By: Daniel Reynolds
If the hegemony of the recording industry is indeed continuing to break apart, then the borders and barriers that shape and control music – who makes it, who hears it, who distributes it – are being remade. This is a complicated way of saying something we all probably already know: anyone can make music that can easily be released to anyone, anywhere. The man behind the curtain is gone and, anyway, that curtain has been ripped to shreds.
With that as a baseline for the new century of music, we arrive at a startling idea: Jai Paul should be one of the biggest musical acts in the world. If there was ever an artist better suited to blow up – cultivated mystique, potentially broad appeal, and, oh yeah, breathtaking music – Jai Paul would be that artist.
But then, who is Jai Paul? Years after he first appeared, in an age when cultural mystery is impossible to maintain and the allure of celebrity is all-powerful, we are still no closer to an answer.
In 1969 Rolling Stone editor Greil Marcus reviewed an album by a band called the Masked Marauders. The recording was said to be a session laid down by some of the biggest musicians of the day: Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon, withholding their names from the album due to contractual agreements. A buzz was created.
But, hey, it was a total hoax. To keep the joke going, a real fake band was assembled to record the non-existent ‘super group’ album. Actual industry people started asking around about the record and eventually Warner Bros. won the production rights, paying out a $15,000 sum.
The punchline? People believed. The album sold more than 100,000 copies and spent 12 weeks on the Billboard chart while peaking at #114. It was an album conjured out of thin air, a band of nobodies becoming, briefly, somebodies by invoking the names of known quantities. It was a record company willing to pay money and play along. It actually took a little while before Rolling Stone was called out on its prank. It is also something that could not be replicated today.
In 2010 a recording of a song called “BTSTU” gained a fervent following on music blogs around the world. The track was recorded by the unknown Jai Paul as a demo in 2007. On the strength of the song alone Jai Paul had been allowed to see the wizard, signing a contract with XL Records later in 2010.
By 2011 there were tracks from Drake and Beyonce that sampled “BTSTU”. The legend, as they say, continued to grow. By 2012, with the appearance of a new track “Jasmine“, Jai Paul had, perhaps inadvertently (or undesirably), become something of a mythic figure. He continued to shun the spotlight despite the growing buzz. Big Boi, cultivator of his own complicated legacy, brought Jai Paul in for “Higher Res” on the deluxe version of his album “Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours”. People wanted to believe great things were inevitable; the music, not the name, supported those beliefs. Still, even in an age where nothing stays completely secret for long, we knew little.
The last time any Jai Paul news surfaced was April 2013, when, over one apparently shitty weekend, a complete album of his work appeared for sale on Bandcamp. Why shitty? Because the alleged work was actually just a collection of loose recordings ripped off a stolen laptop and cruelly put on the internet to glean a couple bucks and torture the masses. It was an anti-hoax.
The album – such as it is – is phenomenal. Despite being thoroughly unofficial, it still made Best of 2013 lists. Jai Paul’s production style is seductive and exotic; with bouncy electronics mixing with earthy instrumentals. It’s Ravi Shankar by way of Michael Jackson and Prince. There are snippets of Bollywood, throbbing bass, piercing synths; Paul’s voice floats above and around, lacing the tracks with an almost sad undercurrent. There are little skits here, incomplete cuts that underline the record’s unfinished nature.
Jai Paul never quite threw a tantrum like Tarantino, but it has to be disappointing to see pieces of your master work appear in a form you did not intend. Anyone can make music and get it released to anyone, anywhere. Even if you didn’t actually make it. This was the legend and myth at its apex. Fans were vindicated, even as they sifted through the ribbons of that torn curtain, desperate for more answers. We immediately found out the truth about the “fake” album release but riotously we still asked: who is Jai Paul? When are we getting the real album?
Back in 1969 it was the artist’s name that mattered. Mention a super group that involved the biggest stars at the time and you’d be bound to bend a few ears. Today it is less who you know than who you can use. It’s the difference between George Harrison talking up Shankar and Jai Paul sampling his music. This is the new age. And while the abyss of mystery is sometimes only as deep as a wading pool (see: Weeknd, The), the power it has to drum up interest has never been greater than in our lightning fast media fuelled society. We do not abide by a hoax.
So, Jai Paul is an eclectic outlier, mixing together songs that speak to this era’s ever-growing mash-up of genres and influences, while shunning attention. Anyone can make music and get it released to anyone, anywhere. The reward for doing so, however, can be illusory. In 1969 with the Masked Marauders, the money was real. A record was written into existence, and the fake central mystery was allowed to propagate to term (before being laughably debunked). Today in 2014, it feels both incredibly difficult and easy to toil in obscurity – wilful or otherwise.
The mystery of Jai Paul and his few loose songs remains; it is still somehow very real, as is his talent. The curious smoke may have cleared, the curtain in tatters, but the man behind it is still missing.