In honour of his birthday, we’ve managed to secure an exclusive interview with Jesal, the elusive rapper from London, currently working away on his debut album “A Year in the Life of a Rap Star.” He also produces, DJ’s, and is a world-renowned music critic… No need to show off, now.
1) Before we start properly, there is some confusion regarding your name. Are you Jesal or Jay Soul?
J: I’m known as Jesal, now. I used to be “Jay Soul” back when there weren’t that many other Jay’s around, but nowadays everyone just sticks a “Jay” or a “J” on their artist name and it’s too confusing! So it was better to just be myself, and go back to the name my grandmother gave me – Jesal. Some people still know me as Jay Soul – like how people still called The Notorious B.I.G by his “Biggie Smalls” nickname – and promoters occasionally use it on flyers when I’m DJ-ing, though.
2) When did you first start getting involved in the music industry and how?
J: Sometimes the word “industry” shouldn’t be placed next to the word “music” – at least not at the beginning. You start playing or creating music because you love it, not for the promise of money, women or fame… Besides, I’d always been obsessed with music ever since the age of 4 or so. The moment I took a more active interest – it’s the clearest of memories. I had just reached university: it was Freshers Week, and the first few days had been quite miserable. I didn’t have a ticket to the Fresher’s Ball that Friday night, so basically everyone in the entire hall of residence had gone off. I went down to the deserted pub, got a pint, and met someone called Jimi, who was the resident DJ. He was setting up for the event the next day, and I asked him if he wanted a hand. Long to the short, within a few months, I’d become obsessed with DJ-ing, and started playing alongside Jimi at the halls events. As the years went on, I graduated from using the worst CD mixer in history to vinyls on Technics 1210’s, to Denon 5000’s, to Pioneers, to Serato Scratch and Itch…
3) And what came first, the rapping or DJ-ing?
J: It’s pretty much a dead heat, although I actively started “rapping” at an earlier age. Although when I was about 6 years old, there was a DJ on the news who was “scratching the vinyl” – it just seemed like the absolute coolest thing ever! Years later, I realised it was Jam Master Jay of Run DMC, which is why I usually try to play “Walk This Way” most DJ sets I can, just my little thank you to him. When I was about eleven, I start writing lyrics, and learning rap songs – mostly just as a joke, making fun of the other kids in class or teachers, just silly stuff – and when I was a teenager, I had epically cool older cousins that used to drive us around and blast out their friends’ DJ mixtapes. Really, rapping and DJ-ing was just a matter of time. I started MC-ing pretty late, probably around 20 or so. But I seemed to understand it innately, so within 2 or 3 years of just messing around, it all just clicked nicely.
4) Were you ever part of the rap battle scene or was it just not of interest?
J: We used to go to some of the first Jump Off battles. It was fun to watch, but I never wanted to be a battle rapper. Honestly, it’s a transitory medium – there’s a funny line off the top of your head, and that’s it, it’s gone. When you’re writing proper verses and songs, you’re trying to make something genuine that lasts, that connects. Saying that, rap battles are just hilarious as an independent observer – but it changed a lot when MC’s started using pre-written lyrics, it wasn’t as magical then. Plus the racial slurs – watching some of Sam Khan’s battles and the racist lines thrown at him… Back when we started going to battles, there would have been a riot. It’s a shame what has become acceptable in the name of “entertainment” nowadays.
5) What was the first song you ever wrote, and how would you rate it now?
J: Oh man, that takes me back! It was actually to Kool G Rap’s “My Life” instrumental, and it was called “Peace & Fees” – if you guys were to review it, it would probably get a 2.7 out of 10! Lyrically, it was alright but the delivery was the definition of novice. But I was so proud of it, actually making a start to finish song is hard, especially when you don’t know what you’re really doing! Everything I ever learnt – whether rapping, producing or DJ-ing – was 99% self-taught.
6) You mentioned Sam Khan then. What are your views on this recent generation of Asian rappers, including yourself?
J: It’s difficult to say. If you research various scenes, whether they are musical, technological, commercial… They all sprout from resistance to something, from criticism, unity, opportunity. There are so many conflicting ideologies that enable a group of artists to “make it” – for me, the most vital thing for Asian rappers to understand is the spirit of competition. If you look at hip hop’s creative peak, around 1994, there was a group of MC’s that had been inspired about 6 years younger by Slick Rick, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane. The new school then had to “beat” each other – 1993-95 saw genial records from Nas, Biggie, Wu Tang, Common, Raekwon, Jay-Z, Snoop… You’re talking about real classics. They’d make something, hear another rapper destroy a track, go back to the studio and try harder. Is that really happening yet? It must also be said that Asian MC’s seem to be particularly sensitive, too. They get a bit of flack and then go crying on Twitter or Facebook. Why not listen, then use it to fuel you further? SuperCritic has both praised and criticised me, and honestly I’m thankful for both. It’s not like you dissed me and I’ve placed a media blackout on you – at least you care enough to write those words! As far as certain rappers go, let’s be diplomatic and hold my tongue. But as a rapper myself, when I click on that YouTube video, I want to be scared. I want them to make me go “Woah, that was hot!” and run back to the studio amped up. Suffice to say, there’s only really a handful of Asian MC’s doing that. But I’ve got love and respect for all of them, it takes real heart to put yourself out there at all.
