A publicist couldn’t have planned it better. Thirty minutes from downtown Auckland, New Zealand, the chirpy opening beats of local teen Joshua Stylah (aka Jawsh 685) and Jason Derulo’s controversial hit, “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat),” belts out over ZM radio just as one takes the freeway exit to the South Auckland suburbs which birthed the smash.
Created by Derulo using Stylah’s instrumental “Laxed (Siren Beat),” the track has topped the charts in the U.K., New Zealand and Australia, surpassed 1.1 billion streams and was recently the third most played song on U.S. radio.
The 17-year-old never saw it coming.
It was just another day, heading to his bedroom after school to create the next “siren jam” for his YouTube collection, when the life-changing instrumental was born. “I was just mixing until I got something,” he tells Variety, sitting in the sun-soaked lounge of the waterfront house he and his family just moved into, a new home the only hint of the humble teen’s dynamite success.
“It wasn’t anything special like, ‘This is the one!’ It’s actually the simplest beat out of all of mine. The rest of my music has effects, but this was just piano, brass, lead and drums. But in April, it started blowing up because some lady took a clip off YouTube and put it on TikTok.”
Stylah’s earliest introduction to island-influenced music was his guitar-playing, Samoan father strumming “old island jams” during his childhood. His parents also blasted Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, while Stylah, who has three siblings, developed a taste for “drill and old-school West Coast rap.”
However, in 2018, he became entranced by “siren jams.” The musical style stems from a New Zealand/Pasifika trend of creating beats to play through siren speakers, which are usually attached to cars or bikes. Heavy with island vibes, Stylah was struck by the sound and saw it as a way to represent his Samoan/Cook Island heritage. “I love the lead — that sax everyone hears in a siren beat. I wanted to make my own style.”
Downloading digital audio software FL Studio, he started experimenting, inspired by Tahitian DJs. Soon, time normally spent playing rugby and touch, was replaced by mixing bedroom beats, but it was just “fun on the side” of school — until “Laxed (Siren Beat)” ignited explosive TikTok trend, the “Culture Dance”. The viral craze saw users dancing to the song while wearing traditional attire and celebrating their culture, as Stylah does by referencing “685” (Samoa’s calling code) in the track.
Celebrities including Jessica Alba, Jimmy Fallon and BTS — who have collaborated with Stylah and Derulo on a “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” remix — have contributed to the 55.4 million videos posted using the song. Fallon’s remains Stylah’s favorite. “I used to watch that guy on YouTube!”
— Jawsh_685 (@Jawsh_685) September 28, 2020
It was as he reached his first million mark on TikTok that Stylah truly started to wrap his around the music’s impact. “My friends were counting down — we kept refreshing until it hit one million. Then I was just shocked by the millions going up so fast,” he marvels.
Record labels and fans promptly slid into his DMs. One message grabbed his attention — from Derulo.
“I looked at my phone, ran outside and showed my family going, ‘Look, look, look! Mom!’” he recalls. “He was complimenting me, saying, ‘I like your beats. Do you want to work on something?’”
“We were talking for a bit, then it cut off for a few weeks and then all you see is [‘Savage Love’]. I was sitting there making another remix and my friends started spamming me, saying, ‘Did you see this? Jason’s on your beat!’ They didn’t see my name [credited.] I was like, ‘Aye?’”
By that point, Stylah, with this help of his mother, was in the final stages of negotiating a deal with Columbia Records, having chosen the label over others, thanks to their desire to embrace and bring his culture to the world.
A fan of Derulo songs like “Trumpets,” Stylah was thrilled to hear a killer tune using his beat, but confused about whether Derulo had permission. Alerting his team, Page 1 Management, Stylah’s outraged fans meanwhile expressed fury.
“Just in time for Pacific Islander history month, Jason Derulo honored the Polynesian community by completely stealing an entire beat from a teenage Polynesian artist,” TikTok user Lakewood Papi wrote.
“Give credit to the NZ producer that made the original beat,” another fan tweeted.
Admirably, Stylah himself never voiced any resentment. But was he not a tad miffed?
“Nah,” he says. “I did one post to let people know I’m not mad. People were trying to stir up something that didn’t exist — it was others doing that, not me. I talked to the managers and they said, ‘We’ll deal with it,’ and they did. We ended up going with [Derulo] for the song. Instead of having it out there with people thinking he stole it, we thought we might as well make it a collaboration.”
A source previously told Variety that Derulo impatiently went “rogue” while waiting to officially collaborate with Stylah. Releasing “Savage Love,” in May, it immediately blew up.
Asked if Derulo ever apologized, Stylah, seemingly unfazed, says no. He says he doesn’t hear from the musician now, their collaboration handled through their teams. That includes the recently-released “Savage Love (Laxed — Siren Beat)” video, which Derulo shot in Los Angeles and Stylah filmed around his Manurewa stomping grounds — with several must-haves. “I wanted my flags in there, a GT-R and to be based in South Auckland. I also wanted all my friends in it!”
Those friends are now “freaking out” over Stylah’s latest collaborators — Tyga and Lauv on “Sweet & Sour,” a fresh, summery melody inspired by producer, Kezes. Stylah’s dream collaborator is Akon.
As Stylah prepares for his final high school exams, he’s looking ahead to pursuing music full-time. What’s he expecting after having already experienced success? “Once you get out there, lots of people won’t like your work,” he reflects. “People hate on what they don’t understand — even hometown people; I just block them now.”
As he continues sharing his music and culture with the world, those hometown haters should perhaps be grateful to Stylah for shining a positive global spotlight on a neighborhood more often making headlines for crime than phenomenal youth success. Says Stylah: “It’s rare to have someone young from South Auckland come up like this, so I feel really proud taking everyone on my back. [My friends] are riding with me. It’s always been like that.”