Last year, when Taylor James agreed to be the touring DJ for a singer named Justin Bieber, he never imagined how surreal his life would get.
Overnight, Bieber went from a buzzed-about Internet phenomenon to the boy wonder of the music industry. Crowds doubled and tripled in size. Paparazzi began popping up at airports and concerts, and tabloids tracked Bieber's every move. After a show in Los Angeles, a mob of screaming teenage girls chased James' SUV for blocks, hoping for a glimpse of Bieber (he wasn't in the car). At one hotel, Bieber-crazed fans went door to door, hoping to track down the teen sensation (they didn't find him). The whole country has come down with Bieber fever, and James, a 23-year-old from Bel Air, has a front-row seat.
"It's like a disease or something that young girls from 13 to 18 catch when they see Bieber," James said. "At first I thought it was a joke. But it's not a joke. It's real."
James, who goes by DJ Tay James, got the call to audition for Bieber soon after graduating from Hampton University in Virginia last year. He has performed at nearly all of Bieber's gigs, he said, from a water park in Oklahoma to a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Sunday night , he'll return home for Bieber's show at the Maryland State Fair.
Bieber is like a little brother to James, who can't help but laugh at all the fuss. He's counted three reports of Bieber's death — he even read one while standing next to Bieber. "At this point, nothing really surprises me," James said. "I just do it. This is my job."
Born in Baltimore, James grew up in Columbia and later moved to Bel Air. At 15, he landed an internship with Unruly Records, an influential local label that has long been ground zero for Baltimore club music. James, who enrolled in Calvert Hall College High School, would head to the label after school. There, he met and studied under prominent Baltimore DJs such as Claxton and the late K-Swift. They taught James the best way to segue from one track to the next, and how to seamlessly blend two songs, he said.
Working at Unruly gave James an inside look at the mechanics of the record industry. He learned how to take a product and market it, and introduce an album to a certain demographic. It also gave him plenty of experience as a DJ. He spun at CD listening parties and eventually graduated to clubs. James worked for three years at Unruly before leaving for Hampton University.
"He wanted to be a part of the industry," said Sean Caesar, Unruly Records' founder and president. "He was always hungry, and he paid his dues here."
In college, James routinely drove more than 130 miles each way to DJ parties at Love, a club in Washington, on the weekends. He spun at the rapper Bow Wow's birthday bash and an afterparty for R&B star Beyonce. During the week, James studied business management.
"I didn't know where my DJing was going to take me," he said. "All I knew was that it was my passion. I made DJing everything."
As college wore on, several of James' DJ friends dropped out to go on tour with singers. Itching to start his own career, James wanted to do the same. But his father, Gordon, discouraged him from quitting school.
"He always asked me, 'Pop, when is it going to be my turn?,'" Gordon said. "I said, 'Stay on your grind, stay on your books, and good things will happen.'"
James was getting a haircut and preparing for another long weekend of club gigs in July 2009 when an assistant to Bieber's manager called him with an offer: Bieber needed a DJ, and they wanted to interview James for the job.
At the time, Bieber had officially performed in public only twice, James said. He had heard of Bieber but had never listened to any of the Canadian pop singer's music. James flew to Oklahoma to meet with Bieber's entourage. When James first met Bieber and his stylist, he recorded video to mark the occasion.
"I have the video of him being like, 'Hey, DJ Tay, my name is Justin,' " James said. "He looked like a little kid. It was the funniest thing."
Bieber and James realized they shared a passion for music and a strong business sense, James said. James was hired, and they started fleshing out Bieber's live show. Back then, Bieber had a bare-bones crew: two dancers and James. Bieber sang while James played the backing tracks.
The first show with James was at a water park in Tulsa, Okla., near the end of that month. Singer Sean Kingston was supposed to headline, but he dropped out, leaving Bieber as the main event.
"It worked, because everybody in our camp clicked," James said.
James and Bieber bonded over time, he said. Now, he's in awe of the 16-year-old singer. "His talent is impeccable," he said. "His voice is pure and soulful, and he's so young."