Jay Sean: On top of the world
Having broken records last October when - with his single ‘Down’ - he became the first UK urban artist to top the US Hot 100, Hounslow, West London-raised singer/songwriter Jay Sean again made chart history in January of this year when his current release - ‘Do You Remember’ - saw him also becoming the first British artist in recent memory to score two simultaneous US Top 10 singles (entering at Number 10 the same week its predecessor ‘Down’ was holding at Number 7).
A privately-educated former medical student, Jay Sean - real name Kamaljit Singh Jhooti - was born 28 years ago in London to Punjabi Sikh immigrant parents. Having already got seriously into hip hop, at the age of 12 he began emulating the rhymes of rappers like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, before moving on to write his own lyrics while creating songs that mixed contemporary street beats with tabla samples. Which in turn later led to him performing at both Indian festivals and local clubs.
However, it was as a member of West London-based “Asian R&B” outfit The Rishi Rich Project that, in 2003, Jay attained his first taste of UK Top 20 success with the initially-underground track ‘Dance With You’. Which in turn prestigiously led to a £1 million solo deal with Virgin Records and his 2004-released debut album ‘Me Against Myself’, which impressively sold over two million copies across Asia while also spawning two British Top 20 singles in ‘Eyes On You’ and ‘Stolen’.
Meanwhile, after leaving Virgin in 2006 due to disagreements in musical direction, Sean next scraped together the money to launch his own independent label Jayded. Which, in early 2008, enabled him to release his British Top 10 second LP ‘My Own Way’ plus its two Top 20 offshoot singles, ‘Ride It’ and ‘Maybe’. All of which (in addition to his ever-busy international touring schedule) ultimately brought Jay to the attention of multi-million-selling US hip hop label Cash Money (home to Grammy-winning, chart-topping rapper Lil Wayne), with whom he signed as an artist later the same year.
Since which time his aforementioned first two US singles - the Lil Wayne-featuring ‘Down’ and the Sean Paul and Lil Jon-featuring ‘Do You Remember’ - have seen him rapidly ascend into a bona fide mainstream pop/R&B star of truly global proportions. His melody-driven, current third album ‘All Or Nothing’ (his first for Cash Money) finding him duetting with ex-Sugababe Keisha Buchannan (the midtempo groover ‘Far Away’) plus British R&B legend Craig David (the acoustic-guitar-laced shuffler ‘Stuck In The Middle’); while the feel-good flavour of his two aforementioned worldwide hits is matched by such equally-tuneful cuts as the soulfully anthemic forthcoming single ‘War’ and the percussively-tough ‘Fire’.
All of which an ever-confident and upbeat Jay enthusiastically discusses with long-time industry acquaintance Pete Lewis, over lunchtime drinks in the spacious ground-floor bar of Central London’s fashionably-minimalist Trafalgar Hotel.
PETE: Let’s talk about your current international hit single ‘Do You Remember’, which features Jamaican dancehall superstar Sean Paul and US Southern crunk rapper Lil Jon
JAY: “Basically I’d written this song ‘Do You Remember’, which I wanted to be a very positive anthem that would spark off nostalgia. Then, when I met Sean Paul at the MTV VMA’s, he came up to me saying how he keeps hearing my song ‘Down’ on the radio and wants to do something together. So, being a big Sean Paul fan, I went back, went through my songs that I’d just recorded… And, when I heard ‘Do You Remember’, for some reason I could really hear his vibe on it! So I sent it to him, saying ‘Listen, I’ve cut this song which I think you’d be perfect for’... And literally the next day, he sent it back to me with his vocals on it! Then, because we felt we wanted some energy on it, we called up Lil Jon - and that was IT! The song was DONE! Simple as that... And, by becoming my second US Top Ten hit, it’s definitely done its job! Because it’s shown that the success of ‘Down’ was no flash-in-the-pan thing! Which for me was extremely important! You know, now it’s like ‘Well actually NO, mate! It’s another Billboard Top 10! Take me seriously, thank-you!’!”
