After more than five years of boundary-breaking collaborations with acts including J Hus, Dave, NSG and Burna Boy that have shaped the Afroswing sound, JAE5 launched his own artist career in superstar fashion in March this year with Dimension.
The feel-good track, which features Skepta and Rema, has just finished a mammoth ten-week run at Number 1 on the UK's Official Afrobeats Chart - a Top 20 chart launched last summer with Afro Nation to shine a light on the artists enjoying success in the UK, where the scene has been thriving for the best part of a decade.
Hailing from East London with Ghanaian roots, the 28-year-old is leading a new wave of artists who not only proudly wear their heritage in their music, but are unafraid to blend it and cross over genres.
His big breakthrough came in 2017 when he executive-produced J Hus' acclaimed debut Common Sense. His ever-growing list of hits include NSG & Tion Wayne's Options and Dave & Burna Boy's Location, as well as pop collaborations with Mark Ronson and Rudimental. Last year, he exec-produced J Hus' Number 1 follow-up Big Conspiracy.
To celebrate his recent chart-topping success, OfficialCharts.com presented JAE5 with his specialist Number 1 award for Dimension and caught up with him at a production camp in West London to find out how he plans to follow it up.
Congratulations on 10 weeks at Number 1 on the Official Afrobeats Chart - not bad for your debut single! What was it about Dimension that made you decide to go with it as your first headline release?
In all honesty, it was just the time, the vibe and the energy of the people involved - Skepta and Rema. I do a lot of things based on what the energy behind them is. The way Skepta and Rema were jumping on the song and vibed together, everything felt really right and smooth. Whereas other songs have felt like harder work to get them done and it’s not felt as organic. I felt like the first song I put out had to be really smooth and everyone had to be on the same energy.
JAE5 with his specialist Number 1 Award for Dimension.
You've been working on a few songs with Rema, will we get to hear more of those?
We made three or four ideas, but this is the one that we finished. In the sessions we had there was four instrumental ideas, he put melodies to all of them, but [Dimension] is the one we stuck with. We’re going to go back and finish the other tracks, so we’ll see.
You pulled Dimension together during a global pandemic, which must have made things a bit trickier than usual.
It started just before the pandemic, but Rema had to re-record his vocals in Nigeria and send them back over. Skepta and I, because of covid, were the only two people allowed in the studio together – we did all the tests. It’s our pandemic song, really. We went back-and-forth on a lot of things, a lot of effort went into making Dimension.
You're speaking to us from production camp right now; have you managed to stay creative during the past year?
I go through phases. There are times where I can’t do anything creative, [others] where I do something and I don’t like it, and then times when I’m on a roll. Over the last few weeks I feel like I’ve been back musically, but before then, I was stuck for a couple of months. I didn’t matter what I played or what someone played to me, I just didn’t like anything. I wasn’t motivated. I do have those phases quite a lot.
How do you get out of those creative blocks?
By collaboration. When I’m stuck, I call up people - other producers, mostly - who I think are talented and they might start something which will inspire me. It’s the only thing that works for me - collaboration is key.
You've had a run of huge hits, which inevitably ups the pressure for each new release. Are you feeling that yet?
I feel that there’s pressure on the music. For example, on the [J] Hus album, on the production side I can do what I want and Hus’ voice would be what made it a sound, that would be the gel. Now that I’m doing the producer thing and I’m working with a whole load of other artists, I’m struggling to find what gels everything together. If I put it on a project, how would it be cohesive? How would I make everything sound as one instead of a mixtape of a bunch of random songs?
I’m finding that I’m making instrumentals that sound similar but I want to be extremely versatile. So there’s a bit of conflict there, and there’s the pressure of everyone looking at how well songs are doing now that you’re an artist – is it doing as well as songs you produce for other artists? – all of those other pressures.
Since J Hus' Common Sense you've been hugely in demand; how you keep things fresh?
I think it’s because I’m not trying to create the same thing twice – I’m also not trying to create what someone else has already done. I’m in a room I’ll ask an artist what they like and what they’re listening to. It could be what’s inspiring us, but I never want it to sound similar. I don’t want to do the same thing twice and I don’t want to follow suit. If someone does a drill song that sounds a certain way, you hear another 50 from artists that sound exactly the same after. I don’t want to be a part of that.
Speaking of which, Tion Wayne and Russ Millions recently scored the UK's first ever drill Number 1. What did you make of the track?
“I like the song. I’ve not really got into drill, I like one or two bits. Some of the drill songs out there could be a bit more creative - production-wise, not necessarily the artists. The beats sound extremely similar, which I get, but if you were to listen to Afro songs you might get some live instruments, some strings, some sax - there’s a wide variation.
Whereas I find drill songs have the exact same hi-hat pattern, very, very, very similar chords, the bassline sounds exactly the same. I don’t think anyone is trying to experiment with drill just yet. There’s a formula. I do think it’d be amazing if someone was putting a live string on drill, being a bit more creative. Maybe not every drill song should be aggressive. Maybe some drill love songs, I don’t know – expanding on it. Maybe it’s just me - everything we do is based on creating a mixing genres."
Is there a song of yours that’s been a bigger hit than you anticipated?
Any song that I let come out with my name on it, I think it’s good enough to be a hit, so I’m more surprised if something isn’t a hit [laughs]! I understand it though, of course. Anything that comes off my computer with the Jae5 tag on it, I’m proud of. I guess J Hus' Must Be deserved more. We didn’t shoot a video though, we could have done more our end.
You won a Grammy this year for your work on Burna Boy’s album; that must be a career highlight?
On the day I was with Michael Dapaah (aka Big Shaq) – I didn’t even know the Grammys were on – he was like, you’ve just won a Grammy. I had a drink on the day, and the next I moved on! I knew I was nominated, but I kind of live in my own bubble most of the time, so I didn’t know it was on. I don’t have the award yet – you have to order these things, they don’t just send them to you. I think producers get a medal instead of the proper award.
Is being a headline artist where you see your career heading full time?
I hope that my artist career does well, but for the most part I want to build up new artists. I want to do what we’ve done with Hus again with someone else – two, three more times. It’s all good getting in a room with artists who are already big, but it doesn’t feel the same as when you pick an artist that no-one had faith in and you work at it and it gets to the point where everyone is on it. I prefer that.