The FADER's longstanding series Beat Construction interviews crucial music producers.
Jonathan Mensah, better known as producer Jae5, lives life ears first. This is why after 24 years on Earth, his sound is the perfect synthesis of his past — an upbringing that swirled hiplife, hip-hop, house, dubstep, bashment, Afrobeats into one pot (including the ballads of Celine Dion). In being the go-to producer for U.K. rapper and new FADER cover star J Hus, he seems to have found his similarly multi-musical match. “I think that’s what kind of what has kept us [together this long],” he said. “It stopped being a job and more of something fun.” Since first meeting almost three years ago through Hus’s DJ, the two have been unstoppable — most recently, the duo’s summer-summoning, Afrobeats-based smash “Did You See” has taken over the U.K. and made waves across the states.
Over the phone from his studio in North London, Jae5 chatted with us about the learning process that came with executive producing J Hus’s debut album, Common Sense, how being sent to Ghana for three years to “learn discipline” changed his life, and how dubstep plays a surprisingly large role in inspiring and influencing his heavily afrobeats-based sound.
Did you grow up in East London? What was it like growing up there?
Yeah, I grew up in East London Plaistow, from zero to ten years old. To be honest I was young, so I enjoyed, there were no problems in life, so I'd say it was an 8. It was good. We just used to get in a bit of trouble that’s all.
Did you grow up listening to a lot of music?
Not from my parents, but my older brother, so it was literally garage, hip-hop, and house music 24/7. I have four siblings, so there's five of us altogether. I'm second, and we're all boys. My older brother would collect CDs and play them all day. We're all into music now, but it started from him, to be honest. He was the one– he would go out and buy CDs early, record songs off radio onto tape. He was the one that was really on with it. I remember him buying a lot of things produced by Timbaland. So a lot of Missy Elliott CDs, stuff like that. And then U.K. music, we had So Solid [Crew], Oxide & Neutrino, it was a mix of things. Anything he heard he liked, he would usually buy it, and if he couldn't, he'd record it off radio onto tape. I was kind of a follower. Anything he liked, I liked, because that's what you got. But, I'll be honest, a lot of the U.K. music — the old-school garage Sticky stuff, and Ms. Dynamite — that stuff resonated.
You mentioned you and your brothers used to get in a bit of trouble.
Well, it's straightforward. Grew up in East London Plaistow, got in a bit of trouble, so got sent back to Ghana to kind of learn discipline. I went with four of my brothers. Me and my older brother were there for three years, and my younger brothers were there for seven. They didn't get the luxury of coming back early like we did. I went back to Ghana when I was ten, and came back when I was thirteen. When I came back here we moved to Old Street.
Who were you living with in Ghana? What was your time there like?
My mum, my dad, and my mum's brothers. But it was kind of like, swaps. My mum would come for six months, then my dad would come for six months. And then if they both were gone for six months, it would be my mum's brothers. But it was a very good experience, I learned a lot being out there. A lot of my music is influenced from me being out there and the and types of sounds they were using, not only music — manners and mannerisms, there's a lot I learned out there, different things that I just didn't have when I was here.
When we got to Ghana, there was nothing to do but we had a PC or we went outside and played street football. So I'd sit on the PC and play with DJ software and Fruity Loops and stuff, because that was the only thing to do, literally.
My brother had a DJ program, so PCDJ Red was always on there. I was always using it, and then I always felt I wanted to know how they made the stuff — I was just literally just playing and trying to mix. So, I got a hold of Fruity Loops, I don't know how or where, I just remember I got a hold of it. And from then on, out of boredom, it was just every day: I went on Fruity Loops after school, and I was rubbish. Everyone used to laugh at me.
What kind of music were you listening to for those three years in Ghana?
Specific artists. I remember my mum and her brothers used to be Lucky Dube fans, a lot of reggae, and Celine Dion [fans]. When I got out there I had no choice, because my uncle take me somewhere for a two-hour drive, he'd be playing Celine Dion the whole drive. And we'd have to get into it. Then I had my brother who was playing hip-hop, 50 Cent and everything hip hop. And then my mum was straight up hiplife, Ghanaian artists. So, Kwabena Kwabena, and just a whole wide array of music, everybody was into different things. And then going out in Ghana, the kids just playing in the street, and they'd make drums out of anything, and just pick up anything. Musically, it was amazing.
