Justin Jay lives the life most college kids only dream about. Since his freshman year when he signed a track to Claude VonStroke's influential Dirtybird label at age 18, he's been steadily touring, releasing records, and building a following in his native Los Angeles' thriving underground house scene.
The whole time that Jay's been tending the embers of his burning career, he's also been a student at the University of Southern California. He'll graduate this May with a degree in Music Industry and a lifelong affiliation with the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity (AKA "The Cool Jewish Frat,"). Even if his studies have never been his exclusive focus, graduation is somewhat of a full circle moment for the DJ.
"It was my first week of college that I heard back from Claude VonStroke about a demo I'd sent over SoundCloud," Jay tells THUMP in his campus-adjacent apartment. "It was the craziest thing ever, I was taking laps in my boxers around the freshman dorm. Literally, my first week! I'd been the biggest fan of Dirtybird. It was the most surreal news ever. But there was only one kid I knew at school who had heard of Claude."
While all the other kids were listening to David Guetta, practicing their keg stands and fumbling their way out of virginity, Justin Jay was in his dorm room, working on music. "Once I got that first track signed, I really got on the grind," he says. "I made a decision to push away all the social elements of college for that semester. My lifestyle was pretty silly. My roommate would come in at midnight and I'd be working and he'd wake up for a 9AM class and I'd see him get up and realize that I should probably stop working and to sleep. I'd do that pretty consistently. Literally, the next week I had a new demo ready. Claude was like, 'It's cool, but not really for me.'" The next week, same thing. This kept on happening. It took me ten months to get a follow up song on Dirtybird."
For those beyond campus, USC is a school most closely associated with football triumph, aspiring filmmakers, and a smattering of celebrity matriculates. Despite a course offering in EDM, It's not a place you would expect to find a proponent of off-beat weirdo house, let alone a burgeoning scene. "My college experience has been really defined by being as open minded as possible," Jay explains. "I think I would have found it a lot more comfortable going to a small liberal arts school. But being able to be pushed out of my comfort zone – I have friends that make all the music I've made seem commercial and accessible because their tastes are so forward thinking. On the other hand, I have friends who just found out about Avicii. To be able to have that range is really grounding."
Justin's tight crew of friends also keeps his feet on the ground. "This kid is the most humble," says friend and musical collaborator Josh Taylor. "His music will never be brought up unless somebody else brings it up. There are all these kids in the music industry program plugging their stuff to professors, but Justin's either not in class because he's flying across the world playing gigs, or he's in class, just not paying attention."
"I'm studious sometimes," Justin laughs. "I got an A in accounting. My mom was so stoked." But even good grades, Beatport charting releases, and DJ sets worldwide aren't enough to impress some people. "USC has a culture where no one's really impressed if you're doing something successful," says Jay. "It's like ' Oh, your startup sold for $2 million? Mine sold for four.' "
Even as his Momentum EP comes out on Catz 'n' Dogz Pets Recordings, his first for the label (peep the exclusive premiere of "How I Knew" above) Jay has just embarked on one of the most collegiate of experiences: starting a band with his friends. Taylor, a ukelele player (and confessed Jack Johnson fan), is bringing influences of his band, The Cozy Boys, to the house stylings of his producer friend along with another musician friend Ben Glasser .
"We played a huge fraternity day party on Friday. It had all the shenanigans you'd expect," says Jay. "Y'know, the kids want 'Turn Down For What?' and that kind of music. I was DJing and at the end of the party and I had Josh and Ben come up. We played two of our songs and people loved it. To get that kind of honest reaction from a bunch of college students who are just trying to wild out was really awesome."
As the palate of the EDM generation have fast developed from "Levels" to the underground, it's like the the two worlds of Justin Jay have somehow melded into one. "It's crazy how much people's tastes have changed in the past four years," he says. "When I showed up, everyone was literally just finding out about Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex. Now, you know, I went to see Maceo Plex over the weekend and there were a lot of kids from school there."
Jemayel Khawaja is Managing Editor of THUMP - @JemayelK