All images courtesy of Mabdulle.
“A Day With…” is a break from the traditional interview format. At a time when five minute press slots are now the norm, we wanted to bring you closer to some of your favourite artists, observing them candidly in their day-to-day settings. Thus, “A Day With…” was born. Peak behind the curtain and enjoy.
Prime Studios was warm, even though it was winter, and the neon lights, subtle and sapphire, spilled from the centre piece drilled into the hard ceiling until everything in the boxed music studio was tinted blue like the ocean. There was a small young group inside, a make up of players from the local music scene.
They talked quickly and quietly among themselves, and filtered in and out for smoke breaks, and for food runs, and to take phone calls, and they slumped on the sofa, which was pressed to the back wall, and stole glances at a digital clock, watching the seconds wander into minutes and hours, waiting for something to happen. But nothing did.
So they continued in their small talk: about Birmingham, about cars, about the studio (which sat next to a canal) about MC’s and rappers, about this stale weekday afternoon where silence seemed to dominate everything, even the sound of their own voices. The only man who seemed unconcerned was the one who needed to record music. Jaykae, gently rocking back and forth in a computer chair, and seemingly unaware of the room’s suffocating stillness, had been typing very quickly, very quietly into his iPhone.
But now he turned and wheeled himself into the centre of the room. The neon glow threw light on his Stone Island woolie hat, his fitted black t-shirt and the ‘2Real’ tattoo that coated the back of his right palm. He seemed, at least in that moment, in a world unto himself, a dimension separate from the static studio where time stood still.
Still saying nothing, he swivelled to face the mixer, which sat on a huge oak table by the door and, though not a producer, he began to fiddle with a few buttons and dials, until an instrumental poured from the sound system and scattered the silence. His blue eyes were fixed on the dim glow of his iPhone and then instinctively, as though throwing darts, he began to jab his index finger back and forth, mumbling a new verse under his breath, stumbling every so often and starting over.
Some of the group, jolted by the theatre of noise, now watched on as the instrumental infected his bones and he set into a deep rhythm. This continued for another half hour. Then a little while after 1pm Jaykae paused the instrumental and placed his phone on the mixer. Though he had been crafting this particular verse since late morning, he seemed dissatisfied, wanted to write to a different melody, and was growing slightly impatient in the wait for a producer to email him more.
Finally, he turned to the rest of the group. “Where is this geezer?” he said, to one of the men, who was leaning against a wall. “Have you heard from him yet?”
The man, looking rather hapless, shrugged, mumbled something to himself about giving chase and got up to leave the studio. But before he disappeared out of earshot, Jaykae, now almost ready to record, called out to him again.
“Also,” he said. “Can you go shop and get me a water please?”
The man nodded and left. The rest of the group followed, and Jaykae, alone in the studio, this time in person as well as in thought, retreated back into silence, back to crafting a verse on his phone.
Having recently turned 25, and with a newborn son to now support and take care of, he could ill afford time for unfocus. So, many of his hours, for the past year at least, were spent here in Birmingham, in Prime Studios, balancing recording sessions with being a father, sifting through instrumentals on the weekdays and spending Saturdays with his son.
“It sunk in for me maybe a couple months before he was born,” he said. “I need to have shit ready for a rainy day, I’m not putting myself first no more.”
He continued. “I can’t fuck around, and if I do what I need to do now, then I’m set up financially for the rest of my life. There’s always someone else to provide for and think about.”
But recently, regardless of wherever he went, anchored deep in his psyche was December 23rd, when, slightly more than a month from now, and after years of waiting, he would headline his first show in this city that he was ineffably tied too. For weeks now he said, he had played out the evening in his head, had plotted the song he would walk out to, the song he would finish on, and had envisioned the crowd of 600 that would be packed in tight to the O2, a crowd that would, for the first time in his career, include his Mum.
“I can’t wait for that,” he said. “She knows to an extent that I’m doing well and that a lot of people know me and look up to me and want pictures and that, but I think when she sees hundreds of people singing back my lyrics, she’ll really get it.”
Among his Mum, and hundreds of others from Birmingham, also expected to be present were fans from far flung countries and cities, from Macau, Hong Kong, from Australia, from London and from Amsterdam too. Jaykae knew this because, after he announced the show, back in Autumn, fans began to randomly message him pictures of their plane tickets.
He was thankful. But he also knew that the journey to this point had been long, that; though some of his songs were being streamed in the millions and there was excitement and interest from the suits and industry folk down in London; he had overcome prison and funerals and alcohol and depression, and that all of these misfortunes and miseries, had shaped him, changed him in a way.
“A lot of fucking hardship to get here,” he said. “It’s a cold world out there and I know how to fucking look after myself man. I guess….I guess I don’t let things affect me like that anymore….which isn’t good maybe because now when some shit happens I just block it out….I don’t want to get back into that zone, depressed and crying and drinking stupid amounts of liquor. I went through a lot but that’s just growing up, you learn from things.”
