The internet is a crazy place, where random cultural items from years past spontaneously take on a new life of their own. Recently the social media app TikTok (which allows users to post short videos containing music) birthed something called the “Break My Stride” challenge. It works like this: a friend or relative is texted one line of Matthew Wilder’s 1983 hit song at a time, and as the recipient slowly realizes that the texts aren’t real and the joke is on them, screenshots of the conversation are shared while the song plays in the background. Though some of us may struggle to understand the origin (or the appeal) of such a trivial pursuit, the “Break My Stride” challenge has turned the spotlight not only on this legendary song but its creator as well.
In the years since “Stride,” Matthew Wilder has been thriving as a well-respected writer and producer. Among many other credits, he stewarded No Doubt to mega-stardom as the producer of their breakout LP Tragic Kingdom, and he wrote the songs for Disney’s 1998 animated classic Mulan (for which he received an Oscar nomination). We recently caught up with Wilder for an in-depth discussion about the hit that almost wasn’t, its mobile app resurgence, and the key to his longevity in the music industry.
Tell me about the origins of “Break My Stride.”
Back around 1982, I was signed to Arista Records. I’d been on the label for two years, and I couldn’t get any traction; no matter what I was doing I couldn’t seem to please the powers that be. I was throwing things up against the wall to see if it would stick, and Clive (Davis, then-president of Arista) was of the opinion that I needed three hit singles to get out of the gate. So on one of the last writing cycles I sat down and wrote some new songs, one of which was “Break My Stride.” And my producers and I went into the studio late at night during the “graveyard shift” when the time is cheap, and we made what became the record of “Break My Stride.” I seem to remember it taking us not very much time at all: some friends of ours were having a party up the street, and we asked them to come over and sing, so it was a very freewheeling moment. I was convinced that this was, sonically and stylistically, a really unusual record and something that was really a part of the time. You know, the new wave movement was happening: all the influences from England, Culture Club, Thompson Twins…this was a sea change for me, and I knew that it was a standout.
We submitted this and three or four other songs to the label. And then Christmas of ’82 I was in New York at my parents’ apartment, and I hadn’t heard anything from the label. Finally, out of frustration, I called the label myself, and I said to one of the A&R guys, “I’ve been waiting to hear from you, what’s going on?” And he said, “Clive didn’t call you?” And I said, “No, I haven’t heard anything!” So I hear him scrambling across his desk to find my cassette; back then everybody’s desks were piled sky-high with cassettes, and Clive would write comments on Post-It notes, feedback from A&R meetings and so on. So he gets back on the phone and starts reading the different notes about the songs, and he doesn’t mention “Break My Stride.” I said “Forget about those other songs, what about ‘Break My Stride?’” And I hear him read the note: “Interesting tune, not a hit.”
At that point, something snapped and I heard myself say “Listen: if you can’t hear that, there’s nothing I can do for you. Let me go.” I hung up with him, and minutes later the phone rings and it’s Roy Lott, the lawyer from Arista, saying “I hear you want off the label.” I said “No, I don’t want off the label, I want you to release my music!” And then he says, “I usually come in at the beginning and at the end of the relationships with artists, and I’m sorry to say that I’m meeting you at the end of this relationship.” And they basically let me go. But we were able to keep the masters because we weren’t receiving any financial support from the label. So we walked away scot-free with the master of “Break My Stride,” and within six months it was a worldwide hit on another label!
Do you remember the moment that you realized it had become a hit?
I was with my wife at the time, and I believe a couple of friends of ours, at a pizza joint in Beverly Hills. The song came on the radio in the restaurant, and we looked at one another and all went, “Oh s***!” (laughs) And then I started doing “Solid Gold” and Dick Clark and all that TV stuff; that’s when it was really driven home that the thing is a bona fide hit, (when I was) being sent all over the planet to promote it.
I detect a slight ska influence in “Stride,” with the synths playing the upbeats, some of the vocal phrasing etc. But then you also went on to produce Tragic Kingdom for No Doubt, a band that wears its devotion to ska on its sleeve. Is there any connection there?
