Considering the amount of formal and informal music training Mateo has received over the years, it may be unsurprising that the crossroads of his professional journey would intersect with those of Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, a long-time collaborator with Alicia Keys and the co-founder of KrucialKeys Enterprise. As the member of a highly-musical family, in addition to his business and music concentrations at Morehouse College, the care and precision of Mateo’s entry into entertainment’s saturated industry is guided by a “blueprint” established by Alicia Keys, a contemporary artist who has managed to have longevity in an ever-evolving marketplace.
To be certain – all great things take time to grow and develop. But in retrospect, the universal appeal of his current single, “Say It’s So,” hints of an artist whose bright light has finally been freed from darkness. During a promotional campaign for Love & Stadiums, Mateo squeezed some time out of his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with AllHipHop.com Alternatives – reflecting upon the importance of his Morehouse experience, his perspective on “urban modernism,” and the musical standard set by his grandfather, Freddy Jordan (of King Records).
AHHA: In the current music landscape, it is rare to find an artist that possesses an academic pedigree in addition to their musical sensibilities. When you reflect upon your collegiate experience, what benefits can you directly attribute to your academic endeavors?
Mateo: College really prepared me for being more entrepreneurial about my business. When it comes down to it, you’re pretty much the leader of an enterprise. You are a brand. You are a company in itself. There are a lot of things you have to do. I could be just creative and just do music all day, but I’ve got to make sure that our music is getting out to people, and that my team is together. That we’re doing promo right. Marketing, too. You really do use a lot of those kind of skills when you’re trying to get your stuff out there and really build an organization for your music. That college experience definitely helped in that.
AHHA: Upon graduation, you became a strategy consultant. But when you finally made up your mind to quit work and follow your dreams, I know that had to be a difficult decision to make. Talk about some of the internal struggles you faced and the obstacles you had to overcome during this transition phase.
Mateo: It’s funny. I’ve always loved music. I’ve always sung and done music on the side; but I always kind of pushed it away thinking that this is something that is a little too ambitious. It’s a little too lofty. I always heard people say:,”Yo, you and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people would like to be famous and sing.” And for a while, I was one of those people that said, “I’m going to go the regular route. Make sure I get that paycheck every two weeks.” It was a struggle that I faced – even before I started working.
At Morehouse, the reason why I double-majored in business and music was because I felt that I was not going to do music professionally and needed to have a solid background in business management. When I finally got a job – and it was a really good job, too – I thought it was going to be what I really wanted. As it turned out, it really wasn’t. And it was kind of crazy – because I realized early on: “I don’t really want to go through life with a lot of coulda, shoulda, wouldas and regrets about decisions I didn’t make.” At that very moment, I knew that I needed to make a decision. It was a scary one to make, but it was one of those decisions where I’d rather say I tried and said I did it, instead of not trying at all. That’s kind of how it happened. Some stars also aligned for me while I was working in New York. I started meeting various people in the industry and started pushing me towards making that decision as well.
AHHA: Before you met Kerry “Krucial” Brothers and signed with Krucial Noise, you were initially linked with MySpace Music. When your initial deal fizzled, what kept you driven to succeed and stay focused on your musical career?
Mateo: You’re right. A lot of people said, “Oh, wow. You’re doing it.” Or they’ll be like, “Oh, man, you’re in L.A., so you’re doing it already.” But there were a lot of hard times. I had to figure out what my sound was and what my voice was. I could sing, but I had to figure out what kind of music I wanted to do. What happens in music is that you get pushed in all these different directions. “You’re black. You sing. So you should sing R&B over Hip-Hop beats.” You have to kind of weave through what people think you should be doing, and then figure out what you really should be doing.
So there were a lot of years where I was just trying to figure it out. I think the thing that kept me going, initially, was when I posted “Human” on MySpace. It was an acoustic song, with an acoustic guitar, and I received a lot of positive comments from people that loved the song. Literally, people just started hitting me up, “Yo, I love that song. It’s a song I want. I can sing it to my girlfriend. A song I want to sing to my boyfriend.” And I was happy to see that the comments were from regular people – people that weren’t in the industry. It wasn’t about how much they knew. It was about how they felt about it. And I got genuine comments. They affirmed me and kept me motivated to keep going.
[Read Kerry “Krucial” Brothers’ thoughts on Mateo HERE]
AHHA: It is always refreshing to receive feedback from people outside of our circle.
