The song of the summer wasn’t rap, R&B or pop — for what was the first time ever, it was throbbingly, unapologetically house music. “Cheerleader” the reggae-lite song by the singer OMI, reached global ubiquity via a remix from young German producer Felix Jaehn, hitting the Number One spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for six non-consecutive weeks. OMI and Jaehn — who have yet to meet — conquered various countries by shredding genre boundaries; but the song’s laidback groove and SnoCone-sweet melody has being dubbed “tropical house,” alongside similarly beachy producers like Kygo, Robin Schulz and Klangkarussell. The sun-soaked island brunch dance music may be the next step in EDM’s pop takeover.
“We were in my college apartment and we were trying to give [it] a name, like what [to] call this and that,” says Myles Shear, the manager of electronic music producers Thomas Jack and Kygo. “It had this Caribbean cool vibe and Thomas Jack said ‘tropical house’, so it was tropical house.” Jack used the phrase for an online mix series he started in connection with the blog This Song Is Sick in 2013 and the year’s hottest electronic sub-genre was born.
Less a hard and fast sound, the phrase existed to capture the music’s vibe. Not too surprising for the Australian producer that moved to Miami, the feeling is one of relaxing, free-flowing patterned shirts and sand: “Tropical” might be in the name, but genre’s only connections to island culture are aspirational at best. The nebulous sound’s roots can be found in the recent revival of deep house, which itself is less the darker style of old-school Chicago house and more a subdued take on contemporary throb. Soon German DJ Robin Schulz, who contributed to the Tropical House mix series last year, found American mainstream success with the style in his two hit remixes of Mr. Probz’ “Waves” (which peaked at Number 14) and Lilly Wood and the Prick’s “Prayer in C” (which peaked at Number 23).
“It was all online,” says Jack, speaking to how he met Shear. “He just hit me up ’cause he found my SoundCloud and he was like, ‘Come to America.'” Nineteen years old when he first connected, Jack was the first artist that Shear managed. “I started promoting his music, pushing it on websites and blogs and making sure everyone heard it,” Shear says. “I booked a tour myself, I handled everything internally, I didn’t know any better. I was 19 years old in college and I wanted to make sure my artists were successful.”
In 2013, while Jack and Shear were living together, the French producer Klingande scored a huge international hit with the song “Jubel” that fit into the genre’s mold even if the name wasn’t solidified. Last June he contributed to the Tropical House mix series, even if he insists that the music he makes isn’t exactly best categorized that way.
“I like to call my genre ‘melodic house’ but it’s really difficult — it’s not really deep house even if there are some influences in the production. I’m not really tropical too,” says Klingande. “This music is interesting because it’s a crossover of many genres and it’s difficult for me to classify when we see the work of artists like Kygo, Robin Schulz or Bakermat, we all have our own codes but we remain classified in the same scene.”
“I like the name tropical house for my artists,” says Shear, “but I don’t want them to get stuck in the frame, because at the end of the day everyone is making music.”
Felix Jaehn, who also prefers the term “melodic house,” contributed to the most recent Tropical House mix earlier this summer and repeated a similar phrase: “Tropical House is really concrete and [puts] everything in a corner,” he says, “where you have palm trees and pineapple and everyone is getting loose and having a fun time.”
And Thomas Jack, who is currently prepping more solo material and finding himself performing at larger festivals like Tomorrowland, is already looking beyond the island. “I feel like nothing is evolving off of it [to] keep it interesting, because those things that become hyped can fall off in a year,” says Jack. He’s recently worked more with folk music that retains the vibe of house, but with more live instruments and more ways to experiment. The BPM and instruments might be different, yet the vacation and getting-away-from-it-all appeal remains.
When one the biggest songs in the world fits into this mold it is easy to see why some producers might run and others might plant their beach chairs firmly in the sand. Kygo was recently featured in the latest round of Apple Music promotion and Justin Bieber’s latest single “What Do You Mean” sounds like the next pop hit that will be riding the style to success. Though others are sailing to newer coasts, the wave hasn’t died.