PETE: Is it right that the title to your current, third album - ‘All Or Nothing’ - reflects your attitude to life in general?
JAY: “Well, it’s like the only reason I’m still here, and still going strong after seven years, is because I believe 100% in myself! It’s down to the fact that I believe in what I do, plus the fact that I love my music, I love my job, I love singing, and I love my craft… Because yeah, there are times when you do wonder ‘Why do we do this?’! I mean, though a lot of people think it’s an easy job, it’s actually NOT! It’s damn hard, and it can be SOUL-destroying! But then, at the same time, I also realise that I don’t DO things by halves - because there’s no POINT! So I don’t want mediocrity - I wanna be the best that I can BE! I want it ALL! And that’s what the title and theme of this album is all ABOUT!”
PETE: What did you want to achieve musically with ‘All Or Nothing’?
JAY: “I didn’t want to make an album that was gimmicky, that depended on a certain hook or angle, or on a flashy, trendy sound that’s in at the moment. I mean, there’s four or five basic elements on there - drums, piano, guitar, strings and synths - and you’re not gonna go WRONG with those! You know, I didn’t wanna incorporate any other stuff like samples, because I wanted it to be an organic-sounding album. So that, when we played it live and stripped-down with just a guitar or piano, it would still sound awesome. Which is why I’m singing all my songs acoustically right now. Because I wanna show people the strength of the actual SONGS.”
PETE: The album has of course been pioneered by your US Number One single ‘Down’, which features Cash Money Records’ multi-million-selling rapper Lil Wayne…
JAY: “Well, Cash Money is a massive label out in America - probably the biggest hip hop label in the world right now. So, when I got to sign to them as an artist, of course one of the perks is you can get their boy Lil Wayne to get on your song! So it was like ‘Wayne, here’s my first song for Cash Money. Would you kindly bless it, thank you’ - and he DID!... And the song itself actually came about because I wanted to write an uplifting song at a time when I thought the world NEEDED it, to be honest. And I think the world has taken to it BECAUSE of the very fact that it makes people feel good! You know, they like to sing along to it; they forget about their worries for three or four minutes, act silly and stupid, sing along and have fun - and there’s nothing WRONG with that! I mean, it took off like a ROCKET! Radio loved it, audiences loved it... To where, for about a week, this song - that I wrote - actually became the biggest song IN THE WORLD! Which, when you think about it, is just INSANE! You know, for me that was just the best feeling EVER!”
PETE: So what’s your experience of working with the Cash Money family been like?
JAY: “As you said, they’re a FAMILY, and so they’re not in this for the short term. I mean, what (label bosses) Slim and Baby keep saying is that they wanna make me the next Michael Jackson! You know, that’s how FAR they think, that’s how BIG they think! It’s not like ‘We wanna make you the next Chris Brown’, or whatever OTHER artist may be around right now. Oh no, they go for MICHAEL! And that kinda loyalty is INCREDIBLE! They’ve literally said to me ‘Whether that happens on THIS album, the NEXT album, or the album AFTER that, we’re gonna DO it!’!.. So, you know, they’re definitely in this for the long haul. I mean, the amount of songs and things they’ve already done with me - which aren’t even in the contract - is AMAZING! Whether it be on mix-tapes, in videos... Because, in their eyes, I’m part of the FAMILY now. And, with the Cash Money family, there’s no rules, there’s no laws... They just do what the hell they WANT! They’ll make 100 videos in a year because they CAN! And, if I’m in 50 of them, they don’t CARE! It’s like ‘Who SAYS we have to have three - or maybe four - songs and an album, and then on to the next one?’… You know, that’s why WAYNE has so many records, why DRAKE has so many records, and why I have so many records... And that’s what’s so amazing about being with Cash Money!”
PETE: And what’s the whole experience of being a UK urban artist breaking America been like?
