What It's Like to Be Justin Bieber's DJ and A&R

Taylor James is Justin Bieber's longtime DJ. Now he's Bieber's A&R, too. He tells wild stories, like the time they partied with Post Malone and Odell Beckham Jr

Taylor James

Taylor James. Image via We Know the DJ

Taylor James

Twelve years is an extraordinarily long time to remain culturally and commercially relevant in pop music, something Justin Bieber has managed to accomplish since his arrival with My World in 2009. Tastes change, trends change, and—for better or for worse—the people surrounding a superstar’s accent to music royalty change. That being said, exceptions persist.

One of those exceptions is Bieber’s long-time DJ and friend Taylor James, who has been around from the start of it all. More specifically, he’s been around since Bieber’s second show ever. Hired by Bieber’s manager and music mogul Scooter Braun, James was initially called up because of his experience in the college party scene. The professional partnership eventually turned personal. James has since DJ’d all of Bieber’s birthdays and even Justin and Hailey’s wedding celebration.

Now, James’ loyalty and commitment to the superstar for over a decade has been rewarded with a new title: Justin Bieber’s personal A&R. The role was already taking shape during the creation of Bieber’s sixth studio album, Justice, which received positive feedback and featured hits like “Peaches” and “Holy.”

“This is the first time officially that I was able to work in this capacity,” James says about helping Bieber put Justice together. “[Justin and my] ears are very similar when it comes to music. I can listen to beats all day, I can listen to his references all day, and know which one he would be attracted to.”

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, James says Bieber’s team made it their mission to not lose touch on a human and musical level. Group FaceTimes to touch base and NBA 2K sessions-turned-real life basketball games were key to staying level-headed as the once-in-a-century pandemic changed everything about life as we all knew it.

“[Travis Scott] would come by the house, we would all play ball,” James says. “This is just part of us building the community, everyone getting on the same page. The Kid LAROI pulled up and played basketball with us. In any situation, especially me, I like to work with people who I consider my friends. It makes it easier. It doesn’t feel like work.”

In celebration of Taylor James’ new title as A&R, Complex caught up with him for an interview as he sat in a parking lot, about to go to rehearsals. We spoke about how his relationship with Justin Bieber has grown over a decade, playing ball with Travis Scott, stories from the road, how Justice and “Peaches” came together, and more.

How did you first link with Justin Bieber?
I went to Hampton University, and one of the DJs that helped me come up over there was DJ Boogie. He dropped out of college early to be a DJ. While in Atlanta, he became good friends with Usher’s assistant. When Justin first got signed to Usher, they were looking for a DJ with a college party background, and my name got brought up. Literally two months after I graduated college, I got a call from Scooter [Braun] about working with Justin. 

I’m sure many other opportunities have come your way since then. Why keep this relationship going for as long as it has been?
With any relationship, it starts with a bond, or a friendship, or a connection. Me and Justin just hit it off from the first day that we met until now. We’ve always been eye to eye. We’ve always had each other’s backs. Before we were taking plane rides to shows, we were driving vans, going state to state, just doing shows. So it’s that bond, and just watching a boy turn into a young man. Then turn into a grown man. And then turn into a superstar. Just watching that transition is priceless. And besides me working for him, we’re really close friends.

Let’s talk about Justice. What was it like working on that album?
It was an amazing experience, and it was definitely unique. We were able to come together, over the pandemic, and create something that we felt the world would love and enjoy. It started off with a group FaceTime. You know, just connecting with the team and getting everybody on the same page. Just seeing how everybody was, mentally, in this time period. Then it’s like, “Okay, cool,” and we continued those conversations. I don’t think people really know that we all meet up every week. When the pandemic first started, we started hanging out together, every week. Playing basketball, just creating the community that would help with this project. And that goes to Nick [DeMoura], his creative director; Johnny “Blaze” Erasme, his choreographer; me, his A&R [Bernard “Harv” Harvey], his music director. [Those early meetings were about getting] everybody on the same page, and trying to make the best album.

Was there a song that Justin had the hardest time finishing?
Honestly, no. I remember when we first started the recording process. Everyone was sending him music. He’d literally quarterback the situation, by being able to pick which ones he wanted to work on. And how Justin works, he’s quick. If he likes a record, he’s knocking it out that day and it’ll sound amazing. If anything, he’ll just go back and add some more ad-libs, or add some more harmonies to it. But it doesn’t take him long to knock anything out. I think you could see that, with the Freedom EP that we dropped. We did that in three days.

That’s crazy.
He’s in an amazing zone right now. I love it. He’s in such a good place.

