Jax Jones is a force to be reckoned with. The South London born producer, DJ and songwriter has sold over 40 million records, garnered over 20 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and worked with a roster of artists that includes Bebe Rexha, Saweetie and Charlie XCX. He’s topped the UK dance charts again and again with his house and electronic-focused bangers, and his latest single “Out Out” is no exception.
But Jones’ meteoric rise to the top of the charts hasn’t come easy. Sitting down for an exclusive interview with fellow DJ, Jodie Harsh, he says, “I got kicked out of my house because I wanted to pursue music, and I had a very turbulent upbringing. I don’t speak to my family. People always treat it like a tragedy but sometimes, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If I’m being honest you need a bit of shit in your life to get some drive, it’s hard to build drive if everything’s perfect.”
In Rollacoaster’s AW21 issue, the two artists discuss how they’re similar in wanting to create a dance floor where everyone’s welcome – one that unites people and celebrates dance music’s roots in queer, black, and Asian culture. Jones talks about his upcoming track on the Pokémon album, why he wants to both manage and mentor a new generation of raw talent with his record label, and gives advice to young people wanting to follow in his footsteps.
JH: You’ve been doing tons of club shows recently, how’s that been?
JJ: Yeah, there are all these new faces coming into club music so it’s good to get in front of those new faces on the circuit, in terms of staff, the people booking shows, and those coming up the ranks. I’ve been privileged to do big shows of a few thousand people all the way up to festivals and arenas, but it’s a bit daunting at first to play a 200-300 capacity venue, because people are just three feet away. At the same time though, it’s a really amazing testing ground for new music, and you can get a really nice connection. Recently I’ve been enjoying just having one-on-one connections with people in the crowd, like my own little party. You have little moments together.
JH: Do you pick out someone in the crowd when you’re playing sets? That’s what I do, I’ll find someone near the front and I’ll be like, “this is their set”. They don’t know it though.
JJ: Yeah, not as specifically as that, but I look for people who are on their own vibe and I engage with them, whether we do the same dance, or I can see they’re looking at me so I look at them and acknowledge them. It’s just a vibe – they get such a buzz.
JH: Do you think you play a different musical set when you’re at a club as opposed to a festival?
JJ: Yeah totally, especially now, they basically want to hear my hits at a festival. I try to play my hits in a way that they can’t get anywhere else, whether its edits or versions no one else has, and just give the most energetic show I can. And you’re also trying to earn fans, right? Because maybe there are people there that have just wandered over from another tent to see what’s good. But at the clubs, it’s not necessarily about the hits, it’s more about supporting up and coming music that I rate, in a cross-culture that I want people to be aware of. Like bringing yourself and Morgan Cole on that line-up the other night at Leeds was important to me because I want to have diverse line-ups and the average uni student to say, “this is sick. I want to see Jodie again. I want to check out Morgan”.
JH: Yeah, I think the thing that links the two of us is how we want to create a dance floor where everyone’s welcome, and everyone’s equal. Would you say that’s true?
JJ: 100%. At Pride the other day, someone asked me what Pride means to me. I’ve been thinking about it and I really recognize the courage it takes to feel something different to the zeitgeist and to take ownership of that – that’s what Pride means to me. Even as an ethnic minority myself, I don’t look like your typical person that’s into house music. Albeit I wasn’t, my stepdad was Nigerian, so I grew up listening to mostly black music, like blues, R&B and rap. Dance music was very Caucasian. I only really got into it through meeting Duke a few years ago, but the genre has been so good to me. I’ve taken the time, I’ve learned it, and I’ve studied it, as I think anyone that gets involved with anything should. But I want to see more different types of people getting into it as well, because dance music is about inclusivity.
JH: Exactly. Diversity in dance music is so important because that’s literally what I think the genre stands for, like unity is at the core of dance music.
JJ: Totally, I think it’s been forgotten over the years and perhaps it’s the explosion of EDM that’s diluted the feeling of it a bit. I think we’re starting to get more of it though, with artists like yourself, perhaps even I could throw myself in there. People just trying it, and then doing really well in it.
