How Jai Paul's Influence Has Spread Beyond Simple Rip-Offs

The elusive British producer's two singles effected music in far-reaching ways that continue to be felt even today.

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19 November 2018, 12:00pm

You know how, in folklore, mermaids often sing to pull sailors into their orbit? That’s how I feel about Jai Paul’s “BTSTU” (listen above). It begins with a bed of static that sounds like rain and a simple looping vocal that’s so seductive, it’s the closest thing I can imagine to being lost at sea, delirious, and hearing a near supernatural voice calling through the darkness, coaxing you toward its island.

Once you’ve been reeled in, the tone of “BTSTU” is punishing – “you’re waste and you’re on your way out” – yet with an attitude that feels more eerily romantic than it is downright cruel. But unlike the old myths – where seafaring men became so enthralled by the mysterious lure of the siren song they crashed their ships into the rock – Paul’s legend doesn’t involve death. It’s simply one of a vast, far-reaching influence that’s still spreading today, introduced with his debut tune.

Since “BTSTU” was released, first as a demo in 2007, then officially by XL Recordings in 2011, it’s touched millions. Perhaps most famously, it was sampled on Drake’s “Dreams Money Can Buy” – a track that became one of the first pieces of kindling in the Canadian rap star’s beef with Pusha T (a feud that at its most petty, is an inheritance that stretches as far back as a decade to a disagreement over trainers). Beyonce caught also caught wind of “BTSTU”, crediting it on “End Of Time” even though the sample is barely audible. Off the back of one song, Jai Paul was a big deal.

His follow-up track “Jasmine” was similarly brilliant, if not even better. The first few seconds feel like a rocket launch, or at least some kind of grand stratospheric event; and yet the vocals are soft, almost distant – as if they’re gliding in from another room. This obscured way of mixing became one of the signatures of Paul’s style, alongside funk guitars, sidechaining and noise layering, and later, enigmatic samples (like this clip from the American teen show Gossip Girl on “Baby Beat”). Like “BTSTU”, “Jasmine” was also covered and sampled far and wide (see Riz MC, even Ed Sheeran).

In 2013, two years after XL Recordings put out “BTSTU”, Jai Paul’s “debut album” leaked. “To confirm: demos on bandcamp were not uploaded by me,” Paul wrote on Twitter, in what has been his only tweet. Still, leaked demos or not, the record impacted. I’m listening to it right now and it still goes: from the tantalising short “Good Time”, through the airy and elegant cover of Jennifer Page’s “Crush”. And though we haven’t heard any official new music from him since, that record laid the groundwork for two things: a label from Jai Paul and his brother AK (who featured on previous Paul recordings); and new, unrelated acts who were inspired by the unique Paul sound.

Initially these acts were little more than Jai Paul rip-offs who took his style wholesale and reproduced it – pretty much 25% of the stuff released on Soundcloud in the years 2014/15/16. But with enough time passed from the release of “BTSTU” and “Jasmine”, Paul’s influence is now spreading in a less overt way. One example is Nao, whose 2014 debut single "So Good" was produced by AK Paul. "I didn’t want to sound like Jai or A.K. Paul, but I used that sound as an influence to arrive at where I think I am at today," Nao said in a 2016 interview with Noisey, describing how she reached her self-described and often self-produced wonky-funk sound. A track called "Gabriel" from her 2018 album Saturn sits in a similar wheelhouse to the Paul brothers, made up from funky synths, albeit with a clearer and stronger vocal. Even more distinctive is the link between that sound, and the Paul’s inspirations – people like D’Angelo and Prince.

Back when the Paul Institute was in its infancy, I met Jai and AK Paul in a small pub in west London. An act I’d been managing had released a few tunes that had caught their ear and they wanted to chat. Lots of that evening is a weird fever dream that I’m not entirely sure happened (it did), but the main thing I took away is their singular vision. Walking back to their car and talking music, they spoke of their deep admiration for D’Angelo – he’d not long ago released Black Messiah and they were obsessed; at how he took his time, and at his sound. His pure artistry.

Though information around regarding the Paul brothers is scant, it’s fairly easy to draw a line connecting, say, the woozy yet tight bass in D’Angelo’s “Chicken Grease” with the wobbling production in “Jasmine”, the lonely falsetto on Prince’s downbeat debut album tracks, the pop sensibility of Michael Jackson, and the production glitchiness of J Dilla. And if it isn’t, those influences are there on a Wayback Machine version of Jai Paul’s MySpace. One artist leaning into the pop side who is carrying that torch onward is 1010 Benja SL, a new signing to Young Turks.

Released this year, 1010 Benja SL’s track “Wind Up Space” might be one of the most affecting tunes I’ve heard since “BTSTU”. It’s a fairly intense, raw listen. But it’s his EP that feels like a close relation to Paul – not so much in how it sounds, but in how it’s created: bringing together classic influences to create something brand new. Stand-out track “Ultimaybe” is maybe the closest family member to Paul’s work in terms of modern production, but closer in pitch to Prince and MJ. It’s a smooth, high-octane listen that deserves to be a hit even if it might be a little too left-field to ever be played on daytime radio: not that that should matter.

The alternative world is where Paul’s influence has registered the most. Pretty much every producer I’ve interviewed in the last four years that makes what could loosely be called “alternative electronic music” references his work as one of their main inspirations – and if they don’t it isn’t because they aren’t into him. Nine times out of ten they’ve been told not to so they’re not pigeonholed. The result of this is that Paul’s influence has spread far and wide, beyond the sort of artists that make music for Soundcloud. Take Octavian, who covered “Jasmine” in a session for BBC Radio 1 this year.

Then there’s Jadu Heart, a close link to Jai Paul in terms of ambiguity – no one really knows who they are, plus they hide behind masks. The London duo are signed to Mura Masa’s label (another connection to the Paul Brothers, having been one of the first acts to rise in their slipstream with his break-out tune “Lotus Eater” in 2014; and later, on his debut album, a collaboration with AK Paul). But while their earlier work seemed like a cosmic and whispery cousin to Paul (most notably on Mura Masa collab “U Never Call Me”), they’ve levelled into their own. Released back in October, “Heroin Song” is one of the year’s underrated tracks – a simultaneously intimate and cinematic bit of writing, that gives off the sensation of falling down a plughole with a head fall of valium. It also sounds entirely divorced from anything Jai Paul has done.

And that’s the thing… Jai Paul is in some ways this generation’s Velvet Underground. That’s maybe an obvious comparison but it’s also the truth: he didn’t sell many records (the album was never for sale) but everyone who heard him went off and learned how to produce. Now, five, six, seven years on from his debut, his influence is beginning to be felt in a more nuanced way – a synth here and there, or in the approach to recording.

As for the Paul Institute, they’ve released four new tracks this year, featuring work from Jai and AK – check the guitar shredding from AK in the background of Ruthven’s “Hypothalamus”. But the brothers aren’t the focal points here, it’s the new acts who are working from the Paul sound that deserve the attention. With the brothers reportedly buying up old office space, one can hope there’s a future where their label will be releasing full albums from a bunch of different artists, all loosely connected by one sound – sort of like a modern day Motown or Factory Records.

Or who knows. Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe in this version of the mermaid myth, we’re lured into a lifetime of diminishing hope. I don’t think that matters, though. Jai Paul’s influence runs so deep – it’s as noticeable as it isn’t. What’s certain is that he’s impacted like no one else this decade.

You can find Ryan on Twitter.