What’s his work ethic like in the studio? As someone who’s been with him for so long, have you seen it change?
What he’s doing right now is something I haven’t seen in a minute. Besides him working in the studio, we’re in rehearsals. We’ve been in rehearsals since last November, or even before that, because we still do shows. We still have spot dates we’re doing and pre-recorded performances. We just did six videos in Paris in early March that just came out. We’ve been working all year. On top of him being in rehearsal for four to five hours, he’ll leave there and then go to the studio. And then be home by six or seven o’ clock so he can spend time with his wife.

Taylor James

I was going to say, there’s been so much content coming out for the Justice rollout.
And that’s what we planned. The whole pandemic made the world, and music, change. We’re not in the club anymore. We’re not at the parties anymore. It’s like, people are losing their lives. People need music to help bring everybody together.

That’s what we wanted to do. We set out to make a project that connected the world. And that’s why it was called Justice. That’s why a lot of the music is, like, you can pull something from all genres of music on this album. Just from the emo rap, to the afrobeats, to alternative. We wanted to pull something from every corner, so we could connect everybody together. If you don’t like the whole project, you’ll definitely like two, three, or four songs.

What’s been your favorite part of this rollout?
A record like “Somebody.” I was there when that record was being made with Skrillex, Ilya, and HARV. Watching that song get created for the last year, and then being able to perform it with them, and see the energy that we all have and see the reaction… Or even like “Peaches.” When we first finished “Peaches,” we all knew that it was going to be a hit. We were all partying to the record for a whole year within our group. And just to see it come out and do the numbers that it’s doing, it’s amazing bro. As a DJ, you get to play other people’s music, and get a reaction from the crowd. But now as an A&R to a project, or an A&R to Justin, and also a DJ, I get to play music that I worked on, and watch the reaction. It’s instant gratification. 

“When we first finished ‘Peaches,’ we all knew that it was going to be a hit. We were all partying to the record for a whole year within our group.”

Can you tell me a bit more about your role specifically, A&Ring the project?
Yeah, for sure. Before the pandemic, I get a call from Justin and Scooter. They wanted me to be more involved in this next project that he was working on. I’ve been in the studio with Justin for a few years, trying to get my feet wet with other projects. This is the first time officially that I was able to work in this capacity. It was an amazing experience. And my job, an A&R, is usually for a record label. You have a bunch of different artists and you have to put music together for [all of them]. For this situation, I just have to do this for him. It makes my job, I wouldn’t say “easier,” but it makes my job like… What’s the word I could use? I don’t want to say the word “easier…”

You have a rapport with him, so you already know what he likes.
Yeah, exactly. I know what he likes. Like, our ears are very similar when it comes to music. I can listen to beats all day. I can listen to his references all day, and know which one he would be attracted to. And then I have relationships with people like Skrillex. I have relationships with a bunch of different top producers. I’ve been a DJ so long that I’m able to use my contacts now to help find new music that people are not really looking for. I’m able to take what I’ve learned over the years and help apply it to this situation.

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Where did the idea to include the Martin Luther King Jr. interludes come from?
He wanted to do something. He felt like we were saying: [the album’s] not just in the United States and it’s not just in Canada. It’s for the world. He came across one of Martin Luther King’s speeches when he was prepping the album, and it spoke to him. Since it spoke to him, he wanted to put it out. His reasoning is, like, “Some people around the world don’t even know who Martin Luther King is. Some of my fans don’t even know who this man is.” The album’s called Justice and it’s for the world. It’s about love. It’s about community. It’s about coming together. And he picked two speeches that he felt made sense. He connected with Martin Luther King’s estate, one of his daughters, and they supported it as well. I’m happy. You know, being a Black man, I fully supported it.

Do you know how he came across the speeches? Did someone send it to him?
I want to say, if I’m not mistaken, it was either he came across it, or his pastor and very good friend Judah [Smith] also found them. He played it for the team and we all supported it. I think it’s amazing. I think if you really listened to what it is, and what the message is, it goes with the album. It makes sense, because the album is about love. And what Martin Luther King is talking about is about love.

How did “Peaches” come together, and how did Daniel Caesar and Giveon end up hopping on?
Justin was playing a stripped down version of that record on Instagram. And HARV and Shndō got that clip from Instagram and built the track around that. HARV sent that off to Justin, and Justin sent that back to him later that day, with a whole record over it. Before “Peaches” was made, Justin and Giveon were already chatting about working on something together. So Justin sent “Peaches” over to Giveon, and Giveon hopped on it. Then, just like I said earlier, Justin’s been a complete quarterback with this whole album. If he has an idea, he’ll get it done, and he said, “Hey, I think we should add Daniel Caesar.” Boom, next thing you know, you’ve got Daniel Caesar and Giveon.