Mateo: Yes! And even though the MySpace deal fell apart, I was able to go on tour and still go throughout the country and really connect and share music with people just trying to live, love and go to work every day. Most people know this that are in the struggle: you don’t do it alone. When I’m going up this hill, I’ve got family and I’ve got friends that are supporting me. And if I need help with rent or I need help with this, they always supported me. In a sense, after a few years, it’s like I’m not even just doing this for me. I’m doing it for everybody else that helped me out and pushed me along when I felt I couldn’t do it anymore. And those are the things that really keep you going.
AHHA: As you mentioned earlier, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to put artists into distinct musical boxes. These past few years, however, we have been able to come to a place and a space where genres can blur and overlap. My favorite artist – for example – is Janelle Monae. What do you think has allowed the “blurring” process to become more acceptable, or why do you think people are more accepting of it?
Mateo: I think a lot of it has to do with the Internet and access. My concept of “urban modernism” is based on where music is going – and it’s pretty interesting. My hometown is Cincinnati. I see stuff on TV, but I’m still very sectioned off. I’m watching BET. I’m not really caring about alternative music or I’m not really even hearing about electro music overseas. And I’m not exposed to that. Now, you’ve got more access to that. You can find a dope artist or you can find these “hybrid” artists. You have the opportunity to say: “Oh, man, this band is dope! I’m really more into hip-hop, but I love this alternative band.” And so, that’s just happening, and I think it’s more widespread. Just like people are into different things.
You also have big artists like Kanye West coming out with joints featuring Chris Martin. And so, I think that that’s progression in the music. And now urban music is becoming this thing that’s not only what you see outside your door, but it’s stuff that you might see outside your door in Paris. It’s about fashion. It’s about being cutting edge. It’s about being up on things that are like international and mixing genres. That’s what it’s all about. And I feel like that’s the new thing. Like I love Frank Ocean’s music. You hear it in some of his stuff – where he might remix a Coldplay joint. Those are the things that are really cool and I think are really exciting about the music going forward.
AHHA: At the age of five, your mother placed you in formal piano lessons. As a trained musician, how did that influence your songwriting or your singing? As you started to learn how to use your voice as in instrument, did you find that your musical background affected your willingness to experiment with the way you played with your voice?
Mateo: Definitely. First of all, the classical piano stuff can be found in some of the songs that I have out. One song called “Complicated” – and I don’t want to be too technical – uses arpeggios and all these different things that you learn technically. I can even think back to high school. I couldn’t even sing falsetto, which is kind of crazy because a lot of my songs now have falsetto in them. All of that stuff, along with my music major, helped me figure out and strengthen my voice so that I could do some of those things. And then another important thing: vocal health. A lot of that stuff helps with going out singing every day. If you’re doing concerts every night, then knowing how to maintain your voice is very helpful.
AHHA: With male vocalists, there seems to be a lack of willingness to be completely “free” in regards to vocal expression – letting their voice slide up and down multiple scales. At what point did you develop enough confidence in yourself to allow yourself to sing in falsetto?
Mateo: I realized that I should just do stuff that I love. Sometimes I would think to myself: “If I’m loving Coldplay and I’m loving Kanye West and Lauryn Hill, how do I incorporate all that stuff in my music?” I think that was a major part of my decision -making. And it’s also about how you create music. For a lot of R&B music now, you come in and the song’s already there for you and you just record it, which sometimes doesn’t allow you to just go into your own zone. Like when I create music, a lot of times, I’m just vibing out. Literally just playing around. If I hear something I like, I just turn the mic on. Let me just vibe out and make up some stuff and freestyle it. And then a lot of times you’ll do stuff you wouldn’t normally do. For instance, I have a song called “Doubt,” and it’s all falsetto. And the reason I came up with that is I was literally just playing around, and it just kind of came out. When you’re playing around, usually you’re not thinking about anything. Just kind of free and in the moment, doing what you’re doing.
AHHA: I think it is ironic that the song’s title is “Doubt,” when you had to remove all doubts about your ability to singing in falsetto!
Mateo: Oh, wow! It is ironic. Isn’t it?
AHHA: You have a great deal of live instrumentation in your recorded music. That’s something that you are not afraid of and pretty free with. Why is that so important to you? And what element does that add to a song that a prerecorded track could not bring?
Mateo: I just like organic, acoustic stuff and real instrumentation. And then I also like programmed, synthesized electronic stuff. For me, it’s just really incorporating the two things that I really love. I love going to a party and it’s like some crazy electro music. Then I love a party that has just Hip-Hop playing. Then going to a lounge and you can listen to dope soul music or whatever. For me, it’s just a combination of all my influences coming together. You know what’s a good song? Where you can chip away all of the production and you can just be you and a guitar, or you and a piano. And a lot of times, that’s where the songs start for me. I’ve always got to keep that element inside of the music.
