“I Want My Own Universe:” An Interview With Jay Jay Thakar

Mano Sundaresan speaks to the Maryland video director about growing up as a first-generation American, how struggling in life led him to shooting a music video for a friend, and more.
By    September 16, 2020

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On the evening of June 1, 2020, Jay Jay Thakar was in his basement, trying to piece together a shattered world. Just a few miles from Thakar’s Silver Spring, MD home, the National Guard was raising hell against Black Lives Matter protesters at the White House, clearing a path with rubber bullets and teargas so that Trump could have his photo taken across the park at St. John’s Church. Seeing this unfold, Thakar did what he knew best: he sped down to D.C., took out his iPhone 11, and started filming. The livestream went up on his YouTube channel Moshpit and, over the course of that tragic, historic night, would attract over 30,000 viewers.

Those virtual onlookers followed Thakar and his friend, local rapper The Khan, as they paced the District streets, evading violent police barricades that herded protesters like sheep and shoved them into vans for violating curfew. The MPD deployed scare tactics, flying sinister helicopters well below the buildings and unleashing flashbangs and mace with reckless abandon. As darkness enveloped the city, Thakar navigated Uptown past 14th Street, where he narrowly avoided an arresting spree at a dangerous chokepoint. “The stream told me that that was happening,” he said in our Zoom call. “They told me to cut in a certain place and go a certain route to go around everything.”

Their instructions led him to Swann St., a narrow, one-way corridor where police had boxed in hundreds of protesters. But then came a glimmer of hope. A scruffy, middle-aged Swann St. resident named Rahul Dubey invited over 70 protesters into his home — among them, a woman named Jenny who was livestreaming as well. Streaming outside the house on 15th and Swann, Thakar started a hashtag called #savejenny that drew the whole world to Northwest D.C.

All throughout the night, while Dubey’s guests rested and recovered, police continually tried to break into the house. Thakar said they sprayed teargas through the windows and at one point attempted a falsified 9-1-1 call to justify entry. The MPD Chief of Police said they arrested 194 people on Swann St. that day.

Morning arrived, the sheltered protesters went home safely, and Dubey was a national hero, praised in virtually every major news outlet. As for Thakar? No New York Times or CNN shoutouts, but something far cooler: an Anonymous co-sign. He livestreamed the D.C. protests several more times in June, documenting important local history from a street-level vantage point and obtaining perspectives that no institution operating on old-guard journalistic norms could possibly capture.

In late July, I spoke to him about all of this, as well as about what he does for a living: make music videos. He happens to be one of the best at it, and he’s building a platform for the DMV underground called Moshpit, home to some of the most vibrant, forward-thinking visuals in hip-hop. It’s a channel inspired by Marvel and Sin City, car culture and space travel, that is slowly becoming a world in itself. Videos for 95 Reddo’s “Trix Pulled / Trix 4 Kidz” and Xanman’s “I Know” capture bright, deep space fantasies that are scored by rich sound design. And even when Thakar pulls back, honing in on small rooms and country roads and historical landmarks, he baptizes these locations in radiant tones and textures, giving them supernatural appearances.

As for the music, Moshpit hosts a wide range of emerging rappers from the DMV and beyond — Q Da Fool and Slimesito, Hook and Hi-C, Wifigawd and Lil Xelly. The platform is still growing — it has just over 11,000 subscribers as of my writing this — but already it bears the whirring energy of Lyrical Lemonade circa 2016, when Cole Bennett was on the cusp of his breakout and working with primarily Chicago rappers. Now, it also contains historic footage of D.C. activism and police brutality.

This is the story of Moshpit, and it begins with the child of Indian immigrants. — Mano Sundaresan

I feel like Indians get typecast as apolitical or robotic, as people who don’t care about things like this. But some of the most active people in the liberation struggle throughout history and in the current moment have been people like you, people like Rahul [Dubey]. Has that been something you’ve thought about?

Jay Jay Thakar: I’ve lived a certain lifestyle, I’m sure a lot of Indian people have lived a certain type of lifestyle. In my family, they kind of follow this mission that stems from India where you’re supposed to be helpful to others, you’re supposed to be kind, you’re supposed to be really active in the community, which has been kind of throwing me a little bit, because I have not seen any of them really engaging with anything that’s been happening in this country or anything that’s happening around the world. It’s mainly in their own community. But I honestly thought it was really cool that there were a lot of Indian people that were really being active in this community. I take a lot of pride in it because I don’t see a lot of people like us doing this stuff.