When it came out, I remember all of us just coming together and saying that this record feels amazing. I remember [SB Projects President] Allison [Kaye] telling me, when she was having her meeting with Def Jam, it reacted so well with them. It’s going to be the song of the summer. 

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Bieber is one of the pop stars who has been able to successfully dabble in hip-hop. How do you think you all managed that?
I mean, well, it’s Justin Bieber. He has fans all over the world. It’s not just in Canada, it’s not just in America. It’s London. It’s South America. It’s Brazil. It’s Australia. It’s the UK. It’s Japan. Everyone that listens to Justin also listens to other genres of music. It’s about being able to tap in, and make the best out of each genre. That’s what Justin’s really good at.

Why do you think rappers are so excited to work with Bieber, as opposed to other pop stars?
In my eyes, Bieber’s the biggest artist in the world. He’s a pop star. He’s an icon. And on top of that, he’s in such a great place right now. Bieber’s so approachable. He would like to work with [anyone], based off of their energy. And also he’s a fan of hip-hop. He comes from hip-hop. His favorite rappers are Tupac and Biggie. This is what he grew up on. The first concert he was supposed to go to was Lloyd Banks in Canada, but it got canceled because Lloyd couldn’t get into the country. Like, he comes from hip hop.

I know he’s always had that connection there, and it’s just finding who you want to do music with. He’s done music with all the top artists, from Future, to Drake, to DaBaby. And I think this is something that he’ll continue to do, because that’s in him. If he wants to do an R&B project, you get Journals, you get Changes. He’s able to weave in and out, and that’s something that makes him so unique as an artist.

What about his friendship with Kanye West? How would you describe their bond?
Just like any other artist that he’s really cool with. I feel like him and Kanye, they definitely tap in on each other. Just to talk about life, and talk about music. I know he’ll go and see Kanye and play him a bunch of new music. And I know Kanye will go hang out with him, and play a bunch of new music. So it’s just like with any other relationship that he has with the artists that he loves working with.

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Did Justin know, or acknowledge, how much of a moment his “Maria, I’m Drunk” verse was at the time?
[Laughs]. Yeah, I feel like he does, man. Him and Travis [Scott] have a great relationship. They feed off each other. You can see that, because we’ve collabed with him so many times, from the “Maria, I’m Drunk” record to “No Sense,” which is a record that I had worked on. Travis is somebody we would play basketball with over this last year.

Oh, yeah?
He would come by the house. We would all play ball. And that’s something that we did like once a week. This is just part of us building the community, and everyone getting on the same page here. You want to work with people who are your friends. The Kid LAROI pulled up and played basketball with us. In any situation, I like to work with people who I consider friends. It makes it easier. It doesn’t feel like work.

This is a safe space. Who’s a better hooper: Justin Bieber or Travis Scott?
Oh, Bieber. [Laughs].

Wow. Okay. Would Travis agree with that?
I’ll take Justin over Travis. Because, one, Bieber’s ambidextrous. Like, he scores with both hands.

Oh, wow.
Yeah, it’s funny. You don’t believe it until you’ve been on the court with him.

“The whole crowd is crazy when you see Rihanna come up. You have one table, which is Justin and our crew. And you have the other table, that’s just Rihanna and her people. We all just came together and partied.”

When Trav comes to the house, in the past year or two, is it strictly just friends hanging out? Is there work being done?
They worked together for sure. But a lot of times it’s like, “Let’s hang out.” Honestly, it started off like an NBA 2K tournament. And then it was just like, “Yo, let’s just play real basketball.”

I have to ask about the 21 Savage collaboration Justin just had on the new DJ Khaled album. How on earth did that happen?
I remember I got the beat sent over, from Beam’s camp. They sent us the reference. And Justin liked the song so much, but he wanted to write the song himself. So he literally took the instrumental, and he wrote the record himself. I think he put up a video of how he recorded it. And then I think he just reached out to Khaled, like, “Hey, I have a record.” And then boom, Khaled got the 21 Savage verse, and put that play together. 

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What makes Khaled someone Justin wants to keep going back to, and working with?
Khaled has great energy. He’s such a good person. How you see him online is really how he is. He’s really generous. He’s kind. You want to work with people that make you feel comfortable and loved. Khaled is really, really good at connecting with everybody. He’s been in the game for a long time. He’s a legend. I remember listening to Khaled when I was 17 years old, and just to see where he came from as a radio DJ to being a pop star himself, that’s amazing. There’s good synergy there. It’s worked for him and will continue to work.

How do you think Hailey has influenced Justin’s life, and his music?
Oh man, I love Hailey. Just like the typical saying, she’s his better half. She’s been such a great support system for him. I feel like she’s one of the reasons why he’s so on-point right now. Just being able to see them come together and build their loving relationship, it’s amazing, I’m so happy for them.

