London is shaped by its rooted rap culture. It has become an identity for those who consume it, a sense of belonging and reliability; the rawness in its origins fused with its more commercial success today has enabled London to now finally have its very own solidified journey and identity in the rap sphere.
Although, with rap culture comes stigma and this is something that the scene in London is facing even to this day. Beginning in the early 2000s, it was not rap that London was known for, instead grime, a new genre in its own right was birthed in the East End of the capital. Deriving from what once was a booming Garage genre in the London club scene prior, Grime became recognised for its unique musical ingredients; with the most recognisable feature being its 140 beats per minute tempo. Emanating from East London council estate culture, which can be compared to the similar “ghetto” labelled projects in the United States, rappers as young as 14/15 began to pen lyrics which acted as an outlet for a generation growing up in a deprived and at times opportunity sparse environment.
Over time, a giant pool of talent surfaced and pirate radio stations began popping up all over London, a platform which local MCs used in attempts to solidify their status in a rapidly developing genre. With so much potential and young talent, the genre became profoundly popular amongst London’s youth culture. This was taken to the next level after a then 18-year-old Dizzee Rascal released his debut album entitled Boy In Da Corner under XL Recordings. Much to the surprise of critics, the album reached number 23 on the British album charts and was also certified Gold by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) after selling over 250,000 copies by 2014, something that was immensely unexpected. By proving so many doubters wrong, the grime scene saw itself coming together with positive visions of further progression.
Unfortunately, this became short lived after rising star, 23-year-old Plaistow born MC, Crazy Titch, was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside his stepfather, for the murder of 21-year-old music producer Richard Holmes after an altercation regarding distasteful lyrics. The incarceration of such a promising artist saw the media cast a shadow over the grime scene, which became known as a negative musical genre, boasting violence and gang culture. This worsened due to its poor infrastructure and authorities began shutting down pirate radio stations, leaving artists with no real exposure. This was made worse by the genres general lack of financial support in an age where illegal downloading sites such as Limewire and Kazaa were flourishing, resultantly; grime as it was once known, was left in the dark with an overriding socio-economic issue unresolved.
Fast-forward around ten years from the initial release of Dizzee Rascals Boy In Da Corner and a grime scene which had been demonised to say the least, began to creep its way back into the forefront, creating the second wave of Grime. Mainstream chart success from tracks such as “German Whip” by Meridian Dan had allowed grime artists entry into some of the largest festivals in the summer of 2014. This was coupled with the rebranding of Boy Better Know (BBK), a record label comprising of Skepta and his younger brother JME, who is featured on ‘German Whip’ allowed for him to bring grime back, almost rebrand it and deliver it to the masses. This was aided by co-signs from reputable overseas artists such as Kanye West and Drake, who helped bring the genre overseas, a place which it had never entered before. This paved way for a new generation of British rappers, who with this new platform branched out, creating new sub-genres of British hip hop, allowing for the new generation of musical creatives to portray themselves in a more positive light, differently to how they had been viewed in the past.
Enter Jay Prince, a recording artist from Newham, East London who is not beholden to grime, or to any other sub-genre of urban music. Arising from the newer Internet generation of rappers, Jay isn’t attached to a specific sound, which dictates the area he resides in. Instead he uses his influences and the energy of those around him, which he then expresses through his music. His truly soul soothing, melodic instrumentals laced with elements of jazz have commonly lead to comparisons with Kendrick Lamar being made. Having said this, his style is like no other and the positive messages he pushes in his lyrics attracted attention from Joe Kay’s Los Angeles-based record label Soulection. Working with producers like IAMNOBODI, SPZRKT and Sango, just to name a few, Jay has already established himself in the North American underground circuit and in 2015, he played both SXSW and Coachella festival after releasing his second EP BeFor Our Time, which allowed for his fan base to grow even further.
His music is not the only element that makes Jay Prince stand out from the crowd, instead, his story and the messages placed in his music is what truly makes him an exceptional role model for today’s youth. Not only did Jay successfully grow himself as an artist and release 3 EP’s with accompanied tours, he also did this whilst at University where he obtained a degree, proving his sheer drive, belief and passion for what he loves and this really shows in his music. He speaks of the struggles he faced trying to balance the two; with themes of family struggles, love and maintaining relationships with those around him being present throughout his work.
October of 2016 saw the release of his fourth mixtape ‘Smile Good’ and I was privileged enough to be invited to attend Jay’s exclusive listening party at the renowned Red Bull Studios in London Bridge. Aside from playing the mixtape in its entirety for the first time ever, Jay expressed his creative direction with the project and how he wrote it in such a way for his fans to understand a little more about his personal life and also announced that he would be supporting Chance The Rapper on his European tour. The 8-track mixtape consists of tracks mostly produced by Jay himself. The first track and lead single “Father, Father”, which was premiered by Zane Lowe on his Beats1 and takes on a soulful approach, accompanied by a gospel choir sample which Jay uses to speak on the challenges he has been facing, we listen to him questioning God, assessing the relationships in his life and also his overall direction as he adapts his delivery by switching between melodic singing and rapping styles, very similar to that of tour partner Chance The Rapper. Other stand-out tracks such as ‘Go East’ document Jays love for his hometown and the loyalty he offers to his lover and ‘Smile Good’ which acts as the backbone of the project, where Jay is trying to express the importance of learning from what you experience in life and how to implement personal growth, channelling it towards something positive in life; which also seems to be an occurring theme is his previous work in which he stresses the concept of self-love.