What do your family and friends think of the work you do?

Jay Jay Thakar: A lot of people in my mom’s community that kind of know me, they’re actually really proud that I’m doing me. Because I think a lot of the kids that they’re seeing now are stuck in this thing where they don’t even know what they want anymore because they’ve been following in their parents’ footsteps and haven’t really formulated thoughts of their own. You gotta understand, at some point, that you’re you. You gotta do stuff that you’re interested in and you have a passion for and that you’re gonna wanna pursue in life.

Tell me more about how that pertains to you.

Jay Jay Thakar: Alright, I’ma backtrack this a little bit. It’s like, ninth grade. First time ever hearing anything American. Hip-hop music.

You didn’t listen to any American music until ninth grade?

Jay Jay Thakar: None. 2010 was the beginning of it.

Were you born and raised here?

Jay Jay Thakar: I was born in America and raised in America and all I listened to was Indian shit. I’m not gonna lie, growing up, I was scared to go out of my way to talk to people. I was scared to go out and have friends and have interactions and stuff like that until I grew out of that little bubble. It was a really weird period of my time between third grade and ninth grade, to be honest. I got fat, I had a lot of self-esteem issues. You go to India, you get that street food, puri cholay, all that bro. Oh my god, bro, you just start going crazy.

Where’s your family from?

Jay Jay Thakar: My mom is from New Delhi, my dad is from Sonipat. So between both of them, both of those areas, I just grew up eating a lot of oily dishes.

Me too, my family is from South India, so I grew up on idlis and stuff.

Jay Jay Thakar: Bro, do you like sambar dosa?

The best.

Jay Jay Thakar: I used to cook that every Saturday. Every Saturday that was a thing to do. That was my thing, bro. I had to do it.

I take it for granted every time I’m away from home. I just want idli, sambar, Indian coffee.

Jay Jay Thakar: I’m glad I can get some of that now. So like, ninth grade is when I first got into it. I think Lil Wayne was the first hip-hop artist I ever heard of. And I was like bro, I love hip-hop. I don’t know what this is. My friend from L.A. showed me it ‘cause he moved here to Maryland, and I was like bro…

How did you get into video?

Jay Jay Thakar: December 2016 was rock bottom. I was at my lowest point in my life. I had nothing. My car was messed up. I was working a dead end job at a bank. I remember sitting in my car, hitting a cigarette, and I was like, bro, I don’t know what to do with my life. I feel like I’m really not worth anything. I don’t have any meaning in my life. So I said alright, i’ma put all my eggs in one basket and just do what I wanna do. And what I wanted to do was have fun. It wasn’t me doing videos, it wasn’t me doing nothing — it was me wanting to have fun. I’m about to be 21, I wanted to live my life. 2017 rolls around, and I start doing vlogs with my friends. I’m going out and having fun, going to car events. And then I’m like, what if i just start taking pictures of cars, doing little videos of cars and vlogs of me going to car events? All the videos are private or unlisted, but it’s really me and my friends just working on our cars together and being dumb. I just thought it was good memories to have. And at some point, one of my friends was like, you tryna make a music video for me? And I was like, alright I’ll try it out. It was some ass, but after that I was like, this is actually pretty fun.

I know you and Wifigawd are brothers in this. Tell me about the first time you met.

Jay Jay Thakar: We were drinking in my neighborhood in the back of my elementary school, and I told my friend, bro, I really want to get into music videos. And he was like, yeah I can plug you in with Wifigawd. I remember getting that Twitter DM one day from Wifigawd. We set up to meet up for the first time, and I still didn’t have a camera. Everything I was doing was off my iPhone. I have no idea who Wifigawd is. My friend had bought a Sony A7, and I was like, let me borrow your camera so I can do this video real quick. And I linked up with Wifi, and it was a surreal experience because it was like bro, I fuck with you. I was intimidated at first because I don’t know who you are, but I fuck with you, you’re cool, you’re hip. We shot “WWIII” that day, which ended up coming out on ELEVATOR. I still think it’s wild that the first ever music video came out on ELEVATOR. Of course, all the settings for the camera were messed up. The ISO was messed up, the exposure was messed up, the white balance was completely blue. That’s why the whole video has such a blue tone to it. I didn’t know about color, I was just going on YouTube nonstop trying to learn different editing things.

