Few artists have had the impact on house music that Sydney-based Jay-J has. The veteran DJ/Producer, along with Kaskade and the rest of Om Records, played a monumental role in sculpting the San Francisco deep house sound in its earliest days. Currently based in Sydney, the man is no stranger to WMC and its legendary parties; he has been coming to the conference since its inception, noting its exponential growth over the years. Jay-J threw two of the best WMC parties this year - a late-night rager at Kill Your Idol and a live concert on the Clevelander Hotel rooftop. Unfortunately, the rooftop party was cut short by heavy rain; it was short but definitely sweet, and the energy I felt as I stepped out of the elevator was indescribable. There he was, the man himself, jamming out on a keyboard along with a full band; he was accompanied by Rico De Largo on trumpet, Kristen Pearson and Natalie Conway singing, and DJ Yogi triggering drum loops on his laptop. It was a truly beautiful thing to see, everybody getting their groove on, people of all ages bonding over a shared love of music.
The next afternoon, I had the chance to sit down with Jay-J for an interview, and trust me, this really is a great one. We discussed the evolution of dance music, his studio setup, the rooftop party and much more. You can read the full interview below. He told me to come out to Kill Your Idol that night, where he would be DJing and hosting a party and DJing, accompanied by Jarred Gallo; it was an amazing night, with nothing but the funkiest house tracks until 5:00 AM. Jay-J mentioned in the interview that his favorite events are when the place is completely packed, and packed this place was. Everyone was on their feet until the very last song, dancing on tables, chairs, the staircase, and, of course, the dance floor. If you haven't experienced a Jay-J show I would highly recommend it to any lovers of house music. The man will not disappoint... guaranteed. See below for the full interview.
DxE: A lot of producers who have been around for a while are starting to move in a much different direction than they were when they started. But you really seem to be sticking to your roots; what's your opinion on the issue.
JJ: I don't necessarily think anything differently about them for doing it or anything, For me, I don't know if there's a part of it that's half-laziness, but I just stick to what I know and that's what I've done. Although in the last couple years i've definitely stretched a bit and explored moving around to different genres and adding different flavors or updated sounds. So I've evolved a little bit, but for me, I've always been a fan of the old, soulful sound, like when I'd be on the dance floor six nights out of the week for WMC. I've just stayed with that, since it's what I know and love, I guess.
DxE: And you were based out of San Francisco for most of your career. DId you grow up there as well or relocate?
JJ: Well, I moved to California when I was ten. So before that, I was in New York, Chicago and Virginia. But those were all for a couple years at a time, so I mostly grew up in California. When I was eighteen I moved to San Francisco for college.
DxE: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
JJ: I have a degree in psychology from San Francisco State.
DxE: And does that background in psych help you understand what people want to hear on the dance floor?
JJ: I don't know, but I do think it helps me when I deal with the venues, managers, hosts, sound guys, etc. It helps me relate to people in a way.
DxE: Can you tell us a little about the Beijing Coca-Cola Project?
JJ: So Coke had this idea where they wanted to put together western music artists and chinese visual artists, and come up with a project that was based around their brand. So they had eight chinese artists each design a bottle, each based around a different theme; then they gave that theme to eight music producers and gave them the coke melody. We had a theme and melody, and saw the design of the bottle; from there we were supposed to make a song.
DxE: And was there any collaboration between the producers working on the different songs, or did you guys each just do your thing.
JJ: Everyone did them all individually.
DxE: I know Benassi participated as well; who were some of the other artists featured?
JJ: Benny, Kaskade Tiesto, JES, myself, and a couple others.
DxE: How was it working with Kaskade way back in the day, correct?
JJ: Yeah, we actually co-produced an album for a singer named Latrice, and her album came out on Ultra. We've been friends a long time, and I'm very happy for his success.
DxE: And do you stay in touch with a lot of the other Om records guys?
JJ: Somewhat, yeah. Miguel and I touch base a lot, and I helped him do some stuff in the studio this weekend.
DxE: I know you've also done stuff with Dope Den; what are some of the other labels you've been associated with over the years?
