Hip-Hop

DJ Tay James, Justin Bieber’s A&R, Talks Orchestrating Wizkid's 'Essence' Remix -- 'We Played It Nonstop'

Tay James
Joseph Shaw*

Tay James

DJ Tay James is the A&R genius behind countless Justin Bieber records -- including “Peaches,” featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon, a Hot 100-topping collaboration which James helped coordinate. Most recently, James was the visionary that brought Bieber onboard to appear on Wizkid's chartbusting "Essence" remix, alongside fellow artist Tems.

The remix to the global smash, which first dropped on Aug. 13 -- nearly one year after the original "Essence" was released, in October 2020 -- is rapidly scaling the charts. This week (chart dated Sept. 4), it climbs to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and No. 13 on the Hot 100.

DJ Tay James, whose personal success includes his own Las Vegas residency at Zouk Nightclub, has been working with Bieber for more than 10 years -- thanks to his good friend DJ Boogie, né Ryan Marsh, who connected the duo in 2009. "They were looking for a DJ and the first person they called was [my friend Ryan]," James tells Billboard. "He was like, ‘Hey, I got the perfect kid, he just graduated from college' and they gave me a call. I literally just graduated [from Hampton University] two months prior, and got the call to work with Justin."

James, who works closely with Bieber's management team at SB Projects (which includes Scooter Braun and Allison Kaye) has been promoted to the official, personal A&R for Bieber, with the pop star's Billboard 200-topping album Justice marking his debut project in the new position this March. Most recently, James worked on Skrillex's newly released track with Bieber and Toliver, titled "Don't Go," which dropped on Aug. 20 and debuts this week at No. 69 on the Hot 100.

Below, James breaks down his own foundation in music, and the making of Bieber's latest hit songs -- including "Peaches" and the his feature on the "Essence" remix.

How did you start DJ'ing? Was it always your dream to become a huge A&R for a huge star?  

My love for music started at such an early age. My father used to make mixtapes for his friends. He had a massive record collection. I fell in love with DJ’ing when I learned how to blend one record into the other, that unlocked something in my head.

I had to be beg my brother [to teach me]. Finally, one day, he came over and started blending two records. I was 12 or 13. Once he showed me that, I would literally do that day in and day out, in the morning before school and then after school.

Throughout high school, I was DJ’ing basketball games. I was an intern at a record label called Unruly Records, which is a big Baltimore, DMV-based [Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia] record label. I’m forever grateful for that experience... by the time I got with Justin, it was a blessing to use my DJ ear to help him with music.

Would you say being a DJ has benefited your work as an A&R?

The fact that I am a DJ -- a world-renowned DJ, and I’ve DJ’d at almost every top club -- I feel like with that experience alone, it allows me to have a different type of ear. And the fact that I’m still DJ’ing. I know what people want to hear, what they’re vibing to -- the new songs, new genres. And I’m also tapped in with DJs around the world, telling me what’s working in the U.K., Australia or Europe.

For Justin for example, a lot of times when we’re in the writing process, he’ll just be like, "Hey, can you send me some beats?" So, I’ll reach out to the producers that I work with. I’m able to sort out the beats and pick which ones I know that he would relate to, from knowing the different sounds and genres -- whether it’s Afro, reggaetón, emo-rap, hip-hop, R&B, smooth R&B. Being able to be tapped in and know what people are moving to is a benefit to me.

Rory Kramer*
Tay James, Justin Bieber and Josh Gudwin

How much of a role did you play in orchestrating Justin's feature on Wizkid's “Essence” remix? How was that collaboration born?

It’s a great story. We were on our way to a birthday vacation weekend for Allison [Kaye], his manager. While on the plane over, I was like, "Yo, bro, this ['Essence'] is one of the hottest records. I feel like you should listen to this." I played it and instantly he loved it. That became the song of the weekend. We played it nonstop.

