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DJ Matoma. Photo: Mark Wickens
DJ Matoma. Photo: Mark Wickens

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DJ Matoma is mixing it up

Once upon a time, Tom Lagergren was a piano prodigy. Then he discovered he could create music on his laptop – and the rest is history. DJ Matoma was born.

This is Matoma

Name: Tom Lagergren/Matoma
Age: 24
Born: Åsnes, Norway
Career: Classically trained pianist. Played with the Norwegian ­National Youth Orchestra. Degree in Music Technology.  Record deal after ­remix of B.I.G’s “Old Thing Back” takes online world by storm in 2015. First album, Hakuna ­Matoma, supported by multi­-country tour.

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Fairy tales are a part of the Norwegian DNA.
Per Gynt, the foundation for the famous play Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, may well be the most famous, but the country’s story-telling culture also produced Three Billy Goats Gruff, which has been repeatedly adapted around the world.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Tom Lagergren, a Norwegian musician better known as Matoma, is composing a modern-day fairy tale that will do his story-telling ancestors proud.
Lagergren’s rise from classically trained piano prodigy to hip-hop remix master and cutting-edge music producer/DJ (all by the age of 24) has all the hallmarks of a genre-defining folk tale.
“I’m literally the luckiest guy on the planet, having the opportunity to spread the love and get to meet the people I meet,” he says.

A Worldwide Empire

Along the way, Lagergren has redefined what artists in the electronic/dance music world can accomplish, turning a cottage industry based in his apartment into a worldwide empire featuring a record deal with a major label, collaborations with some of the biggest pop stars in the land, and extensive tours of the world.
His ability to mash mostly hip-hop tunes with an electronic musical palette featuring the sounds of the tropics is the foundation for an unexpected winning formula.
“He is reconceptualizing all the songs he grew up with, presenting them to a new audience with his sound,” says Andrew Walker, who serves as manager for several electronic artists, including Lagergren. “He just got this great natural momentum with the things he was doing.”
There is little doubt that Matoma is a product of time and place, coming of age during the streaming revolution, as well as at a time when professional sound editing reached the masses.
Those circumstances, however, can’t diminish the success story he has forged. Matoma followed a path set out by those before him, but he has taken it further than the others, charting new territories in the process.

‘I’m literally the luckiest guy on the planet, having the opportunity to spread the love and get to meet the ­people I meet’

Not bad for a student who made remixes in his apartment and DJ’d at the student union at the beginning of his college journey because the skills needed to do those two things were some of the most important technical chops needed to pursue his bachelor’s degree in music technology.
“In order to relax, I remixed stuff at night, using my own stuff and using those techniques,” he says. “I put that stuff up [on the Internet] and now I am here.”
Little did he know that those unplanned and tentative first steps on his laptop would start an unlikely assault on popular music, resulting in songs that would generate streams that would sometimes climb into the million-a-day stratosphere.

Old Thing Back

After several remixes grabbed positive word of mouth and modest streaming numbers, Matoma hit the big time with his re-imagination of “Old Thing Back,” the mid-1990s hit by the American rapper Notorious B.I.G featuring Ja Rule.
“I just wanted to try Biggie’s voice with a tropical beat, and it fit perfectly,” Matoma says in an understatement.
Lagergren found some vocal tracks of the song from his favorite hip-hop artist, whom he first listened to as a six-year-old, and then did his magic, mixing in the tropical groove that has become his signature. The vocals, he insists, were key, and adding them to the remixes he was doing took his pieces to another level.
“I think one of the reasons for my ­success is I value the vocals – I don’t mess around with them,” he says. “I keep them as clean as possible. A song is 70 percent vocals and 30% the beats. I really like ­music that you can sing along to, so I just try to find another melody, a good ­melody.”
The finished product exploded onto the tropical house music scene, spreading like wildfire on Internet music aggregators like Hype Machine and dominating digital-streaming charts.
“When I made it, I thought it was a good remix, but I didn’t think it would blow up like it did,” he says. “It was on the charts for a really long time. I think the flow and the vibe of that track, with the saxophone, the passion, and the groove under his voice, people just felt connected to it.”

