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Jai Paul - Under the Influence

How Jai Paul changed the sound of pop with just two songs

We trace the impact that the reclusive producer-songwriter from Rayners Lane has made both on the underground and, increasingly, the mainstream

In our Under the Influence series, we trace the ideas of underground artists, designers, labels and collectives and the impact that they’ve had on pop culture as we know it, examining how the revolutionary aesthetics and attitudes of outsiders make their way into the mainstream, and importantly, how much that should be valued and not forgotten.

If you go back to a 2010 snapshot of Jai Paul’s MySpace page – the same one that featured his song “BTSTU” years before publications were calling it things like “a precursor to the entire career of James Blake” – you can see a succinct list of the singer/producer’s influences, scattered amongst other scraps of first-person writing: Michael Jackson, J Dilla, and D’Angelo. Given how influential and how elusive Paul would prove to be over the subsequent years, there’s something particularly strange about how open and offhand the artist from Rayners Lane in Harrow, northwest London, comes across: “whats goin on my names jai im a artist/producer jst startin out in the game let me kno if u feel it…thanks 2every1 whos been backin me I rly appreciate it peace jai”.

Seven years later and there are still only two officially released Jai Paul solo tracks. The aforementioned “BTSTU” is a trojan horse of a pop song, in which Paul’s lilting falsetto belies not only the track’s vindictive lyrics (“So don’t try and fuck me about / You’re waste and you’re on your way out, yes”) but also its thunderous lead synth, which pummels the instrumental into submission once the hook rolls around. Its follow-up “Jasmine” similarly weaves together disparate elements – it’s like the film negative of an Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson hit, in which once bright and bubbly guitars and synths are smothered in reverb and distortion so they can get the approval of the track’s unrelenting, rumbling bass. The story of lost love is heart-wrenching (“When I see you, Jasmine / What’s a boy to do? / Please come back to me / Make my dreams come true”), but Paul’s vocals are so haunting and airy, not to mention constantly jockeying for your attention with the rest of the mix, that it feels like he’s only now working up the courage to be so candid.

“(When) I first heard ‘BTSTU’, I remember how slowly it came in, in terms of the vocals,” recalls Demo Taped, a rising vocalist and producer from Atlanta who cites Jai Paul’s work as a major influence. “Everything just seemed to sort of have its place.”

Despite his relatively sparse output and his infamously introverted public persona (he stays off social media entirely, and has only given a single interview before, talking to Dazed in 2011), Jai Paul’s style – a semi-lo-fi, almost-artisanal blend of 80s synth pop, guitar-powered soul, and downtempo electronic music – has reshaped the sound of 2010s pop music, both in the underground and, increasingly, in the mainstream. Artists like Mura Masa and Demo Taped have taken ideas established in Paul’s music to exciting new places, from his globe-spanning use of samples to the unconventional textures that subvert the usual clean lines of pop music. Meanwhile, vocalists like JONES and Nao – who’ve both worked with Jai’s brother, A.K. Paul – have created a unique style of pop and R&B songwriting that’s filtered through this production aesthetic.

“BTSTU” was most people’s initial introduction to Jai Paul’s world, either through hearing the original track itself or through hearing Drake’s 2011 song “Dreams Money Can Buy”, which heavily sampled it, as did Beyoncé’s “End Of Time” in the same month, albeit less noticeably. Originally posted on Jai’s MySpace in 2010 and re-packaged by his label XL Recordings for official release in April the following year, the song’s emergence was one of those rare moments where the entire internet felt like it was rapturously in sync. Though “Jasmine” is widely adored in its own right, the mix of serene falsetto and biting lyrics (as Pitchfork noted at the time, “Beginning a delicate pop tune with the words ‘Don’t fuck with me’ is weird…”) ensures that “BTSTU” remains permanently etched in the minds of artists, critics, and fans. Crucially, despite a certain amount of swagger and presumption (regardless of the context, lines like “I know I’ve been going a long time, but / I’m back and I want what is mine” are bold for an unknown artist), the song felt true to the moment it was encapsulating rather than Paul actively trying to create something classic.

