Now or Never: The Chaotic Rise of Dominic Fike

Dominic Fike made some songs and went to jail. When he got out the world was watching. To outsiders, it seemed to happen overnight, but that isn't the case.

Dominic Fike
Direct from Artist

Photo by Ashley Olah

Dominic Fike

The day that Dominic Fike re-released his debut EP, Don’t Forget About Me, Demos, in October, he was stooped over a toilet bowl. The previous day he had spent day drinking at the beach. 

“[I was] getting drunk in the sun, and then… I went out,” he says. “I went to the crib and just had more alcohol. And I woke up going through it!” The album went live on all streaming platforms as he was battling a hangover. 

The 22-year-old artist—then 21— was already the source of much music industry intrigue, the ostensible protégé of Florida “SoundCloud rap” who had an Apple logo where a teardrop tattoo should be. Fike seemingly appeared out of nowhere, originally releasing the demo tape in December of 2017 as an independent artist, while he was serving time in the Collier County Jail. 

The 6-track pop collection, which he recorded while on house arrest, sparked a much-publicized bidding war between the major labels. By August, all of his music had been taken down from the Internet—including his early music as a rapper—and it was announced that he signed a deal with Columbia Records, rumored to be valued at around $4 million. The day that Don’t Forget About Me, Demos was released once again, this time under the Columbia Records banner, DJ Khaled posted a screenshot of the cover to his Instagram story.

“I remember seeing the DJ Khaled post, specifically,” Fike says. “I was just like on the floor in my brother's bathroom, shaking in my underwear.” 

That day, October 16th, was remarkable in more ways than one. Hours later, still hungover, Fike got into his car to drive his mother to jail. She was going to serve time for drug-related charges. The first thing he did when he got his paycheck from Columbia was hire a lawyer to help reduce her prison time. She was sentenced to two years. 

“Yeah, the day I released the tape, I fuckin’ had to take my mom to jail for two years,” he tells me, as though remembering it again for the first time. “So that's what happened that day.”

dominic fike

By December, Fike is in Los Angeles, posted up in a lavish but sparsely-furnished home in the Hollywood Hills. A dark lounge room has been repurposed as a makeshift studio. Fike’s lanky body gently curls around a guitar, and his engineer, Julian Cruz, produces sounds from a laptop and keyboard. His best friend walks into the room with a plate of chicken nuggets. 

“Are you hungry?” 

"I had some Shake Shack,” says Fike, “but I could eat.”

“I got you, dawg.”

When he leaves the room, Fike refers to him as “Max Flavor,” Max cooks simple, plain-flavored meals for Fike, who has a sensitive diet. 

“My stomach is real fucked up,” says Fike. “I did a bunch of coke when I was in high school, and after high school, and didn’t eat as much as I should have. And it tore my stomach lining.”

The two grew up together in Naples, Florida, and Fike spent many of his days after school at Max’s house. Max learned to cook for them when they got hungry—his mother was dead and his father was always working. Fike’s parents were also frequently absent from his life for different reasons; his mother was in and out of jail. “Most of the male figures in my life were real shitty,” says Fike. “People that I was supposed to call dad, they were real shitty to her, to us.”  He sometimes took care of his younger siblings, a brother and a sister. He also has two older brothers who sometimes took care of him.

“I knew that drugs f*cked people up, but I just didn't connect it because the people I'd been around my whole life were always on drugs.”

There are explicit references to his upbringing on Don’t Forget About Me—“Find me on Miami concrete,” he sings on “Babydoll,” the third track. “Lookin’ for somebody different 'cause my daddy was a pimp / My mama had her issues but I miss her anyway.” Fike was shuffled off from home to home, staying with his older brother, or distant relatives, or his parent’s friends. His mother was incarcerated throughout his middle school years.

“I lived with this fucking lady that was, like, a super crackhead,” recalls Fike, “When my mom was sending money for me to get shit for school, she'd spend it on drugs, and I didn't know. That's why we didn't have A/C for like a year.” The adults in Fike’s life seemed perpetually strung out on different substances, but he wasn’t always aware that it explained their disfunction. 

“I knew that drugs fucked people up, but I just didn't connect it because the people I'd been around my whole life were always on drugs. [I’d see] people with no teeth and shit, I was like, ‘That dude just has no teeth.’” 

