Introducing SEVEN: A Roundtable with Jay London

It’s been a long time coming and we’re proud to finally be able to bring you the first series of SEVEN to be featured on Nation of Billions.  SEVEN is a brand new docu-series presented by Jay London that showcases seven unique journeys through the lives of seven artists from the UK. While we originally planned to launch the series in March, it’s been a whirlwind of a year in 2020, a year that is now clearly proving to be a challenging time for many musicians as they chart the course ahead. It’s at this time that SEVEN resonates even harder than ever. These seven inspiring stories will be presented over seven consecutive weeks with Jay London at the helm as the host and creator taking us through a day in the life of seven rising stars of the UK!

It was on a dreary day in East London, back in March when we met with Jay London, to pick his brain on a number of different topics. Nothing was off the table as got into it with the brainchild behind SEVEN discussing his take on investigative journalism, his aims for SEVEN and more.

‘Seven artists, Seven stories, Seven weeks, One passion.’

Sunjay and I looked on at the gloomy skies in East London discussing the fact that neither of us had actually witnessed the other conduct an interview before. We caught up briefly on life before we got down to business, looking over our scrappy notes as the waitress placed our drinks on the table. Not long after, Jay London walked in and offered pleasantries before he took his seat. For those who are unaware, Jay London hosts the early morning show on Capital XTRA and specialises in selecting the biggest tunes in hip hop and R&B. Outside of that he has presented a number of projects including his documentary about K Koke and his Mixcloud show REVWED. Given the nature of SEVEN and its deep roots in informative journalism, Jay wastes no time in offering his thoughts on journalism within music in the UK. “I think it’s all clout, man. I think a lot of interviews that happen in this day and age are just for clickbait. The interviews are done in a way where it’s targeting those who just wanna hear the clout stuff – and not bringing much depth to these interviews. Which is why we’ll go on to talk about some of the stuff I’m doing now and why I started it…” For someone like myself who’s been a fan of long-form content, Jay’s words immediately resonate with me as I recall instances where I’ve watched interviews with artists and learned nothing about the music or the person. Or that moment where an artist utters the dreaded – “I don’t like interviews” which inevitably results in a baseless show of pandering.

I think a lot of the time social media is a popularity contest. It’s not the world I come from or, the world that I want to be in.

“And a lot of it is because there’s not many platforms now that have that integrity. It’s like a popularity contest now, whether you’re an artist or a platform”, explains Jay. In recent years we’ve seen a shift in music platforms in the UK; the two biggest for black music in GRM Daily and Link Up TV have both seen an increase in Instagram activity. The downside is a lot of the content is now considered banter or meme content, and Jay offers us his take on why this might be; “We’re in a day and age where people are just in a race to put content out. There’s no regard for whether the information is right or not – which we saw with the breaking of Kobe’s death. I think a lot of the time social media is a popularity contest. It’s not the world I come from or, the world that I want to be in.”

Tupac Shakur’s soundbite about being the change you want to see in the world rings true here, hence the inception and eventual production of SEVEN. Jay is calm and collected as we engage in our conversation, offering earnest insight that others might be hesitant to shed a light on. He displays a level of tact that even the most ardent of name-droppers would be impressed with and a passion for music that is scorned at by his close friends, a familiar feeling as Jay describes us as “music geeks”. As I sip my lemonade, he recalls how the name SEVEN was realised. “When we first thought of the concept, it was originally called DISCOVERING because it was about discovering artists and learning sides to them you don’t see on social media. I’m not even quite sure how SEVEN came about, I think we had decided how many artists we wanted to interview, it just so happened to be seven. And I came up with a thing where it said ‘seven artists, seven stories, seven weeks, one passion’. After sitting down with Alex (Director) and Marium (Producer), we thought ‘okay, we could just call it SEVEN’ so that’s how we got the title.”

As Sunjay and I probe Jay on his reasoning for starting this new docu-series, our subject is keen to further distance himself from the standard of interviews that we see here. “The reason why I wanted to start SEVEN goes back to your first question, I have never done interviews where it was just run-of-the-mill questions. I like to get to know people rather than the person who you’re perceived to be on social media. That ties into why I’ve done other things such as MXDE LONDON (his club night) but going back to SEVEN, it was important for me to speak to artists and find out sides to them that you wouldn’t know from just looking at the surface area.” When I did my research for this interview, it was unbeknown to me that the number seven is the most valued number to Hebrews. In saying that, I don’t think that was the basis for naming the series, it seems like Jay arriving at the number seven was a lucky occurrence.