“Jai and Anup (A.K.) are the two most influential producers/songwriters of their generation for me... Like Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, Prince or Brian Wilson, they’ve been sonic pioneers and broken all the rules about how you write, arrange and mix, but not at the expense of musicality” – Nao

“I think ultimately ‘BTSTU’ is just an amazing song that at the time sounded like nothing else,” says music journalist Michael Cragg, currently the only person to have interviewed Jai Paul. “It also sounded like it was made in about five minutes, in a tiny bedroom, and there’s something exciting about watching it then explode online. It’s also brilliantly genreless, fusing all these different ideas and sounds together in a way that still seems effortless. It doesn’t shout about its brilliance, and perhaps it’s that element that’s quite appealing. There’s something incredibly tactile about the high-pitched verses too, quite feminine and soft.”

On one quiet Sunday in 2013, an album by Jai Paul leaked on Bandcamp that gave listeners their most immersive taste of his fantastical sonic vision yet. Reportedly the result of a stolen laptop, rumours swirled over the ‘true’ source of the leak. Had Paul uploaded it himself? Was it a press stunt by his label XL Recordings? Was one of Jai’s friends concerned the tracks would never see the light of day? Irrespective of its origins, it was clear that the tracks didn’t make up an ‘album’ per se – it’s more of the skeleton of a record, with sketches of ideas that hint at something bigger had they been given more time to gestate. In a move that is undeniably on brand, Paul’s sole tweet explains that he did not upload the demos, urging people not to buy them and promising a “statement to follow later” (perhaps unsurprisingly, the statement never came).

Despite the rapturous reception to every scrap of music fans have been able to get their hands on, Paul has maintained that silence, occasionally resurfacing with mysterious projects that never seem to fully coalesce. All the while his scarce catalogue fuels scores of artists inspired by his supernal sound. However, his older brother A.K. Paul has continued work both as a solo artist and collaborator with the likes of Miguel, Mura Masa, and Nao. “Jai and Anup (A.K.) are the two most influential producers/songwriters of their generation for me,” says Nao, the Brit Award-nominated artist whose 2014 single “So Good” helped introduce A.K. to the masses. “No one else comes close to them. Like Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, Prince or Brian Wilson, they’ve been sonic pioneers and broken all the rules about how you write, arrange and mix, but not at the expense of musicality. I think most artists working within alternative funk, R&B or indie music have tried to work out how they do it, but it’s not anything you can recreate.”

After Jai stopped releasing music, fans clamored for something that would fill the hole. As The FADER’s Ruth Saxelby noted, Jai’s roaming sound – where dynamics constantly shifted, and no four-bar refrain could ever truly be called a loop – was a much-needed antidote from an era in pop where songs were compressed within an inch of their lives. It’s a sentiment echoed by Jadu Heart, whose track “Galaxy Surfing” has a guitar tone and powerful kick drum with a distinctly Paul-ian edge. The duo are signed to Anchor Point, a record label started by Guernsey-born producer Alex Crossan aka Mura Masa, whose self-titled album earlier this year featured a collaboration with A.K. Paul. “Everything was just sounding too polished,” the band explain, “and the Pauls pretty much went in with a bulldozer and tore down that boundary.”

One of Jai’s signature techniques is sidechaining, the compression style used to provide extra emphasis for the kick drum. It’s a common studio practice used in most EDM and electronic-influenced pop, but Paul took the practice to a new level, linking the kick not only to low frequencies – which gives the bass drum more clarity – but at times to the entire song. This unconventional move makes the kick burst through the mix – on tracks like “Rain Bot” and “Crush”, both taken from the Bandcamp leak, it feels like a drunk fist punching through drywall.

“The production concept made the tracks kind of unstable and unwieldy – mixes which were on the edge of swallowing themselves,” says Adam Bainbridge, who records solo music as Kindness and has worked closely with artists like Blood Orange, Kelela, and Solange. “I know that there’s a version of every idea he has that could be pristine and diamond sharp and still communicate the same feeling.”