These are facts of his life he lists with no sense of drama. His childhood, he says, was otherwise full of adventure. Their volatile home lives forced Fike and his friends to find refuge outdoors. There was a forested area near their neighborhood they called the “Forest of Avalon” that was populated with rocks and trees and even had a stream running through it. There, they sought out experiences that removed them from the reality of their situations back home. “It would take a really long bike ride,” he says. “We would all get a bunch of snacks, and try to get weed or whatever, and go smoke there, and imagine that it was another place, you know what I'm sayin?”

Their group of friends comprised skaters and musicians. Fike also hung around his older brother, Sean, and they began frequenting a place called the “Backhouse.” It was the guest house of his friend Stefan’s home, and a convenient location for their underage partying. “They were all really young, too, and they were all allowed to drink,” says Fike. “[Stefan] would always have all these people over, all these kids I knew, they freestyled a lot. And then I jumped in and we were all freestyling.”

Fike had always played music. By ten years old, he said, he’d acquired a guitar and learned to play it. He loved Jack Johnson and Blink-182, but he was obsessed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and learned to play their guitar riffs on his own instrument. He now has a tattoo of Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante’s face on his right hand. But in the Backhouse, he mostly performed rap music. 

Within their small Naples community, the Backhouse began acquiring the kind of local reputation that seems destined to birth a hometown legend or two. They coalesced into a formal rap collective that included members Slyte, Ike Lysergic, and Seno, among others. It was with Backhouse that he started making connections to other artists in the scene, including Matt Black and Nate Traveler. 

dominic fike

The first song he ever uploaded to YouTube, a rap called “Not A Word,” has disappeared from the Internet but Fike insists on its existence. He was in high school. “I've had a couple tapes out and they weren't really tapes, it was just some songs that I had made, and then I would throw them together as a compilation and put a name on it,” he said. “And then when I would release my next thing, I would just delete it.” He caught early flack for his abundant use of the N-word, based on false assumptions about his racial identity, but Fike is African-American and Filipino. 

Within the Naples music scene, Fike and his Backhouse mates began garnering an audience. He formed a sub-group, Lame Boys ENT, the initials of which are tattooed on his forehead. In 2015, Backhouse got booked to play Rolling Loud, and they started getting write-ups in local publications. When he graduated high school, Fike briefly enrolled in college, but he says he barely lasted three days. There was a three-strikes rule, and Fike had already burned through two of them by the time the group got booked to play in Austin for South by Southwest. “I picked the show over school,” he says. “I left all of my shit at that apartment and never went back to that town, that college.”

The only remnants of his early rap career are scattered around the web, including an EP called Dishwasher and a video for his song, “Jada Pinkett,” which a fan has conveniently saved and re-uploaded to YouTube. In it, a young underage Fike takes swigs from a beer bottle and raps frenetically over a choppy, bass-heavy beat. But everything else has been deleted. 

“That was my plan with the tape, too. I was like, ‘Yo, before you drop it, wipe everything,’” he says. “Because I was already an artist to Naples. I was trying to get away from that fuckin’ ‘Everyone knows you.’” He wanted to be reintroduced to his audience.

dominic fike

The first time Fike released his debut EP, in December 2017, he was in jail. 

“I couldn't check the views or respond to the homies,” says Fike. “I couldn't talk to people.”

He had recorded the 6-track collection while he was on house arrest, then 21 years old and charged with battery of a police officer. The only thing he will say about the arrest is that it was “just a wrong place, wrong time, charge with my brother. It's public information now, it's all right there.” He doesn’t feel like he has to explain it further. 

He was put on house arrest for two months before he went to jail. His manager at the time, David Fernandez, bought him the equipment, and he began making the tape. Don’t Forget About Me was meant to be a grander project. He had 17 songs planned, with visuals for each one. He saw it as a feature-length film in his head. But, by the time he had to go to jail, only two of the songs were finished. He handed them over to Fernandez. All he wanted to do by then was release the songs, even if just as a demo tape. 

“We had fights over some of the songs and how the order would be for a little bit,” he says. “Sometimes when the argument would get so heated, we would be back to the ‘we're not even gonna do this’ talk. Like ‘3 Nights’ wasn't supposed to go on the EP at all. I pushed for that so hard. I was like, ‘That's the zinger!’”

The project was eventually uploaded to streaming services, and Don’t Forget About Me somehow landed on the desks of label execs who were taken by Fike’s potential. Fike is unclear about how he got their attention—he thinks his friend, the artist Yeek, must have posted about it. Either way, Fike found himself being aggressively courted by the music industry. By the time he was released in April, he was already being scheduled for important meetings, negotiating for the deal he wanted.

