NME Radar: Breakout

Masked Wolf: Sydney rapper and ‘Astronaut In The Ocean’ riding the waves of TikTok virality

A song the low-key rapper dropped two years ago is now a top 5 hit around the world thanks to TikTok’s welders, parkour practitioners – and JLo

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

When Masked Wolf dropped ‘Astronaut In The Ocean’ in 2019, he wasn’t in the best of places. That was obvious from the lyrics: “When your brain goes numb, you can call that mental freeze,” he raps on the opening verse, later confessing, “Didn’t know which way to turn / Flow was cool but I still felt burnt.” What distinguished ‘Astronaut In The Ocean’, though, was its creator’s determination to push through, no matter how thankless the journey was. “Even if I don’t get paid for progression, I’mma get it,” he vowed.

Two years on, Masked Wolf’s self-belief has paid off. Days after NME spoke to the Sydney rapper born Harry Michael, ‘Astronaut In The Ocean’ crept even higher up the Billboard Global 200 chart, now sitting pretty at number 4 behind Lil Nas X, Justin Bieber and Silk Sonic. It’s also cracked the top 5 in his native Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Finland and Hungary.

@maskedwolfmusic

#duet with @jlo had to dance with my homie since she’s on the Astro train 🙏💪💪 #fyp #foryoupage #foryou #dance

♬ Astronaut In The Ocean – Masked Wolf

That’s thanks in large part to TikTok and its enthusiastic users, who’ve used the song’s first dramatic 30 seconds to soundtrack videos about welding, four-wheel drives and acts of impressive athleticism (think parkour and powerlifting). In late March, Masked Wolf got his biggest TikTok cosign yet: Jennifer Lopez, who danced to his song while lounging by the pool.

As of January a signee to US label Elektra Records, Masked Wolf is hard at work on a new album. He talks to NME about how TikTok upended his life, wanting to collaborate with fellow breakout Aussie rapper The Kid LAROI and what his new material sounds like.

It sounds like you’ve been having a whirlwind few weeks.

“Yeah, I’ve been thrown into the deep end. And I’ve been learning how to swim with the sharks, basically. But it’s been fun. I don’t think any of us expected what’s happening, but it’s happened. And now it’s like, OK, you got to go with the flow.”

I read that you recently quit your day job to focus on music. Was that something you were actively working towards?

“It was always in the back of my mind. But it had to be something that really put me in a position that I could do [music full-time], then I would think about it. And I got to the point where I just couldn’t mentally and physically balance my one job with music and everything that was going on. I just came to the point like, yeah, I need to finish up and focus on music 100 per cent and put all my effort into what I’m making and everything, with the wave that was coming.”

How’s it feel now, calling yourself a full-time rapper or full-time musician?

“It’s weird. Because when people say, ‘What do you do for work?’ I never even used to say that I do music or anything. I used to just say I’m in sales. I couldn’t be bothered telling people I do music. But now if I don’t say I do music, I’m lying. Because that’s my only job. When I go out, I really don’t like talking about what I do. I try to keep it on the low, but I think it’s gonna be hard for me in some scenarios now.”

What do you like about keeping a low-profile – not advertising the fact that you’re a rapper?

“I just don’t like talking about myself. I think if you need to talk about yourself, and what you do – It’s kind of egotistic and that’s just my opinion. I just don’t like boasting, I’ve never been a boaster. But if someone wants to come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, you’re Masked Wolf, you’ve got that song?’ And I’d be like, yeah, that’s me for sure. And then I get into a conversation. I find that more authentic and free-flowing, rather than me forcing them to talk about me.”

“I’m just on the surfboard. The wave’s there, and I’m just going along with it, wondering when the wave’s gonna stop and just enjoying the sun”

‘Astronaut In The Ocean’ took a few months to get massive momentum. In January you made a video thanking people for over 50million streams. And now on Spotify alone it’s got 275million. What has it been like watching the song go viral in real time?

“I just don’t look anymore. I get too scared. I was happy with 20million streams, I said to a lot of people. I went out to celebrate 20million streams with my friends. I was happy with that. Then it went to 50 and then we’re all talking about 100 and then, you know, now I’m nearly at 300million. So I don’t know what the world’s doing to me at the moment. I’m just on the surfboard. The wave’s there, and I’m just going along with it, wondering when the wave’s gonna stop and just enjoying the sun.”

