If you’ve ever taken a sip of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, chances are, you’ve tasted MeLo-X. Thosemellowed-out steel drums and dancehall horns soundtracking her slow-motion march of destruction through a studio backlot on “Hold Up”? That’s him. You can hear it in the chopped up vocal samples, trap snares, and Kraftwerk synths, wedged somewhere in between Bey’s “Tell ‘em, ‘Boy, bye’” and Serena Williams’ twerking behind on “Sorry.” MeLo has spent much of the last decade honing his Caribbean futurist sound, and even amidst the spectacle of a Beyoncé record, you can hear it, clear as day.
Far from an overnight success, MeLo-X, a Jamaican-American musician, has been on his grind for a hot minute—the rest of the world is just starting to catch up. Lemonade’s smashing success sure helps—he also scored the full-length HBO film, and has contributed visuals and DJ sets to Beyoncé’s recent tours. But before he ever met Beyoncé, he had already toured Europe (with Theophilus London), exhibited his photography in a gallery show (at Sean Kelly), and scored the theme song to a video game (NBA 2K12). He worked closely with Jesse Boykins III, cutting a collaborative EP (I’m New Here) and LP (Zulu Guru). A true multimedia artist, he’s traveled the world, sharing art and music across continents. But for MeLo, there’s no place like home.
And home is Brooklyn, NY—Flatbush, to be specific. The vibrant community MeLo grew up in has long been a West Indian enclave, with sections carved out for the various European colonies such as Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, and Jamaica. MeLo’s Jamaican heritage looms large in his identity and his music. Even as he’s taking us to the future with spaced-out synths, his sound is firmly rooted in the dance hall. And it goes beyond just the sounds of the islands; the default mode in Flatbush is the hustle, and that money-making motivation rubbed off on a young MeLo. “[There were] always multiple grinds happening,” he says—from early on, he was writing, recording, performing, and DJing, and then later, scoring films, making photos, and designing merch. “That drive, that energy definitely comes from the community I was brought up in.”
MeLo’s mother and sister have moved south to Atlanta, but he still lives in the house he grew up in. The friendly confines of his childhood home make for the safest of spaces for self-expression. “I might be maybe more experimental when I’m at home,” he offers. “I feel like I’m experimental anywhere I go, but I feel like when I’m at home, I just have dreams about melodies or ideas, and I just wake up and get exactly what I’m hearing in my head, out. It’s freeing, in a sense.” He was weaned on musical staples from the Caribbean, the birthplace of hip-hop, and rock radio. He fed on reggae classics from Dennis Brown and Bob Marley; boom-bap hip-hop staples from Nas, Biggie Smalls, Pete Rock & CL Smooth; and the ‘90s alt-rock gods Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
By the time we first meet MeLo, in 2013—on the set of his video for “Handle It,” a single from his record GOD: Pièce de Résistance—his aesthetic has become considerably more eclectic. And yet, with a few years of writing, recording, and performing under his belt, his vision came into focus. With his hair styled in two braided antennae and interpretive dancers fighting their way out of bed sheets, the black-and-white avant-garde film seems targeted more for MoMA than MTV. It’s a fashion film, made with a jewelry designer, a fashion photographer, and their creative teams—excellent experience for future multimedia collaborations. Looking back, MeLo says that the “Handle It” video was the beginning of a single visual story, told in multiple movements. Were you to collect all his visual output since, he says, “You can play them all back-to-back and understand me conceptually as an artist.”
2013 was also a big year for MeLo for a different reason—it was the year Beyoncé dropped her self-titled visual album. He had met her at a party at her sister Solange’s house a couple years earlier and was already a fan. He bought the record the day it dropped (December 13) and vibed hard with it over the next two weeks. On Christmas Day, he remixed the record into a six-track EP, sampling Beyoncé “the way a producer would sample an old 1970s record,” he said upon Yoncé-X’s release. The EP caught Bey’s ear, and before long, he would be drawn into her creative orbit. He started out with a DJ booking on her tour, then contributed visuals, becoming a trusted collaborator. As she prepped her top-secret Lemonade project, she tapped him to score the HBO film, and two of the tracks they made together, “Hold Up” and “Sorry,” made the album. Having been welcomed into the Beyhive, he turned right back around and reached through that newly opened door to bring in others, such as Wynter Gordon, his co-writer on “Hold Up” and “Sorry.”
“I like to work on full projects with people, not just one song here and one song there. When I really need to get into an artist’s mind and where they are in life, that’s when I execute the best song.”
The wild success of Lemonade has certainly opened even more doors and given MeLo access to many different artists with whom to collaborate. But rather than simply seeking out the charts’ biggest stars and hit-makers, he keeps his ear to the ground, on the lookout for the new next. On last year’s CURATE EP, he featured up-and-comers Little Simz, Kilo Kish, and Raury. All three have since had breakout moments in 2016. His taste has always been on point—the only difference now is the size of his collaborative circle, his self-constructed community. But the best collaborations develop naturally, so he’s taking it slow.
“I try to meet [new collaborators] in a place outside of the studio before we work together, like a gallery or some kind of function or event,” he says, “just to get a vibe of who they are naturally before you have to sit down and work. Artists who I can connect to like that, we have more of a long-lasting creative relationship. I like to work on full projects with people, not just one song here and one song there. When I really need to get into an artist’s mind and where they are in life, that’s when I execute the best song.”
The latest MeLo-X project is all about his Brooklyn community, and its famous Labor Day festivities—specifically, the wild late-night J’Ouvert celebration. Every year, more than 250,000 people pack in along the Eastern Parkway parade route to celebrate West Indian culture, but for many, the night before is the real party. For a young Jamaican-American in Flatbush, J’Ouvert is a rite of passage. But it has also been plagued by violence, and recent celebrations have seen a subsequent increase in police presence. “It almost feels like we’re in a zoo,” MeLo says. “They have the rails and the big lights everywhere, and [there are] hundreds of cops. A lot of times it’s like, ‘Where are these cops when all this real shit goes down?’” And after Carey Gabay, one of the governor’s aides, was killed in a gang-war crossfire last year, J’Ouvert is under even more scrutiny—in 2016, for the first time ever, J’Ouvert organizers applied for (and were issued) a permit.
“It definitely was more fun back in the day for me,” MeLo says, “and that’s why I’m doing the project. New York has changed in the last five to ten years. It’s almost this nostalgic kind of thing, just paying respect to where the culture comes from and where it’s going. I have a song that deals with that aspect of it.”
And if MeLo’s career thus far is any indication, that’s just what he will do—look to the future through the lens of the past, feet planted firmly in the present. It suits him just fine.