Read the full interview on TheSource.com!
Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s Head of Cultural Partnerships, could hardly contain his excitement when reflecting on the iconic five mics ratings that took place on The Source. In fact, he even remembers De La Soul’s fourth album Stakes Is High getting a mere four mics. “But that really should have been five mics, at least four and half,” he states.
Born and raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, but living in Brooklyn half his life, Jernigan is the new voice of Spotify’s newly-launched AI DJ. With AI taking over the foreseeable future, Spotify has taken it upon themselves to take personalization to new heights, offering this new feature that gauges what the listener likes and chooses what to play based on their preferences.
Essentially, it’s an AI DJ in your back pocket. By simply tapping the DJ button, you can switch the music. The more you listen and offer feedback, the better the recommendations get. Think of your favorite playlist, only it’s X’s voice you hear — the same one that you heard on other Spotify podcasts such as their morning show titled The Get Up.
The Source spoke with X at the Spotify offices in downtown Los Angeles, during their Stream On 2023 event for creators. Read below as we discuss his love for Hip-Hop and The Source, his journey to Spotify, assisting for Diddy, the new AI DJ feature, and more!
For those who don’t know, who is X?
Xavier, my friends call me X. As a human being? I’m nice. I’m myself. I try to be as authentic as possible. I try to treat people as well as I possibly can. I try to be my unapologetic self, and just make connections with people. I thrive on that. I get a sense of purpose from that, so I bring that into everything I do. Hosting, being the voice of AI DJ, I want to make real lasting connections with people. I want people to feel seen and heard.
When did you fall in love with music?
From birth. My favorite picture that my mom has, I’m three years old. I have this little short set on, my feet don’t touch the ground. I have these huge headphones on, you can see me singing/commentating to the music. There’s a big old record player behind me. It’s been my first love, truly. Music in general, but then Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop grabbed me.
The Source is all Hip-Hop!
Come on now, five mics was everything! Some of the reviews are etched on my brain. For example, when De La Soul’s catalog came back on streaming. I’m a big De La fan. I was going through my mind, trying to remember how many mics some of the albums got. I think Stakes Is High got four mics? But that really should have been five mics, at least four and half.
De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, title track off the album. First song, first video. There’s a verse that both Posdnuos and rest in peace, Dave Trugoy said. There’s a line Posdnuos says: “every word I would say should be a Hip-Hop quotable.” That was a Hip-Hop quotable! That’s so dope they said that, and made it a Hip-Hop quotable. I used to look in The Source for all that.
That helped me to know you can be in front of the camera, in front of the mic, behind the mic, all these different jobs in the industry. Because I will read all those credits, and that put me on a path to knowing I can have a career in this.
Hip Hop celebrates 50 years this year. What does Hip-Hop mean to you?
Hip-Hop means life, it means culture. It drives this country. It’s the last original American art form that went out in the world, it moves the world. I’m excited because I’m guest curator for Lincoln Center for the Hip-Hop 50th anniversary concert. We got something dope coming up in August, but just to have the honor to do that.
Hip-Hop is me, and I’m Hip-Hop. I bring it to everything I do, I don’t try to separate it. All the elements: lyricism, DJing. It’s one of the elements of Hip-Hop. Even when this project came, I’m thinking about all the great DJs. All the mixtapes I listened to. I wanted people to feel the way I felt when I heard those mixtapes. It all ties together: b-boying, graffiti, all of it.
I watched the AI DJ trailer and loved the nostalgia part. What is nostalgic for you?
Oh man, college. FAMU: Florida A&M University. HBCU pride. I did a five year MBA program. I knew then, I was going to do entertainment, but I had to find a way in. I’m from Florida, Daytona Beach, so I grew up around spring break and NASCAR . People really coming to my city to have a good time.
MTV and BET’s heyday was at that time, so they’d come down to Daytona. We’d skip school, sneak and go to all those shows. All these people, the biggest artists. That’s when I first felt it was attainable. We knew what hotel they’d stay in, so me and my friends would sneak in. I met Biggie, Diddy, Redman, Method Man, Outkast. I have pictures with them. I met them at what we call the strip in Daytona Beach, right there. It felt attainable to me, being at those shows. Seeing A Tribe Called Quest rock out.
