Enter Dimensions: JAE5 On His Sonic Universe

The producer opens up about solo plans, winning a Grammy, and the versatility of UK music...

The London borough of Newham is a wellspring of Black British excellence in music, from grime stalwarts like Dizzee Rascal, Kano and Ghetts to J Hus, the enigmatic afroswing Farda. It’s also the home of Grammy-winning producer JAE5.

The pioneering beat-maker’s partnership with J Hus on ‘Common Sense’ arguably changed the course of Black British music, ushering in an era of groove-laden, afro-licked flavours that defied the boundaries of genre. JAE5’s worked as executive producer on impeccable follow-up ‘Big Conspiracy’ too, ensuring the project’s cool fluidity with his golden touch.

His production style is sonically all-encompassing and unpredictable, influenced by everything from Ghanaian hip life and Nigerian afrobeats to Celine Dion’s power ballads. It’s perhaps best summed up by the one / two of ‘Goodies’ and ‘Good Luck Chale’ on Hus’s groundbreaking debut. He channels gritty New York-style ‘How to Rob’ energy for the Stratford stick-up anthem. Then he flips the script on the latter, its playful keys creating an aura of breezy nonchalance as Hus levitates above his opps. JAE5 is versatile, unbeholden to any one genre or sound. He’s gone on to produce for a range of artists, from Dave to Rudimental.

Riding the wave of that aforementioned Grammy win for his work on Burna Boy’s ‘Twice as Tall’ album, JAE5 is now confidently stepping out with his own solo material. The excellent Rema & Skepta-assisted ‘Dimensions’ is his first offering from what might, or might not develop into a full-length project.

Clash caught up with him a couple of weeks before the Grammys, to discuss future plans, his process, working with Hus and where his impressive versatility comes from.

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In your interview with The Fader, you said Skepta was someone you’d love to work with. Did that experience live up to expectations?

It was good vibes, you know? The truth is you always have your perceptions about someone before you get in the room with them, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Skepta is just good vibes, he’s man dem. I can go and chill with him away from music. So it was good to welcome him and vibe with him and just create. It was good energy.

Did he help unlock parts of your production that you hadn’t tapped into yet?

He definitely made me more aware and critical of diction, in terms of when I'm recording with an artist.

Working with Skepta, he would say the same word fifty times to make sure he said it right. I’d think it's not a big deal man, people slur all the time. But when you listen to a Skepta verse, you hear every word, there’s no two ways about it. His attention to detail in his vocal plays a very big part. When I'm producing, I've always focused on my work and thought if the vocal is half decent then we’ll get away with it. He made me realise that ain’t acceptable. That's something I learned from the process.

‘Dimensions’ is your first solo cut, what else can we expect from you?

In all honesty, it’s what I think UK music should sound like. I’m not saying our music’s not amazing already, because it is. But it's gonna be a blend of things.

I might make a drill track, I’ll have an afro song but I might also come with something that's completely different, full of orchestral strings. It will all blend together with my influences and have an urban feel. I might get a full-on 50-piece orchestra with an MC like Kano, and it’s still going to feel like you can play it in a club. I think that's what I'm trying to achieve.

Are you building towards a full-length solo project?

I don't know if I'm working towards a project man, I'm just making music. I feel like if people want me to put out projects, I’ll put out a project. It’s not set in stone, I'm not precious about it.

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What are the key differences between producing for artists, and putting out your own music?

I get a lot more leeway and a lot more of an opinion. When I'm working with an artist for their project, it has to fit their image, their crowd. It’s about their idea of what they want to sound like. When it's my project, it’s ‘can you try this for me?’ And sometimes I think an artist might be trying to do something, but their pocket is something else. An artist might be trying to do drill, but their pocket might be that they’re an amazing rapper, so they should be doing hip-hop.

Or there’s artists who are singing, but are better lyrically, so maybe they should be rapping. With this stuff, I’m trying to do what I think an artist should be doing. I’m saying, ‘I can hear you doing this, so we’re going to try and do this because I think it’s gonna work for you.’

Who’s on your radar that you haven’t worked with yet?

I've not worked with many of the newer artists, like Central Cee, Digga, Unknown T. I want to work with a few more of those guys, they’re very good.

So the drill guys who are versatile with it?

