In the future, most of us will likely shudder at memories of the dark days of 2020 and 2021, but probably not Jenna Andrews. The Toronto-based multi-hyphenate (singer, songwriter, vocal producer, music publisher) is currently enjoying a stellar moment. As of July 19, 2021, she has writing credits on the U.S. No. 1 song (“Butter” by BTS) and the U.K. No. 6 song (“Heartbreak Anthem” by David Guetta, Little Mix, and Galantis). She also co-wrote the B-side for “Butter,” “Permission to Dance,” and both songs were performed to ecstatic reviews the week before on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Andrews spent the week flying between Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville, so her recollection of the pandemic will be substantially different from yours and ours.

She caught the attention of the BTS’s label Big Hit, with “Supalonely,” a song she’d co-written for the New Zealand singer Benee. They contacted her to work with their other act, TXT, which led to a strong relationship with the BTS team. On the phone from New York during her hectic pan-American travels, Andrews explained that, “in that time period, Ron Perry [Chairman and CEO of Columbia Records] was working on their first [sung-in-]English single, ‘Dynamite,’ and, in the eleventh hour, Ron asked if I’d be down to work on vocal production. Of course I was thrilled, especially during the pandemic.”

Andrews instinctively fell into the role. “I grew up singing in church,” she says, “so I love harmony and all that stuff, which really works out when it’s a band, whether it’s a boy-band or a girl-band. So, basically, I wrote all the harmonies and all the ‘ad lib’ parts that they sing. I would sing all the harmonies, and then I would send it to them, and they’d be, like, ‘Oh, we like these ones,’ or ‘We don’t like these ones.’ I would sing an ad lib and they’d send it back and I’d say, ‘Please try it this way.’”

Once inside the BTS tent, Andrews had the label’s ear, so she put on her publisher’s hat. In 2019 she and veteran U.S. music executive Barry Weiss signed a deal with Sony/ATV for their publishing venture, Twentyseven Music. The company had been sent a demo (written by Stephen Kirk, Sebastian Garcia, and Robert Grimaldi) that Andrews thought was incredible. “The hook melody was amazing,” she says, “and I was immediately thinking, ‘This could be BTS’s next single.’ However, I didn’t think the lyric was very strong.” She played it for several people to no avail, but Ron Perry at Columbia “was on the same page as me.” They went to work with the others on Zoom.

Andrews recalls how, “Ron, one day, just said, ‘How about I try something like “Smooth Criminal,” by Michael Jackson?’ Immediately that made me think of, ‘Smooth like butter, like a criminal undercover,’ and that was it. That’s when we came up with the concept and knew that we had something special.”

There are seven songwriters credited on “Butter,” and 14 on “Heartbreak Anthem,” but Andrews doesn’t think that it’s peculiar to have so many people involved. “Nowadays, songwriting isn’t [necessarily] just as basic as everyone sitting around a campfire and writing a song,” she says. “Maybe it’s someone from New Zealand that comes up with an amazing drum loop that inspires a song, [then] I might come up with a melody, and send it to my friend who may come up with a great lyric. Then the artist comes in, and may want to change things – they love the song but maybe the lyrics aren’t right for their brand, so they end up writing. And that’s how it ends up becoming more and more writers, depending on the song. During the streaming era there can be, like, 20 writers on a song.”

Being a songwriter and a music publisher
Andrews appreciates the synchronicity of being a songwriter and a music publisher simultaneously. “Basically, everyone we’ve signed at Twentyseven are people I write with and have connections with because, obviously, we work together so well,” she says. “It just makes sense to be under the same umbrella.” She uses the evolution of “Heartbreak Anthem” as an example. “I was working with Lennon Stella, she’s Canadian as well, from the show Nashville… I was sent that song originally for Lennon and it wasn’t right for her, but I thought it would be perfect for Little Mix, who were also signed to Twentyseven. They wanted a second verse, so I wrote the second verse with Little Mix. The song’s a big hit, so Twentyseven’s having a pretty cool moment right now.”

Toronto producer Jenius has been living up to his name, by applying his prodigious  skills to recordings by some of hip-hop’s biggest names.

Freshly signed to WondaGurl’s new label  Wonderchild, 19-year old Jenius’ most recent success was a placement on Chicago rapper  Polo G’s Hall Of Fame, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 in June 2021. Credited on “Go Part 1,” alongside fellow Toronto native FrancisGotHeat, Jenius worked directly with Polo G on the song’s foreboding sonic foundation. “It wasn’t like we just gave him the beat,” says Jenius. “I mean, we really, really produced the record out, and made it come to fruition.”

