Making Moves: JAY1
Photographer: Filmawi / Stylist: Carlotta Constant / Set Design: Murdo Hepburn / Creative Direction: Charlotte Phipps / Words: Joe Walker
The list of UK rappers that fancy themselves as the scene’s best footballer is never-ending, but having played for the GAFFER-sponsored Hackney Wick FC All Stars at Old Trafford earlier this summer, we can attest to JAY1 as a contender.
Wearing the number 10 shirt, the 24-year-old got behind the opposition’s back line on a number of occasions, and with a playing style he himself likens to that of Wilfried Zaha, we can see how the Coventry-based artist once caught the attention of Football League scouts in his playing days.
GAFFER catches up with the rapper, however, on a shoot themed around another game. The chess board has been referred to as the gymnasium of the mind, and is often spoken about in ways that can be applied to all walks of life, JAY1’s included. Chess master Emanuel Lasker, for example, once said ‘when you see a good move, look for a better one,’ and it’s easy to draw parallels with the One Wave rapper’s rise from aspiring footballer to charting musician in just a few short years.
As well as affirming his Tottenham Hotspur connections, we learn more about JAY1’s early football ambitions, the sporting vision for his One Wave Foundation and his mindset as he builds towards his debut album. Every chess master was once a beginner, and as the rapper drives home his dedication, positivity and tunnel vision, we feel that stalemates will be few and far between in the remainder of his career. With JAY1, the best is yet to come…
First of all, a big question. Would you rather score the winner in the Champions League final for Spurs or headline Glastonbury?
That’s a hard one. I think I’d rather pick the Spurs one because they haven’t won a trophy for time. I’d score the winner with Spurs, finals. 100%.
So, where did the Spurs affiliation come from?
Growing up, my dad owned a pub in Tottenham and my nephew (Jeremy Kyezu, 17 years old) now plays ball for Spurs so it made sense. Keep an eye out for him, he’s hard. He’s probably better than me! To be honest, there is no point supporting a team like Manchester United when I’ve never gone there before or lived there, so I picked Spurs.
Who was your Spurs hero growing up?
Peter Crouch, Berbatov, or Jermain Defoe. Probably one of those three. I really liked Peter Crouch, not because he was a top baller but because I found him funny. He played every game the right way.
In the time you’ve been supporting Spurs, what’s been your favourite club moment?
When Gareth Bale came back. That was the last memory I remember being gassed. I told my fans I’d run around Cov naked if he actually signed but I didn’t do it. Because I’d never do that!
We know you fancy yourself as a footballer… When you play with other people in the rap game, who else do you keep an eye out for?
No one! I think I’m the best baller in the game. Dave’s alright, Ramz is decent, Swarmz is good… but I’m better than them all.
Now you’ve switched from being a player to a rapper, have you had any interactions where a football player came up to you as a fan?
There are some ballers who fuck with my music heavy. I remember seeing a story of Maddison and Reiss Nelson vibing to my song ‘Becky’ which was pretty surprising. That was sick.
Growing up, how long were you focused on football?
I’ve always wanted to be a baller since I was like 11 years old. That dream didn’t stop until I was like 19. As I got older, I looked at semi-pro but still thought I had a chance that I could go pro. When I hit 20 and music came in, I sort of f*cked off football and focused on music.
What levels were you playing at before then?
I was playing college football. We used to play at Premier League/Championship team training grounds, it was pretty high level. I remember I got scouted for Birmingham but that didn’t go well.
You’ve spoken before about playing with a young James Maddison at five-a-side in Coventry. Obviously you fancy yourself a bit but was there another level to Maddison?
Yeah, he’s sick. It was mad. He’s a baller and there was a clear difference between me and him. He wouldn’t lose the ball. He’s got some sort of presence around him that he can just control everything around him.
What was the biggest lesson football taught you that you’ve carried along in your life?
Just to stay dedicated. Ballers are dedicated and I’ve still got that mentality as a rapper now. I’ve still got to turn up places on time, eat good as well. I’ve still got that footballer’s mentality. I feel like that’s helped me in my music career.
