Alex O’Neill and Mike Temrowski grew up on the same block in a Detroit suburb. The two were friends from the third grade on, first playing superheroes before finding and falling in love with music. Their initial success came together: Temrowski as rapper Quinn XCII and O’Neill as his producer, Ayokay.
“He’s a huge part of how I got started,” O’Neill said of his friend.
While Ayokay’s recent success making his own songs has begun to pull the two on diverging paths, the duo remains friends and expects their paths to continue crossing. Ayokay, whose electronic singles have been gaining steam since 2016, released In the Shape of a Dream, a nine-song record, in July. Led by single “Half Past You,” featuring vocals by Future Jr., the record is his collective work.
“I had been working on so much music for so long, and I was going to make it into an EP, but it ended up being all in such a similar world that I decided it’d be more meaningful to pack it together as a project,” Ayokay said. “I want to be known as more of a project-based artist, not a single-based artist.
Quinn XCII got into music earlier than Ayokay, whose first musical influence was his brother. In high school, he became interested in engineering, the major he would later pursue at the University of Michigan. His influences by that time included Sacramento’s Tycho and other electronic acts like Kygo and Odesza. By high school, Quinn XCII was rapping, and started bringing his ideas to O’Neill. They cut their first song together in their sophomore or junior year.
“He had such an interest in a certain type of instrumental that I got very influenced by that, which helped me segue into producing,” he said.
Then when he went to Michigan, Quinn XCII went to Michigan State, down the road. The two used Michigan’s student studios to start making the rapper’s early songs. O’Neill took on the moniker of his high school nickname Ayokay. His initials are A and O, and the “kay” was added to signify everything is all right.
“My first original song I released was alongside him, probably sophomore year of college and that’s when it kind of really started,” he said.
Ayokay produced Quinn XCII’s first critically praised EPs. Then the two worked on O’Neill’s single, “Kings of Summer.” The song firmed up his breezy signature: danceable, with hip-hop beats, while retaining a nostalgic and euphoric hallmark.
“I definitely would not consider myself a pop artist or an EDM artist,” Ayokay said. “It’s somewhere in-between. I liken myself more with some sort of indie electronic, experimental stuff, but I definitely have a very big backbone in the hip-hop community. … I think within the first three seconds of hearing one of my songs, you can usually tell it’s an Ayokay song. It’s definitely very bright, warm, [with] sparkly sounds. I think my stuff is very summer-based; not tropical but more summery, happy vibes.”
Texas Rangers outfielder Ian Desmond discovered his first song and used it for his walk-up music, endearing Ayokay to a much larger demographic right off the bat.
Millions of streams later, it broke through to radio playlists. The song helped both Ayokay and Quinn XCII land deals with Columbia Records. Later in 2016 he released his first EP, 4ft to Infinity, which included contributions from his good friend and British singer Mafalda. O’Neill ended up moving to Los Angeles to pursue music more seriously.
The following year he released another breezy single, “The Shine,” this time with Connecticut singer-songwriter Chelsea Cutler, whom he found via SoundCloud and is now one of his and Quinn XCII’s best friends and partners.
“She’s a little sister of the group,” O’Neill said. “I was so drawn to her voice because, similar to Quinn XCII, from the second she opens her mouth, her voice puts you in a place. … I’m very interested in the voice as an instrument. Sonically, that’s what draws me in most. From the second I heard her sing, I was like, ‘This girl has a voice and a sound that I just like. She’s just such an instrument.’”
Cutlet ended up signing with Ayokay’s manager, and the three now comprise a collective, alongside singer-songwriter-producer Jeremy Zucker.
“It’s a little family and we’re very, very close,” Ayokay said. The group calls itself Mutual Friends.
Two more popular tracks would follow in 2017: “Too Young” (with vocalist Baker Grace) and “Cassette.” An earlier 2018 cut, “Swing Swing,” became his first without any other contributors, and the first on which he sings his own vocals. He said that usually he starts writing lyrics himself, even though the featured vocalist usually has a say as well.
“The sound of somebody’s voice is really important, but recently I’ve actually been experimenting with putting my voice on different layers of the song as well,” he said. “But again, it’s more the voice as an extra instrument on the song, as opposed to the very central part of the song.”
The various lyrical collaborations on his songs make one cohesive lyrical theme difficult to pin down, O’Neill said. Each collaborator brings in his or her own ideas, and Ayokay is receptive to all of them. But he summarizes the record as being about how the memories we make and the experiences that shape us early in our lives keep coming back, forcing us to relive them.
“Sonically, it’s all kind of ethereal and dreamy, which is where the dream part comes from,” he said. “A lot of the content, lyrically, is about past memories.”
With his growing success making his own music, it might surprise some that O’Neill is already looking ahead past his music to a time when he concentrates on developing new talent. It won’t be soon, and he still has the goals to release records and play shows worldwide. But long-term, he envisions himself in more of a leadership role in the music business.
“I think one thing that I really excel at is finding talent and knowing how to grow it,” he said. “I’ve done that a lot with Quinn XCII, a little bit with Chelsea Cutler. I think it’s an important part, but it goes very much hand in hand with what I’m doing now. … They both lead to an amazing place. So we’ll see which one takes off more.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.