Masked Wolf

Chartbreaker: How Masked Wolf's 'Astronaut In the Ocean' Blasted Off Around the Globe

In 2014, a then-22-year-old rising rapper, now known as Masked Wolf, started bootlegging hip-hop CDs on the streets of Sydney to self-finance his debut project. “I paid for everything,” he says, adding that he had 500 copies made. After working his day job as a salesman and consultant, selling corporate printers and helping companies go digital, he walked around the city “trying to sell my album for $10.”

Growing up in Sydney, Masked Wolf, born Harry Michael, was raised by his Greek immigrant grandparents, and developed a love for music and playing instruments at a young age. By 15, he gravitated toward hip-hop, feeling particularly inspired by American hip-hop acts like G-Unit, especially leader 50 Cent’s winner-take-all demeanor, as well as Eminem, whose songs “Stan” and “Lose Yourself” motivated him to write music that formed a narrative.

That mindset has now helped Masked Wolf score his first-charting hit with the electric rap single “Astronaut in the Ocean,” which currently sits at No. 3 on the Billboard Global 200 and No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. And though the song arrives in a party-centric package, courtesy of electronic producer Tyron Hapi, it centers around Wolf’s battles with mental health and depression. “What you know about rollin' down in the deep? When your brain goes numb, you can call that mental freeze,” Wolf spits, alluding to keeping his head above water during tough times.

Tim Lo
Masked Wolf photographed on March 16, 2021 in Sydney.

Masked Wolf first released “Astronaut in the Ocean'' in June 2019 after jotting down lyrics and scatting to rhythms in his car. As Jae Butt, Masked Wolf’s manager, recalls: “He said, ‘I think I got a title: ‘Astronaut in the Ocean,' and I was like, ‘What the f--k is that?’ It was the weirdest title you could ever think of, but he was like, ‘Nah, this is it.’”

But when the track arrived via Teamwrk Records, it failed to take off. “I never felt like ‘Astronaut’ was going to be a hit like it is now,” Wolf admits. “I 100% knew it was a banger and would slap pretty hard, but I didn’t know if people would grasp and want to know the meaning behind it.”

However, Masked Wolf doesn’t mind people bumping the song without relating to its meaning. “I’m not the type of artist that would say, ‘You must listen to this and understand it's about depression and feeling [out of] place,’” he says. “If you want to put ‘Astronaut in the Ocean’ on in your car while you’re driving because it makes you feel good, I’m not going to judge your happiness.”

As the pandemic forced the world into isolation in 2020, the song started to gain traction — and Elektra Records noticed the hit was making a major dent on global market data. It has now garnered 368.8 million on-demand streams, according to MRC Data, thanks to a TikTok craze in which users — 304,500 and counting — record feats of strength to the song’s intro.

“We instantly leaned into that because TikTok is fickle and it’s short-lived,” Jacob Fain, Elektra Records SVP of A&R, explains about his team's strategy. “So when you get that window, you really need to reposition and then just capitalize on it for as long as TikTok will allow you to.” In December, Wolf signed a global recording contract with Elektra/Warner Music Group (excluding Australia and New Zealand, where he retains his deal under Teamwrk Records in partnership with ADA/Warner Music Australia). By the start of 2021, Elektra rereleased the track.

Since Australia has eased its COVID-19 restrictions, becoming one of the first markets where musicians have been able to tour in 2021, Masked Wolf performed “Astronaut in the Ocean” and a few unreleased songs for a crowd of 8,000 at the Gold Coast Lunar Electric Music Festival in March. It was one of the biggest live concerts to happen since the pandemic began.

“I was so energetic -- it’s weird, because the story of ‘Astro’ is feeling out of place, but now I feel like I’m in place,” says Wolf. Ironically, it was also one of the first concerts Wolf had ever attended. “I used to never go to concerts because I used to get jealous,” he says, explaining how he always wanted to be the performer, not the attendee. “I sold my Eminem tickets because it’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be up on the stage. I used to get emotional, so I never really went.”

As “Astronaut in the Ocean” continues to soar, Masked Wolf has his sights set on a remix, and is working on his major-label debut album; he and his team are looking to build on the sound he’s already established through older tracks like “Night Rider” and "Vibin.” “We want to make sure people understand it’s not about the song, it’s about him,” says Fain. “Our goal right now is to get music out there that’s going to continue to shine even more light on him.”

The follow-up to such a massive hit might seem daunting, but Masked Wolf says if he could tell his younger self where he’s at now, he’d understand the challenge ahead: “I would literally slap myself in the face and say, ‘Get up, it’s supposed to be this hard.’”

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A version of this article originally appeared in the April 3, 2021 issue of Billboard.