JJ: I did a bunch of stuff with Defected - a couple singles, two compilations. Miguel and I's CD, it's been ten years this year, the first In The Housecompilation on Defected, they were great to work with and it was an amazing experience. And then my own label, Shifted Music, for the last eight years I've pretty much put out all of my original music there. And then, remixed for lots of other people. Tons, really.
DxE: Do you have any artists you've especially liked to work with in the past? Maybe someone you just click with in the studio?
JJ: I've always collaborated with a lot of people through the years. You know, west coast guys like Marques Wyatt, David Harness, Chris Lum, Julius Papp, and also Hippie & Halo, Halo individually and myself did a couple records. There's always something that everybody brings to the table, and it's cool to think about things differently; everybody has their workflow, and you get together, and they want to do things that you might not think to do, and for me, the collaborative process has always been good, as a producer in the field and a student of music production and audio. In a sense, I just learn from my colleagues and musicians I respect. And I've chosen to work with people who's opinions and sounds I respect, so I keep a pretty open mind. I've had great experiences with everyone. Kaskade and I were in the studio working on this record. It was time-crunched but we made a really great record and had a fun time doing it. In fact, I saw Finn last night, a production guy that works with Kaskade, and we had all done the record. He was listening to the song and he was like "that dude is biting my style." It turned out to be a Latrice song that he hadn't heard for years.
DxE: Well, it must be nice to have an unbiased pair of ears for feedback while you work.
JJ: Sometimes in the creative process, it's not necessarily a 100% committed thing; I'll do something, and then think, "is that even good?" It's nice to be able to just ask, "what do you think? Is that working?"
DxE: Can you tell us more about the live show yesterday?
JJ: So in all my music through the years, I've always incorporated a lot of live musicians. Lots of live bass and keyboards playing. Not just loopy bits, but real playing; lots of guitar players, and of course, tons of vocalists. So I've always really appreciated that. A few years ago, I was thinking about the Miami parties, and I work with a lot of great singers and musicians, so I said why don't we put together a little jam session? Where we have a DJ playing some drums and beats, and we have two keyboard players, and yesterday we had a trumpet player, Rico De Largo. We had Kristen Pearson on vocals, Natalie Conway on vocals; Yogi was playing keys, I was playing keys. Well I was playing baselines - I can play keys with two fingers, not five. When I first got up there I was just playing a percussion kit in Garageband just to make it easy. And we have some pre-set instruments loaded that we can go through. Like a rhodes, a synth, a bass, etc. And we were just kind of going, building a record. Kristen was singing and Rico started to play trumpet; just as we started to get going, the fucking rain came and we had to close it down. So it's just been a concept of doing this whole live thing, and we've done four or five of them here. It was an interesting was for me to separate out the day parties, from the DJ scene, since there isn't much of our thing going on these days. We basically created a house track live.
DxE: And were the DJ's playing at your event playing full songs with you guys jamming over that, or was it stripped down so there was space for the instruments?
JJ: No, he would just loop up some drums and maybe some samples. Then we had the two keyboards, one playing chords and the other playing bass. Through the years, we've had sax players, trumpet players, percussionists, guitar players, bassist, lots of singers, different keyboard players. And throughout the course of the day, it's the type of thing where it just sort of rotates around. Like, I'll tell a singer to come some time between four and six, when they show up, it's like "cool, grab a mic and let's jam."
DxE: So it's all improvised?
JJ: All improvised, not rehearsed at all. For example, yesterday when we started we just decided that we were going to work in D, since the song that was playing before was in that key. And the trumpet player, he was great, so he just looked at us, and as soon as we mouthed him D, he just started playing.
DxE: Well that was definitely an unexpected surprise. A lot of times, you see fliers advertising "Live" sets, but it's just a guy triggering loops on a computer; you never really see live bands playing house music, and the party had a different vibe than I've seen anywhere else. People weren't worrying about looking like idiots when they danced, everyone was getting in the groove and having fun.
JJ: Yeah it was a great party.
DxE: And did you come from an instrumentalist background before you started producing and DJing?
