The Truth About ZHU: From Frat House Outcast to Grammy Nominee
A year after he burst onto the scene, the whole world knows ZHU - but does anybody know Steve?
There is no more compelling tale in all of dance music right now than the meteoric rise of the mysterious producer known as ZHU. His moody anthem "Faded" was a most vital track of 2014, bringing mainstream levels of attention to the fast-emerging stateside deep house trend. It's all culminated this weekend with a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording, the results of which will play out on Sunday afternoon for the entire world to see (or at least those who opt to watch the online stream of the pre-telecast).
But who is ZHU? Why is his identity such a secret? Apart from select interviews his team have awarded your parents' favorite reading material (The Los Angeles Times, Billboard), the artist himself has remained almost entirely silent, stating only that he wants to keep the focus on his music, not his person.
Part of his reluctance to embrace his pending fame might be that, as recently as four years ago, Steve Zhu was a student at the University of Southern California and somewhat of an outsider at the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. While his frat brothers were engaged in the raucous proto-EDM Greek scene on USC's infamous frat row, the Bay Area-native and now-lauded production whiz preferred to chill in his room and work on a of dance music that wasn't yet fashionable in such circles.
Social scenes aside, as he graduated from USC's Thornton School of Music in 2011, Zhu was still earning his production chops and hadn't yet found the magic formula. That year, he released a remix of experimental electro outfit BluntGuitar's "We Fell Off" on Los Angeles indie label No Ego Records. Decidedly more rough than the smooth and slick production he's known for today, the track was nonetheless licensed to MTV and ended up soundtracking an episode of Jersey Shore spinoff, The Pauly D Show. Beyond a label-hosted SoundCloud post, the track's existence has since been scrubbed from web.
A year later, Zhu had leveled up big-time. As part of "52 to ZHU," an ambitious project in which the still-unknown producer released a new track every week for a year from summer 2011 to summer 2012, he released "Brute (Bad Bitch)," featuring a singer/model named Cassie Cardielle. The tune, a progressive electro-house number, instantly cheats reference to the tones and melodies that ZHU still prefers, particularly in the muted and moody twangy lead melody. It led a debut EP, Introducing Zhu, with three other tracks titled "Radar" also featuring Cardelle, "Back to You" featuring Angela Via, and "Stalemate (Vibe Together)." Despite getting some moderate attention from a handful of house music blogs, nearly all tracks have virtually disappeared.
Meanwhile, in another realm of dance music, a rowdy Chicago-born EDM trio with rock 'n' roll tendencies by the name of Krewella was blowing up up to stratospheric proportions. After several years of touring and a radio hit with the tune "Alive," the group's debut album, Get Wet, cracked the Billboard Top Ten in its debut week. The group's manager, a high school friend with a quick tongue and an adventurous sense of fashion named Jake Udell, was soon looking for his next client. After proving his mettle in a mercurial first at-bat (before the inevitable complications of a trio kicked in), Udell knew what he wanted to do with this Steve Zhu kid. Reportedly introduced by mutual friends, Zhu and Udell were a perfect match: One, a talented producer with a lot of promise but little direction or identity, the other, a hungry manager looking to solidify his reputation by working with an act over whom he could maintain control.
ZHU's "Moves Like Ms Jackson," a clever, pitched-down mash-up of Outkast's hits, burst onto SoundCloud in February, 2014 without an artist name attached, sparking speculative conversations about the producer's identity and prompting those who knew Zhu to dole out tidbits on Reddit and EDM blog forums. Links to ZHU's past work started to appear, including bootleg remixes of Sasha and Tiësto records, a collab with vocalist Krista Richards called "Can't Be Stopped" (still available on Beatport), and official remix work for Ali Love, YLUV, and Spencer & Hill, all released on Dim Mak. Those we contacted to discuss ZHU's pre-"Moves" output declined to comment for this story, suggesting that both the artist and his management team had made clear to all that the new era of ZHU would not be contaminated by any of his early work or experimentation.
"Faded" came out in April, 2014 and was an immediate hit. The timing was perfect. Dark, brooding, catchy, and memorable, it captured the atmosphere of a generation looking to move beyond the overbearing tropes of the EDM wave. For Udell and his Th3rd Brain Management, it added another dimension to the portfolio, one less-reliant on the anthemic choruses and prominent personalities of Krewella. With the release of this tune and the Nightday EP, rumors continued to circulate about ZHU's identity, the more far-fetched of which suggested it was established stars Porter Robinson or Skrillex assuming a new moniker. It all served to amplify the hype and further cement the ZHU masterplan: By obscuring the identity of the artist, his surrogates could say ZHU's focus was on the music, but in fact he was drawing more attention the issue of the his identity, or lack thereof.
ZHU's first stateside live appearance was at HARD's Day of the Dead in November 2014, where he performed hidden behind screens and shrouded amid fog and light. It was one of the best sets of the entire festival and quashed any reservations fans may have had about ZHU's ability as a performer. That month, Columbia Records announced it had signed ZHU in a deal brokered by Andrew Keller, the same young gun A&R who had signed Krewella and ushered their album to the charts. The next month, "Faded" was nominated for Best Dance Recording. ZHU's name was announced to a worldwide audience, while Steve Zhu remained hidden in plain sight.
One hit track, a major label record deal, and a Grammy nomination later, ZHU's identity is still officially under wraps, although his name is now publicly known thanks to a carefully monitored interview with the LA Times' August Brown. All that's left of his past life are a DJTechTools profile and a smattering of pre-frame blog posts. It's almost as if the guy named Steve never existed.
As long as Steve Zhu's identity and personality are left in the control of others, his agency as an artist and ability to impact culture will be also. In particular, fan-led discussions of ZHU's identity have always centered around race. "It's some Asian kid" has been the refrain. He joins a short list of prominent Asian American DJ/producers including Steve Aoki, TOKiMONSTA, and Henry Fong. As a bonafide star and cultural contributor, the impact ZHU could make on the representation of people of color in dance music is boundless.
Still, ZHU's identity isn't about politics. It's about his art. His music is important. As so few dance artists are invited to the world stage that is the Grammy Awards, it wouldn't be unthinkable for Steve to reveal himself once and for all on Sunday's red carpet. Still, given his team's tight control on the ZHU brand, that does seem unlikely.
Steve Zhu, the person, has come a long way from a lonely Frat Row dorm room. As the world-at-large converges to celebrate his work, there's no more reason to hide.
Jemayel Khawaja is the Managing Editor of THUMP and is open about his identity on Twitter.