“I really needed money for [my mom's] lawyer, straight up. That's why we couldn't settle… It was like now or never, they gotta get some crazy amount of money.”

In the summer, it was announced that he had gone with Columbia Records. There were plenty of reasons he decided to forsake his independence as an artist (including, he says, the opportunity to meet and work with Billie Eilish, who is now a fan and collaborator) but at the end what really did it for him was his family. His mother was facing serious drug charges. “I really needed money for her lawyer, straight up,” he says. “And that's why we couldn't settle below anything that what we were working with… It was like now or never, they gotta get some crazy amount of money.” 

When the EP was released, again, by Columbia in October, Fike’s instincts about “3 Nights” were proven correct. The song is, by far, the tape’s most popular track, a catchy tune whose bouncy guitar chords has Jack Johnson’s influence baked into their genetic code. Since its release, the song has been effectively incorporated into all the appropriate official iTunes playlists and new music round-ups, including BBC Radio 1’s “Best New Pop” list. It amassed enough attention to produce a (negative) Pitchfork review that dismissed Fike as “your next hate-listen.” The tape also served as a surprise to his local fans, who were not expecting a pop record from the rapper they had grown up with.

“That Naples crowd, they know me for rapping, but this whole part of the world doesn't,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Damn they don't even know, bro! Dom gonna rap, though, Dom tell 'em!’ I'm just like quiet, not even on Twitter responding… I know it's just coming from them wanting to hear that shit, not mad at me. They're happy for me. But they just want me to boss up real quick. And I'm going to.” 

There exists, also, some suspicion about the trajectory of Fike’s career within the industry. Even a favorable write-up for puzzles cynically about the Columbia Records deal: “it was as if the label had thrown a reported $4 million to a ghost,” they write. Cultural commentator Chris Black tweeted resentfully, “We live in a post-Post Malone society where Dominic Fike gets a "$3-$4 million" deal with Columbia. He is from Naples, Florida and has face tattoos.” New York Times music critic Joe Coscarelli responded, “pretty amazing to watch how, in one weekend, months of growing industry buzz turns into good old-fashioned online HYPE (+’influencers’ like Kardashians, Khalid, et al).” 

dominic fike

Certainly, Don’t Forget About Me introduced Fike to a broader fanbase, one that now includes famous names like the rapper Russ and Brockhampton leader Kevin Abstract, who both tweeted about the album after its second release. As well as, yes, influencers like DJ Khaled and Kourtney Kardashian. Even Zane Lowe gave it a co-sign. But all these prominent placements and shout-outs seem to do is fuel the persistent notion that Fike is what they call an “industry plant.”

This skepticism, says Fike, betrays an ignorance of Naples’ vibrant music scene. “All these kids just grew up here with the lack of what New York and LA have to offer,” he says. “And these kids still have the same interest. We still have internet. We're watching all this shit happen. And they make it happen in the town. There's really a fuckin’ community.” Fike had an audience before the Columbia Records deal, it was just confined to the bubble of Naples, Florida, a city otherwise known for being a great place for old people to retire

“All these kids just grew up here with the lack of what New York and LA have to offer, and these kids still have the same interest. We still have internet. We're watching all this sh*t happen.”

For these reasons, Fike seems to shoulder the responsibility of the local kid who made it big, a burden that appears to have preceded his success as an artist. “My mom would literally be like, ‘When Dom’s rich, he’s gonna buy you anything you want,’” he says. “I'd be like, ‘Chill out, Mom!’ Fuckin’ like thirty views on SoundCloud, chill the fuck out!” The Apple tattoo on his face is actually a tribute to his sister, whose name is Apple, and serves as a reminder for what he’s working for. 

When Columbia asked him to pick a date for the re-release, he said, without thinking too hard about it, the 16th of October. He knew he’d have to drive his mom to jail that day. “The point of it was, ‘Don't forget about Mom,’” he says. “She just got transferred to prison, so right now she can get an iPad and listen to us and shit,” he says. 

Now, with the resources now available to him, Fike can make the album he wanted to make in the first place—the ambitious feature-length project that proves his mettle. “I'm not gonna let anyone down, for sure,” he says, when I ask him what people should expect from it. “I don't think anyone's gonna be let down by it. I think they're gonna be really happy with it. It will be exactly what they're supposed to get.”