JH: And also dance music was really created by queer culture, black culture and Latin culture – it’s just a melting pot of cultures. Like you say, with EDM and stuff like that, a lot of people have forgotten that or don’t realize how much that culture has had an impact on the creation of the genre. I think festivals and nightclubs really do have a duty to make sure their line-ups are diverse. We’ve all seen festival line-ups that are so white, so male dominated and it’s now at the point where that’s a bit embarrassing. I feel like people really do have a duty to diversify as much as possible.
JJ: And the talent is there. There are so many amazing, diverse, electronic musicians out there. Festivals are the new curation, so if they give those artists a shot people will check them out.
JH: 100 percent. You’ve created a record label, WUGD, tell me about that.
JJ: It’s a similar thing to why I’m doing the club tour, after the success of the Snacks album, it became really important to me to try and create a platform where I could encourage a new generation of raw talent to come through. I want to use all the shit that I’ve learned over the years, whether it’s making records or navigating the music industry, and create a really sick environment for new talent to feel free to put out the music they want to put out. I can also help them get to where they want to be musically, because often you find in label environments, with A&R, they serve a purpose, but they perhaps don’t have the expertise to help you see something through if you’re stuck. I think that’s problematic for younger artists, because you can get sucked into this pleasing the label ting. If someone who is actually musical is helping you on behalf of the label, then you can really see something creative through. And then also being an artist myself, I just know what it’s like, so I can be pragmatic and real about what it is I think we can achieve and how we can get there. It’s fun for me to do that, it’s like I’m trying to execute my vision of what I think dance music should be.
JH: In terms of nurturing artists on a more personal level, how are you doing that? Are you mentoring them personally?
JJ: Literally, I speak to every single person we sign, as much as I want and as much as they want. They can ask me stuff, I get stuck into the nuts and bolts of finishing a record, I can help with creative blocks, and I sit there and create playlists of inspiration. Being that I’m 34 years old and have a small encyclopaedia of music in my head, I share a lot of old music that I think could inspire their music. Sometimes it’s just helping an artist to give less of a shit about certain details, people can get wrapped up in a lot of things. I don’t tell anyone what to do, I just offer options, and they can pick whichever one from the menu is best for them. So I mentor them and I get a lot out of it.
JH: I feel like a lot of the singers on your biggest hits have been on the brink of major success and then they’ve crossed over, you’ve broken artists.
JJ: Thank you mate. I would love to have the next Sam Smith. What Disclosure did years ago with Sam Smith, “Latch”, was amazing. It’s harder to do that now because labels are less willing to take risks, but I am on the hunt. New artists have more to say sometimes because they’re not jaded. They’re not scared to say “this is what I want to do”.
JH: I want to talk about where you grew up – you’re a South London boy. How did growing up in South London make you the artist that you are today?
JJ: My stepdad was Nigerian, my mum’s Chinese, and I’m half Chinese, half Turkish. I was juggling all of that, and then in South London you’ve also got a huge mix of ethnic minorities. My best mate is a Romanian immigrant and literally hid on a train to get here 30 years ago, I had a Sri Lankan friend, we were all just a bit misfit-y. We used to buy all our music from Elephant and Castle Top Floor CDs, which was all American hip hop imports, so that was the diet. Then Battersea’s very own So Solid was a big thing for us, so we started to have more UK music pride. That was the first injection of pride that we felt for being from South London and having our own ting. That was when my fashion sense changed and I started to dress like what is Hypebeast now, with South London fashion influences. Obviously the way I talk is very South London, too. I was insecure about that for years because I’m a smart guy, but sometimes people make judgments about the way you speak, or the slang you use. Now I’m owning it, this is what I am and I enjoy the point of difference. So I’m very South London, down to my socks. Even my next-door neighbour was Ian Wright’s mum, she got me my first pair of football boots because we didn’t have much money at the time. When I started secondary school I needed football boots and she got them for me, and I would play football with the family. South London just gave me a group of people that gave a shit about me, so I’m very lucky for all of that. And then at the same time, I was learning classical guitar, big up Lewisham Council, they were paying for my guitar lessons. South London was important, man. We spent a lot of time in Brixton, which is where our first studio was. I was getting heavily involved in a lot of Brixton street rap, like Big Narstie was from Brixton and a few of the other crews there, and we would make tunes and record them and stuff like that. So that was where I first started cutting my chops.