JJ: I started out as a musician, playing guitar when I was a kid, and started learning about recording through that same process. I was writing songs with a friend of mine, we were young and would just mess around; like I said, I started learning about recording, started DJing, and then began to incorporate all of it together. Then it all just moved forward from there.
DxE: Did you start as a house DJ? Or did you start somewhere else and then move into that direction.
JJ: I first started DJing around '85 or '86 at a roller skating rink, which was fun. Kind of just pop music, and only during the day; slowly but surely, I started learn and work more nights, where there was a lot more flexibility with the music, a little bit older and more "up-for-it" crowd than during the day.
DxE: And that was just around the time that house was starting?
JJ: Yeah, it was. I've been around the music for a really long time, so I've seen so much of it. Like I was at the dirtybird party yesterday, and it was very electro-ish-based. Like not noisy crazy electro, but it reminded me of the late-80's electro sound. Lots of cool drum machines, interesting things, bleeps, and things like that. It's funny how it's come full-circle.
DxE: And have you worked with any of those guys?
JJ: Not really, no. Justin Martin and Christian Martin, they used to DJ at this party I was doing on Wednesday nights in San Francisco. When I stopped doing the party, they started to work with the guys that I started it with. So they started working there, but we never messed around in the studio together.
DxE: Do you have a favorite city or venue anywhere in the world?
JJ: You know, there's a lot of great gigs that I've done. But it doesn't necessarily depend on the city; like I've done good and bad gigs in London, Ibiza, New York, and really everywhere I go. So it's way more about the particular event, and my experience has shown me that it's better to have a venue that's just a little bit smaller than the amount of people you have. It doesn't matter if it's a 2,000 person venue with 2,500 people in it, or a 300 person venue with 400 people in it.
DxE: So you like it completely packed?
JJ: Yeah, there's just exponentially greater energy when it's filled up. Totally makes it a fun night.
DxE: And does any particular gig that stands out?
JJ: There's a few, like the first times I played at Ministry of Sound in London and Pacha in Ibiza Also, a gig I did at home in Sydney, at a big club; it was their anniversary, and Latrice was singing. There's been some pretty amazing gigs. We did a full live band thing at SOuth Port Weekender, a big festival in Europe which was crazy. I did the whole live thing again at Ministry of SOund that weekend. There's been some really great ones for sure; when I was moving to New York we did this going away party, which was incredible. All these people came out that had been supporting me for years, new and old. The vibe was amazing - I've been lucky to have so many amazing nights. And some random weird things that you wouldn't expect. Like my first tour in Australia, I played in Canberra, which is like their capital. All week long people were telling me that Canberra would be the worst gig ever, but, you know, it's a gig and whatever so it's cool. But I went to this little venue that was a restaurant by day, and they moved the tables out and set up some speakers and a DJ booth. They completely packed it, I played for like five hours, and it was incredible. So you never really know what to expect.
DxE: And do you usually plan your sets, or just start out and go with the groove?
JJ: Yeah, I just like to groove. Lately, its the same concept now on Traktor where they have record crates.
DxE: Are you mainly DJing with Traktor these days?
JJ: I am. In Traktor you have playlists; it's kind of like when I used to go into my record room. I'd go through my boxes and take some things out and end up with a choice of a hundred or two hundred records and then go to the gig and just feel out the vibe, going from one to the other. I never really put them in an order, I just make a playlist and see where it goes. I'll spend a bit of time going through songs to get a general idea of what I want to play, and then from there I just wing it. What I really like about the flexibility of Traktor is the search function - when I think of a song, then I can just search for it and find it easily. It helps me when I work because I'm way more organized, I never play the same song twice anymore; the whole CD thing also got out of control, burning a bunch of CDs with ten songs on them, getting confused and overwhelmed.
DxE: Do you prefer to mix with a controller, or external mode with a mixer?
JJ: I do external control, so I'm Dj'ing using the CDJ's, basically just using Traktor as a music library. But i also like the occasional ability to go on a little X1, throw on a loop, and just play with the FX.
DxE: Can you tell us a little more about your setup in the studio these days?