Yes, exactly! Unknown T is versatile. I want to do something with him that’s not drill. I want to make something like ‘Must Be’ with him because I know he can do that. Some of these guys are amazing rappers, and I wanna pair them with someone who can sing their arse off.

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Talk me through your process. How do you build a beat?

Okay, there's only two ways I start. That’s with drums, or the melodies. I rarely ever start with a bass-line. So I'd get a drum-line going, then I'll play some chords and get the basic progression. Once I've got the drums and the basic chord progression, I try and get a vocalist on it. If that vocal sounds good on just those two elements, I know I've got a hit because when I put in the bass, the melodies and the ear-candy, it’s just gonna add to the vibe.

I’m not the best keys player, I can play good enough. If I feel like the melodies could be played a bit more professionally, because some songs need someone that's classically trained, then I’ll identify that. Or strings. If it needs a bass player then I'll get them in, or a sax player. I use a lot of sax on some of my stuff, like Dave’s ‘Location’. I got someone to play that sax, so I made the whole beat but then the sax was played live. On Hus’s ‘Must Be’ I didn’t like the sound of the strings when it came from a keyboard. I played the exact same chords, but it's not the same emotion as six people really playing it, so I got the strings replayed live.

So live instrumentation adds more emotional depth to a production?

Yes, I listened to a lot of early Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, stuff like that. I think live instruments give your song a longer life. Sometimes, everything feels simple and harsh and emotionless when it’s done electronically. Like you don't realise how much emotion a real string has, in terms of how it’s played and the volume differences. There’s so much going on. When you press a key on a keyboard, it's just hitting the note.

When somebody's doing that string live, it can get louder as it's being played, or it might get slower. There's so much emotion in it. I think live instruments can’t be beaten. I think you can overdo it too, but if you get that balance it’s amazing.

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Your work with J Hus arguably changed the course of Black British music. I think that’s a fair statement. Tell me about that relationship. Did he bring the best out of you?

I'd say yes, and no. At the start, he was the only person that would allow me to experiment. Obviously there were a lot of good rappers, but I’d get bored. I felt like a rapper would find their space and stay there, not trying anything else. If they were staying at a certain tempo then that was it. Everyone was too cool to dance. But Hus wasn’t one of those guys. He’d make a heavy metal song with me, to at least try it. So in that sense, I got to grow because I figured out what works and what doesn’t. What I could get away with what I couldn't. So in that sense, yes. But then no, in the sense that I've always wanted to be that person who steps out. I used to make drum and bass and dubstep. I did everything, reggae too. I just needed an artist to do that with.

Just before we jumped on this call, he announced his return to the studio. Are you gonna be there with him?

Yeah, for some of it I will. With this third album, I think he's leading it, he’s in control. With his first album, I was heavily in control of it. This time he is. I'm gonna be working on it, but not as much as I was with his first album, where I did pretty much every song.

You co-executive produced ‘Big Conspiracy’ with Hus too. How does the role of exec producer differ from that of producer?

You get to have an opinion on songs you didn’t produce. You have an influence across the board. You make a project gel together. On ‘Common Sense’ I produced pretty much everything but for the second project it was more executive producing and getting things in from people like TSB and IO. So then I was making suggestions and changes to make the album feel fluid. As Hus grows, he’s becoming more confident in who he is. He knows how he wants to sound and sometimes that doesn't go with what I think he should sound like. He’s grown and he knows how he wants to be represented in his music.

You put out a tweet about wanting to executive produce again for some other artists. Who would be ideal for you?

An artist who’s just as versatile as Hus, maybe even more. Like someone who can sing, a really good singer. I just want to do what I’ve done with him, with someone else, in a different light. Still urban music, but a lot more melodic. Someone like Burna Boy, because I find it very easy to make songs with people like that. I feel like our visions align in terms of the type of music we enjoy making. I’d happily work with an artist who has no followers though, if they’re talented and versatile and will let me have a say in what we’re doing.

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You spent a few years living in Ghana as a boy. Did that period impact your understanding of music?

It impacted it a lot, but it was more subliminal. I think that's where my versatility as a producer comes from. Those three years in Ghana were such a curveball in terms of what I was used to listening to, and then who I ended up listening to out there.

