“I can make certain calls and tap in with a certain DJ in another part of the world and know what’s being played over there. I can make calls and ask who the hottest new artist or producer is. I don’t think the DJ role will never be obsolete because an algorithm can’t think like a DJ.”
-DJ Tay James
Since it’s inception, the art of being a DJ has been something that has always been fascinating to watch. Coming from the old days of having to own actual vinyl records, and then transitioning to an all-digital deck, it’s been amazing to see how many DJs actually move along with the times and are able to master a new craft, when their old ways are shifting away. One could argue that the job of a DJ is one of the more important roles in the music business. At a party or event, it’s the DJs job to control the mood and the overall vibes, and listening to the crowd’s visual cues and body language is key. For DJ Tay James, he’s been able to maneuver through many avenues and kept up with the times for many years, and he is still here, thriving more than ever in 2022.
Tay James found himself being immersed into the world of music through family members, and he hasn’t looked back since. After getting connected with Justin Bieber at a very early point in his career, he built an ongoing relationship, and has been performing the role as Justin’s official DJ and A&R. Being connected to one of the biggest musical acts in the world is a flex in it’s own regard, however, Tay James remains as humble as can be, and continues to push more and more to break larger boundaries, deliver the best shows, and create the best music possible.
While currently on the road with Justin Bieber for the “Justice” tour, we sat down and discussed his early beginnings, how he became so well connected in the game, his role as an A&R, his relationship with Justin Bieber, and more.
Read our conversation in full below!
LM: What was life like for you growing up for you in Baltimore?
TJ: Very humble beginnings, you know. Just like any other kid from Baltimore. I never really played any real instruments as a kid, but I always had a passion for music. My Dad used to make mixtapes for his friends, and he had a massive record collection. So that’s probably why I ended up gravitating toward DJ’ing. My brother was friends with everybody and he knew all the top DJs growing up.
When I got my first turntable around age 13, he was the one who showed me my first blend. Once I went at it and learned the simple basics, I kinda just took off, and I just wanted to do anything and everything involving DJ’ing. Back in the day, it was all vinyl, so if you wanted to learn, you had to shadow a real DJ and learn that way.
LM: Who were some of the DJs you looked up to back then?
TJ: DJ Alizay. He was my mentor first, but he’s probably the best DJ I know. DJ Baby Drew; he was Chris Brown’s DJ very early on in his career. My homeboy DJ Ruckus as well.
LM: At what point in your life did you make that switch and go towards music full time?
TJ: So For a little backstory, I used to work at Burger King and Best Buy at the same time. I needed to in order to fund my DJ career, you know? The moment I realized that this was meant for me, was when I was in high school. I was DJ’ing what they called a Kiddie Disco, which is basically an 18-and-under party. The fact that they paid me more than I was making at Best Buy and Burger King in two weeks, I was like “If I can make this in one night, then I’m gonna keep at it”.
When I was in college, my parents would tell me straight up, that I had to get a job. I knew for a fact that I didn’t wanna be a college student working at Burger King and Best Buy, you know? I already did the tough stuff and had low-paying jobs, so I was telling myself that I had to make this DJ thing work, and it worked out for me. Once I started DJ’ing college parties and meeting other DJs and getting paid, things started to work out better for me. Eventually, I was able to get my residency at Love Nightclub which was a huge DC nightclub back in the day. I started traveling from college every weekend to DJ this college party and that’s where I met Chase B; I met him back when he was going to Howard way before Travis Scott even got signed. So that’s what it was for me. I kept doing mixtapes and college parties and was always looking out for what the next play would be.
LM: How did you manage to gain these connections so early on?
It’s something that I’ve learned very early on, maybe at age 12 or 13. My mentor, Alizay, would always introduce me to people. Anytime we went anywhere together and it was a brand new room, he would introduce me to everyone. Part of the DJ culture is linking up with other DJs, so whenever I would go to a local club or a party, I would go and link with them and chat it up and exchange numbers. By doing that, I’ve been able to build a crazy network of friends around the world. I have tons of friends and relationships that I’ve been able to invest in all over the place. So now, anytime I go anywhere, the chances are high that I’m gonna know somebody. I knew a lot of people early on. Bas, Earthgang, and JID, all went to college together, so those are people that I got to see very early on and those were connections that I had from a very early point.
LM: Coming up as a DJ, what was one thing that you know now that you wish you knew back then?
TJ: I wish I had a team early on. Having a team that supports you is very important in this game, especially the game I’m in. You know, a manager, business manager, accountant, agent, things like that. It’s easier said than done of course, but I wish this was something I knew early on. I’m used to DJ’ing the club and getting a check right afterward. So if there was a case where that didn’t happen right away and it would take like two weeks to get paid, then the money is weird, so I wish I had a team of people who knew that part of the game and would work on that with me.
LM: Lots of people talk about the DJ role “fading away” due to the internet and playlisting, what’s your take on that subject?
TJ: What’s crazy about it, is that me being a DJ first is the reason why I believe that I’ve been able to be a good A&R. Because I’m actively DJ’ing in clubs around the world, I know exactly what people want to hear because that’s my job. I take that and use that knowledge to work on music and pick different sounds and different beats. I can make certain calls and tap in with a certain DJ in another part of the world and know what’s being played over there. I can make calls and ask who the hottest new artist or producer is. I don’t think the DJ role will never be obsolete because an algorithm can’t think like a DJ.
