“Where have you been?” is a question that has followed Birmingham MC Jaykae around since he left the city’s influential grime crew Invasion Alert back in October 2015. Almost a year later he dropped his debut solo track ‘Toothache’, a belligerent statement-of-intent and a snapshot biography of his life so far. “I was the best man when D2 got married / The pallbearer when Depz got carried,” he begins, later adding, “I used to wake up and not know what I’ll do for the day / ‘Till I had a yout’ on the way.”
“I’ve always thought, I’m the only person that can take me where I want to be,” he admits. “But it’s only since my son was born that I thought, this is my livelihood, this is my job – why am I being lazy? So that’s when I kicked myself into action because I’ve got someone to provide for. No-one else is going to pay my bills.”
Two years on, Jaykae remains immensely proud of Invasion Alert and is still friends with most of the crew. “I think it was the best MC collective there has ever been, but we had no business to it.” They never released an EP or an album, and the logistics of herding a collective of almost a dozen people meant that it was frustratingly impossible to keep everyone both organised and content.
But that was then and this is now. “Some people have been listening to me since I was seventeen, but most people are only hearing about me now I’m twenty-six,” he continues. But while the underground’s resurgence has obviously helped Jaykae’s upwards momentum, the real driving factor is the man himself.
“I kicked myself into action because I’ve got someone to provide for. No-one else is going to pay my bills.”
Fatherhood has “made me a softie at heart” and he readily admits that he’ll avoid throwing himself into the situations that his younger, more reckless self would’ve ended up in trouble over. “I don’t want to go to jail again. I don’t want to be separated from my son. I want him to have a father he can be proud of. And everything’s documented now, so when he’s a big lad, he can watch YouTube and see the transition I made to make this happen.”
It’s a legacy that’s quickly gaining pace. While Toothache was Jaykae “trying to get my foot back in the scene”, its maturity and narrative combined to create something that really captured people’s imagination. Not only did it become the longest run track to feature in Spotify’s Grime Shutdown playlist, but it took on a new lease of life after being featured in the American crime drama series ‘Power’.
His follow-up ‘Pull Up’ made a similarly compelling impression and local hero Mike Skinner jumped on board to contribute a remix. Jaykae had been backing Skinner for years (“If you say Mike Skinner’s shit you’re a dickhead, bruv”) and was screaming out for a collab. And eventually it came when Skinner invited him to the studio to join his Tonga Balloon Gang project on the track ‘CCTV’.
“He’s like an older brother to me. I definitely respect everything he has to tell me, because he’s Mike Skinner! He’s from the ends and I can relate to what he tells me. Also I can see how music has changed his life and that’s inspiring.” Jaykae also learned from Skinner simply from observation, notably when The Streets announced a from-out-of-nowhere comeback tour. “He’s very good at not letting people know what he’s up to. He’s like a ninja. So I learned to move very ninja in the game.”
Another high profile fan joined Jaykae and featured artist Murkage Dave on ‘Every Country’, which boasted production from Skepta. Their connection goes way back: Skepta first championed Jaykae after seeing him on Lord of the Mics in 2012 and subsequently asked him to join the All-Star remix of ‘That’s Not Me’. And then ‘Moscow’ continued a rich run of form for Jaykae, with the backing of Dave (“Moscow by Jaykae is a bad boy track”) and then an accompanying video inspired by Small Heath’s original gangsters, Peaky Blinders.
The subsequent release of the ‘Where Have You Been?’ EP left Jaykae perfectly poised for his forthcoming debut album. “If you’re a new fan, you’re really going to get to know me with this EP – who I am and personal things about me. And for the fans that have been with me for nearly ten years, I’m happy to give them a great body of work that they can listen to from start to finish and appreciate.”
The visceral opener ‘Headache’ kicked things off in style with an intensity that made it a spiritual successor, while ‘Let Me Go’ saw Jaykae “showcase the mandem” TiGA and YASeeN RosaY.
Our man even inspired another Midlander to greatness when swimmer Adam Peaty revealed that he listened to Jaykae’s ‘Toothache’ to psyche himself up before he won an Olympic gold medal in 2016. A fan of grime in general and Jaykae in particular (“Grime reminds me that swimming is very gladiatorial”); Peaty’s admiration was reciprocated in an unlikely bromance. “That was mad to me,” says Jaykae, still with near disbelief, “That tune got him gassed and in the right mind set. He didn’t need to give me props, but he did.”
As much as such connections show Jaykae’s gift to building a rapport with all the right people, he’s very much his own man: he speaks with blunt honesty and won’t tolerant bullshit. It’s an approach that he extends to his lyrics. “You’re not gonna hear me talking about fairies and horses, I’ll reference something that might seem violent, but it’s real shit. I don’t fabricate anything. It’s not the fact that I won’t mention anything violent, I just don’t like to glorify anything like that.”
So that’s where Jaykae’s been. Where Jaykae’s going next will be an even bigger story.