Surf Mesa’s path to the top of Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart began in a Starbucks parking lot. While scrolling through TikTok in November 2019, the producer saw a video of singer Emilee Flood performing Frankie Valli’s 1967 classic “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and inspiration struck as the caffeine set in.
“I wanted to grow my TikTok and promote my music [on the app],” says the 20-year-old born Powell Aguirre. “My idea was just to remix the audio because people would be familiar with the viral video of her singing.”
Aguirre started working on the project that night; by dawn, he had created “ily (i love you baby),” a dreamy, lightly bumping edit of Flood’s remake. The song recently peaked at No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 after entering the chart in June and has ruled Hot Dance/Electronic Songs for seven weeks while collecting 156.5 million on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.
“The success has inspired me to live by the philosophy that you can literally put your mind to anything,” says Aguirre, who regularly skipped high school classes in the Seattle suburbs and graduated with a 1.8 GPA. “I was really unsure of what I wanted to do in high school: Computer science? Real estate? But on the side, I was always in my room smoking weed and making music.”
“Ily (i love you baby)” wasn’t an instant hit. But after Aguirre DM’d Flood the SoundCloud link, she replied that his edit was “so dope,” and the pair decided to upload it to digital service providers. Labels started calling, and Aguirre signed to Astralwerks in February. The dance imprint helped him clear the rights to Valli’s original — a process he previously attempted on his own by asking for legal advice on Reddit.
With a breakthrough single and 85,000 TikTok followers, fears of becoming a one-hit wonder still creep in. “When a song explodes and changes your life,” says Aguirre, “you’re going to have to work harder for something to compare to this huge tsunami.”
This article originally appeared in Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.