On August 31, 2010, thousands of starstruck tweens and their accompanying parents piled into New York's Madison Square Garden for the first of many sold-out Justin Bieber concerts. Although Tay James, a 28-year-old DJ, stood out from the dominating population of prepubescent girls, he was equally, if not more, enthralled by the show.
"Everybody wanted to see [Justin]," he recalls. "The energy in the room was crazy. Usher came out and he killed it too." While a sea of security guards and fences separated most people in attendance from the then 16-year-old superstar, James was merely footsteps away. As Justin Bieber's official DJ for the past six years, DJ Tay James is almost always pretty close to the Stratford, Ontario legend. He's been accompanying the popstar on stage since his first headlining show.
"We joke that we're big brother, little brother," he tells THUMP over Skype. "We show each other so many different things. He watches out for me, and I watch out for him." James' degree may be in business, but the 28-year-old from Baltimore was always destined for a career in music. DJing shows to support himself throughout college, he worked his way up to playing gigs like the MTV special Bow Wow's Stuntin' 21st Birthday and Obama's inauguration party. But, it was his eventual meeting with Bieber that would completely transform his career.
"A mutual friend of mine was DJing for another artist at the time," James says. "He called my management and was like,'hey we need a DJ for this new artist, Justin Bieber. Do you know anyone that's available?'" After playing only one show with the rising star, James became a permanent staple in the Bieber entourage. The rest is history.
Smack in the middle of the Bieber-frenzy that has erupted since the release of Purpose, and documenting it all via his digital passion project We Know The DJ, James explains what it's really like to be the official DJ for the world's most in-demand popstar.
THUMP: What's in the job description of a DJ for Justin Bieber?
Tay James: When we first started off, there wasn't a full band, or a full production. It was just me, him, and two dancers. Then, as the shows got bigger, and as the music got bigger, it became a full production and I became more of a host and a percussionist. I scratch with the band. The last tour I was also opening up for him. I would come out and DJ for like 15 minutes for the crowd to get them hyped. I was able to DJ his birthday party, too.
Having been with Justin for so long, what's been the biggest change you've seen in him from the beginning until now?
I wouldn't exactly say change, besides the fact that he's becoming a man. He's been an icon since he came out, so I haven't really seen a big change in him. Growing up and being a celebrity, it is what it is, but Justin Bieber's always been able to do everything. He's Superman in my eyes.
What's Bieber's most requested song?
Young Thug, we like Young Thug. He loves Lil Wayne. We love Future. We love Drake, whatever's hot in the club. "Sorry" is the number one record right now. I love "Sorry" so much; everyone loves "Sorry": from my grandparents to my little niece. It's dope to be able to play your boy's music in the club.
Will there ever be a Diplo/Skrillex collaboration with DJ Tay James?
Diplo's dope. I was able to meet him recently. I'm definitely working on my own stuff. I'm dropping another mixtape probably in a couple of months and I'm always trying to have exclusive music on there, so I'll see what I can do. I don't want to say too much.
What's a request you get tired of hearing?
Can I get some tickets to a Justin Bieber show? I'm not that guy. I have no control over anything like that. His tickets sell out fast, so everybody's trying to get them, but I have nothing to do with that.
What sort of creative control do you get when you're performing with Justin?
Everything gets approved by his management. They're really cool about everything. I was blessed to be part of the album. I got to co-produce "Trust," which is on the deluxe album. Just being able to be in the studio with him is great—to see a man like that work, it's incredible. He's amazing in the studio. He's a living legend.
Which of your musical preferences have you passed along to Justin?
He puts me onto a lot of things. He introduced me to Travis Scott. He was listening to Travis Scott before I was. We try to put each other onto new things. What he's listening to, I might feed off and vice versa.
Your blog We Know The DJ documents your life when you're not onstage. Why is it important for you to showcase this?
It's my way to show the world what a DJ does behind the scenes. It's not what you see on stage, it's what my interests are, where I like to shop what, I like to eat, the parties I throw, the people I know. It has over twelve million views on YouTube, and 54,000 subscribers, so it's become a pretty nice network. Now, I'm making it about every DJ, so not only are you going to see my life and what I'm doing, you're going to see every DJ that's connected. My home boy BONNIX, he's Wiz Khalifa's DJ and Lil Beats, who's Big Sean's DJ, they're going to be doing the same thing. It's a hub where all the people who are interested in this world can learn more about it.
If you couldn't DJ for Justin Bieber, who would you want to DJ for?
Catch Tay James DJing at Toronto's Lost And Found on Dec. 23. More info can be found here.