I remember going to see Shaggy in Ghana. It was in a stadium. One of the best experiences. I think that might have confirmed for me that I wanted to do music. It was huge. I was 12, and I went with my brothers and my uncles, who took us, as a treat.
Have you been back since leaving? Do you keep up with the music that’s been coming out since you’ve left?
No! I'm trying to go this year, but I haven't been back yet. The music's actually starting to get more notice over here, though. Afrobeats has kind of blown up; it's not hard [to keep up], it's in my face now. Now everything's a fusion, innit. I actually like it. It gives more credit, it makes Afrobeats more of a bigger genre. Everything I do has Afrobeats influence, and it's not even on purpose. I like that other people are taking the Afrobeats and bashment vibe and messing with it and creating.
How did bashment enter your life?
When I got back to London at thirteen, when you'd go to parties, that was all they would play, bashment. Before then, we obviously knew about Sean Paul, Beenie Man — they were huge, they were almost pop. But in terms of the underground artists, it was when I actually got back to London and started raving, that I started really getting into stuff like that.
When did you start getting serious about production?
When I got back to London, I did, courses at a place called APE Media. They taught me the basics of Logic, so I went from Fruity Loops to that. Just playing around with that, I felt like sending stuff out. I had an uncle who was a rapper at the time, so I was sending stuff to him, and he kind of helped me a lot. He probably played the biggest role in terms of getting me to a certain level. He actually had a set up, and he brought me over every weekend for about five years, from age 14 until about 20. He would let me use the computer if they weren't using it, and he put me around producers that I actually looked up to. Next door there was Sticky, who was producing music for Ms. Dynamite and others, just big producers, and they would all let me just sit in their room and watch. That was the biggest thing for me, because they were all five, ten times better than me, a whole bunch of different producers from different genres. Some were doing dubstep, some were doing grime, some were doing reggae, and it was all in one building, so I could literally walk from room to room and be in a different world in terms of sound. That taught me a lot. That's where I learned like 95% of everything I know.
That was every weekend. When I dropped out of college, I was there every day for like six months. I would literally go home and shower and I would go back and I was there. I had no social life. That was my life, just being in the studio. I could see myself progressing quicker than in anything else I tried. I could actually see results. I would make a beat and then the next week, I'd make another one, and it was three times better than the first. And I wasn't getting any tired of it, like I was with a lot of other things I was doing.
Who is your uncle?
Well, his artist name is Blem, or Blemish. He might have changed it. I'm not sure, but he's a writer-rapper. But he started the the production company JOAT I was under before now. JOAT, it was the beat tag for everything that JOAT produced. So there were three of us: me, my uncle Blemish, and Randy Valentine, a producer-artist. For about two or three years, we were just producing for artists as JOAT. But last year, I would say, when we started doing J Hus, that's when it actually kind of took off.
You mentioned APE Media. Can you tell me a little more about it?
APE Media is a non-for-profit organization that works with a lot of people that get in trouble. It's like, people that are not in education, people that've just come out of jail, and stuff like that. I was on a course there because I think I was on probation for something stupid. I think I got to do less community time or something like that if I took on a course with APE Media. It is well-known, but mostly for these people that get in trouble and people that've come out of jail. They advertise it quite well, for you to know that there are options to get qualifications. But it's not as big as it should be, because you have to kind of get in trouble to know about it. If I wasn't getting in trouble, I would not have known about it. But it's probably the first professional environment I was in, music-wise.
So, I took on a course, and they taught me how to use Logic, and they actually gave me a job teaching music after the course. So I took courses for about two years, and then I was working with them for about another four years teaching music production. In my courses, I focused on radio broadcasting, and music production. They had everything from TV to acting to fashion, but those two are what I was really interested in. I wanted to do the radio station there, but my timing wasn't as good as it should have been. I'd be ten minutes late to a radio set, but that's not actually acceptable. So I realized it wasn't for me. Whereas with music production I had a bit more flexibility.
They work really well in terms of finding out what level you're at and they progress from there, they don't really waste your time going back and forth, like they do in a uni course where everyone has to start at one point. It's really catered around your needs.
I saw an Instagram of your studio setup, and it looks stacked. What kind of equipment do you use?
