I’ve known Jay Sean since he was a rapper in a trio in west London many years ago. Now he’s a record-breaking award winning international music act that’s settled down with his wife and new baby in the states.
He crept back into London last week for a quick catch up and to remind us his new album THE MISTRESS and single TEARS IN THE OCEAN are out now.
I invited my LONDON360 reporters who didn’t know him as well as I do, to grab him for a chat about all things music, politics, music industry , Cash Money, life as a new independent music artist and more!.
Jay began by informing them about his background and roots;
Jay: I grew up in Southall which is West London, a heavily, heavily populated Indian area. I am a first generation British born Indian so my parents were actually 4 or 5 when they came over from India. So for me, growing up in a very Indian area, but then I went to school in Hammersmith at Latimer Upper School and there I had a massively diverse group of friends from all different backgrounds. So that really was key to me because that equips you with what it takes to have a whole, well rounded personality and be able to communicate with all different types of people.
L360- You’ve always maintained an element of Indian culture in your music, why was that important for you to do?
Jay: In the beginning, it was very organic and very natural the way it happened, the way I fused the music together. Indian music is gorgeous, it’s beautiful, its melodic, its emotional and the scales are gorgeous and I’m a very melodic writer. So I tend to borrow a lot from that emotion. It happened very organically in the beginning, 12 years ago I did a track called Dance With You where we fused a different dialect as well, Punjabi language and we put it together. It worked, it was very natural. Then I did it a couple of times again but what I started to notice was, it was becoming somewhat of a gimmick, the last thing I wanted to become was a gimmick artist: ‘ah whos that guy jay sean who just wacks a tumbler on everything’ I didn’t want to be that guy. Like, what if I wanted to do a song like Someone Like You and a beautiful, gorgeous piano ballad and all of a sudden ive got to put a satari on it. It’s not going to work. So I just feel me being Asian, and doing well, being successful is good enough to represent my people.
L360- How did you get together originally with Cash Money?
Jay: Cash Money actually heard a song that I did called Ride It which was a really pivotal song for me in my career. It was also the song which crossed me over from just the Asian population into the urban scene and that’s when I won a lot of the black audience over as well and the song went international so it was winning over a lot of new territories. It didn’t win over America because hardly anything gets over to America, its very difficult to break America. Cash Money though did come across this video through the producer I was working with at the time. He showed them the video, he said theres this guy called Jay Sean who I’m working with, you should check out his stuff. Boom. Watched the video and they fell in love with the song, loved my vibe and were like, you know what ‘hes clearly got a massive fan base, lets bring him over here and put him out in America’ and they did. And it was amazing,
I had the most incredible experience of my life being signed to Cash Money. I mean without a doubt. It took me from here to here (raises bar) I became a household name in America. That first song I put out went number 1 on Billboard and after that, what do you even do after your first song gets number 1 in America. So, of course we tried to follow up with more success and we were very fortunate to have a lot of success. We ended up selling over 15 million records over there so for me it was great. The madness that came along with that was of course one of those things that you tell your grandkids, Justin Timberlake called me up to get me on his show in Vegas where just a handful of Justin’s friends, since when. When I was growing up in Southall I never thought that would ever happen in my whole life. And then you have all of these things. Casual chit chats with Jay Z who is my ultimate icon but then hes talking to me and making jokes that I stole both of his names. These funny little antidotes, which you will never forget, only happened because I made it in America and it was really an amazing thing. But I never got caught up in the fame aspect of it, I never got caught up in any of that because that for me was a by-product of what I really wanted. What I wanted was success and respect in terms of ‘Big up Jay Sean, he’s repping us. I’m proud to have Jay Sean on my iPad or iPod’ that’s what it was about for me.
L360- -So to go from a West London boy all the way to America selling thousands of tickets to shows, how does that even happen?