Sunjay and I continue to let Jay lead the conversation as he delves into where the passion for SEVEN comes from. “Why is Samm Henshaw such a massive artist in the US but over here, people don’t know who he is? I think that’s where my passion lies, rather than sitting down with artists that could only give us 45 minutes. We made it clear that it needed to be a day for us to go places that mean things to you and see things that make up your story. It made sense to sit with Alicai Harley for a whole day, finding out why she’s so driven to make music. The good thing about it is that it’s not about clout, it’s about genuine conversations. And that’s such a big thing that’s missing here. In each episode, there’s 3-4 points you’ll hear that you’d never have known if not for SEVEN. I’m hoping that this appeals to the right people and brings the clout warriors to a place where integrity is. I want this to be a breath of fresh air for people who are missing this kind of content.”

Last September, Ofcom put out a study that shows 7.1 milion people in the UK listen to podcasts on a weekly basis. Given reports like this and the increase in platforms that let you stream podcasts (Spotify, Apple Music and Keakie are just three) there is a growing demand for long-form content from consumers and creators alike that goes deeper. Amid the Netflix boom, we’ve seen artists such as Travis Scott and Beyoncé release documentaries that offer more context to their legend. I want to know whose attention Jay is trying to get with SEVEN as it is an intriguing prospect. “People that are music geeks. People that are fans of documentaries. This means a lot because I’ve always been into documentaries – even going back to the very first one I made about K Koke.”

With the level of care that go into these productions, they can take several weeks and months to complete, even with deadlines in place. Considering that fact, I begin to ask Jay a question in relation to how long SEVEN has been in production… “I think you know the answer to this already bruv!” he laughs gleefully as he readies himself to answer anyway. “Time and dates are things that we were always gonna have to factor in. Once you’ve done a couple of them and then you show them to the artist, it’s an easier conversation to have. That probably wasn’t even the most challenging part. I think we’re on 12-13 months now in terms of the recording process. The idea and treatment were whipped up pretty quickly, but once you start filming, my problem is that we [me and Alex] are both perfectionists and our own biggest critics. So there’s always a way to make it better. On each of our shoots we found ourselves trying to find ways to take it to a new level so that probably made the process a bit longer.”

When deadlines are missed it can lead to several problems going down the line and unexpected cost from the extra production time. I’ve seen perfectionist tendencies let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘very good’ as seeking perfection can be of detriment. Jay tells us how he avoided this while taking the time to curate with care. “We spent a day with each artist, thankfully no-one needed to be shot across two days.  A lot of it was us doing it without a bigger production team so a lot of the time I was driving to locations, such as Nottingham to interview Young T and Bugsey or Brighton to interview Grace Carter. It was literally a three man team in me, Alex and Andy on photography. The longest part is actually after filming, so the grading, editing and stuff. That is where it becomes really true in terms of the care – you see the real care behind this project. All the names involved in this whole process means that the end product has to be top tier, so we’re constantly tweaking stuff.”

Given the original timeline for SEVEN my eyes were raised at the ongoing wait for the release – I’ll have you know that our editor in-chief mentions this often with an excited impatience – Jay and Co’s tinkering is a throwback to Claudio Ranieri’s reign at Leicester City. He is relaxed about this as he lays down the silver lining in SEVEN’s delay, which at the time Jay would never have imagined would be pushed back even back with the impending pandemic that was looming in the air. “We did not expect it to take 12-13 months but the blessing in hindsight is that we didn’t announce when this would come out. The labels and artists have been patient and supportive, so it’s good to know that they’re anticipating it. It took a while but we had to make sure it’s the best representation of each artist and I feel great knowing that after the first episode drops, there’s gonna be six more ready to go because I’ve never worked on a project where it’s been like that before.”

