Latin Grammys 2018

Cheat Codes On Becoming Superstars and What They've Learned From Demi Lovato

Staring out from the windows of their 25th-floor hotel room at Caesars in Atlantic City, N.J., Cheat Codes’ Trevor Dahl and Matthew Russell can see the sprawling stage that until 48 hours ago was meant to host their collaborator Demi Lovato’s performance down on the Jersey Shore beach.

When the singer was hospitalized on July 24 after a reported drug overdose, the cancellation of the concert, set to take place two days later, seemed inevitable. That is, until the rising Los Angeles DJ group -- Dahl, 25; Russell, 27; and Kevin “KEVI” Ford, 26 -- agreed to fly in to fill in for its friend, whose towering vocals helped the act secure its first hit on the Billboard Hot 100 last fall: “No Promises,” which peaked at No. 38. (Ford, who was ill, couldn't make the show.)

“We’re learning more and more nowadays that celebrities are just humans,” says Dahl as he lounges on the hotel bed, his mop of curls poking out from beneath his hoodie. “All the fame and money can be a bad thing, and [Demi] has been very upfront about it with everyone. She has let people see another side of that world.”

Celebrity is a mounting reality for Cheat Codes. Four years of relentless touring, writing, collaborating and rapid-fire releases have put them next in line behind The Chainsmokers and Zedd as EDM’s latest pop hitmakers. Their two dozen or so pulsating singles have collected 414.7 million total on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music; earned them 13 appearances on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart, including three top 10s; and reeled in additional collaborations with Fetty Wap and Little Mix, the latter appearing on their latest kinetic jam “Only You,” which reach No. 15 on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. They released their debut EP, Level 1, in June, but they have yet to release a full-length album.

“We all agreed from day one that all those rules, as far as ‘you release a song at this time,’ were just made up by labels 40 or 50 years ago,” says Dahl. Now, “people consume things faster, are able to create things faster.” Onstage and in the studio, they have it down to a science. In concert, Dahl is the group’s primary (and often shirtless) singer, while Russell mans the turntables and Ford hypes the crowd. But when recording, all three members write and produce. They pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and ability to release singles at will: “It’s the perfect time for somebody like us,” says Russell.

Prior to forming Cheat Codes in 2014, the trio pursued less fruitful solo careers. Dahl dropped out of high school in Oregon at 16 to tour under the moniker Plug In Stereo and signed to Atlantic Records as a pop solo artist before eventually leaving the label to release music under his own name. Russell, originally from St. Louis, dabbled in rock, country and heavy metal in the Midwest before diving into dance. But only after meeting Ford, a Calabasas, Calif., native with a background in hip-hop, while they were gigging around Los Angeles, did the group find a vision.

“Even though we were living in this small house in Van Nuys, Calif., making no money, we’re sitting there talking about making $100,000 per show one day, like, ‘That’s going to happen; we are definitely going to get there,’ ” recalls Dahl. The trio cultivated a following on Spotify and signed to 300 Entertainment in 2016.

These days Cheat Codes are in a new strata, bringing stacks of cash to shows, tossing an estimated $100,000 in dollar bills out to the crowd over the past year. With their strobe lights and confetti cannons, the guys can come off like party bros. But they work harder than they play. Even as they gear up for tonight’s performance, Dahl and Russell are both a little worse for wear. They just returned home from nearly a month of tour dates in Europe, and, after this impromptu gig, traveled to Miami for a club show the following night before heading back home to hit the studio. They’ll visit New York in August for Billboard’s Hot 100 Music Festival. As the band readies new music to release throughout the rest of 2018, the members are anxious to reach a new level within popular music. “We want to do our thing and make our own lane,” says Dahl. “The more you try to follow somebody, the more you’re going to fall behind.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of Billboard.