Took that energy into FAM, all of that shapes you over time. I used to say to people, “I’m going to work in music. I’m going to work in entertainment.” They’d say, “You can do it!” I was always the person telling them what to get on. “Oh, check this out. Oh, did you know…?” Because I read that stuff in The Source or Rolling Stone. I drop little tidbits. So to do that now, for my job? Is so surreal, but it feels right. Because this is who I am.
When you’re listening to AI DJ, it’s really my personality. My word choices, nobody’s telling me to be anybody other than who I am. That’s why I say my name. That’s why I say, “Hey I’m Xavier. My friends call me X.” That’s literally how I introduce myself to people, it’s no different and it all ties together. I am Hip-Hop, the anniversary means everything. De La’s catalog, this year’s special.
How did you get into the industry?
I went to school again. I went to NYU for a Music Business graduate program, so I got a second Master’s. I was a valedictorian. I’m on the Dean’s Advisory Board now, full circle. I got all these crazy internships, but my first job was Diddy’s personal assistant. He asked me to be his protege. My first full-time paid job right out of NYU. I graduated one day, the next week I was with him 24/7. 20 hours a day, seven days a week.
How was that?!
Traumatic. But learning the industry firsthand, seeing how he moves, you learn what to do. You also learn what not to do. You learn there’s a way I can do it that fits me. That’s how I got into industry: doing internships, using school as the avenue for me like NYU. Being in New York City where all the labels are, I interned at Bad Boy, Warner Music Group, Columbia’s A&R department. I got a feel.
Even though I’m a Hip-Hop head, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the black guy that only does Hip-Hop. It’s easy to do that. I had long locs several years ago, so this is a new look for me. I love all types of music. Grunge rock shaped me too, jazz, samples in Hip-Hop, indie rock. My love for grunge morphed into indie rock, early 2000’s. All the bands: The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Vines. That’s my jam too.
I did internships at different labels, but the Bad Boy opportunity — Diddy saying “I want you to my protege, and eventually take over”? That’s what the pitch was.
What did Diddy see in you?
I hope he saw a light, somebody who thinks for themselves. I wasn’t trying to be like everybody else. I was content to be myself, and I’m curious. I ask a lot of questions. I want to know about people and make those connections, I think he saw that.
So how did you learn at Spotify?
Spotify was my dream company. I left Bad Boy, went to Universal Motown Republic. I worked at Procter & Gamble and Arm & Hammer before I went to NYU, super corporate. I took all that marketing experience. I shifted from being his personal assistant to digital marketing. I was able to parlay that through somebody at NYU.
This is why you gotta be nice to people. You gotta treat people good, you gotta connect with them because you never know who’s gonna say your name in a room you’re not in. They were hiring somebody else. This guy I went to school with was doing the same job I was doing at Bad Boy. We ran into each other during a lunch break. He said, “What you doing? Oh we’re hiring. You want to come over here?”
They were paying more, more artists and opportunity, so I said “yeah.” That’s how I got over to Motown Republic. Amy Winehouse was my big project, I introduced her from a digital marketing perspective to the world. I knew that was gonna be big, the second I heard it. I got promoted very quickly to Director, to Senior Director. I was Erykah Badu’s product manager. I did New Amerykah Part Two. If you look into the credits, you’ll see my name. Really cool marketing campaign.
I got a lot of trust with artists, in knowing how to help their vision come to life. They trusted me. We’d even be in meetings, they’d say, “X you say it, because you can say it better than I can.” I was trying to help them present their art to the world, in a way that makes people feel what I felt when I heard their music. She was somebody I was listening to for years and years, so to have that connection with her was special. I worked with Q-Tip, one of my musical heroes. Busta Rhymes.