LM: If there’s one thing that you wish to see more of amongst the DJ community, what would it be?
TJ: I want people to just love the craft. I feel like in this community, even in music, people are doing things just because they want to make money off of it. I know a lot of DJs that wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t making money off of it. For me, I would still be doing this if I was still in my basement. That’s what I want to see more of. I want to see people fall in love with the craft and have a passion for music.
LM: You linked up with Justin Bieber at a very early point in his career, how did that relationship between you and him begin?
TJ: A good friend of mine who was in Atlanta, was working with the artist Sammie. He would always tell me that if he ever found an opportunity for me, he would help me out and put me on. Two years go by, I graduated from college in May of that year, and I get a call in July and he said: “Yo, someone gonna give you a call about a new artist named Justin Bieber”. He told me that they could take care of my flight and expenses but they can’t pay me directly right now. I was like “Okay bet” ’cause I already knew who Justin Bieber was. I remember seeing YouTube videos back in the day of him. I got on the phone with Scooter Braun, and it was it. My audition was my first show with him, and this ended up being the second show he’s ever done. We put together his setlist, and did the first show and the energy was just there and we clicked right away. The rest is history, and here we are today still going strong.
LM: While being his DJ for so long, what is it that fascinates you the most about his journey?
TJ: The one word I can use to describe it is just blessed. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be able to work with that man. Being one of his close friends and working closely with him in the studio, I’ve been able to see him grow as a man and as a musician and step into his light, and I’m just proud of him.
LM: You’re currently on tour with Justin for the Justice tour, what has the tour life been like this time around?
TJ: It’s been great to actually work on a project, and then go on stage and perform the music that you worked on. We’ve had a great past two years and I attribute that to being locked in and working through the pandemic ’cause we never took a break. We had rehearsals and tapings and did live performances and stayed busy. I feel like the reason why tour life is just better is because we’ve been working together for so long. The tour got pushed back because of COVID, but during that time, we never stopped working. We put on a New Year’s Eve show and all. So by the time it was ready to get back outside again, the band, the dancers, and everyone were ready to go because we were working for the last year already. I’ve been loving the show so much. Shout out to Nick Demoura, he’s the creative director and he also did some of the choreography and the stage design. He put together one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. I’m just happy to be here.
LM: You’re also Justin’s official A&R, talk about the role that you play there in his career.
TJ: I’ve kind of always been involved in the creation process for a long time. I worked on about six records on Purpose. I was around during the Journals sessions too. On his second album Believe, that was me scratching on drums on “Right Here”. That’s kind of where I got my first taste and that’s where I became infatuated with being a part of the process and picking beats. After Changes, Justin and Scooter hit me and told me they really wanted me to be involved more with the music, and that they love my ear for music. We locked in and then when the pandemic hit, it allowed me to really focus more on the music. A year later, 8 GRAMMY nominations later, number 1 records, we’re still on the charts, you know?
I connected him with The Kid LAROI, you know. I told him that he was one of the next up-and-coming artists he should work with and that’s when you get songs like “Unstable”, then “Stay” comes out. It’s all just about passing the ball back and forth. Josh Gudwin, he’s Justin’s mixing engineer, and he takes on the role of A&R as well. It’s been me and him passing songs around, going through beats. I make Justin a beat pack every month, and he just goes through them and picks what he likes.
LM: Justin recently linked up with Lyrical Lemonade for “I Feel Funny” and “Honest”. How does it make you feel seeing Justin venture off into so many other genres of music and be able to crush them all?
TJ: “Honest” was actually one of the records that we collaborated with BEAM, and he sent me the idea, then I sent it over to Justin. He sent it over to Don Toliver. I was actually the one who connected Justin with Don Toliver as well when they did the record “Don’t Go” with Skrillex.
The whole part of music is to be able to push the boundaries and push the culture forward, you know? What’s fun about doing the same thing and being the same over and over again, you feel me? I think that the world is more connected now so it’s important to be able to tap into different areas and experiment and get influenced by different things, and that’s how you make yourself better. That’s the kind of guy Justin is, he’s the guy to do it all. If that’s the case, then it’s like let’s continue to work with new artists and new producers and do things we’ve never done before.
LM: What are some of the challenges one might face while taking on the role of an A&R?
TJ: I will say for me, the benefit that I have is that I only work with one artist. I don’t deal with labels, I don’t worry about ten artists at a time. For me, I can solely just focus on JB. Being locked in for so long, he knows what I like and I know what he likes, and that kind of takes away some of the challenges that one may face with working with a new artist or dealing with multiple artists and projects at a time. I don’t look at it as work. For me, I just call it making music with my friend.
LM: What are some other things outside of your current roles that you plan to get into?
TJ: During the pandemic, I’ve been able to get into fashion a lot more. I got linked with Purple Denim. I’m in charge of event management and promotions for them. The two owners are close homies of mine. I’ve kind of connected them to other celebrities and athletes and stuff like that. Eventually, they were saying they love what I do and they wanted to bring me in on the team. Aside from that, I also partnered with a company called Polite Worldwide where we specialize in sustainable clothing a jewelry. That’s kind of what I’ve been working on outside of the music. It’s a lot, but I’m ready for it.
LM: When it’s all said and done, what do you want Tay James to be known for?
TJ: I just want to be known as a guy who made great music, and did his part to try to change the world one step at a time.