In 2020, disbelief is rare: Once-in-a-lifetime pandemics have a way of making even the most outlandish news seem unimpressive. Yet when Westside Gunn — a Buffalo rapper who channels 90s New York hip-hop of yore — released the tracklist for his latest album, Pray For Paris, fans were bewildered. In the production credits, alongside some of the most in-demand names names in hip-hop (DJ Premier, Alchemist, Tyler, The Creator) was a man named Jay Versace.
If you don’t know the 22-year-old’s name, you’ve likely seen his face. In 2014, his cherubic cheeks, flared nostrils, and expressive brows turned him into a Vine star from the comfort of his Pleasantville, New Jersey home. In Vine loop after Vine loop, he’d bounce from impersonating Kylie Jenner to a melodramatic re-enacting of his family life. In the process, Versace laid a blueprint for the modern deluge of front-face camera comedians carving out a lucrative influencer niche across social media. For the last half-decade, Versace has pivoted from the platform to platform (Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok) like a media company on a quarterly earnings call, but it’s his latest move into music that’ll likely be among his more difficult career transitions.
“Everybody was tweeting, like, ‘If Jay Versace is on a Westside Gunn album, I’m never listening to him again,’” Versace laughs over the phone. “People were really like, ‘Has it really came to this?’ Just because I do comedy doesn’t mean that comedians don’t have talent. Being a comedian is a talent in itself. I was a little bit upset about just thinking, ‘This is what people think?’”
Gunn was as surprised as everyone else when he found out Versace made beats. Initially, the aspiring producer reached out to Gunn on Instagram. “‘Man, what the fuck Jay Versace want?’ That’s the first thing I thought,” Gunn told Complex. “I’m like, ‘Either he just playing and shit — some joke shit because this is what he do — or this shit about to be trash.’”
But it turned out Versace knew exactly what kind of beat Gunn liked. The aptly named “Versace” is indebted to the dusty loops that filled Walkmans and cinderblock-esque boomboxes for the bulk of the ‘90s, a decade Versace was only alive for the last two years of. The assuredness of the production belies the reality that it was one of the first beats Versace ever made. “It’s like an old beat of mine from my computer,” he explains. “It’s that loop, but it’s completely different. It’s like different drums on it.” The duo has been working on multiple songs together, so Versace didn’t know his self-titled song made the album until Gunn told him.
Versace’s early beats didn’t all sound like “Versace.” Two years ago, he started learning how to make beats at the behest of his more famous musician friends Knxwledge and Pink Siifu. Together, they installed production software like Ableton on his computer and mentored the young comedian. Versace’s first beats “were so bad,” he says. “[Knxwledge] was just supporting me. Even Pink Siifu, he was so supportive, even though they were so bad. He was like, ‘Just keep going.’ I really appreciate them supporting the fact that I was just starting and knowing that it was going to go somewhere, because it really did go somewhere really big that people appreciate now.”
His SoundCloud began to fill with the type of atmospheric, lo-fi music that sounds closer to YouTube’s “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to” than the Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits. The influence of Versace’s musical idols like Jay Dilla to Madlib is apparent in his work.
One rapper that was seemingly unimpressed with Versace’s new goal in life was his fellow New Jersey artist, Retch. In February, the rapper, who also has a knack for going viral, tweeted, “I ain’t know Jay Versace make beats. Nigga hit me ask me for my email. Nigga better have some hear or ima be mad.” The pair connected over Instagram Live in April and Retch used the moment to roast Versace for three minutes. “I hate your eyebrows, my nigga,” Retch said during one spirited moment. “If they was right here, right now I’d punch ya eyebrows.” Between each jab, Versace told the rapper to check his DMs.
“I’m actually a really big fan of Retch,” he admits. “When I first was able to have a cellular device in my hand, Retch was one of the first people I ever listened too… That’s kind of how people from Jersey communicate. To the rest of the world, it’s really harsh, but I understand it. At the end of the day, it wasn’t any malicious intent behind it. We still follow each other.”
Versace isn’t sure if Retch has taken a chance to listen to his beats yet, and he remains respectful of the man he grew up listening to. “He did change the kind of music that he makes. Maybe he’s not trying to go back to the way he used to make music,” Versace offers. “Maybe he’s on a journey. I don’t know.”
For the most part, Versace seems to take the general skepticism that people have about his new dream in stride. Over the last five years, everyone from Shawn Mendes to Cardi B has made the transition from Vine or Instagram to the upper echelons of the music industry. Similarly, comedians like Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Donald Glover, and Lil Duval have all had successful songs on the charts. Since Versace made “Versace,” artists have taken notice. “It gave other bigger people more comfortability and let me work with them, because they heard that and didn’t realize I could do that,” Versace says.
Nevertheless, making the jump from being the face behind some of the most memorable memes of the last five years to being a serious music producer isn’t an easy sell. “Transitioning is always kind of painful. Change is always kind of painful,” Versace says. “Basically, [I’m] trying to convince the world that I’m a new person.”
Then he rewinds, and makes something clear. “Not [that] I’m a new person,” he says. “I’ve grown.”