A pair of wooden doors propped wide open as music from café speakers spilled into the streets. Condensation from glasses holding ice-cold water dripped perfect round puddles on the table. It was one of the warmest nights that New York City had felt so far in 2018. Amidst the almost-summer buzz, in a French café in Harlem, Matt Hunter was anxiously counting down the minutes until his biggest single to date premiered at midnight.
“I felt weird these past couple of days. I think this is anxiety,” said the 20-year-old singer of Colombian and Italian descent. “I hear the tick tock, tick tock in my brain right now.”
There’s a reason for the nerves: “Dicen,” a collaboration with Venezuelan-born social media personality Lele Pons, is Hunter’s major label debut. Co-written with Jhay Cortez — who boasts an impressive roster of collaborations in música urbana, including J Balvin, Tito “El Bambino,” and Daddy Yankee, the single had been sitting, patiently waiting for the right moment for over two years. That moment came when Pons was added to the track. “It was very organic,” said Hunter.
The result is a pop dembow tale of desire, blending both Hunter and Pons’ voices into a neatly packaged catchy-as-hell tidal wave. The music video has already amassed over 50 million views.
Before signing with Universal Music Latin and Transcend.ent in 2017, Hunter had been working with DVLP, a seasoned producer who counts Lil Wayne’s “Fireman” among his credits. Their collaboration has helped Hunter move fluidly through hip-hop, pop, and reggaeton to update his sound. “I told them some of my major influences like Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, and [other] American artists. [They said,] ‘Okay, we’re going to make songs that can sound that they could be in English, but put [Spanish] lyrics behind them and make something new and make something fresh,’” said Hunter. His goal was to find a sound true to him — multicultural, refreshing, and young.
Like many children of immigrants, Hunter lives in an in-between bilingual world of English and Spanish. He spent most of his childhood with his Colombian mother in a very Colombian household in Paramus, New Jersey. He remembers his mom blasting bachata on rides to his predominantly white school. “She didn’t lose any of her costumbres that they had in Colombia,” Hunter said. “We would wake up and eat arepas and it was a very, very Latin childhood that I had.”
So it wasn’t a surprise when he began his music career at 13 that his first song “Mi Amor,” a homegrown, YouTube-primed teen ballad, was in Spanglish. By this time, it was 2011 and Hunter was living a not-so-normal life working as a Nickelodeon voice actor (he voiced the character of Diego in Go, Diego, Go! and Dora the Explorer) and living in New York. “Diego was more like a day job, and then music took over my whole life,” said Hunter.
With one single, Hunter was labeled the “Latino Justin Bieber” for his baby face, featherless falsetto, and self-made, YouTube-driven rise to fame. It wasn’t long before Sábado Gigante host Don Francisco casually called him up to perform in the closing ceremony at Teletón Chile in 2012. Close to 80,000 people watched and the audience sang the lyrics word for word.
“And I just won the country’s heart,” said Hunter.
Soon after, Hunter released “Mi Señorita,” a breezy electro-merengue track in Spanish with a sprinkle of English. The single drew fans from all over Latin America, from Colombia to Mexico and especially, Chile — thousands of miles south of New Jersey, where Hunter grew up. A few months later, he had a headlining show at the Movistar Arena in Santiago, Chile in front of 20,000 people.
Fast forward to 2018. Much like other teen pop stars before him, Hunter has watched his fans – nicknamed the “Hunters” – grow into young adults, and he’s matured right alongside them.
But his Chilean followers have a special place in his heart. “My fans in Chile are unlike any other fans from any part of the world,” Hunter said. “They’re just so loyal. They’re always tweeting me; they’re always there for me. They go to sleep talking to me. It’s crazy.”
For Hunter, the past seven years in the music industry have been a hard lesson in the business of entertainment. “I signed contracts that I shouldn’t have signed. And I kind of got screwed over,” he said. Hunter signed his first deal in Chile and produced his first EP, Right Here, Right Now. “It went gold [in Chile]. It sold over 20,000 copies. To this day, I never got one check. I never got one check.”
It wasn’t his first time facing the harsh reality of the record industry, but these kinds of experiences drove Hunter to stop releasing music for almost two years. Now, with producer DVLP and the Universal imprint Transcend.ent, Hunter finally feels like he’s in good hands. “Right now, I’m just focused on making great music and putting on great songs so I can keep my fans happy,” said Hunter.
And to the Hunters: Don’t worry, a debut album is on the way. He’s just taking his time and doing it right. “I just want to establish myself as an artist first and let people get the chance to know me first before I throw an album in their face.”
With a little over an hour left before “Dicen” premiered, Hunter looked out the window at the busy street. Every car on the road had their windows down and music blasting. “I’m so happy that it’s hot this weekend for people to be driving in their cars listening to it,” Hunter said. “It’s the perfect driving song.”