“I pretty much learned about sidechaining and what it was by typing into Google, ‘What the fuck is Jai Paul doing?’” adds Demo Taped. “I realised it was this thing that people had known about for a very long time, and that sidechain compression has been a thing, but he was using it in a different way. And now everybody is pretty much using it in that way.” Demo Taped’s first EP Heart was a showcase for his own utilisation of Jai Paul-esque tones and textures. Originally intended to be given to his girlfriend, he decided to put it online after they broke up, where it drew plenty of praise – though there were some people who sent him hostile messages about the similarities between his track “I Love U” and “Jasmine,” proving just how seriously some fans took Jai’s sound.

“Rain Bot” is one of those Paul songs where the glimpse of brilliance is cruelly short. The track begins with a chaotic sample but quickly becomes one of Jai’s funkiest and most accessible records. There are only two lines of vocals, but the song’s blasts of guitar and kinetic percussion make it impossible not to dance, and Jai fans are so in love with the song that someone on SoundCloud made a nearly perfect extended loop of it, which properly allows the track’s thumping percussion to sink into your soul. “That fucking kick might be the hardest, deepest cut of all time,” says Boothlord, a member of the Awful Records-signed Danger Incorporated, who interpret Jai’s songwriting and production sensibilities through an Atlanta trap framework on tracks like their “Jasmine”-referencing “Body” and “Offline”. Additionally, singer/songwriter JONES notes that when she worked with A.K. Paul for 2014’s “You”, he had “designed his own kind of bespoke music software.” It’s fair to wonder whether Jai’s unique soundscapes were also created in a different digital galaxy than Ableton or Pro Tools.

Initially, the crop of artists who rose from the ashes of Paul’s unsanctioned album seemed to have trouble hashing out which elements to crib. Londoner Ben Khan received significant attention in 2013 with his singles “Savage” and “Eden,” smoothing out some of the idiosyncrasies of Jai’s sound and taking the grainy guitar and synth tones one standard deviation closer to mainstream pop. His songs are catchy, but lack that constant sense of surprise lurking around every corner. Clarence Clarity leaned heavily into Jai’s controlled chaos but made even bolder decisions to really take a sledgehammer to the song with some harsh atonal digressions that yielded fascinating results. But still, the internet yearned for musicians who could recreate Jai’s digital dreamscapes, and a huge number of artists began to draw heavily from the well of the Paul brothers while trying to craft a sound that elicited the same sensation.

“Jai Paul is the biggest influence I’ve ever seen in music. He’s the person that made me love music the way I do” – Louie Duffelbags, Danger Incorporated

“They became a sort of benchmark for anyone in that sort of genre, a sounding board,” says JONES. “I know their tracks were used as references for a lot of people, and just kind of paved the way for that kind of music. I think it’s just kind of a ripple effect, they put that stuff out, and that influenced tons and tons of people.”

Those ripples carried exceptionally far since they only came from the two tracks, but as Michael Cragg points out, Jai’s small output and rapid exit from the scene made “BTSTU” and “Jasmine” instantly iconic – and there was never a chance for their legacy to be sullied. “We live in a music world where hype is often followed by ever-diminishing returns, where initial highs are followed by huge lows, but with Jai Paul it’s like those two songs are frozen in time,” he says. “He hasn’t sullied them, or gone off and worked with mainstream artists or compromised at all. He also didn’t come from a specific scene, and wasn’t affiliated with another artist who introduced him, he just came out of nowhere with an amazing song and then retreated almost as quickly as he arrived.”

“He was like the first bedroom producer,” adds Louie Duffelbags of Danger Incorporated, who released his own cover of “Jasmine” earlier this year that stretched the synth tones like a funhouse mirror and beefed up the presence of the vocals. “Jai Paul is the biggest influence I’ve ever seen in music. He’s the person that made me love music the way I do.”

As an early predecessor to many homegrown producers who mine samples from unconventional sources, Paul populated his tracks with global sounds that felt fleshed out and fully realised. They not only predated the modern fascination with African and Caribbean sounds in hip hop and pop, but also seemed to be concertedly three-dimensional and placed in the mix to boost the emotional infrastructure of the song. “What's beautiful about the individual samples is the inner life they hint at,” says Bainbridge. “I know there are people spending hours, days, years theorising over those things, and that kind of passion and fascination around production is mostly unheard of now.”