One of the guys who happened to be on the vacation with us was Mike G, Wizkid’s agent. We went right to work, like, "Hey, I think Justin wants to hop on this, let’s make sure Wiz is cool with this. Let’s make sure we get Wiz’s blessings." Wiz was down.

When we got back to the studio stateside, the first thing Justin cut was [his verse on the] “Essence” [remix]. Me, him and Josh Gudwin, his engineer and A&R as well, got into the studio. Justin wrote the record within an hour, and he made the vocals. Justin wrote everything and laid it down. Justin’s been in such a mode right now -- it’s amazing to watch.

This isn’t the first time Justin has collaborated with an Afrobeats artist. Is this a new beginning for him musically, in terms of breaking into other international genres?  

Remember we also did “Despacito” [by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee], as far as doing international music. We also collabed with Alpha P and Omah Lay on the “Peaches” [Masterkraft remix]. We had a record [called "Loved By You"] with Burna Boy on Justice, and now this new Wizkid.

It’s something I know Justin is [proud of] -- he loves all types of music. He’s somebody that puts me on to everything to and that’s why our relationship is so strong when it comes to music. We know what each other likes. He put me on to [Nigerian singer] Omah Lay. I never heard of Omah Lay until Justin came into rehearsals listening to him.

For Justin, it’s like, "Let’s shine a light on international artists. Why not if I can help out? I would love to." Doing music with international artists, whether it’s Afrobeats or reggaetón or any artist, helps shine a light to something that some of Justin’s fans weren’t listening to. It’s a collaborative effort pushing crossovers of culture.

The "Essence" remix is beautiful, but there has been some backlash from some people. What are your thoughts on that and how do you respond to that?

Not everyone’s gonna like everything that we do. All we wanna do is make great music and push the culture forward. There was some backlash, but at the same time there was a lot of great praises, especially in Nigeria.

The numbers speak. People love it. People are influenced by it. It’d be one thing if we did it out of the blue and didn’t have the blessing of Wizkid, but we did. Wizkid was fully involved. He’s the one that put the record together for us after we sent in the vocals. If it was something we did out the blue and we weren’t tapped in like we are, I could [see that]. But at the same time, we’re trying to push the culture forward. That’s what we’re doing -- and going to continue to do.

A lot of people love the song for sure.  

At the end of the day, it’s about love and uniting people. If we can do that, if we can help bring people to something or help shine a light to artists who are killing it, who are doing their thing, why not?

Music is the catalyst of everything. It's all about uniting people. That’s what the whole purpose of Justice was. Justice was an album where we took genres from all around the world and put it on one project, because it was a time of need. The world was hurting [during that time, in March] -- so let’s pull and bring everyone together.

You just answered one of my questions, which would’ve been, why now? It feels like right now Justin is going super international and diversifying his music.

Bieber is not known for just America. It’s South America, Africa, the U.K., Australia, Japan. With someone who touches so many different parts of the world, I was so proud to be a part of a project that was able to bring everybody together. You have people who love certain parts of the album because it connects to them and the region or country they’re in. Not being biased, but that’s why Justice is one of my favorite projects from him.

Rory Kramer*
Tay James

Do you think fans can expect more Afrobeats from Justin? What can you tease? 

[Laughs.] I know what we’re working on right now, but I just expect Justin to help continue to push the culture forward any way possible. He’s gonna be expanded to everything. That’s what he does. He loves working with new music and new sounds. My job is to help direct him in the best way I can in navigating through this.

Why do you think it’s important for people to know what goes on behind the scenes musically? For example, Justin's feature on the "Essence" remix, but many people only see the singer and don't know there's a lot of people who work on these projects. 

At the end of the day, I always like to promote that it’s a team effort, especially over here. I thank Justin, Josh, Allison, Scooter and all of our team for allowing me to be able to do what I do -- use my ideas and help with the music and projects. I have the path to do it and I just thank them... We came together in the pandemic and made a great album, and we’ve been building off that momentum.

Congratulations on your DJ residency in Las Vegas. How proud of yourself are you and what’s the most fulfilling part about it?  