By offering himself more vulnerably on this project, speaking on issues and experiences that he has yet to touch on in the music, shows how much his music comes from the heart and also how important it is for him to make music which will enable his fans to grow alongside him also, on his musical journey.
I managed to speak with Jay after the listening session to ask him some questions about his most recent mixtape Smile Good as well as his journey so far.
Everyone can see you’re growing as an artist, do you see yourself as being more vulnerable in your lyrics?
I think I’ve become more comfortable in myself and what I share. Before I used to be scared, I used to me like man I can’t tell nobody that, there are other rappers, they’re my competition, I can’t show them my weaknesses.
What changed for me was at shows, I would notice every time that people would come up to me and tell me how much they relate to my lyrics, or like they can tell I mean what I’m saying. I feel like people resonate truly when you’re honest in yourself, even if they can’t directly relate, they may think “I feel as if I’ve got closer to understanding who he is without even meeting him” and that makes them feel more comfortable in being confident with themselves.
But yeah, it’s real life, there’s a stigma behind what a rapper is, the gold chains, the cars, which is cool. I mean I like to listen to that from time to time, but at the same time, there’s a time and place. Everyone likes it when you keep it real, period. If you’re honest and your music shows that, that’s it.
Before I went to uni at sixth form I wanted to be a footballer and study at a sports college and hopefully get a scholarship, or go uni and just focus on music, so I was like cool I might as well go uni, my mum won’t let me pursue the football plus the trials aren’t showing me love so I did uni.
Having graduated from University, how were you able to balance your studies with the music?
The way I found the balance was that I said to myself I have to succeed with this music and it just being disciplined.
You have to decide how serious you want to take yourself, so I think I just decided to take myself more serious, I was like you know what, I have to study and get my degree but I also want to be successful in what I do musically.
I mean I was studying music and sound engineering so you can imagine how many people were trying to blow up in my class, so it was the case of trying to finish my school shit then do my music time, that how I kinda got through it.
Did you ever get to a point where you felt as if you had to sacrifice the music for the studying?
[Laughs] I never messed with my teacher, with music teachers in that field it can go either way, they can either be really supportive or have a big ego with what they’ve done as musical figures, you come across people with big personalities all the time.
I had this one teacher, although I do not like to mention names [laughs], but let’s just say he made it a bit easier for me to pursue my music side of things.
A lot of people frown upon Newham as a borough; did your surroundings have any influence on you?
I think it’s just you man, it’s the clarification you have within yourself and the discipline you have around you and luckily for me I have great friends. Don’t get me wrong there are people that are about “that life” going down the wrong path but its all on you, man; if you’re about that life then expect negative shit to happen to you, and if you’re not then keep it moving, its not rocket science. It’s a shame though, some people who are in, the wrong crowds aren’t aware of it, so they know no better, I think that’s a big factor, but I get it some people got to do what they got to do.
It’s just the people around you, that’s all it is the man, they influence you; the way you dress, the way you speak, your humour.
The first bar on “father father” in the first verse was one of my favourites. But yeah the first verse “father father help me lord, why did the devil just knock on my door?’ Like that’s just mad init, sometimes things in life like temptation, or things you’re doing wrong; it can make you question a lot of things, like “god why me, of all people in the world, why is this person hurt, why didn’t I pass my driving test, things like that”. But like this whole song represents me making the most out of life. That track wasn’t even planned, I actually made it after I recorded “Go East”. I was talking about love on this, then I got this beat, and I called my friend at stupid times and said “bro, you need to come to the studio NOW, it’s all mad, so he came and I was going crazy and that’s how it came about”
I’m very critical of my own work and most of the times I won’t even go back to listen fully, but that’s something I did with this and that makes it a song that means a lot to me.
You mentioned a lot about getting out of the hood in father, episode and even squad, doesn’t this feel like you’re out yet, when do you feel like you’ve made it cause for me, I feel like you’ve made it.”
I feel like this music is a good outlet for me, just in terms of like feeling a little better about myself. Cause there is a lot of people, well even me back in the day, but people have a lot of thoughts but you can’t even express it, not everyone lucky enough to have that friend who you can engage in deep conversations with, instead it’s more constant banter. There were times I didn’t have money for this, but I couldn’t do this, but for me, musically, this has kind of been my release in everything
I wouldn’t say I’ve made it. But for me, making it knowing that everyone I know is good. Being able to continue to do what I love and knowing I can support my family, my friends and for them to have a good life, obviously that takes time but its help me understand myself and with that help those around me
It’s not a literal physical thing where I’m like yeah let’s pack my bags and get out of the hood, its more spiritual. It’s me being able to freely express myself. Don’t get me wrong, I live where I live, it’s not a bad place even though bad things happen sometimes, but that’s like anywhere.
Lastly, how would you describe a day in the studio with Jay Prince?
It’s super chilled, I don’t really like forcing it like today we’re going to have a session and write a song about love. I could be on the train, have an idea which I’ll write down, I just write for the sake of it, I might not use it or come back to it, but it’s there, I like to keep the mood flowing in the studio but kind of have ideas already prepared, then feed off it when I’m in the studio.
When the vibe is right, I can go back to it and be alter it, I like to just vibe.