“Trying to Find the Perfect Place for Me”: Jay Alpha Explains “On a Diff [type] Level.”
Brooklyn-based producer Jay Alpha still remembers when his late aunt/godmother asked him about his life goals when he was 12. Instead of scoffing at his ambitions of becoming a cartoonist or gamer, his aunt gave him some sage advice that he still carries with him today. “She told me if that’s what I really want to do I should not allow anything to put me off that goal. Even if I was poor she told me to keep doing what I love to do,” he told the website Keakie in a 2017 interview.
Though cartoons and gaming were his early loves, Jay’s passion of production really started to take hold in 2010 after a few years of casual experimentation. His father helped him purchase a Virtual DJ controller during his sophomore year of high school, and once he’d maxed out the program’s beatmaking potential, he tested out other DAWs like Reason before finding an ideal fit with Ableton.
As he learned to utilize the endless features offered by the top-of-the-line software, Jay also developed a curiosity for exploring the equipment of years gone by. It all stemmed from listening to the legends. “I listen J Dilla, I listen to Pete Rock, I listen to Lord Finesse, I listen to Madlib — all the greatest,” he tells me.
“I put in all this money, not to make this my hobby. I’m really trying to gain recognition as a musician.”
While his love for their music grew, so did his desire to know more about their creative process. “I wanted to know, ‘How did they make all these dope beats?’” he explains. “They were very limited to some degree, as opposed to me right now. Back then they only had 8 or 9 seconds of sample time.”
Thinking about the limitations his heroes faced when they were starting out, Jay wondered if he would would show the same resolve and dedication without the convenience of modern technology. “‘What if I was back in the 90s? Would I still be doing this?’” he asked himself. “I just wanted to make sure.”
Like any industrious producer, he landed himself a summer a summer job and secured enough income to buy the same samplers that his idols had used. “I saved enough money to get some hardware like the 404 and so on and so forth,” he says. “I got the MPC, I got the SP-555, I got a tape recorder. I tried to get away from the computers and get more analog.”
“Would I still be this confident and this inspired to keep doing music? I just wanted to make sure.”
In addition to proving to himself that he had the creative resiliency as his predecessors, Jay Alpha wanted to prove that music was more than mere a casual interest. “I put in all this money, not to make this my hobby,” he says. “I’m really trying to gain recognition as a musician.”
Though a consistent stream of quality out has helped Jay build respectable audiences through his Bandcamp and SoundCloud pages, his most cohesive and seminal project to date was born out of a difficult medical procedure he faced just months ago. “On a Diff [type] Level. came about while I was having eye surgery back in April,” he tells me. “While I was having surgery on my eye, I had to look out through the same eye I was having surgery on.”
As if intensive eye surgery isn’t anxiety provoking enough, Jay had to endure several alarming changes in his vision during the operation. “It was white, then it turned to black, then all the colors came through,” he says of his vision. “I was scared and I saw crackles in the back of my head and stuff like that.
Though he feared potential long-term damage to his vision, the end result was positive. “The surgery was successful, thank god,” says Jay.
“I kept going around the solar system and trying to find places that I could fit in — trying to find the perfect place for me.”
Doctor’s cleared him to return home and his post-surgery outlook was positive, but that didn’t prevent the bad dreams that he experienced right away. “I went back home and the next couple of days I was having these reoccurring nightmares because of the things I was seeing through my eye,” he says. “I was really scared.”
Instead of letting his fear get the better of him, Jay started documenting what was happening in his dreams. “I managed to have a journal where I was writing down some of the dreams and what it meant,” he says.
Several of the dreams defied reality and resembled something of a surrealist sci-fi fantasy. “It’s some really outer space crazy stuff. I went to space, got some weed from some dope ass aliens. Went to another planet and I saw those three breasted aliens from Total Recall. Had fun with them and stuff like that,” he says with a laugh.
Even though this description might sound fun, Jay still felt a sense of isolation when around other people in the aftermath of his surgery. And even if his dreams had elements of psychedelic fantasy, many of them were filled with the pain of feeling all alone in the world. “I kept going around the solar system and trying to find little places that I could fit in — trying to find the perfect place for me,” he says.
“It’s some really outer space crazy stuff. I went to space, got some weed from some dope ass aliens.”
The constant sense of feeling out of place inspired him to free frame one of his favorite movies, Fritz The Cat, and use the still image for On a Diff [type] Level’s cover art. “If you look at the album art, everybody was doing their thing and having fun while Fritz was just moping,” he say. “That was kind of what I was going through.”
Jay also used the journals of his nightmares to inform the musical journey. Utilizing a combination of pre and post-surgery beats to take listeners inside of his mind, the diary he kept proved invaluable. “I was literally going through every single stanza and every line that I wrote about my dreams — I put it into fruition on my album,” he says. “I could hear these songs during my dreams, all the way down to the last song ‘Afterlife’.”
Now that the album is out, Jay simply asks that people take the time to listen to this very personal project. “I’m begging people to just listen to it,” he says. “This is one of the albums that I really put my all into it, both with the beats and putting everything together.”