At that time, Cole Bennett was really doing some shit, he was really making a name for himself, so there were endless tutorials and everything had Cole Bennett’s name attached to it. And then I saw he was making Lyrical Lemonade. I saw he was making a name for his city, bro. And I was like, I’m tryna make a name for my city. It took me a while to really understand that in my area, there’s not really a platform platform. There’s not something people are respectably claiming out here. And that’s something I really wanted to change and really wanted to bring to the city. If Cole can really bring a platform to Chicago, what’s stopping me from bringing a platform to D.C., the nation’s motherfuckin’ capital?

What’s the inspiration for your aesthetic?

Jay Jay Thakar: It was just trying so many things. Like, my first year and a half of making videos, I took pride in never having one swag. You’ll never catch me making one type of video. You’ll know me for having so much swag and for having so many different styles of videos. I can switch it up and make an old school video, and boom! make a video with 1000 effects, then boom! make a creative ass video with just Lego blocks. I just wanted to be as creative as possible. And at some point, everything came together on its own. I had seen Cole doing the whole effects thing, Lonewolf doing the paper cut thing, no one was doing 3-D stuff. Let me lock in with some 3-D stuff. So February 2018, I put a dinosaur in [Lil Xelly’s] video. It took me a while to grasp 3-D, but I didn’t know there was a huge market for it.

I feel like with your visuals, you’re creating this self-contained universe. I could almost imagine six or seven of your videos living in the same world, you know what I mean? Are you trying to go in that direction, where you want the Moshpit world to be something that stands alone from the music?

Jay Jay Thakar: I think it’s really crazy you say that because that’s literally what it is. You pinpointed it exactly. I’m really heavily influenced by comics. If you go all the way back, my first video, it’s a sharingan on the logo, because I was watching Naruto on my phone while I was making my logo on my computer. And honestly, my first year or two of videos was influenced by DC and Marvel comics, bro, the whole universe. I want to have my own world. I want my own universe. There’s certain videos that I’ve made that live in the same world, the same planet. The Reddo video and the Slimesito video live on this ancient, volcanic planet. I be thinking of shit in a whole different way.

That’s crazy. I knew there was some bigger vision underlying all your stuff. Do you have a favorite video you’ve done?

Jay Jay Thakar: What’s yours?

Oh, the NOLANBEROLLIN video for sure.

Jay Jay Thakar: I think that was my favorite video, but I think that might’ve changed now.

That’s a whole car movie.

Jay Jay Thakar: Literally, you gotta understand how much that video meant to me and my soul, bro. That video makes me so happy inside. When I found out about Nolan, I found out he was in the car community. More specifically, he’s into the JDM community. He’s not into Euro bullshit, he’s definitely not into American bullshit. And when I met Nolan, it was beyond the level of respect that I have for people in the car community. It was like, you make music that I can listen to while I’m driving, bro. I wanna put my window down and crank your music driving through the backroads every weekend. That was the best day ever shooting a music video in my life. I felt like the whole day was one long ass car meet. I haven’t done this in a while. I’ve made car videos, but car videos aren’t music videos. This is a car music video. This isn’t no Fast and Furious bullshit. I love this. We had fun. He did burnouts. We went to scenic locations. We did drone shots. I did scenes with him inside the car. I did driving scenes. I pulled out shit I hadn’t done in two years.

Where did you shoot it?

Jay Jay Thakar: I went down to Virginia Beach where he lives. I linked him up at the shopping center. I knew it was him when he pulled up with his 1JZX. I was like, that’s Nolan. The first thing I told him when I first saw him was, “pop your hood, I gotta see this monster.” I don’t know if he’s done anything to it yet. It had some mods, but a lot of it was stock still. He was on some drift car shit. And even before, he was in the Honda scene, and I drive an SI, so I have a high appreciation for people that understand that. He was driving a Prelude. I fuck with Preludes heavy. He took me around in his car, he drifted a little bit, and he took me through the backroads. And for a moment, I wasn’t me anymore. I wasn’t stuck inside the music video realm, I wasn’t stuck in the bullshit that I be going through with people every day. Being a car head, that’s my freedom, bro. That’s where I find my happiness. Going down the backroads, having my personal space and time, having my connection with life — it’s like an energy. It was just so pure.

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