DJ Tay James Sets Out to Connect the World
DJ Tay James has acted as tour DJ for pop superstar Justin Bieber for over a decade. Most recently, James snagged the personal A&R role while Bieber recorded his Grammy-nominated album, Justice, during 2020 and early 2021. Thankfully, trailblazers of the music industry, such as James, are helping music fans endure yet another year of the pandemic by giving them what they want: connection.
Regarding Justice, James tells EDITION, “When we set out to do the project, the world was in hurt. So, it was like, let’s try to put together some music that helps connect people. We’re just not trying to connect people within the United States or Canada – it’s the world. Everyone’s hurting right now at one moment. That's why when you listen to [Justice], there are so many different genres. You have your R&B, your straight pop alternative music, some emo R&B on there; there are so many different textures, and you have Afrobeat on there too. We just wanted to tie it all up to bring everyone together.”
As the A&R guru, James researches fresh opportunities and potential collaborations in harmony with Bieber’s vision. James says, “It’s been such a great experience. Even when we did “Essence” the remix, that was me playing “Essence” all weekend on vacation, and Justin was like, ‘I really love this record. I want to do this.’” So, James got in touch with the Nigerian singer behind “Essence,” Wizkid and his agent, Mike G, and the chart-topping remix came to fruition. “It was in the Top 10 on Billboard, which is the first-ever Nigerian record to do that. So, that’s all we're trying to do is help put out great music and just push the culture forward,” James adds.
We caught up with James to talk about his early days as a DJ, how he connected with Bieber, and how his solid ear for music has led him to his new A&R role.
Getting into your background, I know you're a Baltimore native, and when I think of Baltimore – because I come from the electronic music world – I think of Bmore club music in the early ‘90s. So, what was your first introduction to DJing?
Well, you kind of hit it on the head with the Baltimore club. So, my first introduction was watching MTV Spring Break back in the day. That’s when DJ Skribble was DJing all the parties, interviewing artists, and hosting TV shows. I was 11 and just amazed like, what is this guy doing? He’s in control of everything. So, right from that moment, I wanted to be a DJ. So, I begged my parents for a DJ starter pack for Christmas, and I got one, and I’ve been infatuated with it ever since.
As far as Baltimore club, all the DJs that I mostly learned from came from the DMV area. So, when I was 14, I had the opportunity to work with Unruly Records. The owners of this company basically started Baltimore club music. They came up with one of the first Baltimore club songs. So, they were my mentors from an early age. All the top Baltimore club DJs would get their records and music from this record label, and they were putting out albums as well. So, I came up from learning from them and learning how to market yourself as a DJ – like learning how to DJ a party, interact with the crowd, and what music works for the situation. So, yeah, I started at 14 with Baltimore club music.
Oh, that's awesome. It’s cool you were involved with that scene.
Back in the day, you would do a party, and the DJ would play like 30 minutes of hip-hop and R&B. Then, the next hour and a half is all Baltimore club. There were dance crews and all types of competitions. You and your girlfriends and your boys would have little dances. They’d go and practice, then come to the party and do it at the party. It was one-of-a-kind.
You got your first gig of 14, as you mentioned, and fast-forwarding to 2009 – boom! Bieber enters the narrative. So how did that connection even come about?
Well, I was DJing all the college parties. So, I went to Hampton, and even in the DMV area, there are so many different colleges. I want to say there are at least 25 different colleges in that area. So, I was able to put together a mixtape series called College Radio, and I just distributed it throughout all the college campuses. It was the mixtape era before all the streaming. So, DJs, especially myself, were known to get music early. So, I’d get the music and mix it and make remixes, then put them on a mixtape and pass it out for free. From there, in college, I met a friend of mine, DJ Boogie. We were just two young college DJs just trying to make a way. He had the opportunity to DJ for Sammie. He was huge in Atlanta. He did a college tour and picked up my boy as a DJ, and my friend dropped out of college and went on. It's crazy how time works. So, during this time, my roommate was Babey Drew, and he was Chris Brown's DJ. So, I'm learning from both of these guys.
It was like, one, I’m mad because I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to just be a DJ, but my parents urged me to stay in school just to get my degree. While this is going on, I'm watching two of my good friends who are DJs going around the world and mixing. So, as I graduated college, I told my parents to give me a year to become a professional DJ. I had a residency in DC at Love Nightclub. I was still doing college parties. So, I just told my parents, please just give me a year, and if that doesn't work, I'll go back and get a Master's degree or figure it out. So, within two months, my boy, who was working with Sammie, became friends with Usher’s assistant. That’s when Bieber was first in Atlanta working with music, and that's how the connection happened. He hit up my friend that they were looking for a DJ that could go on the road with Justin – someone that had some type of college background and some type of identity in the club. So, they hit me up two months after graduation.
That’s awesome. You definitely fit the criteria being from the college world and DJing. How do you feel your different gigs prepared you to go on the road and become Justin's touring DJ for over ten years?
I want to say reading the crowd was something that I learned just from my residency in DC and just by DJing for so many different groups of people. It was a new experience because I had never DJ’d in the pop world. I had to learn what that actually was because I came from a hip-hop and R&B, and reggae, club music background. When you step into the pop world, it’s a little bit different of a music change for you. Once I figured it out, it was easy.
We just clicked right away. My first show with him was actually my audition, and it was his first big show. So, we sat in the dressing room and put together the show from top to bottom. I added some sound effects and tried to make it work on the fly. It worked out. The show was a success, and he was just like, “Yo, you're going to be my DJ.” Then, from there, we just went on the road with it. The majority of the show was him talking on the mic or me talking on the mic just trying to hype up the crowd. And I got all of that experience from college parties and club parties and having to hold down the mic and DJ for four hours. So, when it came time to do this for Justin for 15-minute sets, this was easy.
Yeah, a 15-minute set versus four hours is a big difference. So, what do you admire about working with Justin, and what have you learned about yourself in the process of being his DJ and transitioning now into his personal A&R?
I pride myself on being a team player and just trying to help out where I can. With Justin, we've been friends for so long, and he trusts my ear and vice versa. As far as being his A&R, I look at it as a DJ would look at a party or look at something brand-new that he's about to take on. I just try to use my DJ ear and try to help as much as I can with the music. I feel like we've been doing extremely well. Justice has eight Grammy nominations. “Peaches” is one of his most popular records ever. We're just trying to continue to push the culture forward.