JJ: Since I moved to Sydney, I've had a pretty modest setup in terms of gear. I have a SICK computer, it's a dual twelve-core mac with 16 gigs of ram, loaded with four hard drives, an ssd drive and a super fast audio drive, just about a terabyte version of my sample library that's been collecting for 20 years. I've got a pair of Focal speakers, twin 6's, which are amazing speakers. I've also got a 36-inch dell monitor, and I basically just brought all that there, and just set up.
DxE: Are there any particular DAW's, plugins, etc. that you gravitate to?
JJ: Yeah, I use protools, and there's a lot of stuff available for that. I use their sampler for a lot of the pieces I've created and I find myself using hybrid a lot, the Rob Papen Predator. I also like the Arturio stuff, a lot of the different plugins by SoundToys and Sonnox. There's some great EQ's and compressors in there.
DxE: Any Native Instruments sounds in your work?
JJ: Yeah, Massive, FM8, you know, I use a lot of their plugins. And the one for drums - is it battery?
DxE: Yeah that sounds right. Gotta utilize all the technology you have. Do you do more of your productions on the road or in the studio?
JJ: I definitely spend more of my time in the studio. I guess now that I'm in Sydney, I have a residency and don't have to travel too much for that. It's like right up the street from me.
DxE: And where's the residency at?
JJ: It's Goldfish, a really cool club in Sydney. I played there on my last Australian tour, and just worked it out so that I could do the residency thing.
DxE: Was it easy to integrate yourself into the music scene out there?
JJ: Well, I've been there a lot so I know some people, especially from my last tour. So yeah, it was pretty easy coming from America, and I think that my sound is pretty compatible there.
DxE: Dance music was underground in America for so long, and now it's starting to break into the mainstream; It's pretty much always been huge in Europe. What do you think caused that to happen in America now, as opposed to earlier or later?
JJ: Ultimately, someone got behind it; there were labels pushing it, putting money in so they could market it and it could be heard. Also, the music had to be good, and it had to be something people could relate to. There were great songs, and the production quality got to the point where people were able to appreciate it; When the labels put money behind it, more people were able to hear it, and then, you know, BOOM!.
DxE: And do you think that part of that has to do with the fact that, these days, anybody with a laptop who puts in the time and effort can learn to produce? Because that wasn't the case fifteen years ago, when you needed a million-dollar studio to make a record.
JJ: I don't really think so. If you look at the biggest names in electronic music, these are guys who have been doing stuff for a long time. There's a couple of those younger guys, like Skrillex, I guess. But mainly it's artists like Kaskade, and Axwell, the Swedish House Mafia crew which came about later, who didn't just pick up a laptop and learn Ableton over the weekend.
DxE: And how do you think the early San Francisco sound influenced your style?
JJ: Well, for me, It was just fitting. When people talk about the early San Francisco sound, it's kind of what we created. We just liked a more laid-back sound because it's a laid-back city, and the weather is nice, and we all came up listening to soul and various other stuff.
DxE: And could you walk us through a typical weekend during those days?
JJ: Well, in the early 90's it wasn't even just the weekend. I did a party every Tuesday night that went until four in the morning, Wednesdays we'd go to a club called Babylon which was packed out. Thursday nights was this after hours club called Kit Kat, and I would play there. Friday nights we were at this big club called Sound Factory, which had a Steve Dash sound system so it was like Sound Factory in New York, with huge, huge bass bins. And from there, Sunday Nights, Spunday would do a party at a club, and I played there every other week for after-hours. So it was kind of like mayhem back then.
DxE: One last question. WHat's your favorite type of ice cream?
JJ: You know what? In Sydney there's this place called Messina, and they make gelato. But they have all these different, really amazing flavors. They have this salted caramel flavor, but they also do all these weird ones. Anyways I'm obsessed with this place, and it's right around the corner from my house. There's this little strip with a bunch of restaurants, so we're up there all the time, and it's incredible. But if I was to just pick a flavor of ice cream, I always like vanilla-based. Probably Haagen Daaz swiss almond, so it's like chocolate covered almonds in vanilla ice cream. It's pretty amazing.
DxE: That does sound good, I'm going to have to check that out. Thanks so much for your time, and we all really appreciate it here at DxE.
JJ: Sure, anytime.