In describing  the process of producing it,  you can hear the pride in Jenius’ voice. It’s a testament to the confidence he has in the growth and versatility of his production acumen. “That versatility is definitely something that I pride myself on,” he says assuredly. “I know how to make every type of music, I guess. One thing that I want to get out of music is that it’s me, you know? My style is hard-hitting and knocking. I want my music to be felt, not just be heard.”

Aside from Polo G, artists like Travi$ Scott, JackBoys, Jack Harlow, and Canadian artists like KILLY and Anders, have all benefitted from Jenius’ sonic prowess, which was cultivated at a very young age.

Born Julius-Alexander Brown, Jenius remembers the musical foundation of reggae and dancehall – by artists like Buju Banton, Capleton, and Bob Marley – being instilled in him as a young child growing up in Whitby, Ontario. He was turned on to hip-hop by hearing his dad play the ominous boom-bap of Mobb Deep. Taught by his father to make beats at the age of eight, Jenius was raised in an encouraging familial environment to cultivate and develop his craft.

“For a couple years, we were just making beats as a father-son bonding type thing,” says Jenius. “And then it became a thing where I was just making beats by myself on my own time… then I really developed the passion, and loved creating music.”

In addition to his father’s encouragement, Jenius also drew inspiration from Toronto rapper Infinite, who happens to be his uncle. Infinite came into the spotlight as a member of influential Canadian hip-hop group Ghetto Concept in the mid-‘90s, and branched off from the group to record hit tracks like “Gotta Get Mine” and “Take A Look” in a notable solo career.

“That showed me that I could do it also, at a young age,” says Jenius. “Seeing that, from a family member being able to do it, at his level, it was like, ‘If he can do it, I can do it, too.’”

“I want my music to be felt, not just be heard”

At 12, Jenius was convinced that being a music producer would be his career. After logging his first major placement at 14, there was no turning back. “Never Let Up,” a song he produced for Killy, was nominated for a JUNO Award while he was still in high school.

While Jenius has obviously proved himself in his own right, early on in his career he made a shrewd link with WondaGurl. After his father reached out to her team online, to notify her of Jenius’ production skills, the two met in a studio to make some beats. The creative connection they forged, which Jenius describes as “organic,” has meant that – as well as being signed to her label – Jenius has often worked collaboratively with her. One of the production credits the duo shares is “Bad B**** From Tokyo,” the intro track to the late Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for The Moon album – although Jenius didn’t know it at first.

“When [the album] came out, I pressed play on the first song, and it was my beat,” he says. “And I was, like, ‘Oh, wow! I got a song on the Pop Smoke album.’” It turns out the beat was one that Jenius had created with WondaGurl a year earlier, while in high school, and he’d almost forgotten about it. WondaGurl – who was in the car with Jenius and some friends when he pressed play – had been given the heads-up about the placement, but wanted to surprise her beat-making colleague.

As exhilarating as that particular scenario sounds, Jenius’ usual collaborative approach thrives on strategy rather than serendipity.

“I have a very, very small group of producers that I work with,” he says. “But it’s all, again, an organic relationship… It’s just people that  I like making music with. But when it comes to making music with them, I like to dive into the process. I’ll be in the studio with whoever said producer is, and we’ll just create something together. I’ll do the melody, they’ll do drums, or we’ll both do it together. It really depends [on the situation].”

It’s this type of intuitive fluidity and malleable intellectual approach that anchors the seemingly lofty aspirations of Jenius’ production moniker in matter-of-fact reality.

“I was always told that I was a genius, even from before I was making music,” he says. “I was in school, getting straight A’s, doing reading at eighth-grade level in first grade. And beyond that now, I prove that on a music and creative level, I’m a creative genius.  Anybody that I’ve worked with on music can vouch for that.”

We’re pleased to continue our Upstarts series, featuring profiles of very young SOCAN members making a name for themselves with their music.

Jay JayBy the mere fact of growing up in the Appartements St-Pie X complex, Jay Jay already had one foot in Québec’s hip-hop culture. Previously known as Tours Bardy, the iconic apartment towers of Québec City’s Limoilou neighbourhood have been the epicentre of the city’s rap movement for three decades.