7) How do you think Asian music is progressing, and where do you see it in 5 years time?
J: If you looked back to 2003, when Jay Sean and Raghav hit, everyone thought it was a brave new world then. The difference now is technology. Back then, the labels still provided you with studio time, the barriers to entry were higher, and that’s what prevented artists like myself in certain respects. Fast-forward to now, it’s just a completely different era. All you need is a microphone and a MacBook. That doesn’t make you instantly hot, but it means you can start your journey much more quickly and efficiently. For me, I’d dabbled with production before, but the old method of drum machine + sampler was just confusing and slow to me. As soon as I picked up Logic Studio and a keyboard in 2007, it all just made sense, and I was producing 3 beats every morning, noon and night, for months on end. Really, that was one of the most special periods of time in my entire life, and it was directly enabled by technology. That’s why I predict a sea-change for UK Asian artists. Obviously, only the cream of the crop will make great music, but there is now a larger pool of perspective talent. The attitudes of parents are slowly changing. There is less pressure to act a certain way and you can generally just be yourself. It’s a potentially beautiful time, and the very fact that there is enough music for a site like SuperCritic to review is a good sign. I see a potentially bright future, but these artists need to focus on the music first and the marketing later.
8) Speaking of your own production, you’ve talked before about your own style and your reluctance to sample. Where did that spring from?
J: Honestly, everyone is different, and who am I to judge? Sampling will always have a place, but nowadays it is so expensive and such a lengthy process to get a sample paid for, or even legally cleared, that it’s nice to create your own music from scratch. But then again, I don’t really know how to chop a sample! A few of the records on my debut use samples, and they are done by these incredible producers – from Newcastle, a real hip hop head called Configa, and from London a crazy dude called Beatßmith. But the way they do it is incredible, and they really craft songs around samples, not just cut and paste some famous tracks together. My own beats, which make up the most of my debut album, are all original instrumentals that pay homage to various eras of music, but it’s kind of cool that each and every melody/note is straight from my head.
9) What is your debut album, “A Year in the Life of a Rap Star” going to sound like, musically?
J: It’s so exciting to finally release “A Year in the Life of a Rap Star” out into the wild! It’s been a long time coming. There have been various twists and turns, but we are almost there now – musically, lyrically, conceptually, it’s all come together nicely. On one level, it’s really a way to tell the story of my life, but it will also detail aspects of hip hop. Musically, I would never put anything on album unless I’ve heard it at least a few hundred times, on repeat. It has to stand the test of time. This first part will have a variety of different sounds: hard drums, horns, basslines, soulful violins, hot choruses, a few choice samples… For me, it’s really important for every track to earn its place on the record. That quality level has to be there, and even though I’m the MC, I can still appreciate that 90% of the listeners are focussed on the music and choruses they can whistle along to. We’ve been tempted to rush release it out before, but honestly I’m trying to make classic music, not get fifteen minutes of fame.
10) So would it be fair to say that you’re not that bothered about singles and promotional videos?
J: When you’re trying to be financially responsible, and do things on a planned budget – I am Gujarati, after all – then you have to pick your battles. If there is a choice between ploughing my money into creating the music or promoting it, I’d rather make the music the best it could be, then hope it spreads by positive word-of-mouth. That’s probably naive, but who cares? I’ve really not got the face for videos, anyway – all cameras pathologically hate me! As for videos, I love creative and clever ones – the “Streets Ahead” visuals still get props, and that was filmed 3 years ago now. Singles? Love them – just not the associated jing-bang that is required to “launch” them. The album is actually packed full of them, but nowadays some artists have launch parties for the video teasers of the video teasers. It’s overkill.
11) Changing the subject, may we temporarily take off our cool and declare our undying love for you on Twitter? Honestly, you’re one of our favourites. When you went into Twitter Jail, it almost killed us.
J: Aww shucks, you’re making me blush now! I love Twitter. It’s so simple, expressive and can be what you want it to be. It’s wonderful to give my honest opinion on things – whether it’s music, film, politics, entertainment, football… I’m an opinionated person, and a medium like Twitter is built for sharers like me. Maybe I should be more like a Buddhist monk and have masterful control over each thought, but I’m just Jesal.
