KAZAKHSTAN (NY TIMES) - Imanbek Zeikenov is 19 and lives with his parents in the small village of Aksu in Kazakhstan. He studied railway engineering at school, and until last December, held a day job at his local train station.
But everything changed in the summer of 2019, when he discovered a song called Roses by the Guyanese-American rapper and singer Saint Jhn. On the raw, sinewy Roses, which had already been commercially available for three years, Saint Jhn sings (explicitly) about a night on the prowl.
Imanbek's take pitches up Jhn's voice into a manic squeal; he added a thick, rubbery bass line and a snare drum rattling in the distance.
He posted his remix to Russian social media without giving it a second thought and returned a few months later, surprised to learn he was a pop star.
"I made an illegal remix," Imanbek said through a translator over a Zoom call. He was sitting in his newly purchased car and wearing a red-and-white Kappa top.
"I didn't know how to promote it, because I didn't know how to clear it. So I just put it online, and let it go. A few months later, it blew up the whole world."
Four years after the initial release of Roses, Imanbek's remix is an international smash. The song is No. 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and reached No. 1 on the United Kingdom's chart.
More importantly, Imanbek is no longer an unsanctioned artist. At the end of last August, he signed with the Russian label Effective Records. The following month, he reached a deal with Saint Jhn to officially release the accidental collaboration as a single.
Imanbek started collecting revenue from Roses last year , earning enough to quit his job, though Effective Records owner Kirill Lupinos said cheques from the first half of 2020, when the single exploded, are not due until later this year.
Despite their very profitable partnership, Imanbek and Saint Jhn have yet to meet in person.
"I'm performing in Russia," Saint Jhn said in an interview with Genius last year, marvelling at how audiences reacted to Roses despite not speaking English. "Not because I'm trying to perform in Russia, because Russia is requesting me, demanding I come. That's surreal."
Right now, Imanbek is plotting his next move. In May, he put out a chilly house tune called "I'm Just Feelin' (Du Du Du)," a collaboration with the Danish producer Martin Jensen.
He doesn't yet know how to DJ, so live dates, even virtual ones, because of the pandemic, are out of the question for now.
He is still making music on his 10-year-old laptop using a copy of FL Studio, but his sole upgrade has been a new pair of headphones, courtesy of his label. The only recurring reminders of his newfound fame are the e-mails, WhatsApp messages and Instagram DMs that have flooded his inbox from artists inquiring about potential collaborations. "One of the latest was from Tiesto," he said, referring to the star DJ. "He reached out to me and said he really appreciates what I'm doing, and he wished me good luck."