At 12 – having just graduated from elementary school a month ago – Jay Jay is the latest up-and-comer of one of the province’s seminal rap neighbourhoods, one which has already given us Shoddy, Webster, Souldia, Les Sozi, and many more. Bloc 2000, his debut EP, is geographically anchored in Limoilou-land, its title referring to 2000, rue Désilets, the address of one of those two emblematic housing project towers, where a plethora of cultures co-habitate in a vibrant, warm, yet sometime impetuous, climate.

Retourne chez toi / Juste au cas où / Y’a des bagarres de partout, cours / On pourrait dire des loups-garous” (Go home / Just in case / There’s fighting everywhere, run / They’re like werewolves), raps the young artist, of Congolese origin, on the hard-hitting “Feu rouge” (“Red Light”). The title refers to the flashing police-car lights that he saw illuminating the window panes of Bloc 2000, early on in his life.

“Limoilou is like a big family,” says Jay Jay, who we reach on the phone alongside Sami, his manager, who occasionally jumps in on the conversation to direct his young recruit’s train of thought. “But if you’re a newcomer, it can be scary. It’s a neighbourhood with lots of crooks… but if you were born here, you grew up with them.”

“I think what we can take away from it, is that Limoilou is like a family,” Sami adds, with a smile in his voice.

And if there’s one thing we all know, it’s family that matters most. The adage of Alaclair Ensemble, a band that has some of its many roots in the neighbourhood, embodies what comes out of Bloc 2000, an EP marked by Jay Jay’s love for his mother, his crew, and his friends.

One of them is Izo, a young teenager from the block who made him want to pick up rapping about a year ago. “I could tell he was really good,” says Jay Jay of the man he cites as a major influence, alongside big names like Koba LaD, Souldia, and 50 Cent. “We started rapping together about a year ago. He’s the one who introduced me to Sami.”

Sami quickly picked up on the talent of the two youngsters. “I invited them over to my humble studio,” he says. “A friend had stored his equipment in my bedroom. The result was ‘Recompter,’” says the young manager, who also grew up in Appartement St-Pie X.

The video for the first song by Jay Jay and Izo quickly reached 10,000 views on YouTube. The success was promising, but sadly “Izo’s mom deleted the video,” Sami says. “I got in touch with Jay to do a solo track. And this time, I took him to a real studio. We recorded Bloc 2000 with a different beat from the one you hear on the album.”

Sami then had the stroke of genius to send the song to a friend of his cousins: Souldia. Always on the lookout for fresh talent, the rapper immediately took Jay Jay under his wing. “I struggled to keep my emotions inside,” says the 12-year-old rappe,. who sees Souldia as a role model. “He said that from that point on, the one goal was to make a full album in a real studio. It was totally professional!”

Released by Disques 7 ième Ciel and Altitude Records – Souldia’s brand new record label – the mini-album was recorded in Montréal at the studio of Christophe Martin, Souldia’s loyal producer and sound engineer. The song “Malewa” – the EP’s first single, launched in March 2021, praising the virtues of his mom’s restaurant – established the basis of Jay Jay’s style: fiery trap, led by rather dark music, that contrast with radiant and candid lyrics, that are nonetheless rather mature and conscious for his age.

La drogue, nah, ne prends pas de tout ça / Ils croient que je dors, mais nah, je ne connais pas le cousin / Tu sais où que j’ai poussé, la jeunesse est dégoûtée / Bloc 2000, St-Pie-X, dis-moi est-ce que tu sais où c’est (Drugs, nah, don’t touch any of that / They think I’m asleep, but nah, I don’t know any pillow / You know, where I grew up, the young’uns are disgusted / Bloc 2000, St-Pie-X, tell me, do you know where that is), he raps with a precise and exhilarated flow that’s perfectly aligned with current trends.

Elsewhere, as on “Jeanine” – a touching homage to his mother – Jay Jay shows he’s also capable of being sensitive and emotional. “J’espère que ma musique pourra te faire vibrer / Maman je pars faire du rap / J’ai un combat à livrer” (I hope my music can move you / Mommy, I’m leaving to make rap music / I have a battle to fight), he confides.

“I wanted to thank my mom for the career she gave me. I adore my mother,” says Jay Jay. “I thought she’d put a stop [to my ambitions of making music]. It could’ve ruined all my dreams.”

That same song also leaves its mark because of its heart-wrenching chorus. “Papa où es-tu ?” (“Where are you, Dad?”), he repeatedly asks, in a way that is reminiscent of Stromae’s international hit. When we touch upon that question, Jay Jay becomes unequivocal: “I can’t even say he’s my dad… He never took care of me!”

Then again, why rely on a deadbeat dad when you have a whole neighbourhood behind you?