I went over to Epic. I got this project. “It’s this dude named Future, you’re going to be his product manager.” How are we even gonna get people to Google search Future, for that name to pop up? I was his first product manager, introduced him to the world as an artist. I’ve been able to work with some really cool projects, really big artists. I ended up at Def Jam.
Wow, you’ve been everywhere!
All the majors, I hit them all. At Def Jam, I was the head of Digital Commerce. I was responsible for the relationships with all the DSPs. The Spotify’s, the Apple’s. Like 2 Chainz, I’ll bring them through and we figure out the plan we’re going to do. They liked the way I did the job. When the job was offered to me, again, didn’t have to interview for it. Somebody said my name: “we need X’s marketing mind to come into Commerce, and change the approach to that job.” My name came up.
The pitch to me was, “We need to change how it’s done. We need people like you doing this job.” What happened was, I was doing a job being my authentic self. The Spotify’s and the Apple’s start saying to me on the side: “Man, labels need to hire somebody like you to do this job.” A year later, they started saying, “We need somebody like you on this side.”
In 2016, I came to Spotify as the head of North America for Music Editorial. I led the playlisting teams for US and Canada, that’s what started it off. We needed something to move the culture and connect with the culture on Spotify. I created this team called Cultural Partnerships. My job description became the Head of Cultural Partnerships, which is my executive title now. Partnerships with Netflix, partnerships with HBO. We did Insecure, we brought Disney in through my team. There’s some really cool things, then I started getting asked to host.
I didn’t even talk about hosting. We barely had any podcasts in 2016. Maybe three or four original podcasts. It was Season Two for this podcast called Showstopper, which is about the memorable music moments in TV shows and films. I randomly got pitched by that team to be the host for Season 2. I said, I never hosted a podcast. I told him upfront. They said “no you’ll learn that, we want you to do it.” I told them, I need to change the music. I need to pick the shows and movies we talk about, I want my input there.
We did a Spike Lee episode, because I have a relationship with Spike Lee. Wanted to delve into his music choices in his movies, it’s so good. We did an Insecure episode, because music was a big part of Insecure. We wanted to help tell that story on our platform. That led to me hosting another podcast called The Window with Gimlet, about life during the pandemic. Essentially looking out your window and what you see, and people taking a look into your window.
That led to me hosting The Get Up Spotify morning show, which was this new mix of your personalized music with talk. I was the host of that with a couple other co-hosts. A lot of artist interviews, a lot of celebrity interviews. That led to DJ.
Let’s get into AI DJ, how pivotal is AI in today’s day in age?
It’s everything. That’s how you personalize. Without the use of AI, you wouldn’t be able to scale and personalize me. It’d be limited, so that’s the only way. The use of generative AI in the hands of our music experts. We put it so they can put the parameters around it from an editorial standpoint, this is where their writing comes in. This comes full circle because our music team, the editors in our writers room can output context around the songs they’re putting on the playlist.
Those fun facts I talked about earlier that I’d say with my friends, we’re giving that context. Because we know if you give context around the songs that we’re choosing for them, people are more likely to listen to a new song we’re suggesting for you, than you would if it just popped up in one of your playlists. We already knew that. We said if we had this hyperrealistic voice that makes a connection with people, feels warm, with some really playful, fun, commentary that connects with people — that’s down-to-earth, your friend, your companion, with really, really good music choices, we think we’ll be on to something. That’s what DJ is.
They said, “Hey, the list is one person. Is you. We want you to do it.” Of course, I
What services does AI DJ offer?
It offers a simple solution to a problem that people don’t realize they have. People struggle with deciding what you’re going to listen to, we completely simplified that for you. You just press play, I’m going to set it up for you. You’re going to get a five-song segment of different moods, it’s not going to be all over the place. In that segment is going to be a certain vibe, maybe an editorial playlist.
For example, it could be our R&B flagship playlist. It can be Hot Country. It’s The Source, so RapCaviar or Gold School. It’ll give you one of those. If that’s not your vibe, you press the DJ button. I come back and I switch it up. It gives you nostalgia, it could give you something new in different genres. It’s a simple solution to a problem that people don’t even realize they have.