Jay: There’s no secret man. No secret otherwise everyone would be doing it. They have to take to you man. They have to like you. That’s it, they have to like you. The media has to like you, the people have to like you. You have to walk out of a room and people have to go ‘you know what, I like that guy, I wanna see him win’ and that’s literally how it is. They will fight for you if they like you and like your music then they will want to see you win. The difference is in America, honestly, they do kinda wanna see you win because it gives every kid hope. Every child in America is raised with the thought that they could become the next president, that’s literally how it is. ‘Son, if Obama can do it then you can be the next president’ and that’s how it is. They just aim high. They have all these massive athletes at college level who are superstars, at college. Like everything there is about making it and I like that because I’m all about that. My whole ethos in life is if we’re here once, why would you want to be mediocre at anything, why would you accept mediocrity when you can be brilliant and that’s what I’ve always wanted to be.
L360- -So you made it in America, on a unprecedented level, not a lot of people have done that, Chipmunk went over, he’s not even signed to Hustle Gang anymore, people have said Angel should blow in America, why do you think there’s such a barrier?
Jay: Look, like I said man, its hard and the thing is they have their superstars, they have theirs. So, they don’t need our superstars, they have the best of the best for them as far as their concerned. If we can offer something different and unique that they then are drawn to they’re gonna be like ‘yes, I like this’. Sam Smith is killing it over there because he’s coming with a singer/songwriter style that American artists aren’t doing, Adele did the same thing, Ed Sheeran did the same thing, they’re different, they’re unique. British Hip Hop,
…if I’m honest, Grime is going to be so difficult to break into America for one reason only: they need to understand what we’re saying. It sounds so stupid but when I’m singing, I sing in an American accent, not intentionally but because I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, all of these people you listen to you sing like them so that’s how you learn to sing. So we just have an American accent when we sing. British rappers of course are very British sounding and if the audience over there cant understand what they’re saying, how can they be drawn to it? How can they get attached to it. That’s the only thing I can think of which is making it so difficult, not because they’re not good.
L360- -How are you labelled over there, are you that British guy, are you that Asian guy?
Jay: No, some of them don’t know I’m British; they definitely don’t know I’m Asian. Everybody speaks to me in Spanish when I’m over there, everybody! Everyone just speaks to me in Spanish because they think I’m Puerto Rican or Dominican or Mexican, they don’t know. I think they like, once they get to know me and I open my mouth in interviews is ‘Oh my God you’re British’ they focus on the British thing more than anything, they love it. They just love British culture. And the British accent really helps out there, by the way. Any guys watching go to L.A and put on the accent really thick, you’ll have a great time.
L360- -How do you feel your legacy is received here, do you feel sometimes you’re slept on? You’ve sold 15 million records being from over here, I can’t think of someone else who has done that.
For sure, I’m slept on. I know that for sure. It used to bother me a lot, when I was a kid but now that I’m a man that shit doesn’t bother me. It’s like, I don’t do it for that. I have a very strange story over here in England, I was very niche, I was a very underground artists and I still had mainstream success. I had 3 top 10’s before I even went to America and a couple of top 20’s. All in England but you never saw me in the Heat magazine, you never saw me in the front page of GQ or even in GQ or any of the other British publications. For some reason, I just think they thought ‘ah, but, he doesn’t really fit this. Asian Network right, that’s what you do, Asian Network’. I’m sorry, what about Radio 1, wasn’t I on that as well? Everything was very much ‘oh, I don’t know how he fits in here’. That’s cool man, it’s alright, I’m different, I’m unique, I’m one of hardly any others who are like me. So, if I don’t tick all your boxes, I’m not gonna try to impress you so I can be all up in your magazine. That’s not my style man; I’ve never been in it for that. Write about me if you want, that’s cool, don’t write about me if you want, that’s not what I was in it for.
L360- Do you stay up to date with the British scene at the moment?
Jay-Its hard for me to keep up to date but I know there’s a tonne of new artists, especially from the British Hip Hop scene, the Grime scene who are coming up. I’m hearing their names floating around all the time, I wanna get into it and learn a bit more about the new flavour without being like ‘oh I’m jumping on the bandwagon, I need to do something with him because he’s the cool one right’ nah I don’t wanna do that.
L360- So you citied a change in direction as the reason for leaving Cash Money, could you explain just a bit more about that?