12) Cheesy question time. Please choose 3 albums you couldn’t live without, or would require in some sort of desert island “Lost” scenario.
13) Out of all the Asian MC’s, we rate your flow as one of the very best. How do you write songs? From both a technical aspect and “where do you draw your inspiration from” sense.
J: As far as inspiration goes, there was an interview with John Lennon where he was talking about his vigourous consumption of different forms of media, and that’s similar to me. Whether it is music, films, reading the paper, surfing the net… You just don’t know when it will lead you to something interesting, creative and give you an insight into what’s going on within your own world and the wider world around you. I love writing songs that make you feel a certain way, that set a mood, that make you view your own life through my music. As for how I write, it’s a combination of writing the lyrics in my head for certain songs, and physically typing them out. I’m a fast typist, so it helps gets my thoughts out quicker, plus on Notepad you can literally see the shape of the verse forming. For story-telling tracks, it helps to write them. But for emotive lyrics, actually writing in my head helps achieve that water-like flow, if you’ll pardon the Bruce Lee reference. I’ve developed a technique for judging which flows are the best: you cover your ears (or muffle the speaker) and just listen to the atonal waves of the flow, it’s all very weird. It helps for someone like me that has synaesthesia.
14) What’s synaesthesia? Is that like a burning sensation when you pee?
J: Ha! No, the mild form of synaesthesia I have is where you’re listening to or creating music, and you can literally see shapes and colours, or “see the sounds.” Thankfully mine is relatively minor, and just tuned into music, but some people have various forms which can affect them much more directly. There’s limited scientific research into it, but for me it’s been an absolute blessing. I can literally see music in my own weird way, and it really helps when making it, it’s an unfair advantage of sorts.
15) That sounds incredible… We’ve only interviewed three people, and each one is an avid Liverpool fan. Is this some kind of standard requirement? How is your team doing?
J: It’s all down to John Barnes, really. When I was a kid growing in here in the UK, we didn’t have a lot of Asian role models to look up to in sports and entertainment. So that’s why we have a such a proud and close affinity with members of the Afro-Caribbean community. I was born in Watford, and as a kid supported them by default, but really it was John Barnes and his magnificent talent. Once he moved to Liverpool, I instinctively followed him and started being a fan. Now I’m a huge supporter. As for how we are doing? A million times better than a year ago. New owners, new managements, new players. We’ve managed to renovate the entire squad at a net spend of £37m – and have managed to shift £30m a year off the annual wage bill. Obviously getting back to the top of the league is hard and will take time, but people should be patient. We have a world class youth academy, some quality players coming through and an actual philosophy to buy into. In a few years, we’ll be reaping the rewards of the seeds currently being planted. It’s an exciting time.
16) As a review site ourselves, we can’t help (jealously) noticing that you’re a world class music critic, specifically within hip hop. How did you get into it?
J: Well that’s enormously flattering, thank you, but I’d never say anything like that myself. As for “world class” – I’m not quite sure how that would be judged, maybe it’s an event at the London 2012 Olympics! Anyway, I’ve been writing for RapReviews.com for over 4 years now, and it was always a long-standing dream for me, I’d been visiting their site every week since 2001. Being a professional rap critic is always going to be a poisoned chalice, but if you do it honestly, give it your all and try to put your own personal angle on it, it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. It’s a nice feeling to get quoted but I’m modest enough to recognise that the props should always go to the artist creating the music in the first place – if they weren’t making music, we’d have nothing to write about.
17) Could we perhaps tempt you to start writing for SuperCritic?
J: Thank you so much for the offer… But I’ll politely decline! The UK Asian community is too small, you’re constantly bumping into people and I’m rather connected behind the scenes. Perhaps this movement isn’t advanced or mature enough to take criticism – people aren’t even releasing albums yet, really – but I definitely admire the work that sites such as SuperCritic are doing. I truly believe that constructive criticism is so vital, a lot of these upcoming kids are sheltered from it and need honest feedback. Who else apart from yourselves is really giving them an articulate opinion?
18) On a final note, we understand it’s your birthday… Many happy returns! How will you be celebrating?
J: Thank you! This year, I’ll be DJ-ing an exclusive set and testing out some of the new tunes at a club in London. I’ll play half the night, stop, and then go off to party, drink Bacardi and whatever other rapper cliches spring to mind. When you’re in the music industry, you don’t get a lot of Saturday nights to just enjoy with your friends, so it’s important to drink as much as possible. Especially when they are buying.
Jesal will be releasing his debut album “A Year in the Life of a Rap Star” soon. He can be followed on Twitter, viewed on YouTube and has a Facebook Page. The rights to his biographical movie have been bought up by Yash Raj films, so expect that to hit the silver screen in 2017.