I appreciate it, thank you. Being a kid from Baltimore and being able to go from being a local DJ to being a DJ that DJs around the world to finally getting a Vegas residency is probably one of the pinnacles of my career, honestly. As a DJ, it’s something that everyone strives to get. It’s nice, it’s a great feeling. I feel truly blessed.

As Justin’s personal A&R, what’s the biggest way you’ve seen him grow as an artist?  

He’s been in such a mode and I love seeing his energy. He literally wakes up, eats breakfast, comes to rehearsals for two to three hours, leaves to go to the recording studio and makes music. He gets done around 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., goes home and spends time with his wife [Hailey Bieber]. He’s in such a mode and I love watching him kill it.

He’s writing a lot of this new music he’s working on right now. It’s amazing to see him grow as an artist and I’m excited for everyone to hear what we’ve been working on. It’s gonna be pretty dope. I’m excited to get back on tour, which starts in February. There’s a lot of things coming up and I’m happy to get to it. We’re just blessed and I love what we do.

Did you think Justin Bieber's “Peaches" would be such a success? How much of a role did you play in orchestrating that song?

Yes. I knew it was gonna be a hit. When we start working on a project, sometimes we start a year or a a year and a half in advance. “Peaches” we worked on in the middle of the pandemic, I wanna say maybe eight months before the song came out. It was done by August or September 2020.

With this particular record, after I first got it back from Justin and Harv, us as a group, our team, our family, we were all dancing to this song at our own private events within ourselves. Just seeing friends and family’s reaction to the song let me know this might be a hit.

Also, I think people forgot what real, live instrumentation sounds like -- and we’ve been able to capture that sound on Justice, especially with this song. A lot of music in this day and age is heavily 808-produced, a lot of synth sounds. People forgot what a real guitar, bass, or drums sounds like, With “Peaches,” I feel like it embodies of all of that. The producer of “Peaches" -- shoutout to my boy Harv -- he’s also Justin’s musical director and we’ve been working with Justin for 10+ years. He was able to put this record together and help define what the summer was for us this past summer, and I feel like “Peaches” is that record.

As far as me, my job was coming in when I talked to Scooter [Braun] and Allison [Kaye] and explaining that “Peaches” is a strong single, and should be one of the premiere singles for the album. They put their trust in me and believed the same thing. We went back to Def Jam and told them “Peaches” was gonna be the single. And look what it did.

Did you also play a part in choosing Daniel [Caesar] and Giveon to be on the song?

Justin’s idea was bringing Daniel Caesar on. I connected Justin with Giveon, and he and Giveon worked on “Peaches” together. They’ve been working on a few other songs together as well, and when “Peaches” came around it was the perfect match. Justin had the great idea of putting Daniel on -- so now you got two of the top R&B acts on one record, with a pop superstar who can sing R&B as well. I feel like all three of them together just meshed and blended very, very well.

Were there any other artists you thought would be a good fit for "Peaches," or was it always those three you imagined?

I thought it was perfect for them. When I first heard the record it was with Giveon and Justin. Justin felt like it would be special if we add Daniel to the mix and he was right.

I was looking at the charts and it says the “Essence” [remix] is No. 16 on the Billboard chart, up 28 spots, new peak and this was earlier this week, and it’s only gonna get better and better. That goes back to what I was saying with being able to shed light and push the culture, influence people and bring a brand new audience to Afrobeats that probably wasn’t paying attention to it, or didn’t know what Afrobeats was. Now, you have a whole influx of people who are gonna have eyes on Wizkid and Tems and listen to and support their music. That’s what it’s about, being a culture narrator.

I love seeing the exposure and mainstream attention for Wizkid and Tems, Afrobeats and in your words, the culture. I definitely think the “Essence” Remix will keep climbing the charts. Do you think it’ll make it to No. 1?

Man, it’ll be a blessing if it his top 10. If I’m not mistaken, it’ll probably be the first Afrobeats, Nigerian record to do that. If that happens, that’s a blessing in its own.