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For L.A. rapper Jay 305, smelling good is sanctity and Scent Bar is the church

The South-Central rapper Jay 305 at Scent Bar DTLA.
The South-Central rapper Jay 305 at Scent Bar DTLA.
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For Jay 305, smelling good is sanctity. A trail of musks, resinous woods and creamy florals follow him around like an orb of protection. But the real flex, the never-ending quest, is to smell unlike anyone else. At Scent Bar DTLA, the niche perfume boutique with locations at The Row, Hollywood and New York City, the South-Central rapper is picking up perfumes and putting them to his nose in short progression, leaving a collection of bulbous and angular bottles in his wake. He is looking for something that stimulates him almost reflexively, the way a fragrance that’s truly meant for you will. Jay came in with a list of possible contenders written on his Notes app, which he does often: Parfum de Marly’s Layton, Initio Parfums Privés’ Oud for Greatness, Nasomatto’s Black Afgano. Beast-mode fragrances with an air of mystery, or spirituality. The kind of perfumes that make an introduction for you. “Scent, it’s like your brand,” Jay says.

Jay has come here at least once a week for the last few years. Always to the DTLA location, usually after going to Smorgasburg L.A. He’s also a regular at Frédéric Malle on Melrose Place where he stocks up on one of his favorites, Carnal Flower. At Dawah Bookshop in Leimert Park, he blends his own perfume oils, and at Dover Street Market, where everyone knows him by name, he’s most recently been drawn to the Edward Bess perfume collection. At Scent Bar, we’re jumping from the “incense” shelf, to the “cult masculine” shelf, smelling everything David Aguirre, an artist who’s been working at Scent Bar for years and is often Jay’s point person, skillfully pulls from the “oud” or “floral” shelves behind the counter. Aguirre has taught Jay the correct pronunciation of many French perfume names and has put him on to all-time favorites, like Jeroboam’s Oriento, a jammy rose patchouli with a sparkling saffron top note.

“Scent, it’s like your brand,” Jay says.

Born Jay Cummins, he’s grown accustomed to his personal interests defying the expectations people have of him based on where he grew up, his time spent behind bars or the experiences he raps about in his music. Jay’s discography has become the stuff of L.A. legend — hood anthems, strip club classics. It was 2012’s “Youzza Flip” that put him on the map, which was only further cemented by his work on Dom Kennedy’s label Other People’s Money, a.k.a. OPM, throughout the 2010s. He’s been making music since — finding hits with tracks like “Why You So Nasty?” featuring Travis Scott off his 2017 album, “Taking All Bets.” But he’s also a certified perfume addict, has been vegan for 10 years, is sober and has lived life in full dedication to health and wellness after getting into a car wreck in his early 20s, and a doctor telling him that if he didn’t lose weight his knees wouldn’t heal. He’s a Virgo, and reminds me often of the sign’s superiority. He dabbles in dirtbikes in a quest toward finding freedom, which is how we first met. And he’s a fashion enthusiast, which is something he’s felt fully free to express in recent years through a personal style he’s dubbed “ghetto couture.”

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Today, he’s wearing mostly New Bedstuy, a brand designed by his friend Johnnie Davis that’s known for making subversive staples, and Margiela. Sitting courtside at a Lakers game recently, Wiz Khalifa dubbed Jay “the best dressed in the West,” he says, proudly. He’s also a kind of unofficial mayor of L.A. — with friends spanning the music, art and fashion worlds in the city, casually name-dropping everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Rita Ora in the same breath. Almost a year ago, I ran into Jay at a TOMBOGO film screening for L.A. Fashion Week. His scent hit me immediately, and I asked the question compulsively: “What are you wearing?” Jay knew I wasn’t talking about his vest, his shoes, or his hat. He looked at me, twinkle in his eye, smirk forming: “I have my own mix. I can’t tell you what.” We immediately agreed that we should go to Scent Bar, our mutual happy place. (And for the record, I guessed at least one perfume in this mysterious mix off first whiff alone, which is when Jay knew I was a real one.)

A man stands in a perfume shop.
Jay’s latest EP, called “Don’t Wait Until I Die,” made in collaboration with rapper and producer Hit-Boy, takes a page from the deep, oily, enveloping scents that have become his signature.

Jay’s latest EP, called “Don’t Wait Until I Die,” made in collaboration with rapper and producer Hit-Boy, takes a page from the deep, oily, enveloping scents that have become his signature. The record, which dropped in May, is complex, dealing with themes of legacy and mortality. “Pieces,” a kind of summer banger made with Dom Kennedy and Hit-Boy, serves as the flipside to “Devils Happy In LA,” a demon mode record that unveils the city’s dark side. In “Pray 2 God Is Real,” Jay raps about pleading to a higher power for safety, for understanding, for his people. He’s been wearing ouds as part of his creative process when making the EP, one of the most expensive — and divisive — notes in perfumery known as “wood of the gods.” “It has a darker tone to it, but it’s still spiritual, it’s still healing, which is what ‘Don’t Wait Until I Die’ is,” he says. “Don’t wait until I’m gone to remember my scent.”

