How Stargate Went from Producing Atomic Kitten to Global Pop Domination

How Stargate Went from Producing Atomic Kitten to Global Pop Domination

The Norwegian duo are "going solo" – but you probably didn't know about their start in 00s British R&B and pop.
June 6, 2017, 9:29am

What do S Club 7, Ne-Yo, Atomic Kitten, Charli XCX, Beyoncé and Blue have in common? Exactly. You don't often see the regulars from your local town's Christmas panto circuit rubbing shoulders with a pop star considered so untouchable her fandom bred an SNL skit. But they've all, at some point in their careers, worked with two of the most important but enigmatic figures in the music industry: Norwegian productions Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, also known as Stargate.

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Chances are, that if you've listened to English-language Top 40 radio in the past ten years you'll have heard a song written or produced by Stargate. For nearly 20 years, they've carved out a career path that, along with the likes of Max Martin and Shellback, has helped Scandinavians become the de facto producers in pop. And like Martin, Stargate have traditionally shied away from the press. In a rare New York Times profile in 2007, Hermansen described his anonymity as "great". "We have the number 1 record in the country for 10 weeks," he said, of producing Beyoncé's anti-fuckboi anthem "Irreplaceable", "but when we walk down the street no one knows who we are."

Well, for now. Stargate have since taken a step into the limelight, releasing their own debut single "Waterfall", featuring Sia and Pink earlier this year. But how exactly did these two Norwegian producers become so instrumental to pop's now ever-changing landscape? Because somehow, the pair went from making hits for all your favourite Smash Hits bubblegum Brits to the sorts of people who actually get invited to the Met Gala.

"What's interesting about Stargate specifically was how they found their fame," says Bruce Aisher, a senior music lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, and a songwriter and producer in his own right. "It was about taking that American R&B sound, shaping it in their own way but then using it for UK acts that weren't R&B acts; they were making music that was for manufactured pop artists and groups."

And he's right. If you take a look at some of the UK's biggest (and largely insular) hits of the late 90s and early 00s, you'll find that Stargate were attached to the credits. Rather than crack the US directly from Norway, they stopped off in the UK first and basically made music for artists who were huge at the time, but some of whom are now quite firmly B-listers. S Club 7's "S Club Party"? That was them. Hear'Say's "The Way to Your Love"? Yup, them too. In fact, most of Blue's early discography was entirely built up of early Stargate material, ex-MTV VJ Richard Blackwood worked with them on his 2000 number 3 hit "Mama – Who Da Man" and you can also partially thank them for Mis-Teeq getting "Scandalous".

During this particular time in music history, UK pop was in really strange place. The genre was seen as specifically designed for children, with many of the songs, marketing and production mirroring that. Meanwhile, over in America, the likes of Darkchild, Timbaland, Pharrell and Dr Dre were amalgamating the sounds of hip-hop and R&B with Top 40 pop hooks. "I think that era represents a generation of artists and a certain sound coming into its own," recalls Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer Shannon Sanders, who's worked with India.Arie and John Legend. "The R&B that got a lot of radio and video rotation back then was a fusion of classic R&B combined with hip-hop. The early 2000s was when this 'musical love child' was cutting its teeth and establishing itself."

From their New York Times profile, it's clear that Stargate were eyeing this Frankensteinian approach to pop music with interest. "In Europe, we've only been hearing the biggest American hits," Eriksen said. "That's what we've been listening to and trying to measure up to." And indeed, from the Darkchild-like jangles on Brandy and Ray J's "Another Day in Paradise" cover to the scratching and Timbaland-esque percussion on Blue's "Fly By II", Stargate's material was headed in that direction. As Aisher points out, they were channelling a popular U.S. sound and "extruding it through the medium of constructed pop".

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With that in mind, a move to the US seemed like a natural progression, and a chance encounter with a then-rising singer-songwriter called Ne-Yo in Sony's New York office kick-started the next stage in Stargate's rise to pop ubiquity – specifically, the massive success of "So Sick". As Aisher says, "When they went to the US, they went back to that R&B sound but in its truest sense. And they were working with artists that were 'real' R&B artists."

