THE INDEPENDENT MAGAZINE
The Prat In The Hat
Can a white man sing the (jazz-funk) blues? Can a silly hat promote racial harmony? Is Jay Kay a genius?
Jim McClellan considers the questions raised by the advent of Jamiroquai, this summer's pop sensation.
It's a cloudy Saturday afternoon at the spawling Rosskilde music festival, Denmark's answer to Glastonbury. Jason Kay, also known as Jay Kay, the furry hatted 23-year-old leader of the band Jamiroquai, a singer as well known for the stridencyof his environmentally friendly political opinions as for the smooth, Stevie Wonder-ish tones of his voice, is holding forth about the criminally wasteful nature
of Western capitalism to a tent full of bemused Scandinavian journalists. "Waste, it makes me angry," he declares in his throaty,
suburban London accent. "I mean, what's the point? Where's the quality gone?" He gropes for an example familiar to his audience.
Inspiration strikes. "I mean, in this country, you make great chairs, right. Quality furniture."
Denmark is perhaps better known for bacon and blue cheese than for its "quality furniture", but Jay Kay soldiers on. "In my country, there's this crap furniture store called MFI. The stuff they make, I mean, it looks all right but... That's what I'm talking about."
Quality furniture? MFI?
The journalists look baffled. Sensing that he has, perhaps, lost his audience, Jay Kay leans back and grins ruefully.
"And, of course, MFI will be sponsoring the next Jamiroquai tour."
Kay's critics might argue that such sponsorship would be appropriate. They would say that Jamiroquai might be this year's bright and shiny music-business sensation, the band whose debut album went straight to number one the week it was released, but that it won't
last - that the music Kay turns out is MFI funk, not the quality product he assumes. Even those sympathetic to Jay Kay worry about whether he will be able to stand the pace, and wonder whether he has enough going on beneath his trademark hat to be able to cop.
Less than a year ago, in October 1992, Jamiroquai released their first single, "When You Gonna Learn",
a tuneful slice of funk spiced up with clever string arrangements, a didgeridoo solo and Kay's lyrics ("Greedy men been killing
all the life there was, so you'd better play it nature's way..."). It became the clubland hit of the year and sold 50.000 copies when it was
first released by Acid Jazz, an independent London label. Jay Kay looked right and sounded right, and Sony signed
him up for an eight-album deal and a reputed advance of about £100,000. In May, Jamiroquai's debut album,
Emergency On Planet Earth, sold 100.000 copies the week it was released (the fastest-selling debut album since George Michael's
Faith in 1987). The Evening Standard was moved to suggest that Jay Kay might turn out to be "London's biggest pop star ever".
Jay Kay, it's now easy to see, was a pop star waiting to happen. He is the latest incarnation of a perennially successful pop equation,
the white boy playing black music (in this case, a brand of Seventies jazz-funk-fusion), he's good-looking, has a great voice,
his own geeky dance style, and bags of attitude. His message suits the temper of the times and his image - the ethnic clothes,
the Seventies sneakers and the furry hat perched on his head like a surrogate afro - is perfect for a year
in which the decade that taste forgot has been revived in high street fashion shops.
But, as is the way of today's music business, the sniping has begun. Kay's angry young soulman stance has been derided;
as one critic put it to The Face, "He carries a lot of weight on his shoulders, 400 years of white middle-class oppression."
There have been murmurings about strife within the band and about rehearsal room fights that resulted in stitches.
This month, CNN, a hitherto unknown band, exploited the Jamiroquai bandwagon by setting up a phone line which
invited people to call up and vote for whichever modern artist they considered to be "young, stupid and white".
Posters appeared which featured the phone line number, an altered version of Jamiroquai's logo and the legend
YOUNG, STUPID & WHITE. The message was clear. And after being lauded in the style press as the "cat in the hat",
Jay Kay find himself being routinely dismissed as the "prat in the hat".
On the afternoon before the Rosskilde performance it seems as if the rapid pace of events may be taking its roll. Jay Kay's voice seems to be showing signs of wear, which is not, perhaps, surprising. In the past seven days, he has played the Glastonbury Festival,
re-recorded his next single (due for release on Monday) and embarked on a month-long European tour. He's sitting in a hotel room, blearily nursing a glass of honey and lemon. It quickly becomes apparent that his croakiness has more to do with the fact that he's just got up than with the stresses of stardom. He's soon swapped cough sweets for Benson and Hedges and is putting on his usual high-volume show, bopping around in his seat, hands chopping the air in rhythmic emphasis. When words aren't enough, he bursts into song.
He talks the way he sings. He jams out ideas, scats round a subject, riffs away to a backbeat of naïve, youthful outrage. A question about his interest in Native American myths can set him off on a rambling conversational trail which hops from Christopher Columbus to the evils of junk mail, and winds up with him rummaging around with some paper napkins to demonstrate the wasteful complexity of his poll tax form. He is wearing blue jeans, a blue shirt from Guatemala (complete with embroidered "ethnic" details), and, of course, that hat.
It would be a mistake to assume that Kay has just pulled on a daft hat to perk up his image. The hat is, in fact, integral to his art.
"People don't understand the hat," he complains. When he's on stage, he thinks the hat helps increase his energy and concentrate his aura. He notices me smiling. "OK, everyone can laugh at the hat, but that means that blacks laugh at it and whites laugh at it."
So the hat helps promote racial harmony? "The other day someone said that anybody else would look really stupid in it.
Maybe I look stupid. I don't know. But I feel it's almost like it's matured with me. I'm not joking.
When I put it on my head now it's like a warrior thing: I'm ready for battle, ready to go to war."