When you had that sort of epiphany to do music, what was that transition like? How long did it take to become comfortable with that decision?
It took me about 6 months. I remember being in a changing room and freestyling with my guys so the transition was smooth. When my friend said ‘yo you’re sick,’ the love for football started to go and I started to take music seriously. It’s weird to look back on it like that but it really only took a moment like that for me to really go for it.
You moved from North London and arrived in Coventry and saw it as an opportunity. A lot of people when they move at that age see it as the end of their world as they know it. What gave you that clarity at that age?
Sometimes when you move to a new place with new people, it’s a blessing. You can create something new. In London, I still wanted to be a baller but my life wasn’t actually going that great. When I moved to Coventry, it gave me an excuse to think ‘You know what, I’m changing from here.’ No more bullshit, no more messing around, I’m going to take everything seriously and it sort of worked.
I didn’t include any negativity in my mind, and it worked. Literally worked, just staying positive. My brother and my sisters were pissed off that we moved but I was calm. I remember being in Coventry and I didn’t know the way, I used to walk around with my maps on my phone like walking to college, it was a mad learning curve. But yeah, I enjoyed it. It gave me a sense of freedom that I’ve not felt before.
You’re the youngest in the family, does that mean you got away with a bit more? Is that where that sort of freedom and attitude comes from?
I got away with bare stuff as the youngest. I remember once I stole from Asda, my mum and dad felt so sorry for me they took me to Bicester Village. They didn’t even punish me. My brother was jealous like why is he not getting in trouble for stealing cookies from Asda. Being the youngest was kinda cool.
What did you pick up from Bicester Village?
I got bare Ralph Lauren shit that came up to like £600. I was gassed.
That freedom attitude is a big part of your story and identity. Is that something you impart to other people?
Most definitely, I feel like whatever you want to do, you should just do it. Don’t feel any type of way. If you want to be a doctor, go do it. If you want to be a baller, go do it. If you want to be a rapper, go do it. You should deffo have that fuck it mentality.
What’s the best piece of advice someone’s given you that you think about?
Just stay humble as you go. Beat the odds, stay humble.
Since you made the splash there’s been more and more emerging artists from across the Midlands. Do you see that as part of your mission to push the scene even further?
I don’t think it’s part of my identity but you can feel inspired by what I’ve done. I feel like there’s a lot of people from the Midlands that feel inspired because there aren’t a lot of people that have come from Coventry or other places like Leicester. It’s okay to feel inspired. When Stormzy was doing his thing, I felt inspired. I thought ‘rah if he can do this, I can do this.’
What would you consider to be your greatest strength?
Staying positive through hard times is my greatest strength as a person. As an artist, it’s having my own style and being different to everyone else.
So, tell us about the new OneWave Foundation and your ambitions for it…
What I want to do is solidify it as a name and help people out, mainly in and around the city of Coventry. The first thing I really want to get started on is the Academy, coaching children aged 12-16. That’s one thing I’m working on as we speak, and I can’t wait until that comes to life. All the kids can come, keep them off the road. That’s the main thing I want to do with OneWave Foundation. There are other things I want to do as well like free school meals – we gave out some in Coventry like six months ago. I just want it to be a sick thing.
Why is it so important for a place like Coventry to be given opportunities?
Coventry is a small city, so I feel like no one really looks at Coventry. But if one human can make Coventry sort of get looked at, that’s an achievement for me. If I can put Coventry on the map properly and people start looking at it, that’s an achievement. And the only reason why I’m standing for Coventry so much is because that’s where I started music. I didn’t do music in London, music wasn’t part of the plan. When I moved to Coventry, that’s when I thought I’m gonna start music here. There’s no point in me repping London when I live in Coventry. It would just look weird. I feel like if I’ve put Coventry on the map, which I feel like I have 50% done then that’ll make me happy.
Sitting here, what would you claim to be your greatest ambition?
Staying dedicated that’s it. Staying humble, true to myself, until the end. That’s it, staying true to myself, no fake shit. Staying humble till I die.