We talk to the buzzing producer about his Grammy win alongside Burna Boy, his work with J Hus and the ever-looming influence of Ghana.
When tales about the origins of hip-hop come into the cypher, the hyperfocus is almost always about the culture being born out of a unique and profound struggle that centers Black and Indigenous youth in the Bronx. First and second generational youth with roots in both the English and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, who in spite of their deteriorating environment — at the time some of the most impoverished streets in North America — learned to harness the power of creative ingenuity as a form of survival.
We can, arguably, deduce then that the original purveyors of this music that was made from scratch — quite literally — weren't actually intending on making music that could speak for or represent a people and their stories. No. I'd wager the first DJs worrying the vinyls on Uptown blocks, and the first MCs spitting outside corner bodegas were simply living, relishing in the little joy they could manifest for themselves. Two-stepping and waving braggadocio hands in the few darkened spaces that welcomed them.
For JAE5 (born Jonathan Mensah) one of today's most prolific producers on the other side of the Atlantic, creating a fresh UK sound that in many ways is an expression of contemporary African British youth, it was not intentional. It was simply inevitable.
"I lived in Ghana for three years. J Hus grew up around a lot of Ghanaians. All of our friends are African and our parents are African," he shares. "So even when we were trying to make music from the UK, it would always have an African influence because that's what we grew up listening to and that's who we are. So I don't think anything was intentional. It's what it is."
With origins in Ghana and a coming-of-age set in London, JAE5 first became known as the genre-splicing beat machine behind J Hus' intoxicating songs, including the summer smash of 2017 "Did You See" off his Common Sense album. Having executive produced J Hus' entire debut album, JAE5 made a name for himself as the East Londoner developing a distinct diasporic sound combining elements of hip-hop, afrobeats and afro-fusion.
Photo: Black Butter/Sony UK.
JAE5's wizardry behind the board earned him a diverse catalogue of collaborations featuring a lot of today's biggest contenders in music, including Koffee, Popcaan, Wizkid, Sam Smith, Mark Ronson, Dave, Future and French Montana, among others. His reputation followed him all the way to Burna Boy's home studio, where he began to construct the beat of a song originally intended to be his own personal premiere single. The inner workings of that night culminated in the production of "Bank On It," which Burna ultimately insisted on keeping for himself. On March 14, the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards were held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where Burna and JAE5 were honored with their first-ever gramophone.
Now a Grammy-winning artist and star producer, JAE5 puts out into the world a personal love letter to his native Ghana with his official debut single titled "Dimension," featuring fellow Brit and grime rapper Skepta, alongside Nigerian singer Rema. As the accompanying visual — equally important and set in Accra — continues to rake in over 2.2 million watchers on YouTube, OkayAfrica catches up with JAE5 on all things music including what makes this a debut single; the impact of pre-teen living in Ghana; diaspora connections and disconnections. Get acquainted...
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You and I have something in common. I read somewhere that your older brother is basically responsible for pretty much influencing a lot of your taste in music, particularly in hip-hop.
Yes, 100 percent. So he would collect CDs and cassette tapes. Anything that had music on it he'd collect. I remember he used to go to shops and get CDs and records of whatever they sold and bring them back home. A lot of them would be rubbish, but he'd find music on them. He'd even record songs off the radio onto a cassette and then splice them together to choose the bits he liked. Yeah. He definitely influenced my music.
I think that in many ways your work with J Hus and your production in general actually is what I imagine a unique expression of Black, immigrant youth in the UK, whose parents are often from places like Nigeria and Ghana. Was it your intention to help create something that represented and echoed that?
Honestly, I don't think that was ever my real intention. I just made music that we enjoy and love. So, a lot of fusions. I lived in Ghana for three years. J Hus grew up around a lot of Ghanaians. All of our friends are African and our parents are African. So even when we were trying to make music from the UK, it would always have an African influence because that's what we grew up listening to and that's who we are. So I don't think anything was intentional. It's what it is.
"All of our friends are African and our parents are African. So even when we were trying to make music from the UK, it would always have an African influence."
I love that. And you lived a few years in Ghana. How has that influenced or informed your approach to producing music?
It makes me want to be a lot more authentic. There's a lot of things that I learned in Ghana that I didn't even realize I was learning. A lot of sound, the way I produce drums. A lot of things to do with the sounds I choose to use. A lot of it was influenced by my time in Ghana, but I didn't realize I was even taking those things in. It's probably one of the most important parts of my career in terms of where I learned the most, musically.