Speaker-wise, I'm on Focal SM9. Those are my main speakers. But I have four sets of speakers, I've got like NS-10, which is industry standard for everyone. Then I've got a set of KRKs just to check how the sound is in a normal room or a normal environment. In terms of computer, everyone's on a Mac. In terms of keyboards, I'm using a Komplete Kontrol keyboard, but the truth is I have a lot more equipment than I actually really need. I can still function with just a keyboard and a laptop and speakers, but I don't necessarily need all of my equipment to create. But I just like the fact that I need it I can use it.
What programs are you using now?
Right now, I'm using Logic X, and then the main plugin that I'm using right now is Omnisphere. Nexus every once in awhile. And then the whole Kontakt Ultimate 10 library. I absolutely abuse that. Those are the main things, but I have so many plugins.
There were a bunch of synths laying around too. When did you start experimenting with those?
Only about a year and a half ago. So, I bought a Nord Lead 4, just because I actually wanted to be able to synth, instead of with s keyboard and mouse, and I like the fact that you can actually turn a knob and do everything live. Personally, I don't think it sounds any different at all than the ones on the computer, but the controls it gives me, they improve the music. So when I'm producing, I can literally just turn something quickly on the corner in live, instead of having to move my mouse along trying to gloss the synths. So that's what I use the synth for. Not necessarily due to the point of the sound, it’s more the freedom it gives me.
What kinds of sounds have you been interested in and experimenting with lately?
Music-wise, I listen to a lot of dubstep music. I get inspiration from weird things. I'll listen to dubstep and make an Afrobeats tune or a hip-hop tune, but that's only to get inspiration from somewhere else. And then in terms of sounds, right now I'm kind of listening to a lot of pluck synths in tunes that sound really interesting. Really short, pluck sounds. I'm in a phase right now where it's my go-to thing: I go into any plugin and I type in "pluck," just to see what comes up.
What about dubstep is so enthralling to you?
It was that I didn't think that it was possible to make the kinds of sounds they were making. I didn't understand how they could make sounds, synth, sound like they were talking. It’s so complex, but so simple. It was really weird. I could understand how to do a drop and stuff, but before that, I never understood that you could actually make a synth that sounds like a vocal. I was fascinated. I'd sit and watch YouTube videos on how Skrillex made his synth and how to put together these synths, and that sucked me in. Being able to create sounds. There's no limit in terms of synths and sounds and it was dubstep that showed me that.
One of my favorite parts in "Did You See" is when you come in with the “wah-wah.” Now I get where it came from.
Literally it’s because I can't play an instrument as well as I would like a soloist to play. I come from a place where if you can't play, you do it with your mouth, so I did it with my mouth and then made it sound like a synth, so it's actually me singing on the laptop with a synth effect, simply because I couldn't play what I was doing with my mouth.
Let's talk about when you linked with J Hus. When was that?
I think about three years ago, roughly. Might be two and a half. I was with his DJs, who were friends of mine. They just kept on banging on about getting him in the studio, and I'm really just reclusive in terms of working with people because I got to a point where I hated recording artists because I was recording lots of junk just for the money, not necessarily because I enjoyed the music. I got to a stage where I stopped recording anything and anyone I didn't like, so I wasn't trying to hear anything from anyone. They called again and again and I literally just did the session so they would leave me alone. And then, with every session, he was better than the people that I was actually interested in. From then, we kind of started getting a working relationship, and then it naturally became: “okay, this is my guy.”
Why might you have clicked, beyond music?
Even though we're very different people, we were surrounded by the same things, growing up around the same things, growing up in the same area. Passion for and interest in the same thing — I think that made us get along. It was like we were both trying to achieve the same thing. When he first started he was paying for sessions. Then it got to the point where I stopped asking for the money. It became, "Okay, today, I wake up, I'm gonna call Hus and get in the studio with him because we enjoy it." I think that's what kind of what has kept us [together this long]. It stopped being a job and more of something fun.
What came of those early sessions, musically?
“Friendly” came of the early sessions. We had a mixtape that we did in two weeks, 15th Day, and it did well for the positions we were in. Literally, he had put out one or two songs that were starting to get noticed. His managers were like, "Look, let’s just try and put together a mixtape." We just put 15 songs together and called it a mixtape. There was no structure, there was no selection process, it was: we make a song, and it's automatically on the mixtape. I was kind of surprised at how much love we got. "Dubai" was my favorite song on there.
