How 'Sriracha' Became Marteen's Red-Hot Breakout

Courtesy Photo
Marteen "Sriracha"

Throughout his eclectic run as a chart-topping producer, J.R. Rotem has built his career on fostering young artists and turning them into fully-formed pop hitmakers. First there was Sean Kingston, whom Rotem teamed up with and concocted his Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 smash “Beautiful Girls” in 2007. Then came Jason Derulo, whose 2009 No. 1 debut single “Whatcha Say,” as well as subsequent tracks “Ridin’ Solo” and “In My Head,” were all produced by Rotem. As of late however, the producer has shied away from the delicate art of career-launching in lieu of a smorgasbord of different projects, from stints producing Gwen Stefani to working on the music behind Empire.

“It takes a huge commitment and dedication,” says Rotem of personally plucking artists from obscurity in hopes of one day launching them to the top of the charts, first through Beluga Heights and now through his new label Lyon Estates. “I’m not very impulsive, so I’ve only signed a selected amount of artists and run everything like a little boutique... as opposed to signing 50 people and seeing what works.”

That hesitancy evaporated the moment Rotem saw a shoddily-filmed video of 14-year-old Bay Area native Marteen. “My good friend and collaborator for the past decade Marty James, who’s helped me with other artists like Sean Kingston, showed me a clip of Marteen singing and playing guitar and I was just blown away. Right off the video, there was something that gave me a feeling that if he’s like this in real life I need to sign him.” At the time, Marteen had only been singing for a year. “Before that, I was only playing baseball and thought that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up,” the now 16 year old recalls. “I started doing little covers on Instagram and within a couple months record labels started to DM me wanting to set up meetings. Me and my dad were pretty surprised how it all happened.”

For Rotem, Marteen had an undeniable It factor that the producer immediately recognized from that video and a subsequent meeting. “It’s a little bit intangible,” Rotem explains of the elusive quality he looks for in artists. “It’s a thing where you can just sense a superstar presence and for Marteen, it was a culmination of things. In the video, he was popping off the screen even though it was shot quickly; it was a raw, but you could see talent. Nothing to hide behind, just him. He had this unique youthful appeal and was singing music that had more depth and soul than you would expect. I was excited about the type of music I could make with him.”

For the next two years, Rotem worked with Marteen, helping shape his sound and eventually seeing him get signed to Warner Bros. Records in association with Rotem's own Lyon Estates. “We went through a long process of making a lot of songs and developing his sound, but every couple months I’d see him grow with what he’d do vocally and the subjects he’d write about. He was making leaps and bounds,” says Rotem.

For Marteen, the entire experience was like going to a pop music university. ”I didn't realize how many songs he had made that I knew until I went to his studio and saw all his plaques. I was like, ‘You made this one? And this one! Wow,'” the singer says of Rotem’s prowess. “It's like he looks at producing and songwriting like a math equation, and he knows when something is off and needs to be fixed. I've learned so much from him. When we get in the studio, he'll usually have some production ideas that he'll show me. We've gotten to the point where he knows the type of beats I'll like, so every time he plays me something, it's flame.”

At a certain point along this process, Marteen had an idea. “One day he came in with the line, ‘Girl you gotta body like Sriracha’ and I thought it was cool, so I got on an acoustic piano and started playing those chords,” says Rotem of what would later become Marteen’s buzzy debut. “Songs get done in a lot of different ways and there are times when they’re laborious and you’re tweaking and finessing them. I do feel like, the ones that have a certain magic come effortlessly and that was an example of that. He literally just had that idea, I liked it immediately because everyone knows and likes that hot sauce, we just knew it was kind of special when we did it.” Maarten says the entire process of making the skeleton of the track took all of five minutes. “That first line just came right out as I started freestyling to the piano for the first time. We knew right away that we had something. It was so fun and catchy.”

Now with an EP on the way, Marteen is bracing himself for whatever comes next -- which includes an opening slot on Dua Lipa's tour. “It's unreal because I'm still pretty much a brand new, unknown artist, so to get any kind of recognition is really dope,” he explains. “We knew it had the potential to go big if it could get enough exposure. I hope it does become a radio smash, that would be lit. We got so many great songs coming. I'm excited.”

And has Rotem heard from the people behind Sriracha itself? “I haven’t personally heard from them,” laughs Rotem. “But maybe other people have.”