Jay: Yeah, like I said, I had a lot of pop success and it was wonderful, it was amazing, it changed my life and it was an adventure, a journey that I will never, ever forget and its still going on. I’m still very lucky that I have a massive American audience. But I think, really, the thing is I went too pop. Too pop. There is a danger and there is such a thing as going too pop. When you’re having so much success in that lane, youre killing it and every song after song is selling millions and millions and millions, it’s the music business at the end of the day. It’s a business. We’re selling something. So if I turn around and go ‘errrr guys, I know we’re killing it in this pop lane right now, but I’m not enjoying these songs anymore man, trust me, I feel sick writing these songs over and over again’. How many songs can I write about partying? How many songs can I write about throw my hands in the air? I don’t wanna do that no more, even if that will win every time, I don’t wanna be that guy. Let me go and do something that makes my soul happy because you know what makes my soul happy is this right here. It’s that RnB music that I’ve returned to, its that Mistress II, that makes me happy. So, I go for where my hearts happy man.
L360- Do you think that is the direction Pop has taken Hip Hop?
Jay: Pop is popular music right? It’s the only thing that sells in the millions, still to this day in the music industry. All the other genres are struggling to survive because there too niche now. Back in the day you could be a RnB artist and sell 3/4 million albums, no problem, you could be like an Indie Rock artist and sell millions of albums, no problem, country can sell like crazy but that’s different. In terms of the genres we know like Hip Hop, RnB, Pop, Rock, Pop is the only thing that’s selling so its no wonder is it that Chris Brown, Rhianna, Usher, Ne-Yo, myself, Enrique, so many of us went from our little niche genres into the pop world because the pressure was on by the record companies to do that. That is why the other genres are struggling to survive.
L360- So how important is it for you to go back to your essence with the Mistress II?
Jay: Its very important. It’s important for my soul man. More than anything else, it makes me happy. What makes me more happy is when people come up to me on the street and go ‘yo bro, your Tears in the Ocean song is ridiculous or when people come up to me and say ‘all I want is My Jam you don’t understand I’m looking for a R&B song like that for ages, nobody has that anymore, nobody does that anymore.’ That makes me happier than standing there on stage singing a song that I’m not even into, singing a song that I’m not proud of.
L360-: Recently, you’ve been going into schools and talking with school kids, what brought that about, did something personal trigger that?
Jay: Yeah, for me man, I’ve been very happy to be in this game for over a decade. I feel I have a lot to share, I have stories for years, I’ve been through everything, there’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t been through. Trust me, I’ve been in the independent world twice, Ive been signed to 2 majors, walked out,
I know this game inside out. So for me, I have a lot to share with the kids who are trying to get into it, I see all these kids who’s eyes light up with visions and dreams of being a star and I wanna give them, not only the hope and dream element but I wanna give them everything it takes. Everything it takes, the truth that nobody will tell you because once you’re in that world and then you’re like ‘no one told me how to deal with all this, no one told me about this backlash and this media and why people are cussing me and why people are writing stuff about my mum, I don’t know how to deal with this’. Stupid stuff that people don’t expect comes along with stardom. I have to teach them all of that stuff, I want to tell them all of that stuff. They loved it because they knew, I’m telling them things like ‘don’t forget your real friends man, don’t start worrying about the amount of followers your getting to see if that’s how you’re popular, don’t lose your real core’. Don’t lose your real friends and family, those people will keep you grounded because when all this ish goes and it will go one day, that’s all you got left. When I tell them that man, I can see that they appreciate that and it makes me happy.
L360- Do you think in school in the current education system, there should be more emphasis on the creative arts?
Jay -Well Latimar Upper, the school I used to go to was amazing, they’re producing on pro-tools, they use literally the same set up that I do as a professional recording artist so I was amazed to see that. I would like to see some emphasis on different genres of music because its pretty funny to this day that we learn about Beethoven, Mozart and stuff like that on the piano and that’s important because they are beautiful pieces, but I bet if you said to a kid you have a choice ‘Beethoven or Coldplay, which one you wanna learn’ they’ll say ‘Coldplay’ because that’s contemporary, that’s what they want to get into and it would be nice to see some of that too.