The drum rolls, evocative tones, and soaring vocal riffs on “Str8 Outta Mumbai” come from Meerabai Bhajan’s “Bala Main Bairagan Hoongi”, positioning the song even more undeniably as an assertion of his status as a proud British-Indian artist. “It’s been so, so powerful seeing the world pause mid-step and look at the art of another British Asian,” continues Bainbridge, who is of Indian heritage himself. “There are loads of South Asians making incredible South Asian music, but when you grow up listening to garage, or R&B, it’s really meaningful for another Asian artist to do something that pushed the creative envelope, and that it was loved and noticed globally.”

Elsewhere, Paul pulled sounds from all over the map, ranging from K-Ci and JoJo’s hit “All My Life” on “Baby Beats” to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” on “Chix” to Yusuf Islam’s “A is for Allah” on “Garden of Paradise.” He also found useable audio in truly unconventional places, including Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, which sets the stage for the surreal ride that is the 2013 leaked album on opener “Jewel,” as well as Tomb Raider: Legend, where the line “The water is absolutely perfect. I’ve missed Ghana!” blends flawlessly into the romantic, hazy guitar tones of “All Night”. “People often talk about the lo-fi quality of the music, but it was the sound effects and textures which really grabbed me,” says Jadu Heart. “I’d played Tomb Raider as a kid and hearing the sample at the beginning of ‘All Night’ really excited me. His music was full of these little glimpses into their universe.”

“His samples were rare because he was rare,” adds Louie Dufflebags.

Beyond the samples, one of the elements of Jai’s work that most resonated with other artists was the spaciousness and well-timed silence of his production. Though Jai has some massive tracks (“Zion Wolf,” “100,000,” and even “BTSTU” when the hook crescendos), there are always blips of stillness and quiet that make each bar feel like its own kind of handmade creation.

“There’s a lot of space in ‘BTSTU’ and it delivers on being heavy without relying on a wall of sound, which is something that’s definitely influenced our writing,” says electronic duo Krrum, who craft their own brand of progressive pop that plays with fullness and sparsity in equal measure.

While “BTSTU” and “Jasmine” reached the widest audiences, for artists like Danger Incorporated and Demo Taped some of the most enduring Jai tracks are the briefest, the handful of unfinished sentences that populate the leaked album and make it truly seem like a work in progress presented to the public before its time. Songs like “Rain Bot,” “Baby Beats,” and “Raw” are the purest distillations of the Jai Paul experience; they’re a tantalising glimpse into an entirely new world that comes to a close just as you want it to rev up so you can fully get lost within it.

“It’s been so, so powerful seeing the world pause mid-step and look at the art of another British Asian. There are loads of South Asians making incredible South Asian music, but when you grow up listening to garage, or R&B, it’s really meaningful for another Asian artist to do something that pushed the creative envelope, and that it was loved and noticed globally” – Kindness

“I don’t even know the names of (some of them) to this day because it was like ‘Track 1, Track 2, Track 3.’ But there were a couple that were just like, a minute long, and I heard those and was like, ‘Why isn’t this longer?’” says Demo Taped. “I still look back, and I still, when I’m riding in the car sometimes if I’m really, really stuck I’ll listen to those tracks just to get a fresh idea or think in a different way.”

The perception-altering power of Jai and A.K. Paul is very much real, even if it sometimes can feel like Jai himself is not. The otherworldly sound that made people question whether their speakers were broken has inspired a generation of artists to rethink how they can defy the conventions of pop and R&B while still making impossibly infectious, richly emotional music. While, as Bainbridge puts it, “there are thousands of people who’ve looted and plundered the original production approaches that Jai and A.K. established,” the quest to recreate that feeling is something that is driving artists to push themselves to this day, even if it may take light years to get there.

“If you take each element of what they play and sing it is, like all great pop music, relatively simple,” says Nao. “The genius is how they arrange and interplay those parts; the funk, groove and sensuality they can generate within a mix. Each song is like a living, breathing organism. And, like the boys themselves, it’s just tantalisingly out of reach.”