Does she ever listen to the tracks, and make comments about what she likes?
Yeah, we’re all involved. We’re all involved on projects. And as she should, she’s listening to the music as much as he is. She’s with him every day.

As an A&R, it’s your job to stay up on new music. Who are some of your favorite artists to listen to right now?
I listen to a lot of different stuff. But honestly, I still listen to Jay-Z religiously. As far as new stuff, I love Westside Gunn. I love Griselda and all tha street rap. Bro, I love Tame Impala.

Slow Rush was fire.
Yeah, Slow Rush was crazy. I love all that sounding stuff. I just try to keep my ears open to everything. Even in afrobeats, like Omah Lay, a new up-and-coming artist, I love him. I’m working with a group called Mulherin, these are twins from Memphis. They sing folk R&B. They’re amazing. I just try to keep my ears open to everything.

You’ve been performing live with him for such a long time. Where do you think he’s grown the most, in terms of performing live?
Man, I remember our first show. We’d never done a soundcheck together, so we just had to figure that out during our first two days together. Like, “Okay, let’s plug in your guitar over here. Let me make sure my turntables are okay. Let’s test the mic. Is there any feedback? Okay, let’s go do that.” It’s a full production, with rehearsals for six months. Do you remember the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance? It’s like the same work ethic man. It’s like we’re getting ready for the finals. We’re getting ready for the championship game. That’s his focus. And we feed off of him. The band, the dancers, the creative director. If he comes in on point like he has been, we’re on point.

Live music’s supposedly going to start soon. What’s your guys’ mindset?
Everyone is waiting for a live concert. I feel like that’s part of the reason why I’m happy and proud we’ve been putting out so much content. So when you see it live, the energy’s going to already be there. And our Justice project is still going. We’re still on “Peaches.” This is madness. There’s a lot of different places we can go with this album, and the set list is going to be amazing, because Justin has so much music. You can combine some of what Changes had. You can put Justice on there, you still have some of Purpose you can play. He’s transitioning to that level, where you have those artists that have so many songs and so many hits?

It’s like a greatest hits concert?
Yeah, you could do whatever you want. If he wants, he can pull out the acoustic guitar and hit you with a few acoustic records in the middle of the show. Justin is one of those artists. He’s so dynamic that he can do that.

Tell me a crazy tour story from the past 10 years.
I remember when I had to DJ a party in Houston at Clé Nightclub on the Purpose tour, and Post Malone was opening up. I just remember getting to the venue and there was good energy in the building. Everybody had a good time, and Justin and Hailey were like, “Yo, what are you doing tonight?” I’m like, “I’ve got to go DJ at this club. I think it’s supposed to be pretty packed.” And one of my good friends is good friends with Odell Beckham Jr., who came to the show as well. I remember Justin’s like, “All right cool. I think I might pull up.”

Then Post Malone was like, “Hey, I’m going to pull up.” The next thing you know, it becomes one of my most memorable after party moments where you had Post Malone and JB in the booth, performing records. Odell over there, hanging out with us. It was such good energy with everybody coming together and partying. I want to say Post and Justin did one of the new songs on [Post’s] first album, which wasn’t out. I think “Deja Vu.” Even the reaction from the crowd, everyone was just happy.

Another one was when we were in London. I was DJing at Tape London. I want to say it was the after party for the BRIT Awards. Next thing you know, Rihanna walks in. When I say Rihanna walks in, man I tell you, the whole crowd’s lit. The whole crowd is crazy when you see Rihanna come up. You have one table, which is Justin and our crew. And you have the other table, that’s just Rihanna and her people. We all just came together and partied. I was playing one of my best sets I’ve had, doing that as well. I know that’s two [stories], but I have like three, four.

Throw one more at me.
We did New Year’s Eve at the Fontainebleau in Miami. It wasn’t a full band. It was just me as the DJ, playing tracks. They took the pool at the Fontainebleau, and built a stage over it. There were so many people there, packed, ready to do New Year’s Eve. Skrillex came out. Marshmello came out. You know, “Sorry” was the [big single at the time]. Like an hour beforehand, Justin Facetimed me from his balcony, like, “Oh, you’re killing it. I’m going to come down now.” It was an amazing experience.

If you could describe your experience working with Justin in just a few sentences, how would you?
Honestly, bro, I’m super blessed. Just being able to build and be part of a family. On tour, you’re away from your actual family for so long. That’s something that could make you feel some type of way. But working with Justin, working with this team, it’s like I have a whole other family. They support me. We support each other so much. So in one word, I’d say I’m grateful. I’m blessed. I’m just happy to be in this position. I’m happy to be a team player. And I’m excited to see where it goes.

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