I got the gig as the producer of Tragic Kingdom because I was signed as a staff writer to Interscope. I had written the music for an Interscope film called The Air Up There, and the guy A&R’ing that project was Tony Ferguson. He took me aside at one point and said “Have you ever produced a band before?” I said “No.” He said “Would you be interested?” And I said “Of course,” because I was saying yes to anything and everything! He was in trouble with this No Doubt album; they had already fired three or four producers by this point. I think Tony was correlating “Stride,” which has the reggae/ska thing, with this band that, as you said, wore ska on its sleeve. But ironically, I made an effort to steer them away from the ska influence. When I met them they were a bit of a one-trick pony; I thought they needed to change things up stylistically, to stand a chance of breaking out of the Orange County scene. That’s when “Just A Girl” and “Don’t Speak” and all those records started to materialize.
You’ve managed to avoid the fate of becoming a “one-hit-wonder;” you’re thriving in the industry as a respected writer and producer. What’s been your secret for navigating the notoriously rough terrain of the music business?
I can only speak for my experience, but I would probably chalk it up to having a big tool kit! As daunting as it was to reckon with the meteoric rise of “Break My Stride,” and then being kicked to the curb and feeling like you were nuclear reactive material (laughs), I think there were several things that were factoring into my response to all of that. At the time that “Stride” hit I was a new father to my son Zachary, and I didn’t feel like I had the luxury of sitting around and wallowing in self-pity. I needed to pick myself back up and get busy with figuring out, “What do I do now, from this point forward, with the rest of my life? What do I want?” And there was no choice as far as I was concerned: music was it for me. So I fought diligently to keep my equilibrium and my priorities set straight. I just started working at what I knew, and luckily I had people around me at the time who still believed in me; if not as a recording artist, then as a journeyman and someone who’s really good at what I do.
So I took it back to the studs and just started working on my writing chops and staying prolific. And through that my production chops got better, (because) I was having to teach myself more about the art of recording. Over time, you follow the path of least resistance and just keep hammering away at it. I can’t tell you that there was any road map; there isn’t, you know? And I got lucky! When the call came, even if I didn’t feel that I was fully qualified, I jumped in headfirst and figured it out as I went along. So there was a lot of subterfuge and negativity, but through all of that was born some amazing events in my life. Out of deprivation comes great things.
When did you first become aware of the “Break My Stride” resurgence on TikTok?
Several weeks ago my brother sent me a Google alert about this TikTok thing, and I just kinda looked at it and shrugged my shoulders and went on with my day! I didn’t really think much about it because it wasn’t in my field of vision. It’s like, when the phone rings once it rings once. But when it starts ringing again and again and again, which is what started happening with me, where other people were starting to pick up on this phenomenon, then it became blatantly apparent that there was an anomaly that was developing! (laughs) And then Sony called…
That’s when you know something’s really up, when the record label calls you!
I would imagine that over the years, you’ve become accustomed to the song periodically popping up in a movie or a TV show, or a cover version, etc. But this was something else.
Yeah…it was something else! Because it put the song and me together; usually when the tune winds up in a commercial or something, it’s the song that’s doing the work. But in this instance it came full circle and pointed the way to “Oh, that’s the guy that did this record,” and people came seeking me out. The song has always been more the celebrity than me; people remember the song and they don’t really correlate that with “Matthew Wilder.”
How has the TikTok thing affected you so far?
It’s had a peripheral effect, in that it spills over into the activity on Spotify and iTunes. TikTok is a platform that does not generate revenue, and music is being used for free. I’m sure that’s going to change at some point, but right now it’s every man for himself. It just so happens that this meme was created as a result of the song being used by a whole generation…I mean, the numbers are ridiculous, it was like, 75 million views of “Break My Stride!”
It’s so interesting how these memes and internet trends seem to originate on their own, from out of nowhere.
I did see that there was one girl that had staked claim of being the person that started this whole thing. Now I don’t know whether that’s true or not, because there are no stats…
There’s no way to trace the first time it appeared?
Right. It’s like, where did the coronavirus start, you know? That’s why they call it viral! (laughs) I don’t know how many of these anomalies have occurred, because I’ve only been affected by it in my world. Someone had referred to Rick Astley (and his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the subject of an earlier internet prank/meme), and then it took on this term “Rickrolled.” I’ve only heard about that recently because of what happened with “Stride.” My mind has not been focused on any of this stuff. (laughs)
What have you been focused on? What’s next for you?
I’m producing some new artists, and I’m just about to finish the score for an animated feature with a Japanese director, a political piece about North Korea. Mulan 2020 is also due to be released on March 27, and some of my music from the original is incorporated in the new version.
Mr. Wilder’s comments have been edited for brevity and consistency. Special thanks to Jared Faber for facilitating this conversation.
Photo courtesy of the artist