’s keeping in mind his fans who adore the vibes he’s cultivated thus far.
“I’m making all types of music. I’m trying to adapt, but with a smooth transition so people don’t get shocked… Actually, I make all kinds of music. That’s the best thing about having the opportunity to go on tour, because my sets are like a roller coaster. I stay in the general tropical, but I play in all different types of tempo.”
Matoma promises a lot of unreleased tracks on his US tour in addition to original works on the way. He remains open to doing remixes of just about anything, as he’s proven from flips of John Mayer to Leona Lewis, but from cut to cut, Matoma’s remixing agenda remains the same.
“For me, the main thing about doing a remix is to have a good vocal, and the message in the original should be good. The melody shouldn’t be the same as the original, either. So you should get like, ‘oh, is this a new song?’ and you still have the feeling you’ve heard it before, but you don’t know why.”
The Old Thing Back single comes out Feb. 17. Watch out for multiple mixes to come on the package, including a sure-to-be-utilized radio mix in addition to an official music video on the way as well.