Felix Jaehn‘s metallic gold shirt reads “Everything Under Control,” but inside, the 20-year-old Hamburg native is bursting with excitement. It has been scarcely a month since the dimpled German learned, in a Billboard tweet, that his remix of Jamaican singer OMI‘s “Cheerleader” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “I was home with my manager; it was 2 a.m.,” he says, sitting in Billboard’s New York offices on a steamy August day. “I couldn’t believe it. We were cheering and toasting.”
Jaehn’s unlikely journey to chart king began with the violin, starting at age 5. “My parents wanted me to play drums or guitar, but I insisted.” After years of lessons and stints in a youth orchestra, he applied his classical ear to electronic music while studying in London, where he was exposed to the city’s burgeoning deep house scene. “Even though my music is electronic, it’s driven by real instruments, vocals and melodies,” he says.
And then everything changed: Ultra Music’s Patrick Moxey found Jaehn on SoundCloud and sent him OMI’s then-unknown song, released in 2012, to remix. For a hit that has conquered charts in more than 48 countries, the making of “Cheerleader” was surprisingly economical. Using its vocals alone, Jaehn reinvented the track on his laptop with a trumpet line played by a friend into his phone on WhatsApp, the free messaging service. “I didn’t have the budget to travel to him, so he recorded it in his bedroom and sent it to me,” the producer says.
“Cheerleader” marks a No. 1 crossover breakthrough for tropical house, the slow, melodic dance subgenre that produced a viral streaming star in Norway’s Kygo and another top 40 remixer in fellow German Robin Schulz. Now signed to Universal and being courted by Ed Sheeran and Giorgio Moroder, Jaehn is ready to champion the movement — and eventually step away from the remix. “I can actually write and make my own songs, so why should I limit myself?”
Listen to “Cheerleader,” as well as more music from this issue, in the Spotify playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of Billboard.