Stargate team Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Erik Hermansen. Photo by Dusan Reljin
When the popularity of rhythm and blues skyrocketed at the turn of the millennium, it was difficult to imagine Norwegian artists or producers ever significantly influencing this sizzling genre. Nevertheless, in the past couple of years, the Norwegian producer team Stargate has established itself at the very center of the U.S. R&B scene.
Formed in 1997 as a trio, Tor Erik Hermansen, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, and Hallgeir Rustan set up the first Stargate base in Trondheim. Since moving to New York in 2005, they have recorded a number of hits with artists such as Rihanna, Shakira, and Beyoncé, adding to the resonance of the Stargate moniker in the U.S. The latest highlight of their career came in February, when Eriksen and Hermansen attended the Grammy Awards as double nominees the same week they had five productions on the Billboard Top 100.
“The reason for our success is not that we’re that much different from everybody else, but that we have something to offer in a genre and market we have a good understanding and knowledge of, and that we produce music that comes from the heart,” Eriksen said. “Our love of music started in the ‘80s with breakdance and rap, and we have always loved American music. We have been inspired by Prince, Michael Jackson, Depeche Mode, Usher, Destiny’s Child, and R. Kelly.”
For Norwegian producers to reach this level of success is extraordinary. In the contemporary international R&B market, producers and songwriters have become just as iconic as the artists with whom they work. Timbaland and the Neptunes are prime examples of how the status of producers and songwriters has been elevated in recent years. Today’s producers and songwriters will typically create a simple sketch of a song before pitching it to artists who may be interested. Depending on the requests and needs of the artist, the producers’ role in the process of completing the track will then vary from that of background men to fully credited songwriters. Stargate have played a variety of roles in their most famous collaborations, and have garnered a reputation as skilled at adapting to artists’ styles.
In the wake of their first international success with British pop project Hear’Say in 1999, Stargate reached a crossroads: they could either content themselves with being a success in Norway, with the occasional venture into the European market, or aim for bigger things, which implied a move across the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, the trio were not in sync when faced with this career choice. Hermansen and Eriksen decided to relocate more or less permanently to New York three years ago, while Rustan stayed behind in Norway, where he continues to work as a producer.
Considering their many collaborations with pop artists, moving to an R&B-dominated market may seem bold. However, music pundits have on occasion argued that Stargate’s pop sensibilities have given them the upper hand in a music scene often struggling with the genre.
Hermansen and Eriksen must have been well aware that their success in the U.S. depended on their ability to quickly establish relationships with key artists. And considering their unassuming attitude, one might expect that the two would struggle to forge the necessary ties in such a competitive environment. Three years after the move, the transition to the American market appears to have been seamless, but anecdotes in the media nevertheless indicate that Hermansen and Eriksen encountered a fair share of septicism as relative unknowns in New York.
In an article about the duo’s unlikely rise to fame, the New York Times gave a humorous description of the first meeting between Stargate and rapper Ne-Yo, who had the following to say about his first encounter with Hermansen and Eriksen in a hallway at Sony Music Studios: “They told me they did R&B, and honestly I didn’t believe them.” Two years after that chance meeting, Ne-Yo has recorded a number of hits with Stargate, including “So Sick,” which was No 1 on the Billboard charts for two weeks.
Hermansen and Eriksen’s unobtrusiveness appears to be reflected music they produce, and their productions tend to leave the limelight to the person holding the microphone. Their trademark is a spacious soundscape, destined to appeal to R&B stars who are often weary of competition from the people behind the mixing console. Nevertheless, Stargate leaves an unmistakable imprint on its songs. Steve Lunt, an executive at Atlantic Records, made the following observation to Times: “They’re chameleons. But if you put a bunch of Stargate songs together you will see the thread running through them.”
2008 already looks set to become another banner year for Stargate. A key release will likely be Mariah Carey’s new album, E=MC2. Stargate recorded the song “I’m that chick” for this album. Few will be surprised if it turns out to be another high flier on the charts.