You mentioned that Ghana has been a huge influence in your production. What were some of your other takeaways, not necessarily concerning music?
Respect, the most. I think before going to Ghana... You'd obviously respect your parents and stuff, but once you left the house, you didn't give a damn. But being in Ghana, anybody could discipline you, anybody was your parent. The teacher could punch you up, the guy outside in the road could beat you around for doing something stupid. So I learned a lot about respect and morals in Ghana. Quickly!
JAE5 - Dimension (Official Video) ft. Skepta, Rema youtu.be
Congratulations on your Grammy win on Burna Boy's Twice as Tall. "Bank On It" is actually, believe it or not, my favorite track. I play the shit out of it.
You have to say that in an interview! [Laugh]
What does that song mean to you? Because I know what it means to me.
I can't say exactly what it means. It's one of those songs where I instantly knew it was a good one. We were halfway through the session. And the song was actually meant to be my song. [Laughs] It was meant to be. I'm hanging with Burna Boy, I'm making a song for his project. And halfway through, he just turns around, he's like, "JAE, man, this is for my album."
Yeah. He said he just had to have it. I knew it'd be that though, I kind of knew. It was spiritual, man. It was a vibe when we were making that song.
You got a Grammy for it, too. How does that make you feel? Do you even care about a Grammy win?
I do care, to be honest. But once you've got it, you've got it, innit? So the excitement has worn off. I think for the first day, I'm over the moon and then after that everyone's like, "Hey, you got a Grammy," I'm like, "Yeah." I don't know what I'm meant to do with that now. So it's kind of worn off. I am happy I have one.
Let's talk about your personal debut single, "Dimension." What makes this your debut single? I feel some people might not know the difference between a debut single from a producer versus a rapper, for instance. What makes this yours, what creative input did you have across all boards?
Basically, if I'm working with an artist, I make the beat and it ends there. They go off and choose the features, they go off and push the song. You have very little say in how the song goes. Even in the writing, you have no say. With this being my debut single, I have a lot more input. So I make the beat, I choose who I want to be featured on the song. It's my job to get the video shot. The whole creative process, aside from writing the lyrics, is mine. This is my debut single because it's the one I would say I pieced together fully for myself. With my name on it.
I love the video also and I love that it was in Ghana. Where in Ghana was it filmed? Because it looks like Labadi Beach, but I could be wrong.
It was in Accra, but it wasn't Labadi Beach. I can't remember the exact location. Actually, tell a lie. There was a part that was filmed at Labadi Beach, I just wasn't at that part. So the videographer did go to Labadi Beach and get some cutaways.
JAE5 - Dimension ft. Skepta, Rema (Official Behind The Scenes) youtu.be
I want to ask you a diaspora question. Have you visited places in the Caribbean yet?
No, but I'm 100 percent looking forward to it.
I ask because you are on the other side of the Atlantic, and I am constantly being reminded about how little we know about each other on both sides. I'm Dominican, by the way, and so that means I come from a Negro nation and everything we know and love about being Dominican is inherently African and an extension of the continent. I was wondering whether you could make any connections between the Caribbean and West Africa, particularly?
Connection in terms of musical culture?
In general. There's a metaphorical umbilical cord between the Caribbean and Africa, with the Dominican Republic being the original recipient of the first enslaved ships. So I'm curious to know if you know anything about that connection or that route or that cord?
Oh, wow. Not much, to be honest. I do know that somewhere in the Caribbean, there is a tribe of people that speak the same language as Ghanaians do, Twi. And a lot of Ghanaians tend to have dreads. There's probably a link there, I don't know the exact link though. But yeah, I think Ghanaians and Caribbeans are pretty much the same people it seems.
How do you feel about the evolution of afrobeats? In recent years, obviously it's become very popular on this side of the hemisphere. But do you have any concerns of maybe misappropriations or lack of due credit? Or do you see everything as a course of fusion?
I see everything as a course of fusion. I'm not too fussed with people taking stuff and doing whatever with it. I figure it has to progress, and for it to progress, people are going to remix and mess with things. So I'm not really fussed with the culture appropriation thing. I love doing afrobeat since it's become huge and I think it's going to keep on getting bigger. I'm here for it.
I think that you've really worked to define one of the signature sounds coming out of the African diaspora. What does it mean for you to leave behind that kind of legacy?
To be honest, that's the most important thing for me musically. You know when people speak about Quincy Jones, then they speak about their legends, I want that. That's what I want to be. I want to be remembered for something, not a one-hit wonder. I'd want to be someone that played a part in the way music sounds. So I'm very proud of that.