Dominic Fike is reviving a bygone era of skate- and surf-bro rock, but he’s refracting it through the lens of modern hip-hop.
Photograph Courtesy Columbia Records
The most important thing to know about Dominic Fike, a twenty-three-year-old musician from Florida, is that, someday soon, he’ll be very famous. If you haven’t yet heard of him, you will not be able to stop hearing about him (or hearing his music) in six months or a year. At least, that’s the party line of the music industry, which has hung an extraordinary amount of hope on a young star with about fifteen minutes of officially streamable music. Fike is a precocious, photogenic artist with edgy face tattoos and sufficient talent. More important, he embodies the hazy, genre-less future of popular music.
For a potential music star, intrigue is the most valuable currency. Nobody has generated intrigue quite like Fike has, which makes his position as precarious as it is promising. At the time of his reported four-million-dollar deal with Columbia, which he signed last year, Fike had no music available to stream on major platforms. His previously recorded music had been scrubbed from the Internet; there was an understanding among his handlers that scarcity would lead to buzz. (One YouTuber, BrandMan, recently posted a video about Fike titled “Dominic Fike’s Mysterious Rise,” and coverage in the press has used similar language.) By the time Fike released his début EP, in October—a collection of languorous demos called “Don’t Forget About Me”—that buzz was palpable. Within days, his music was being praised on social media by suspiciously notable figures like DJ Khaled, Khalid, and Kourtney Kardashian. The attention seemed hazardously premature, as though Fike’s superstardom was a foregone conclusion, and incidental to whatever music he ended up producing.
Fike grew up in South Florida, a region that has been unusually fertile for hip-hop talent over the past several years. Raised by a single mother who was in and out of jail, he had a mischievous streak, and says he spent much of his teen-age years partying with other latchkey kids—skaters and aspiring musicians—in the area. Though he listened to a distinctly Californian set of pop-punk and beachy alt-rock acts (Blink-182, Jack Johnson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers), he and his friends were mostly interested in rapping. They gathered at a friend’s guest house, which they dubbed “Backhouse,” where they’d take turns freestyling; Fike self-released some of his rap songs here and there. Eventually, his tinkering crystallized into a style that felt both familiar and novel. His more recent songs bear little resemblance to any mainstream hip-hop, although they may signal its future. His EP, “Don’t Forget About Me,” is nostalgic for the early-two-thousands beach-bonfire style of Johnson, with some of the watered-down reggae of 311 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His major single, “3 Nights,” could generously be classified as high-quality retail music. It is, above all, easy to listen to. It shares plenty of DNA with a song like “Rude,” a schlocky lawn-party reggae jam from the Canadian band MAGIC!, which riled and amused music critics for a passing moment, in 2013, before slipping into oblivion.
All of which doesn’t sound like much cause for celebration, let alone an unprecedented frenzy of hype and expectation. But part of what makes Fike so alluring is that he scratches the nebulous aesthetic itch of Gen Z, the first cohort of music fans to largely shed all genre allegiances. Fike is reviving a bygone era of skate and surf-bro rock, but he’s refracting it through the lens of modern hip-hop. Like much successful hip-hop today, “Don’t Forget About Me” is a blunted, nihilistic version of its influences. It features a sound that is fluent in the genre but not beholden to it; Fike slips easily between modes of singing and rap-singing. (Fike also has multiple face tattoos, perhaps the strongest aesthetic signifier among rising hip-hop stars.) He’s the logical progression from someone like Post Malone, who makes a savvy blend of pure pop, blues-rock, and rap but is often classified as a hip-hop artist simply because of his social and aesthetic preferences. At times, Fike’s music is almost oppressively low-key: “I’m the king of everything / Make rules up on my own,” he sings on a particularly dreary track, “King of Everything,” making a kind of dry joke about the very act of self-mythologizing. Like many of his peers, jubilation is not in his emotional wheelhouse.
Fike played a number of live shows with his Backhouse collective years ago but has only a few performances to his name as a solo artist. In February, he performed at a small club in Williamsburg, which was filled with what has become, in this nascent stage of his career, his core audience: music critics and label representatives. They wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and for good reason. Fike, after all, is a symbol of the music business’s newfound momentum. Five years or a decade ago, during the industry’s fallow period, his four-million-dollar deal would have been unthinkable. But in this era of streaming-fuelled prosperity—the business grew twelve per cent in 2018—that sort of contract is becoming more and more common. And Fike is a reasonable canvas on which to project fantasies about the future. He can play the guitar and rap, and he can engage a wide range of audiences without particularly satiating any of them.
It’s difficult to express suspicion of Fike without sounding dismissive, curmudgeonly, or overly nostalgic for pre-Internet music fandom. Admittedly, there is something thrilling about him. He seems like a conceptual slam dunk, a triumph of branding and stylistic needle-threading. Onstage in New York, though, where he appeared for about fifteen minutes total, he seemed less like a superhero than like a scrawny kid behind a giant guitar, strumming some lightly catchy songs he’d come up with in his bedroom while dreaming about the future.