I was there from the age of ten until I was thirteen. I'm heavily groove based. I don't like stiff drums. I didn't even realise why at first, but now I know it’s from living in Ghana. Everything there is about a groove and movement. And I was listening to a lot of different things there, from reggae to Celine Dion. They’d listen to almost anything. The only genre I’ve struggled with is heavy metal. I actually tried. I spent a month listening to heavy metal. Maybe I just haven’t found the right band yet.

It feels like you’re very open with your listening.

I just wanted to learn. I think there's something to learn in every genre. Like I used to love dubstep and that plays a big part in how my bass-lines are done. With drum and bass, I love the way the hi-hats and the percussion moves. Listening to ballads from people like Celine Dion really helped me focus on melody. It’s all about learning from different things.

What other sounds were you exposed to in Ghana? Did you take in any hip life?

Yeah, a lot! Every time we went outside music was blasting, everywhere. We're taking in hip life, high life, Nigerian afrobeats. When we get home, our uncles are playing Lucky Dube, reggae or Celine Dion. And we’re chilling at home listening to all of this. When I get access to the internet, I check what's going on in London, so I'm trying to listen to grime. If I had MTV Base on TV, it was hip hop and rap, from 50 Cent to Missy Elliot. In school, everybody wanted to be American.

When we had non-uniform day, man was wearing baggy shorts that were touching their trainers, with the cap backwards and t-shirts touching their knees. They were so heavily influenced by American stuff. Everybody had the fake G-Unit trainers.

Maybe that makes you less precious about one particular sound, when you take in so many different sounds and you realise you're enjoying all of them.

Music is music. I don't care about genre. If I like how it sounds, I absorb it. And a lot of people have said, ‘but then if you do an album, it won’t flow.’ Like, I don't actually care, if I put a playlist on in my car and I put it on shuffle, I'm just gonna listen to songs I like. I don’t think they all have to fit a particular tempo or feel a certain way. I don’t give a damn, I just like what I like.

Another important part of your development was your time spent at Ape Media in Newham. Tell me more about that.

I learned a lot. A guy called Trevor Blackman used to run Ape Media. Probably one of the coolest, most genuine people I've met. I used to get in trouble in school a lot. They put me on this scheme where I’d be in school for two days a week, and do activities for the rest.

I was doing bricklaying and construction for one day, and then radio and production with Trevor. I was decent at broadcasting but I was good at making beats. So Trevor said, ‘look, you're finishing with us now. I’ll give you 50 quid a week if you just come here and hang around. Just don't get in trouble.’ Like he was that kind of person. And he was really well connected because he was always helping people out. He took me to BBC Radio, introduced me to people at Rinse FM. So I got to meet loads of people. Eventually he gave me a job there at Ape Media, teaching music production to kids who’d just got out of prison. That’s actually how I first met Hus.

Trevor was a person with morals, a man of his word. I picked up a lot from him. And because he gave me a chance, you know when you feel like you owe someone something. I felt like that. Because usually it’s ‘you did something wrong, you’re a wrong’un, fuck off.’

But you could only access Ape Media once you’d been in trouble?

Yeah, but I'll be honest, that was the best thing I ever did because it led to me going there, and being on that course, and meeting Trevor and Hus. I was in trouble, had cases and was on tag. And one of the only locations I was allowed to go after hours was Trevor’s studio. He was a cool guy.

Finally, It feels to me like UK producers are getting their flowers now. That didn’t seem to be the case in the past. Do you agree with that sentiment?

I think we’re getting our props because we force it now, we tag everything. Timbaland never had a tag, you just knew who Timbaland was. Missy would shout it. UK artists wouldn’t really big up their producers, it was almost kept secret.

Like, ‘I found this guy, he’s good. I'm not telling anybody!’ We just started tagging our beats. Now you can't hide me, my tag’s on the fucker. We forced the recognition. Even in the early stages of working with Hus, he didn't really want me working with other artists. Like ‘J, why you working with them guys?’ Until I was like, ‘you need to start working with other people too!’ You don’t realise how much you can learn from working with other people until you do it.

I’m glad you’re getting some much deserved respect, because good production is so fundamental to the whole package.

Yeah, because sometimes artists act like they can go and perform a cappella.

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Words: Robert Kazandjian
Photography: Theo Cottle
Styling: Nayaab Tania

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