Jay Sean Says He’s a ‘More Serious’ Beatboxer Than Justin Timberlake
London-bred singer and songwriter Jay Sean is the latest addition to Lil Wayne‘s Cash Money family, but by no means is the R&B sensation a newbie to the music scene. After releasing two chart-topping albums and achieving pop star fame in Europe, Asia and India, the hip-hop-fanatic-turned-soulful-crooner has finally set his sights on the States. His debut U.S. album, ‘All or Nothing’ hit stores on Nov. 23, following the success of his first single ‘Down,’ which quickly peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold over two million copies nationwide.
Now, after surviving almost a decade of recording, touring and maneuvering the music industry across the Eastern hemisphere, Jay Sean has no doubts that his international success will translate to the American arena. A confidence built upon years of hard work and dedication, combined with the support of hip-hop’s current number one label might just be the winning formula for one determined crossover artist.
The BoomBox: Your debut U.S. album was released this month, but how long have you actually been recording music?
Jay Sean: I’ve been in the industry for seven years now. I got signed when I was 19, put out my first album when I was 20 and then eventually toured around the world. The first album did well in countries like England and other parts of Europe, but mainly it did really well across the Middle East and South East Asia. For the second album, I toured all of Europe, Australia, Singapore, went down to Africa and loads of other places — I pretty much covered everything apart from America — so this third album is my American venture.
What was the content of your music that appealed to so many people? Were the first two albums heavily hip-hop influenced?
The first album was very experimental. It came from me drawing upon my different influences and finding myself. I was infusing sounds of Indian culture with hip-hop beats but trying to write R&B songs over them. The whole thing was interesting but I don’t think I had fully discovered myself as an artist at that time. With the second album, I found myself, understood what kind of artist I was and what kind of songs I wanted to sing. It was a lot more melody driven R&B songs and that’s what I do best, that’s what I love doing.
Your music is very hip-hop and R&B influenced. Did you listen to American hip-hop when you were growing up?
The funny thing is, back then English hip-hop and R&B pretty much didn’t exist. People laughed in our faces when we said we were British rappers. They were like, ‘Yeah, okay, good luck with that.’ The British hip-hop scene was so miniscule and it never had a shot of making it to the radio. I remember watching ‘MTV Raps’ and listening to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Leaders of the New School, Lords of the Underground, Ice Cube — it was that era. I was heavy into hip-hop and then heavy into R&B through things like Method Man and Mary J. Blige collaborations. I started listening to Mary, then Jodeci, Blackstreet and then I started getting more into soul with people like Brian McKnight, Dwele and Musiq (Soulchild). I started going in that direction but funnily enough it all started off through hip-hop.
So you’re finally entering the American scene, but you’re not “new” to it because you’ve been following it since you were young. How did you get involved with Cash Money Records?
I was actually working on my album with a producer out of New York who had done some work for Cash Money before. They asked him who he was working on and he told Slim, the CEO of Cash Money, that he had this guy called Jay Sean from England. Slim said, “Let me hear some of his music.” So he sent him YouTube videos and some stuff that I’ve done, and Slim was sort of like, “Why is this guy not here in America? What’s going on? What’s the deal?” So he called me up, I went over to Miami, they signed me and that was it.
Is working with Cash Money a new dynamic for you? What element do you bring to such a hip-hop focused label?
They are the most incredible music visionaries that I have ever worked with because they don’t get caught up in the corporate side of this industry. That’s why we click so well, because I don’t get caught up in the corporate side of the industry either. I’ve been through it all to get here. A record company executive who sits behind their desk in their office every day never going to a club — how the hell are they going to know what kids are listening to? They’re nothing like that. Slim and Baby are out in the clubs with me every other night listening to music, looking at how people are responding to music, soaking it all up. They trust me because I’m on the forefront, so together we pick the hits, we pick the songs, we make the album. It’s the most incredible working relationship I could imagine.
Are they very serious when it comes down to work or is it a relaxed, creative environment?
They’re completely relaxed but complete professionals. They live in the studio. Wayne does maybe three songs a night, every night, that’s why he’s always there and Baby is churning out hits. They’ve got hundreds and hundreds of songs just sitting there and they carry on and they make more and more and more. They just don’t stop working, but we have fun up in there and that’s the best thing about it. It’s the way that music’s supposed to be made man, you have fun and you enjoy it. No pressure, no one sitting in there like, “Oh, I don’t like the sound of that snare!” Nothing like that. Just organic.
People tend to complain that music now is the same thing recycled again and again but 2009 has been a big year for evolution in this genre. What are you adding to the scene?
I’m a new face, a new voice and a brand new artist to America. I remember what it was like when I loved a certain style of music and I’d get so excited when there was a new person on the scene — I wanted to get into them and all the stuff they’d done before. I’d see if I could dig up all of their old demons, find their old material and that discovery is something that’s really exciting. So for the kids who are really into their music right now, it’s going to be another thing for them to get into and start digging. I think I’m a prime prospect for the American market
Did you do anything differently for the American market or did you just make more “Jay Sean”?
I didn’t think and I didn’t over think — the moment you start thinking is the moment it’s over. I’m a songwriter and a singer and when I’m writing those songs, I don’t want to be thinking too much, I want to be enjoying it, doing what I know has been working so far. It’s not about what everyone else is doing; I’ve just got to do me. I think the best thing about it, as you said, is that I’ve had these years to prepare me for this. Over those years it’s been a discovery process for me but right now I feel like I’m the most confident I’ve ever been as a vocalist, as a songwriter, as an artist.
What about beat-boxing? There are some samples floating around, is that a serious pursuit?
Since I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop, I used to emulate all the beats I heard in the early 90s, but I wouldn’t say I’m a pro beat boxer. I’m definitely an amateur and I’m fascinated by the art of it.
Have you ever seen Justin Timberlake beatbox? He’s another heartthrob with some beat boxing skills, how do you compare?
I think I’m probably a little more serious about beat boxing than Justin is. He’s cool and he’s definitely got a little vibe, but I used to be in a hip-hop group and all that sort of stuff, so with me I think it’s a little more serious. But Justin’s still cool, I like what he does.