JH: Did you find music to be a place you could escape to and channel loads of energy into?
JJ: It’s weird. I’ve never spoken about music like that, because my upbringing was always about productivity. I think that is what music is to me, because that must be why I keep going back to it. But I find it hard to frame it like that because it wasn’t something that I considered easy for me to get to. You know, I eventually got kicked out of my house because I wanted to pursue music. I had a very turbulent upbringing.
JH: Same yeah, my dad…
JJ: Are you on speaking terms with him?
JH: No, I haven’t spoken to him in ten years.
JJ: I don’t speak to my family. People always treat it like a tragedy but sometimes, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
JH: Totally. My dad and I fell out when I accidentally came out as gay, which is another story. But then my parents divorced and we kept it a secret from him that I did drag. Then one day about ten years ago, he saw me on TV, turned to his new wife and said “is that my son?” She went “yeah”, and from that day onwards we’ve never spoken.
JJ: Wow… So ignorant.
JH: It is, and I feel like it’s really his problem not mine. That’s totally his shit, I respect that, and I don’t carry it with me. It’s probably given me a lot of drive in life as well, to prove that I can do well.
JJ: If I’m being honest you need a bit of shit in your life to get some drive, it’s hard to build drive if everything’s perfect. You get that drive from bullshit. I think music was something that I saw as a way to create an identity for myself. I was getting props from school, but the props I was getting from music felt different, I don’t know why, but I just kept chasing it. And so I’ve never done anything else. The only other job I had was a two-week temp job at Marks and Spencer at uni. I wouldn’t advise that anyone do this, but when I was at uni I think I went to a handful of lectures, and I did my dissertation in a week. I was going to the studio every day, and just doing uni to please my parents really.
JH: Yeah, I went to uni, did a degree, and literally went to a club every single night. I think every single night for three years – I was pretty consistent with that.
JJ: It informs your outlook now though.
JH: A hundred percent! It’s the best education I could have ever had, going out to raves every night, clubs every night and being immersed in club culture. I got way more from that than I did from studying.
JJ: I think that’s the thing I would stress to any young person at that age, just to be curious and throw yourself in, absorb everything you can and really, really learn about whatever it is you want to succeed in. Because that shit just becomes part of your DNA and then when you try to bang it and have a go, you’ve got something to draw on. You just need culture, man.
JH: Yes, totally. I was listening to your new track from the Pokémon album – I love it! Tell me about “Phases”.
JJ: The music for “Phases” started because I was listening to this artist and engineer called Vanilla, who cuts up and remakes old tracks. He’s got about 500 plays on Spotify, like nothing, and I was just flicking through his stuff. I love taking old records, choosing one sound from it, and then making a new sound out of it, and I did that with an old sound that he’d flipped. So I was just messing about, and throwing drums in and stuff like that. I do that kind of stuff all the time, that’s how I get interesting electronic music, it’s like playing. I was a big Pokémon player, so when I heard that Pokémon was putting a record together I was like “yo, that’s sick”, they heard “Phases” and loved it. I adapted some of it, it had been about going through different emotions with someone that you’re in love with or a friend, and we reframed it as going through the phases of your relationship with the game. Pokémon’s just mad iconic, there’s something timeless about it. I gave my 13-month daughter a Pikachu teddy from this Rollacoaster shoot, my wife has a hundred t-shirts with Squirtle on them, and I’m 34 and feel no shame wearing a Pokémon jumper. It’s an incredible world that they’ve created.