JAY: “It’s been an INSANE amount of work! You know, America is like 50 different United Kingdom’s! So in America I have to do like 50 times the amount of promo I have to do here! Because there you’re flying around the whole country doing this EVERY DAY! And trust me, it’s SUPER-tiring! So I thank God that I have the ENERGY for that, because I think that’s probably what’s got me THROUGH it! Because a lot of UK people go out there and end up saying ‘You know what? Fuck this! This is flippin’ KNACKERING! And I don’t NEED to do this! I wanna go back to England where they already KNOW me!’!.. Because in America you’re telling your story from scratch EVERY DAY! You know, ‘Who are you?’… ‘Oh, I’m Jay Sean, a singer/songwriter from London. I’ve been doing it for seven years, had about 12 singles out’... I mean, there you really do have to PROVE yourself. But, thankfully, I personally THRIVE off that!”
PETE: Despite being the only UK artist to have a Number One single in America in the last 12 months, you - amazingly - didn’t even get a mention at this year’s BRITS Awards! What are your views there?
JAY: “I think that was ridiculous, stupid and embarrassing. I mean, all the people that are in-the-know are SHOCKED at the fact I didn’t even get a nomination or a nod at The BRITS this year! You know, EVERYONE’S talking about it! All my artist friends are like ‘Man, we feel so embarrassed because NO-ONE did what you did this year!’!... But, you know, the higher powers-that-be basically just don’t know what goes on under their noses! They don’t know what’s going on in their own back yard - and that’s the whole JOKE! That’s why I rebelled against the industry here years ago, and set up my own label (Jayded)! Because I’m like ‘You’re sitting behind a flippin’ desk in your office; you go home at five o’clock; you sit with your family having your bottle of wine; you don’t go to the clubs, and you’ve no IDEA what’s going on in the streets! So how dare you tell me what’s cool! It’s only when someone throws something in your face that you SEE it!’… Because, you know, a year ago The BRITS hardly had any urban acts nominated for ANYTHING. Whereas this year it was PACKED with them, simply because they suffered such a backlash! It’s like they always have to get criticised before they’re AWARE of something. Which to me is PATHETIC! So I’m like ‘You know what? You keep your awards and l’ll keep my cheque, thank you very much!’... Because I don’t do music for awards, I do it because I LOVE it!”
PETE: So what’s generally in the pipeline for Jay Sean right now?
JAY: “I’ve had a few film offers from Hollywood - some great little cameos which I’m very excited about. Plus we have the Cash Money/Young Money tour coming up in 2010, as well as a new venture that me, Lil Wayne, Birdman and Kevin Rudolf are currently working on called ‘The Cash Money Heroes’. You know, we’re actually working on doing an album together, because we feel that mixture of pop, hip hop, R&B and rock on the same album could be amazing. Then of course there’s also my OWN new album that I’m already writing... So yeah, this year is gonna be a very, very full one with lots of different activity going on. Because, with the entertainment industry changing so much, we do wanna do a little bit of everything and go right across-the-board. I mean, right now there’s even talk about doing some reality shows, based on Cash Money and the difference between all our cultures and our worlds - because people find it so fascinating!”
PETE: And is true you’re also hoping to bring other UK urban talent through to The States via your own relationship with Cash Money?
JAY: “Yeah, that’s definitely something I really wanna do and that I’ve already talked to Baby and Slim about. I mean, one problem with that is, though I know so many people here who are very talented - many of them being my friends - a lot of them are actually already tied-up in record deals. Which makes it hard for me to take them over to the US, because we obviously can’t sign them to Cash Money if they’re already signed to OTHER labels! So right now, on that score, it’s really a matter of trying to keep an ear to the streets here in the UK, and bringing through people who are still AVAILABLE to be signed. Which, as I say, is definitely something I’d love to try and be a part of.”
Jay’s album ‘All Or Nothing’ and single ‘Do You Remember Featuring Sean Paul and Lil Jon’ are both out now through Jayded/Cash Money Records
Words: PETE LEWIS
Words PETE LEWIS