Flipping through vintage vinyl in New York’s East Village. Photo: Mark Wickens

Introduce people to hip-hop

The connection made Matoma happy. He felt he was introducing an artist he valued to some people for the first time.
“I just tried to make something new out of something old and keep his legacy going for the kids these days,” he says. “Now people are discovering his albums for the first time in their lives. That was one of main reasons to do remixes, to introduce people to hip-hop.”
Atlantic Records executives couldn’t help but notice the hype accompanying the Matoma version of “Old Thing Back” and quickly realized that the label should do something official with the song, taking it from the online world of bootlegs and word of mouth into the commercial world of videos and heavy promotion.
“That is the thing that took him from bedroom producer to musical icon,” Walker says.
Suddenly, Matoma was no longer underground, he was mainstream. He was no longer regional, but global. 
It all led to an album, Hakuna Matoma, which was digitally released in November by Atlantic Records. The eight-song (and growing) digital-only (for now) playlist features collaborations with Jamaican dance-hall star Popcaan and American rapper Wale on “Feeling Right (Everything is Nice),” Norwegian electropop legends Madcon on “The Wave,” and American pop stars Jason Derulo and Jennifer Lopez on “Try Me.”
He has also done collaborations with artists such as Will Smith, Enrique Iglesias, One Direction, and Akon.

‘When I made it, I thought it was a good remix, but I didn’t think it would blow up like it did’

Like most fairy tales, the central figure of the story has to be an unassuming sort, his abilities coaxed out slowly through adversity or overcoming a particular challenge or disappointment.
Matoma is no different.
“I’m just a regular guy making music,” he says, sitting in a coffee shop in New York during a stop on a 32-city tour of North America in October and November. “You have your passion, maybe it’s playing with your children or whatever, and I have my passion, that’s music. In value, we are both equal.
“You should treat everybody with the same respect. I always say to people when they say I am so humble, of course I am humble, I have the greatest job in the world. I’m traveling the world, playing music for the nicest people, an audience that enjoys the music, and I’m getting inspired by meeting the people. Of course I’m humble, yeah.”
Matoma also comes from humble roots, hailing from Flisa, a small logging community in the heavily-forested southwestern part of Norway, almost three hours from Oslo.

Musical roots

Tall and lanky, the 24-year-old Matoma has classic Scandinavian looks dominated by the blue eyes and quick smile that are the focal points of his lean and angular face. He is quick to laugh, especially when trying to deflect praise. 
Matoma says he has always loved music, but he struggled to find his path in the art. His family had some musical roots, but nothing suggesting a predestined career.
His uncle played the drums in a local band that performed a Norwegian version of country music. His mother, Anne, played a bit of the trombone. His older brother, Dan, was constantly experimenting with new instruments and different styles of music. The younger brother followed in his wake, first trying the guitar and then the keyboards, each having been eventually discarded by Dan.
“I wanted to be just like my older brother,” Matoma says.
His older brother also led him to ­American hip-hop records, absorbing the gangster rap of the 1990s without understanding the often-violent lyrics associated with the genre. What was happening behind the lyrics is what captivated six-year-old Tom and laid the foundation for the Matoma stardom that would come less than 20 years later.
“I listened to it and I really liked the beats and I really liked the flow and the passion,” he says. “It hypnotized me and led to me exploring more hip-hop.”
Fairy tales also usually require unexpected intervention by unknown forces to set the hero on the proper path.
Again, this one is no different.

Matoma’s 32-city North American tour in 2015 lived up to the hype. Photo: Mark Wickens

A natural ear for music

While at a music lesson, eight-year-old Tom heard his ­piano teacher play Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and immediately sat down and played the same song, without sheet music, on his keyboard, demonstrating a natural ear for music that has developed into his foundational power.
The teacher suggested the student take up the piano, and soon Tom was playing for the Norwegian National Youth Orchestra, putting in four or five hours of practice a day for close to eight years. The journey ended as unexpectedly as it began, though.

‘I’m just a regular guy making ­music’

“I practiced too much, so I got bored and I got tired,” he says, no trace of regret creeping into his voice.
That’s because this was not the end of his story, but rather the beginning: the obstacle that had to be overcome in order to reach a conclusion that brings meaning to the journey.
For Lagergren, he quit his beloved piano cold turkey, refusing to play for a full year, gravitating instead to a laptop and some song samples to fill the musical void he had created. In doing so, he set in motion Matoma and the chain of events that evolved into this modern-day fairytale.

 

By Shawn P. Roarke

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