50 Years of Music: 2011 – Jai Paul - "BTSTU"

Dusty Henry

KEXP turned 50 years old this year. Each week, we’ve been celebrating by looking back at a different year over the last 50 years to remember that moment in music. This week, we’re remembering the year 2011. KEXP’s Dusty Henry tells us about the rise, fall, and return of Jai Paul starting with his single, “BTSTU.” 

Listen to the piece or read it below.

Audio production by Roddy Nikpour

In his first-ever release, British songwriter and producer Jai Paul doesn’t mince his words: “don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me.” 

As far as introductions go, that’s pretty bold. But it’s not even the boldest part of the song. It also features beautifully harmonized vocals, sparse drums, and a bass synthesizer that sounds like a blown-out speaker. “BTSTU” fuses the smoothness of R&B and the grit of electronic and industrial music – competing ideas that, on the surface, shouldn't work together… and yet, Paul makes it happen. It features beautifully harmonized vocals, sparse drums, and a bass synthesizer that sounds like a blown-out speaker. 

Supposedly, “BTSTU” stands for “Back to Save the Universe,” and it feels like Paul was trying to do… exactly that. Paul emerged seemingly out of nowhere to change the course of music for the following decade. 

“BTSTU” officially came out in 2011 on XL Records. The song first started making rounds around the Internet when Paul released the song to his MySpace page. The Internet quickly took notice, and so did superstar DJ Zane Low and BBC Radio 1. Celebrity musicians ALSO got in on it by sampling the song —  everyone from Beyoncé and Drake. 

Altogether, “BTSTU” was a huge success. Now, there was all this anticipation around what the mysterious producer would do next. So, the next year in 2012, he did it again with another sensational demo called… “Jasmine.” 

The hype around Paul’s music was reaching astronomical levels. Who is this mysterious guy who only makes certified bangers? What do you even call this music? We haven’t heard this level of a shift in popular music since Radiohead dropped Kid A in 2000. And on top of that, Paul was calling these releases “demos.” If these were his drafts, what would the final versions sound like? 

That hype was building up. Many fans simply couldn’t wait — some going to more extreme lengths than others. 

Despite clearly telling people “not to fuck with him,” that’s precisely what happened in 2013. Legend has it that someone leaked a Jai Paul album on the music distribution platform Bandcamp. The songs were either from a stolen laptop or a stolen CD-R. Either way, theft was involved. 

At the time, people were saying maybe Paul and his label XL leaked the album themselves — as a publicity stunt. An article on The Quietus went so far as to claim Paul’s music was “a scam to feed the Internet Sausage Machine.” 

For the record, Paul and XL denied releasing the demos. They worked with the London Police to take the music off Bandcamp… But it was too late. Enough people already had the files. The leak became a phenomenon for file-sharing networks. 

Fans and music outlets celebrated Paul’s quote-unquote album as a triumph. Pitchfork and The Guardian named the leak one of their best albums of 2013. And to be transparent with you, I downloaded it too… and I loved it. The songs were the right kind of chaotic, crashing into each other like tectonic plates. It didn’t even matter if the songs were finished or not. There is an undeniable genius in the way his production somehow both skirts traditional mixing while also breaking new ground. 

And then… Paul disappeared. 

I mean, occasionally his name would show up in the credits for collaborations, but it’d be several years before we heard any new music. In 2016, he and his brother A.K. Paul announced the formation of The Paul Institute. It was this mysterious project meant to support their music, as well as a bunch of new artists they’d be working with. 

Then, in 2019, Paul finally made his return with — not one, but — two new songs. He also officially released the songs that were leaked against his wishes in 2013. He called the album Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones)

With his return, Paul released a statement shedding light on his feelings around the leak. Here are a few key excerpts. Quote: 

“​​I understand that it might have seemed like a positive thing to a lot of people - the music they had been waiting to hear was finally out there - but for me, it was very difficult to deal with. As things unfolded I went through a number of phases, but the immediate, overriding feeling was one of complete shock. I felt numb, I couldn't take it all in at first. I felt pretty alone with everything, like no-one else seemed to view the situation in the same way I did: as a catastrophe. There was a lot going through my mind, but the hardest thing to grasp was that I'd been denied the opportunity to finish my work and share it in its best possible form. I believe it's important for artists as creators to have some control over the way in which their work is presented, at a time that they consider it complete and ready.”

For better or for worse, Paul’s legacy thus far is twofold. First, as a mastermind musician who redefined a sound. We’re still hearing reverberations of his influence through artists like Miguel, Caribou, and Nao. 

At the same time, Paul’s career also represents a tragic example of the insatiable thirst of Internet fandom and consumerism. Certainly, leaks happened before Paul. But to be denied a chance to even finish creating your art? That’s a harsh toke. In an era of instant gratification, many fans simply won’t allow themselves the patience to wait for an artist to see their vision through. Like I said, I downloaded the leak and am just as guilty as everyone else. I know what it’s like feel when you can’t wait to hear new music from your favorite artist. Admittedly, I also don’t know what it’s like to have your vision and craft stripped away from you. Who really owns the art? The creator or the consumer? 

As time goes on, I empathize more with Paul. He’s bounced back and is in a place to share his music again. That’s something to be celebrated and appreciated, moving at whatever pace suits HIM best.

Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) ends with the track, “BTSTU - Demo.” This is a full-circle moment for Paul. That very song kicked off all this drama. I can’t speak to whether or not this was intentional or just a nod to the original leaked tracklist. But as a listener, there’s some catharsis hearing his original vision rounding out an album that he finally got to see through on his own terms. And that opening line means more now than it ever did before: Don’t fuck with Jai Paul.

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