An hour or so later, when the group returned, Jaykae had recorded the first verse, had jotted down ideas for the second, and though there was still no new instrumental for him to toy with, or an explanation as to why, he seemed satisfied with his morning shift, satisfied enough for a smoke break and a short walk.
Wearing a chunky winter jacket and lighting a cigarette, he made his way through the web of sidewalks and pathways that mapped this upscale, former industrial part of town. He passed disheveled buildings that now, under the burdens of a typically harsh British winter, appeared only more grey in the rain and the mist. He shuffled through narrow, brick-paved roads lined with cafes, and creative agencies, and bars, that were once tea factories and steel foundries and Irish pubs.
“I’ve been here all my life,” he said, the cold air in his lungs, the puddles wetting his feet and slowly lining his socks. “I’ve got too much fam to think about leaving.”
Though he was downtown, in the centre of Birmingham, away from Small Heath where he had grown up and still lived, he had a level of notoriety that spanned the city, a level of notoriety that he had not always been comfortable with.
“It’s hard for rappers you know,” he said, still walking, dragging on his cigarette. “It’s hard to want to carry on when you’re not seeing rewards for years and years, not having a job because people will be clocking you, and not wanting to sign on because you’ve got too much pride. You’ve just got to do whatever the fuck you’ve got to do to get by.”
“You’ve got to have your own city on side before you go anywhere else. Birmingham’s not like other places, you know everyone in Birmingham and they’ve always known about me, but now they respect me. Your own people have to champion you before a stranger does.”
By 3pm, his short walk had stretched into a long stroll under the fading sunlight. He had stopped to talk to fans, taken a few phone calls, wandered deeper into the industrial estate, and entered a large car park penned in by a grand railway bridge and some old factory buildings, all the while maintaining a distant detachment, the same detachment that he had carried a few hours ago in the studio. It were as if, somewhere behind his pale blue eyes, he was still writing lyrics or thinking long and hard about December 23rd.
Jaykae lit another cigarette and began to climb the steel fire escape steps attached to the side of one of the buildings. “The sickest raves in Birmingham here fam,” he said, once he reached the top, resting gently on the iron railings. “I remember performing to six, seven thousand people here, the biggest crowd I’ve performed too. It was mad.”
Then, for a moment, Jaykae was silent. He looked over the car park and factories and canals and the rest of Birmingham, a forest of concrete which drifted listlessly into the distance, grey and dull, like the horizon.
Ever since he was 17, he said, his life here in Birmingham, in one capacity or another, had been documented on the internet. He said he would sometimes bump into fans on the street, who upon meeting him, would let fly on his personal business. And for a moment, he would be stunned, it taking him a few seconds to remember that these were all events and happenings he had written about in one song or another.
There were videos of him, online as a teenager, performing at shows, MCing and messing around in the streets with friends, some of whom were no longer friends, some of whom were no longer here, some of whom were waiting for him streets away in the studio by the canal.
“It takes time to find your circle,” he said. “There’s people I called friends back in the day that I would never call my friend again man and there’s people that I’ve just met this year that I’ve got proper fucking relationships with.”
“My Mum would warn me about people, she would tell me ‘I don’t like that person, but you’ll find out yourself, you’ll find out the hard way,’ and she was right….she was actually right….It took me years to find that shit out man.”
He paused again, “I have grown up man, about time though.”
From there he walked back to the studio. But he did not stay for long, hanging around only to finish writing his second verse. He decided to leave the chorus for tomorrow, and instead to line his stomach at a late-night dessert lounge less than a mile away.
It was empty with high ceilings and varnished wooden tables and a dozen or so staff gathered behind the counter. Jaykae was eating a custard crumble. He looked very assured and very comfortable. He was himself.
He had always used his age as a watermark he said, a touchstone for ambitions and achievements. At 21 he hoped, like many musicians do, to have reached a settled position in music, one where it made sense to continue on in an otherwise uncertain trade. And now, in this quiet desert lounge, he remembered his benchmark for 25, how, when he was younger, he had challenged himself to fill his wallet.
“I wanted to have £100,000 in the bank.”
But, mellowing and maturing and becoming a father, he settled into his quarter century with a more reasoned outlook on the future.
“I don’t get gassed over money as I would have back when I was younger,” he said, between mouthfuls of custard. “I see a bigger picture than just that now. I want to have businesses and shit like that, have a fucking place like this.”
“I’m talking like….I just want to set up everyone. My Mum needs to be set up, my sister needs to be set up and her kids….and that’s after even thinking of my own family. It’s not just ‘I need 100 grand and I need six figures in my account,’ it needs to be bigger than that bruv.”
Then one of the waiters walked over and offered him another drink. He declined.
“This is my 25th year and I think I’m on track,” he said, thumbing through his phone again. “I’ve been on it for fucking years man and now I’m starting to see rewards from it.”
He waved the waiter back to settle the bill, unfurling a few notes from his pocket and placing them onto an empty white plate next to the receipt. He had weeks to wait until December 23rd. But until then at least, here in Birmingham, he still had the studio and his son; so he picked himself up and drifted off into the quiet winter evening.