L360- We did a #hiphoplifelessons feature last week and one of our colleagues looked at hip hop and Shakespeare so like the English curriculum has been updated with Dizzie Rascal, we spoke about modernising the music curriculum, what else do you think could be done to prepare people for, say, the entertainment world?
Jay: It would be interesting to see media training, I’ve never had media training but I’m very fortunate that it comes very natural to me and I know how to speak eloquently enough to get my point across.
But there are a lot of kids who are very talented and when you put them in the spot light, they wouldn’t know how to claim that moment, wouldn’t know how to seize that moment and would say a bunch of stuff like they’re talking to their mate Tony: ‘You get me like, man just get into the game like’ you have to understand that they might not understand what you’re saying. You’re gonna lose a big opportunity here because you’re not saying what you wanna say in that moment, look 2 minutes to get your point across. Those type of things are important. I’ve seen so many people fail at that hurdle and that’s why they don’t have that x factor to become a star.
You have to be a star when you grab them in your hands. When you look at Beyonce, every interview she does is just perfect delivery, perfect execution, and the thing is she has honed that skill down. I do interviews so much more than I do other things in my life, imagine if I didn’t know how to do a good interview, people wouldn’t wanna know you anymore, people wouldn’t wanna interview you. The word would spread around, don’t interview Jay Sean, trust me you’re gonna get nothing outta him. Little things like that are important.
L360- How in touch are you with politics?
Jay: When it comes to politics, I do my interviews and I talk about things, I don’t tend to talk too much about politics because I have to be careful about my artistry and my political opinions.
L360- Do you vote though, how important is it to be engaged?
Jay: Very important to vote, I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how many youngsters are into politics when I was talking to kids in schools and stuff and talking about a selfie I had just taken with David Cameron. So they were saying ‘ah I saw your selfie with David Cameron that’s so cool man’ and they started talking about Cameron, this that and the other and politics and I was like you guys are like 17 18 years old and you’re this deep into it. That was nice for me to see that.
This is our country that we live in right and that’s how you get your voice heard, you have a choice, they’re giving you a choice here. How do you want to live? Where do you want your money to go? If you don’t tell them, if you leave it down to someone else, ‘ah its alright I’m not gonna vote, I’m sure the neighbour will vote for him’ imagine everybody had that opinion. So, it’s very important.
L360- We saw in America Hip Hop got behind Obama and helped me gain power, do you think musicians here should take more of an active role in encouraging youngsters to get involved?
Jay: Not necessarily, not if they don’t fully believe it, I don’t like the idea of celebrities doing things for the sake of it. I don’t like the idea, I think its disingenuous, I think they should get behind something they are passionate about. So if I see a celebrity who is into a certain charity cause, you can tell the ones who have been assigned a charity and those who are just passionate about it by the way that they speak about it. I just feel like yes, when you are a celebrity, you have a platform, you’re very powerful, people look up to you. I personally believe you should use that platform to your advantage and not just to your advantage sorry but to the benefit of other people because that is really when you are gonna change. You can bring forward an entire scene, you can bring forward an entire race, you can bring forward an entire city or country, whatever it is when I’m out in America I’m repping England so whatever I say its reflecting British people too. There are some people who have never had any interaction with a British person, I might be the only person ever so imagine I said something really stupid and dumb and they’ll be like ‘Oh my God, those British people are so dumb and so thick’. I have to be careful about my platform and what I’m saying so I wouldn’t say or talk about anything that I ain’t passionate about.
L360- So you’re now independent again, what message would you send to other independent artists?
Jay: What I would say is I know independent can be a struggle sometimes because your using your own money but when it wins and it pays off not only are you gonna make your money back, it’s gonna be a good investment. You’re gonna be so much more in control of your entire career then on because you would have seen what you achieve so then if you do wanna team up with another person and do a JV with another record company you can come in there not from a position of desperation and need but you can come in there from a position of power all of a sudden. Now it’s like ‘OK, what can you offer me’. That is the ultimate move.