Jay-Z’s Mystery Collaborator: Who Is Luke Steele?

'It's gonna be a pretty big honor,' Empire of the Sun frontman says of guesting on leadoff track 'What We Talkin' About.'

A glance at the list of guest spots on Jay-Z’s upcoming Blueprint 3 album reveals a bunch of familiar faces — [artist id="1230523"]Kanye West[/artist], [artist id="1940303"]Rihanna[/artist], [artist id="503203"]Alicia Keys[/artist], [artist id="1242768"]Pharrell[/artist], [artist id="1243444"]Young Jeezy[/artist] and [artist id="1161216"]Swizz Beatz —[/artist] alongside hip-hop up-and-comers like [artist id="2545682"]Drake[/artist], [artist id="1217862"]J. Cole[/artist], [artist id="3066140"]Kid Cudi[/artist] and [artist id="2453841"]Mr Hudson[/artist].

Then there’s the leadoff track, “What We Talkin’ About” — which has a feature from some guy named [artist id="1733982"]Luke Steele[/artist] from Australian synth-pop duo Empire of the Sun — that will likely have most of Jay’s fans asking, “Jigga, who?”

“It’s gonna be a pretty big honor,” Steele said of having the first track on the eagerly awaited album.

But just how did Jay find the still-somewhat-obscure-in-the-U.S. group best known for over-the-top, futuristic videos that look like a mash-up of “Dune” and old Duran Duran clips? “Apparently, he was watching ‘Entourage,’ and he heard one of our songs and he needed this chorus for one of the tracks,” the impossibly laid-back Steele said in his halting, laconic tone. His relaxed air is a far cry from the bouncy, bright-eyed pop of “Standing on the Shore,” the tune Jigga heard on the “Running on E” episode of “Entourage,” which aired August 2.

So Jay’s people called Luke’s people, and they asked him to jump on a jet to New York for sessions, but because Steele couldn’t get a flight out of Perth, Australia, on time, the track was sent to him instead. “I tracked it all day, for 12 hours, and then I sent it back,” he said. “I was a bit nervous, wondering what everyone thought, and [artist id="1269"]Jay-Z[/artist] called me at 3 in the morning, and he said he loved it.”

Steele — whose brilliance has also been shouted out by the track’s producer, Kanye West, on his blog several times — said he took the original hook of “Shore” from the band’s 2008 Walking on a Dream debut album and did his usual studio manipulation on it. “It’s just whatever comes to mind,” he said. “I added some reverse [vocals] and wrote a Neptunes-y, Beach Boys melody on the chorus, and it turned out to be great.”

Asked why his music has gotten such a warm embrace from the man he called the “Empire State Building” of hip-hop, Steele said it might have something to do with the fact that, admittedly, he’s not a very good singer. “I’ve always gotten by by being experimental and knowing that I only had one voice box and I need to be able to turn this voice box into a chameleon and slice it into different tones and colors and characters,” he said. “And the other half that goes with my voice is the melody. From way back in the day, I’ve always experimented with a lot of ways you can get a different melody and working different phrases, slicing up things and reversing them.”

One of the things Jay loved was how Steele tried a lot of different rhythmic patterns on the song, some of which didn’t work. But, by tweaking his vocals so much, he came up with a trippy chorus that perfectly fit the tune.

“I still haven’t met him,” said Steele, 29, who described the whole cross-planet collaboration as “more surreal than the word surreal. I feel like I’m drunk on acid.” And while, in his own chilled-out way, the singer is totally geeked about the prospect of finally hooking up with Jay in the flesh and even joked about moving to New York, he’s savvy enough to know he’s got to dial it back.

“You do the track, but you have to play it cool as well,” he said. “I don’t want to be the kid calling him on speed dial every minute.”

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.