Fragrance people are a different breed — obsessive little freaks who are driven by their senses and fall in love with things that are invisible. The real heads can chop it up for hours about the construction of a perfume, the feelings and ideas that it can provoke. We’ve reached the point in our Scent Bar journey where Jay and I are talking a mile a minute, eyes rolling in the back of our heads every time we smell something special, darting from corner to corner. Nothing makes sense and everything is beautiful — flying high on the ecstasy of perfume.

I came in with the intention of buying something, and I have Jay smell the perfume I’ve been considering for the last six months five times in a row (indoors and outdoors) because I am actually insane. And he must be too because he doesn’t once refuse or second-guess me. It’s called Ma Nishtana by Parfum Prissana, with notes of frankincense, labdanum, saffron, rose, smoke and leather. It’s the kind of fragrance that’s so animalic and intense at first smell that it makes you gag, with a dry down that becomes strangely addicting, comforting and warm. There is an understanding between Jay and I that this is what one must do — talk about, think about, and smell perfume incessantly to understand it, and find something that is either in reflection of the person you are or the person you want to become.

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Scent Bar is the kind of place where, if you love perfume, feels almost illegal to be inside of. There is so much at your disposal, so many things you’ve never smelled and too many things you want to smell forever. Jay will often come here on a date to flex his knowledge — “It’s what you taught her, not what you bought her,” goes one of his many mantras — to get a sense if a potential partner is going to be repelled by the smells he likes. “If she’s a good person, that’s how you find out,” he says. How so? “Because that’s when you find out if she’s with the dark side or she’s with the light side. If she comes in here and [can’t stand] the smell, something’s wrong.” For Jay, scent is directly rooted in spirituality, love of self and respect for others.

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“It brings out emotions,” Jay says of fragrance. “Scent and taste are the biggest things you remember from being a kid.” Growing up in a Black Caribbean household in the ‘80s and ‘90s — his mom is from Jamaica, his dad is from Barbados — smelling good was law. “If you have an outfit on, but you don’t have cologne on or you don’t smell good, do you even have the flyest fit on? What’s the point,” he says. It was after his grandmother told him he was musty in front of a girl he liked when he was 9 years old that Jay vowed to never be caught slipping again. His first fragrance was Davidoff’s Cool Water — a cult classic masculine marine fragrance with notes of rosemary, sea water and ambergris. (The perfumer behind the fragrance is Pierre Bourdon, who would go on to make fragrances for one of Jay’s favorite houses, Frédéric Malle, including French Lover and Iris Poudre.) His journey jumped to Nautica Blue, then Versace Dylan Blue. (Every popular “men’s” fragrance in the ‘90s was named after the color blue, apparently.) He eventually started dabbling in Le Labo, and then Byredo, which opened him up to the niche perfume world.

Perfume is baked into Jay’s ritual every morning. A daily baptism that comes after a workout and a shower. His spray points include behind his knees, his lower back, his shoulders and his beard “depending.” On what, I ask? He laughs, and doesn’t fully answer.

LOS ANGELES - MAY 3, 2024: Jay 305 for Image. (Jheyda McGarrell / For The Times)
LOS ANGELES - MAY 3, 2024: Jay 305 for Image. (Jheyda McGarrell / For The Times)

“Scent and taste are the biggest things you remember from being a kid.”

— Jay 305

We take a walk around The Row to place a to-go order at Pizzeria Bianco while we huff the blotters doused with our potential perfume picks. Jay and I have similar tastes in scent — we want to smell moody, mystical, like we just stumbled out of a temple and know something you don’t, with a touch of zesty punchiness or weirdness. We gravitate toward scents that are polarizing. “There’s going to be something for everybody,” he says. “It’s like making music, like making art. Some people aren’t gonna get it right then and there, but one day, it might just hit them.”

He’s encouraging me to just get Ma Nishtana — probably because I won’t shut up about it, and maybe because both of our nostrils are lowkey charred at this point. When we walk back into Scent Bar, I bolt toward the counter where I left the Ma Nishtana bottle, and next to it I notice a simple, cylindrical bottle of a perfume I’d never seen, or heard of, called Papyrus Oud by Parle Moi de Parfum. Something urges me to open the magnetic cap and the moment I inhale the smell of the faintly golden liquid, I feel my eyes well up a little bit. I know. I know in that immediate way you know when a perfume is right for you. It smells, to me, like burnt paper, Smarties candies and leather. The notes range from ginger to orris root, white cedar and vetiver. This perfume gets me, this perfume is me. No question. I have Jay smell it and buy it immediately.

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Jay asks for samples of Orto Parisi’s Terroni, a delicious, damp, smoky, wet earth and raspberry fragrance, and Naomi Goodsir’s Bois d’Ascese, a perfume that smells like drinking whiskey neat around a bonfire. He vows to come buy one of them in celebration when “Don’t Wait Until I Die” comes out.

As I sit in the car, the smell of Papyrus Oud filling space, I feel so full — maybe it’s from the dopamine hit of just spending $150, but mostly, I think, from finding a fragrance that feels like a self-portrait. I remember something that Jay said to me earlier in the day about perfume: “It’s like the Earth,” he says. “The Earth only gives.” It’s at that moment I realize that I accidentally walked away with the samples Jay got for himself. Good thing he’ll be back next week.

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