It took a while but we had to make sure it’s the best representation of each artist

SEVEN’s featured artists feature seven unique acts to our scene and vary greatly from genre to background. Alicai Harley, Benjamin A.D, Grace Carter, Miraa May, Samm Henshaw, Geovarn and Young T & Bugsey make up the seven. As we get into who gave his favourite interview, Jay is unbiased in his response and explains why. “I can honestly say all of them, all seven. Genuinely, there were other artists that we could have got but we chose these seven because of their story. I can’t fake this, I wouldn’t have been able to spend a day with someone and not care about their life. You would have been able to tell in the video! I was a big fan of Geovarn and I wanted him to be the first act we filmed because part of my aim for SEVEN is to put people onto new artists. All seven artists are at the level where they’re killing it but they’re not a Dave, a Stormzy or a Billie Eillish, they’re people that you should know about. By the time you finish the series you’ll be asking yourself ‘how can Glastonbury know about Grace Carter but I didn’t know?’ You might be watching Love Island and hearing her music in the background, you could never know. I’m a big fan of Geovarn and the whole R&B side of things, so it was good to have that discussion as you know UK R&B is a big topic at the minute. That topic pops up in a few of the episodes, actually. I’m a big fan of Young T and Bugsey, their music gives me energy. Miraa May is a dope writer, Ben A.D is about to drop some music and no-one knows he’s amazing! His episode might be my favourite you know.”

Upon watching the episode in question, I marvelled at Jay’s rapport with Ben A.D. and his ability to not only ask poignant questions but coax considered responses from Ben. You get a feel for the artist and the ‘ahead of his time’ aura that is ingrained in his thought provoking lyrics. There’s an element of tact on display as a lot of the questions asked of Ben avoid mentioning his little brother; D Block Europe’s Young Adz. Jay explains that this should be normal practice but isn’t always the case. “I would hate for the trailer of that episode to come out and it’s only talking about Adz.” He mentions a similar scenario when interviewing grime veteran Mercston and how it was easy to avoid certain topics. “His past and what happened to him is irrelevant because we were talking about his album. But I know other interviewers that would’ve taken it there.”

On the topic of R&B Jay is very passionate especially when it comes to our home-grown R&B acts. We are in unanimous agreement when we state that more needs to be done to champion R&B on these shores and put it in the light that it needs to be in. I wonder if this would include a possible R&B edition of SEVEN in future. “Yeah! I mean I wouldn’t rule it out because I grew up with R&B so I listened to your Jagged Edge’s, your 112’s, Boyz II Men, that was me. Chris Brown’s first album, Pretty Ricky, Mario, Lloyd. I was on all that. I’m an R&B head so when I hear an artist that is seriously talented and their voice is like ‘oh my days, how do people not know about you?’ that excites me.”

As creatives, we have a level of influence on fellow creatives and other individuals in our periphery. We often don’t see it this way as our primary function is to create, but the knowledge sharing mindset is there. I explain to Jay that whether we share music on our Instagram stories or tweet about a newly released album, there may be a following that check for your output. With this in mind, we speak on the influence he holds and how he regards it. “I never even thought of that until you just asked me. Obviously I realise that I’m on a platform but I never started this journey to be on a platform to influence other people. I’m aware that people might look at the Top 10 tracks that I picked for that month and respect that. And I appreciate that, and I’ll only recommend stuff that I think is of value. I’m still discovering things everyday as well, so while I’m influencing people’s tastes, I’m still figuring out my own. I think it’s down to everyone to allow people more scope to discover things they didn’t know. I do think that people get caught up and it goes one of two ways; people are a fan of artists that are super hyped or they go against the grain and champion the super unknown acts. But what I like to do is give my opinion. I get criticised a lot for this in my friendship group because if I have an opinion, no one can tell me anything. I’m so stubborn that I’ll come out of a debate with the same opinion, based on how I know myself to take in music. Like there’s artists that people rate that are big, even in the UK, and I just won’t rate them. I’m happy for the scene because we’re seeing more and more young millionaires every day. But I won’t rate an artist just because they’ve won an award or they’re in the charts. I don’t think it’s down to me what taste you should have, that’s not why I’m in the industry. I’m just here to do what I love.”

We want this to be something that the artist can have for the rest of their lives

As we wrap up to go our separate ways, Jay remarks on how in depth our discussion has been and thanks us for taking the time out to conduct this interview. I respond that it is a duty and responsibility to go deeper than skin level in order to document every facet of music culture. There are really no days off in this game. With all the time spent crafting his brainchild, we consider the impact Jay wants the series to have on the viewers. “For SEVEN, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t just talk about the here and now. We want this to be something that the artist can have for the rest of their lives. So they can look back at it when they’re at another level and say ‘okay, this is still relevant because I’m talking about how I started.’”

SEVEN; the new docu-series presented by Jay London premieres on Nation of Billions on Sunday 8th November 2020.