AHHA: As you were growing up outside of the industry, what musical moments do you think define and outline the musical soundtrack of your life?
Mateo: I remember where I was when I heard “I Will Always Love You” the first time. But I remember when I first heard Lauryn Hill singing on Sister Act 2. I was like, “Oh, my God. Like, she’s killing it. That’s crazy. How she was singing, and all the runs, and that kind of stuff.” Those types of things. I remember Coldplay – when “Scientist” came out. “Scientist” was like, “Wow.” The purity in the song, and how simple it was, and how the piano was playing in there. All of that changed my whole world. And even Justin Timberlake. On the FutureSex/LoveSounds album, he did that “Love Stone” track, and then he goes into “I Think She Knows.” He all of a sudden changes and goes from an urban, Timbaland track to like stuff of alternative music. That was crazy! He just mixed the two different ones together, and those things just totally changed how I thought about music. Those are definitely a few to name.
AHHA: From one end, you have these external influences guiding your musical journey, but you also come from a musical family, which provided plenty of internal influences. Your grandfather was a guitarist. Your grandmother was a vocalist. And then you also have Kerry Brothers in your corner. Talk about how these individuals – and others – have influenced you, professionally or what you perceive to be the purposes and function of music.
Mateo: My grandfather played for King Records, and he was pretty well-known for his work. I didn’t actually know him – because he passed before I was born. But what he did was set the tone for music to be in the family. My uncles play music. My mom sings. It was one of those things. And so, it just became something that was a part of my life. So that’s why I was in piano lessons. That’s why I was singing. And that’s why I was made to perform – even though I did not want to – every Thanksgiving. And then on the other side, my dad’s side, my grandmother sings. My dad plays guitar, also. So hearing the stories that I heard on the road, the things that my grandmother had to do when she was driving through Canada through a snowstorm to get to the next gig. Those types of things, they do shape how I think about things.
I’ll call my grandmother up now and I’m talking about my band, and she’ll have stories about her band ,and she has advice on how to talk to my band. Those are the types of things that are really helpful. And then also, I feel a little bit of the burden on me – a good burden – to really fulfill some of the dreams for some of my family that wanted to do music, that they had. To fulfill what they really wanted for themselves. And I feel like a lot of that, sometimes, is in me. When it comes down to Kerry, he just upped the standard of music that I create. The thing that’s so great about him and the stuff he’s done with Alicia [Keys] is that they really stuck to what their sound was. They said, “I don’t care what’s on the radio. I’m not trying to copycat. I’m trying to be who, authentically, I am.” And they won at it.
But they did it, they stuck to it, they kept a certain level of quality, and they actually got mainstream with it. That’s the thing that always impressed me about them is how you can stick to your own stuff and still win. And I went from recording most of my mixtapes in a bedroom studio to a real studio. Kerry is about gear. When you get a crazy vintage guitar, he’ll ship it in. He and Alicia do that all the time. That’s what they do. To go into that type of world is like crazy because now the sky is the limit. It’s pretty amazing.
AHHA: Out of your early tracks, my favorite is “Get to Know Me.” Take me back to the songwriting process. Do any particular memories come to mind?
Mateo: Yeah. “Get To Know Me” was definitely a turning point. Basically, that song came out of me. I did my very first mixtape when I signed on MySpace [Music]. I was singing over like a lot of beats that weren’t really stuff I really sing over, usually. I was like, “Man, I need to make sure that I put something on there that people can hear, and they can get used to the sound that I really want to do,the type of style that I want to do.” It was literally acoustic, and it was like one verse and a hook, and that was it. And it basically was saying just get to know who I am; the type of music I want to do; the type of artist I am; the message that I want to get across. And the song kind of just evolved from there until it became a favorite. And it’s evolved into this thing about get to know me in this relationship.
Get to know me as an artist, because artists wear our hearts on our sleeve. We hope you accept what we put out there. And I think that’s the message that everybody feels. Like everybody wants to be accepted for who they are, and loved for who they are regardless of what their flaws are or what their failures have been. And that’s what that song is really about. It’s just really just get to know me. And it’s just kind of evolved from there into a song that a lot of people like. It’s pretty crazy.
For more information on Mateo, visit his official website: http://www.mateoonline.com
For more of Clayton Perry’s interview exclusives, visit his digital archive. He can also be followed via Twitter [@crperry84].