Back in 2013, an Australian producer named Thomas Jack coined the phrase “tropical house” for his personal mix series. It was an ingenious stroke of rebranding — two words that lent a new face to the well-established subgenres of deep house and melodic house, suggesting warm weather and peaceful vibes. Three years later, tropical house is one of the biggest sounds in the world. The Jamaican singer Omi’s “Cheerleader” became an international blockbuster in 2015 after it was remixed by the German producer Felix Jaehn, who sped up the song’s tempo, added bongo drums, and extended the original’s trumpet flourishes. Kygo, a Norwegian producer whose slowed-down remixes and original songs helped establish the nascent genre, was able to attract a massive following that got him to a billion Spotify streams faster than any artist ever. All that said, the tropical-house bubble has recently begun to show signs of approaching an end, with Thomas Jack himself expressing a desire to move on to new sounds (“I feel like nothing is evolving off of it,” he said). But at the Electric Zoo Festival in New York earlier this month, the bubble was still growing, with several tropical house–leaning producers offering a refreshing break from the festival’s more dominant dubstep and trap sounds.
On a bright late Friday afternoon, the Dutch producer Sam Feldt took the main stage with a number of sand-between-the-toes-ready tracks. His style of breezy and carefree house was well-received, particularly thanks to the spark provided by saxophonist Justin Ward. The miked-up instrument accented the brass-heavy tracks in Feldt’s set, and each appearance from Ward drew a larger response from the audience, who were happy to see some live music in a setting that typically shies away from it.
One hour later, Felix Jaehn waded through similar water in his own set, but without the twist provided by a live sax man, his music ended up feeling deeply bland. By the time he played his most recent single, “Bonfire,” a set that should have inspired a mental getaway was instead thankfully ending as he quickly got off the stage in time for the next act.
The following day brought a set from Norwegian house producer Matoma, who amassed an early following through his “tropical remixes,” which took familiar pop and rap songs and overlaid them with whimsical drums and an overabundance of whistling. This innovative combination yielded music that sounded something like Jack Johnson backed by Calvin Harris — a perfect sound for the never-ending adult summer camp of EDM festivals. Matoma’s approach worked like a charm at Electric Zoo, creating a mood of pleasant tranquility that stood in opposition to the intense rise-and-fall of many other acts at the festival. The producer gave tracks like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” a chance to breathe, rather than quickly cutting them off to jerk back the crowd’s attention with another dubstep drop or ’90s throwback. When Matoma, like Feldt, brought out a live saxophonist, it only confirmed that he knew exactly what he was doing.
One thing that was notably missing from most of the weekend’s sets was the bigger pop crossover moments that have come from the genre — Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry,” Fifth Harmony’s “Write on Me" and “Squeeze,” and even Kygo’s own “Firestorm” and “Stole the Show” were all underplayed. Instead, the tropical house producers at Electric Zoo focused on establishing an atmosphere of their own. Where other acts at Electric Zoo reached for easy fixes in the form of rap, trap, or dubstep tracks in the middle of their sets, these more sedate acts stayed well in their lanes, for a vibe so soothing and tranquil it was easy to embrace the genre’s warm clichés.