What was J Hus’s favorite? Do you know?
No! He changes his mind every time. He’s one of those guys that would play each song a million times. I remember he would have a song on repeat for the week, then get bored of it, and it's not his favorite song anymore because he's got a new one. I get annoyed of how much he listens to a song. Like it's just, every second of the day, "Can you play that one more time?" I'm like, "Bro, no. I'm tired of hearing this song now." Yeah, he abuses a song.
Did working with him change your approach to music at all? Did he influence the way you produced?
The way he delivered certain things on a song. I used to overproduce song a lot. I used to put a lot of sounds because I wasn't used to recording artists. But because of how much character he had, it made me have to do less. So, I started taking away some of the layers, because he was really interesting and it didn’t make sense to cut out his vocals. In a way, he made me actually work more around the vocals. It’s kind of incredible. It comes down to the artist, and then if it needs more, I can put it on afterwards; instead of making a beat with a million and one sounds, and then having no room for the artist.
It was just after “Lean & Bop” that was when we decided to do the mixtape. I was so happy with that song. It was literally an urban artist who I thought would never actually be up for doing something that's really close to a pop song, and it was his idea. He was like, “I wanna do something that my little brother can dance to.” And I was absolutely over the moon that he was willing to experiment, and I wasn't going to be stuck doing hip-hop for the rest of the process. The fact that he was willing to just do something else, it made me so excited to just experiment. I could finally make an experimental instrumental and it would go out, it wouldn't just be sitting on my computer and no one would hear.
Did you think “Did You See” was gonna be as big of a smash as it is?
To be a hundred percent honest, it's doing better than I thought. When we first made it, I had a loop playing and Hus was doing melodies. Then I took it away, came back the next day and we finished it up. Everyone was like, “Oh, you know that song's fire.” The manager was going crazy, the label was going crazy. I was like, "Are you sure? We've got better songs on the computer." I was like, “Okay, shit. Maybe we're onto something,” so we went and worked on it more and we had Joe Gossa from Black Butter, the label — he came down a lot to work on that song. We made about fifteen versions of that song because of how involved he was. Everyone's opinion came to play in that song.
Have you been in that kind of position throughout the making of the new album?
On the new album, I'm executive producer. And then I've actually produced on all of the songs, so I didn't produce all of them by myself, but I've been involved in all the songs. I think twelve of them are songs produced by me, and then the other five are produced with other people.
"The fact that [J Hus] was willing to just do something else, it made me so excited to just experiment.”
Do you think your past experience of working with your uncle in a production group kind of gave you a leg up in terms of being able to work with other people?
It did. I had to take in a lot more people's opinions. I had to bite my tongue with a lot of things. There's a lot of times where I wouldn't get my way. Whereas before, it was just me and Hus. And Hus is nice; he's an artist that when he gets his verse right, he doesn't really give a damn about anything else at all. He gave me so much freedom to just do things. But in terms of the album, I couldn't just do that because I had to take in a lot more people's opinions, because the work's not just my product. So I actually had to be open. There are songs that I got told were rubbish, so I had to be willing to take them out. It was a good learning experience, it taught me to take more criticism and be open.
I know you work pretty exclusively with J Hus. Has working with him brought you any other opportunities that you're excited about? Or, for now are you guys still tag-teaming?
We're still tag-teaming, but nothing big has come in just yet. I don't like talking about things until they're done, but I'll say at this time I'm working with people whose music I enjoy. If you've got energy, you are up-and-coming, it's the same kind of "Hus process."
Are there people you would like to work with in the future? Maybe dream collaborations?
I'd wanna get in the studio with Adele, if I could. Justin Bieber. I would love to be in the room with Skepta, and I'm actually a fan. Wiley, those are the U.K. guys that I'd really love to get in with. Singers like Ed Sheeran. But yeah. People I respect, a lot of them are big, but they're actually really talented. Like, Raye, the singer from the Jax Jones song. Will Heard. I'd like to get with Amerie, even. People like that. I love singers with distinctive tones.
I thought you were also gonna say Celine Dion.
I missed that one. I would never turn down that opportunity. If you call her up, let me know. I'm up for it; I've got my piano still.