But war with whom, and over what? Jay kay would perhaps like to see himself as a funky warrior going into battle with the politicians,
the fat cats and the bureaucrats who are wrecking the planet; but, these days, he spends most of his time skirmishing with journalists.
He has become wary, almost paranoid. An enquiry as to the first record he bought (something, he thinks, by The Who) leads to
complaints about "jazz-funk train-spotters" and the attitude that "if you haven't been into it all your life, then you're no good".
"There are so many contradictions," he says. "I feel I'm in a triangle. I'm still learning, coming to a lot of realisations.
It all becomes confusing. You ask yourself constantly, are you doing the right thing? And people try to pick on really obvious things
about me, like the fact that have got two classic cars and talk about ecology, and the fact that I'm white and I sing black music."
He pauses for breath. "Well, these are obvious thing, picking on them. What I could do, though, is buy piles of cocaine and suround myself with lots of people who go 'yes' all the time." (Perhaps it's not that unfair to point out that at this moment Kay is surrounded
by three people - myself, one of his managers and his PR man - all of whom are nodding in agreement.)
Jason Kay is a child of the Sixties, just. He was born on 30 December 1969, in Stretford, Manchester; his twin brother died when he
was six weeks old. His father was a Portuguese sailor whom he claims never to have met and about whose life he knows nothing.
His mother is a singer, best known for The Karen Kay Show, her Seventies' television series, in which she impersonated the likes of
Lena Horne and Barbara Streisand, an aptitude which has led to suggestions that a talent for mimicry runs in the family.
Karen Kay sent her son to Oakham, a public school in Leicestershire. Kay is open, if edgy, about this blemish on the image of a
young soul rebel; more significant, anyway, was the move his mother made to Ealing, west London, when Kay was 13.
He did all the things you would except of an adolescent growing up in the early Eighties; he went skateboarding, at a skatepark underneath a flyover in Royal Oak, which is where he met Wallis Buchanan, Jamiroquai's didgeridoo player;
he formed a passion for early hip hop, electro and breakdancing; and he argued with his mum.
He left school at the age of 16, with four O-levels, musical ambitions and the name Jamiroquai. His relationship with his mother deteriorated and he often "crashed" at friends' houses or slept rough, supporting himself through "odd bits of dodgy business".
He tried to get bands going with, among others, Ace, a close friend who was a graffiti artist and keyboard player.
"He would have been a star," says Kay, "but he took too much acid, got all megalomaniacal and committed suicide."
Another collaboration, with Gavin Edmonds, also a keyboard player, failed to bear fruit. Kay couldn't play or write music; instead,
as he does now, he'd croon ideas for melodies and arrangements. Gavin wouldn't take him seriously.
Eventually, Kay teamed up with Tunji Williams, who is now one of Jamiroquai's managers and formerly managed the
Brand New Heavies, some of whom lived in Ealing - as did the fashionable Young Disciples and Dodge City Productions.
You could be forgiven for thinking the suburb is a British equivalent of Motown, but Kay dismisses the notion.
"Sure there's a scene in Ealing Broadway station and I spent five years there puffing dope."
Dope, according to Williams, was an interest he and Kay shared. "Around the beginning of 1991 we were both doing very much nothing.
Well, he was selling draw, which was what I used to do, so we just met on those terms." Williams heard a tape Kay had made;
he thought it was a woman singing. None the less Williams helped Kay get some time in a studio to record a demo and took the results
to Acid Jazz, who at once signed Jamiroquai, under the initial misapprehension, Tunji says, that Kay was merely helping out and that Williams, the black man, must be responsible for the soulful music. And that was the making of London's biggest-ever pop star.
Unlike Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, another white sunboy with a nice voice and a big mouth,
Kay does not continually sing his own praises. Indeed, he's bashful about his abilities.
He's less reticent when it comes to holding forth on the state of the world, raging about everything from the destruction of the
rainforests to wheel-clamping policies in Shepherd's Bush. He is sincere, but naïve. His message-mongering, however,
is not the thorn in Sony's side that imagines it to be; it provides the company with an attractive marketing angle. And his lyrics
(which tend to suggest that if ordinary folk could all just get on the good foot together and find a common groove, the Government
would automatically collapse) fall far short of the resonance achieved by his heroes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
Watching Jay Kay on stage at Rosskilde, performing to a tent packed with rapturous Danes, you wonder whether his youthful imperfections aren't part of the attraction. As he hurtles manically, around the stage, the band pushes towards an inspiring frenzy which seems, at times, to have little to do with the controlled musicianship of jazz funk. Kay might have his limitations, but he is canny enough to realise that this zest might be the source of his wide-ranging appeal. "Even if people aren't into the music, I think they're into the energy," he says. "They like the attitude, that 'I don't bloody like it' attitude. Let's face it, that hasn't been around for quite a while."
So, Kay speaks out. And, while he acknowledges that he often finds himself with an Adidas trainer wedged firmly
between his teeth, it is hard to be too critical of someone so obviously well-meaning.
"I know", he admits, "that I can seem like a mixed-up, confused youngster, but there's a much easier route I could take.
It involves making some really good songs and talking about nothing but the next album, and the pretty Danish girl whose huge
breasts engulfed my face last night. I'm joking, but you know what I mean - I could just take the money and run.
But, in the end, I don't choose to do that, because I know it won't make me a better person."
That is the sort of remark that makes you think Jay Kay could be the archetypal Nineties pop star.
Most people go into pop expecting to get wasted on drugs, to get laid or to get rich (or all three).
For Jay Kay it's a metter of personal growth. Whether the modern music business is the best place to achieve this is another question.