What’s the wildest TikTok you saw that used your song?

“I feel like the welding was really weird. There were a lot of welding videos, of people smashing light bulbs and the sparks going everywhere, and I’m like, I didn’t know welding was this serious and fun at the same time. So when it first started, it was a lot of four-wheel drives and welding. Then it like went into like sports and athleticism – parkour and people doing these wild jumps. I’m like, ‘Well, how and why these topics’, you know?”

‘Astronaut In The Ocean’ is a song about struggling with mental health. Are you in a better place now than when you wrote it?

“Yeah, definitely. I mean, the whole point of ‘Astro’ was to speak more about myself and open up, which was something I wasn’t really doing in life. And I found I could do it more through music, rather than just talking with someone. [I was] being or feeling out of place, which is what the song goes through and talks about. For me, I feel more at place now because obviously now I’m doing what I love to do, my passion. But it’s very hard when that success doesn’t come or you still feel out of place, and you’re still grinding. And you might be listening to ‘Astro’ feeling like, yeah, that’s me. But for me, I was in a very dark place. Like two, three years ago, maybe even a bit more. It’s crazy to think how much things can change in just a short span of time just to alter your mentality.”

Earlier in the call you were saying that you’ve been thrown in the deep end, and you’re figuring out what your life is now and how to swim. Have you given any thought to how this newfound success might bear on your mental health?

“Not really, because I feel like I’m in a good place and I’ve got a really good team that can help me with that. I mean, I haven’t really faced the whole sharks and deep end yet, because we haven’t traveled and gone to the places where it’s number one and [dealt with] paparazzi and all that. For me, it’s like, ‘Okay, you’ve got a top five song in the world! Deal with it’. Where usually it would be like, ‘Hey, this is happening and we’re flying over’. So now it’s a lot of just me monitoring myself and doing a bunch of promo. I’m, you know, 30 years old. It’s one of the best times it can happen for me because I feel like I’m more mature than what I was at a younger age. So handling whatever’s coming in the future is just going to be easier than what it would be if I had been 19 and found success.”

Masked Wolf TikTok Astronaut in the Ocean
Credit: Press

Who were your rap heroes growing up?

“Eminem, of course. Kanye West when I was younger. G Unit – and then I transferred into Kevin Gates, Hopsin and Joyner Lucas into the new school.”

Are there any Australian rappers that you admire, that you think are great?

“I really do like The Kid LAROI. I would love to do a song with The Kid LAROI, because we have that type of edge with our voices that we can sort of be unique. Straight away, you know that’s Kid LAROI on the mic or Masked Wolf on the mic. So I’d love to do something with him. He’s very talented. And I’ll see if I can make it happen.”

I think both of your voices would actually complement each other super well.

“Sonically, I feel like we have a bit of a match.”

What do you look for in a collaborator?

“All I look for is just what the song tells me. So when I press play, the feeling I get, the vibe I get, and do I think it’s gonna be a really good song or pretty average song. Because if I feel like it’s going to be average and the vibes are not there, then I’ll be saying no. But if I feel like the message is there, and it’s got a really good flow to it, and it’s unique, then I’ll want to be on this.”

And how do your new songs sound at the moment?

“Aggressive. One I would say is very in your face. It’s good, because we have a variety. One’s like big bass rap, the other’s like Don Toliver, you know, chill, rock star type vibe. And then we’ve got one that’s like singing-emotional. So there’s an array of different types of songs. I’ve always wanted to be versatile. Ever since I was like 13 and 14 writing music, I said, I have to be able to do different types. Because if you just keep doing the same thing over and over again, it will just get boring. And people be like, ‘OK, we’re gonna go to the next artist’.”

Finally, when people hear the name ‘Masked Wolf’, what do you want them to think of?

“Just being purely authentic, very original with my own unique sound and that I’m a rapper that speaks about his own personal life – not just fabricated lyrics.”

Masked Wolf’s ‘Astronaut In The Ocean’ is out now. Masked Wolf performs at Fresh Produce Festival in Maitland on August 27