A Beat Ahead: Jay E
Photography By Jon Gitchoff
Written By Carrie Edelstein
He’s quite simply a musical genius. When put to the challenge, it’s actually no surprise really Jason “Jay E” Epperson can produce a beat ready for airplay in less than five minutes. It just comes to him both originally and through the interpretation of what he hears. After all, his career lit up early on when he produced Nelly’s Country Grammar in 2000. The album recently became the ninth hip hop album to be certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America, selling more than 10 million copies in the US alone.
Epperson says, “Being a music producer you always have to be creative so I’m very open to a lot of genres. I listen to jazz while I’m working in the garage and new albums when I’m riding around. I’ll go through kicks of rhythm and blues. I try to change it up and reinvent myself all the time. Some days I’ll start with the drums and some days I’ll start with the melody. And sometimes I’ll try to keep it all organic where it’s like acoustic guitar and piano, sometimes I’ll come down here and make it all electronic.” Epperson is self-taught on all of those mentioned by the way.
“Down here” is the basement of Epperson’s St. Peters home. The walk down includes a hallway of fame, similar in hanging style to walls on display at Elvis’ Graceland, marking his career that spans over two decades. Candles are lit for “a positive vibe feel” as you enter Epperson’s “office.” There’s a record wall lined with his more valuable vinyls, keyboards ranging from $2,000-$10,000, a few monitors, various drums, a recording booth, knobs galore, and a table that rests in between Epperson’s main keyboard and control panel/monitor area and a black leather couch. That couch is famous for the frequent visitors like Nelly, Ali Jones and Murphy Lee, and lately Keem and Tef Poe, the activist/rapper who recently performed at Harvard University’s Ed Portal show. Epperson says he would welcome Smino in the door as well, a young artist who has been dubbed St. Louis’ next big star.
“I’m always working on music, so I’m pretty much ready to go at any time, so like if Jay-Z was to call me I’d be ready to go. That’s part of being a producer. You just have to be prepared for the next shot. You don’t know when that next one is coming,” Epperson says.
Even though Epperson has a man cave of a basement, he says he could do it all on the road from his laptop. He even went back to being a DJ for a bit after teaching himself how easily he could play without lugging all of his records around. He says, “Computers are so advanced to where everything kind of syncs and it sounds like the real thing. I use it like a demo where this is the sound I’m looking for but I’ll want a real guitar player to come in and really wail out on it. I don’t want it to sound like this exactly, I want it to be a little softer.”
Maybe softer like the “strong string song” he produced for Nelly that was tested out at his performance with the St. Louis Symphony earlier this year. A release date has not been announced.
As Epperson enters his countdown year to 40, he reflects on blending the old with the new. “I still like record shopping because you stumble across things that aren’t on iTunes.” He adds, “Things revolve and change now it’s all about the electronic music. I think like in a few more years it will be more back into the organic real melodies and piano, how it’s always been in any genre. It’s always changing, it’s just a matter of changing with it but still staying true to yourself.”
Epperson says he can’t sing, but tried rapping when he was putting together “Country Grammar” for the St. Lunatics and they were busy on the road. He says, “I had no idea it was going to be “Country Grammar” so me and KoKo [Jayson ‘Koko’ Bridges of their production company Basement Beats] rapped on it and I was like ‘I’m a terrible rapper.’ But the breakdowns the exact everything you hear on that music is to my rap. To this day Koko and I always laugh about that, and how Nelly could take it and make it a number one hit.”
Epperson’s first album he had as a child growing up in St. Charles was KRS-One. He says he always liked older and funky records like Prince and of course rap.