Reclining on a shaggy and extremely chic cream coloured couch, wearing iridescent green latex trousers, Harry James Jr. looks almost like a merman effortlessly adapting to his new habitat when I arrive at the Pause office on a Monday morning. Sprawled around him is an entirely female team of creatives wrapping up from a photoshoot. Before they leave and our interview begins, Harry takes the time to thank each member individually, note social media handles, and later tags them all in a warm Instagram story. The whole thing has a rather charming and authentic touch to it.
Formerly known as the rapper Fugitive, south-east London born Harry James Byart started out in the industry aged just 12, spending his formative years as a regular on Channel U. By his late teens, Harry moves into producing music for friends and changes his stage name to Harry James Jr., named after Harry Haag James, the classically handsome American musician and his grandfather’s favourite artist. Following a lengthy hiatus, the Harry I meet is ready to share new music of his own. His singles, “Numbers” and “Honest”, featuring Spanish rapper C. Tangana, both out now, are a breezy blend of pop, r&b and rap, and there is an album ready for release in early 2022.
In between small talk about one of the greatest Canadian rappers of all time, Belly, I ask Harry the unscripted (and slightly irrelevant to the context) question of What percentage of your team is female? It is 10% out of a team of 10 — but it’s his reaction that says much more as he earnestly reflects on his inner circle and the “attention to detail” that diversity brings to all our work. At 27, Harry James Jr. has well over a decade worth of experience in music and still seems very eager to continue to grow. Below are edited extracts from our interview.
How old were you when you started out in music? And what was that early experience like?
My mum worked in the management industry so I grew up around music. I first walked into a studio when I was 7 and fell in love with the atmosphere; the noise, the machines, the lights in the studio, I just knew it was in me and I started writing. Then I got to year 7 at school and everyone was rapping in the playground, so I started rapping too.
I started shooting my own videos and put content out on Channel U, and it kind of just went from there. And then, at around 17/18, I took a step back from music and started producing. A lot of my friends were rapping around then and I was going through a lot of personal issues, so I focused on being in the background: producing, managing acts, directing, starting a label and building other artists. I’ve been working on that for the past 3/4 years and it’s given me a different set of knowledge, and I’m applying stuff I’ve learnt from back in the days, so that’s been like my high school and university, and now I feel like I’ve graduated.
Who are the musical greats that you go back to?
Marvin Gaye, 100%.
Songs in particular?
“Inner City Blues”, “Distant Lover”, “Abraham, Martin and John”. They’re great songs that were introduced to me by my mum and they feel like home to me. They’ll live with me forever, I know even when I’m 70, I’ll hear those songs and think of my mum.
You recently directed “Boyz” by Jesy Nelson, featuring Nicky Minaj. What was your concept for the shoot? And how was the execution?
Amazing. The concept was the original Diddy video, but to take that idea and flip it. So, they turn up to the neighbourhood, they get to the house and have a party, she’s there with her friends, she’s sitting on the roof. It was kind of like an ode to Diddy. I tried to keep it as close to the location as I could. I think they shot the original at Universal Studios, when Jes’s sitting on the roof, that’s not an effect, she is actually sitting on the roof, we had a crane up there and everything — it was a really amazing experience.
Do you have a TV or movie highlight of the year so far?
There’s a few, “Tiger King” was really good and I’m looking forward to the second one. And when I have my downtime, I put my projector on and I watch the Nelk Boys, they have a YouTube channel and they’re really funny. I love Canadian culture and I feel like they appreciate what we do over here too. You see Drake coming to London, wearing Stone Island early on and appearing on grime tracks. It’s a great time for the UK music scene, and it isn’t just in grime, it’s UK rap, pop, indie, there’s a lot of great music today, a lot of great artists and producers making great things! I think it was a blessing and a curse when streaming came out, the amazing side to it is that you can be heard, you can put music out, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a 2-minute song or a 7-minute song, everyone can have a voice now.
Album of the year for you?
There have been some really great albums…
Between the Drake and Kanye offerings?
That would be Drake, without a doubt. And my favourite song is probably “Get Along”. Dave’s album is also amazing!
Favourite song from the Dave album?
Track 2, “Verdansk” for me. It’s a great song!
“System”, featuring WizKid, is mine and has one of my favourite verses of the year by Dave, if we can make that a thing…
That’s an amazing song too!! WizKids album, was that this year or the end of last? That’s amazing as well!! Majid Jordan’s new album is amazing too! They have a record with Diddy which I love. Check it out. Jordan is probably one of the best producers in the world right now and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.
Dream dinner date and what would be on your plate?
Ooooh! Past or present?
Either. Fictional, even.
It would probably have to be Marvin Gaye. He’s had such an impact on my life. I’d ask him how he performed so effortlessly, where he looks like he isn’t even trying. And I’d ask him for any advice he could give me. I’d ask him so much and get him to school me over a 10/10 Wagyu steak and a bottle of red wine.