Stargate's initial work with Ne-Yo, Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" and Rihanna's "Unfaithful" and "Hate That I Love You" stripped back the pop brashness, instead relying on tightly clipped beats and heavily filtered instruments. While in the early 00s, Max Martin had traded the R&B-flecked confectionary of "…Baby One More Time" and "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" for the "rockier" "Since U Been Gone" and "U + Ur Hand", Stargate were bringing their Scandinavian sensibilities to a traditionally black American genre. "We've always tried to make hip-hop – it's just that people always try to sing over our beats!" Eriksen joked, speaking to Billboard earlier this year. "Hip-hop is basically our first love, and the reason we wanted to come to America in the first place in 2005."

This sort of cultural appropriation, Aisher argues, is complicated. While it's clearly co-opting a music with a rich racial heritage, there's also a reverence and respect for the sound, and he argues that it greatly differs from the theft of black culture during the era of blues and rock and roll. "It can be quite innocent in many respects," he says. "The world tends to study, grasp, build and redefine what black creators do and then repackage it," adds Sanders. "And Europeans have long appreciated the creativity of Black Americans, in some ways more than even Americans do. Our gifts and talents are one of America's greatest natural sources and exports."

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Of course, this being pop music, the appetite for this specific form of pop-R&B began to wane a little. The genre began to shift again. While in the UK we'd had an affinity for dance music in the charts for decades, in America it was somewhat of a novelty. But tracks like Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" and Ne-Yo's "Closer" saw Stargate switching things up; instead of looking to the US, the producers reached back across the Atlantic to Europe and plucked away at the sudden dominance of amped up takes on Chicago house via euro-dance and EDM.

In a way, what Stargate were doing would, in fact, become the blueprint for the next decade in pop music. "There are people who attempt to create a 'pop' sound by taking elements from various genres and putting them into one song," explains Sanders. "For instance, they might extract the drums from a hip-hop song, the melody from an R&B one and the synth influence of EDM – but that's still the marriage of different genres to create a 'pop' sound."

You only have to take a cursory glance at Stargate's recent work to see that formula in action. From songs like Selena Gomez's "Same Old Love" to Charli XCX's "After the After Party", there's seemingly no identifiable quirk in their sound. This could be, partially, why Eriksen and Hermansen have stepped out from behind the boards and launched Stargate as a project in its own right. That Pink- and Sia-featuring debut single "Waterfall" jumps on the "sounds like soca or dancehall but isn't" wave that's been sweeping the charts since people thought Bieber invented so-called tropical pop with "Sorry". It's the sort of track savvily designed to sate any radio plugger in the sense it's vaguely familiar, hinges on two similarly textured vocals and keeps Eriksen and Hermansen in the background because they don't even appear in the music video.

Yet unlike the likes of the Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris or Timbaland, producers and DJs who've all launched successful careers as lead artists, Stargate's material doesn't really have a signature sound – something that Aisher suggests could mean that the duo might encounter problems while cementing themselves in the market. "The beauty of being behind the scenes when you're writing songs or producing is that it buys you the flexibility to indulge different types of music," he says. "Most people aren't looking at the names underneath the artist name. It's more about whether it's a good track, or if it's going to be played on the radio. The problem you have when you're an artist is that sometimes there's pressure from labels for this certain sense of coherence."

And that's not far off from what Hermansen told Billboard: "The new normal is people working together across genres and trying different things. That's an exciting time. People care about the music, not necessarily what name is on there, or what order the names are in." Given the way pop is going, with multiple guest spots per album the norm, Stargate are pretty well-positioned to cater to people who just like whatever's on the radio in the late mornings. In this way, to say that there's no coherence to Stargate's music might be unjustified. They don't have a tag like RedOne or beats like Timbaland or Pharrell, but at the centre of what they do sits an almost cold, formulaic dedication to the marriage of melody and pop song structure itself. "Our trademark is classic melodies with contemporary production. Simple and hard-hitting," the pair once said to About.com. "Ne-Yo once said, 'Not too much, but just enough.' We like that."

You can find Alim on Twitter.

(Photo Rihanna via