DJ Jazzy Jeff Interview

Mark Dale caught up with him for a chat about the musical heritage of his family, his home town, hip hop and those Will Smith rumours.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 8th Sep 2016

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Jeff Townes aka Jazzy Jeff's career has seen him comfortably juggle having a high profile within the most popular aspects of hip hop, while being permanently respected and active in the music's underground. Very few people have ever managed that.

A son of the the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, which in Jeff's youth was known worldwide for the soul music it produced from its Sound Of Philadelphia record label, Jeff would follow in the city's musical traditions. Inspired by his family's love of and involvement in music, he became a DJ.

Jeff was one of the early DJs in the city that would be influenced by the emerging hip hop culture of the 1980s and he incorporated this style of DJing into his sets, going on to later explore turntablist techniques. Along with DJ Cash Money, Jeff is credited with making the transform scratch famous.

When his regular MC couldn't make a party he'd been invited to play at, one night in the mid 80s, another regular figure seen on the Philadelphia party circuit stepped in. That MC was Will Smith and on that night their partnership as Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince began.

In 1989 the duo received the first ever Grammy awarded in hip hop music, for Best Rap Performance, with their 'Parents Just Don't Understand' single (above), although the category was at the time deemed so unimportant that their award was not televised. Their biggest single was 1992's evergreen 'Summertime' which earned them a second Grammy.

Will Smith's popularity was about to hit the big time when he entered the world of acting in the hugely popular, comedy sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and Jeff followed him to the show, playing Smith's best friend Jazz. Will Smith's acting career has since seen him become one of Hollywood's biggest stars, although in recent months he's returned to music, prompting rumours of a reunion with Jazzy Jeff.

While Smith followed a path in acting, Jazzy Jeff founded A Touch Of Jazz productions and became known as a sought after producer of soul and hip hop, helming music by the likes of Musiq Soul Child, Eminem, Talib Kweli and Floetry, on the landmark, debut album by Jill Scott and with The Roots, who he has worked with frequently (watch below).

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Jeff produced the highly lauded solo albums The Magnificent (2002) and The Return Of The Magnificent (2007) for BBE Records, after which he took a break from music production before returning in 2014 with work for Philadelphia MC Dayne Jordan.

In his time away from producing, he maintained his primary career as a DJ, which sees him travel the globe constantly, journeys which are now documented by a video magazine series called Vinyl Destination

Equally at home playing a party set that incorporates a wide variety of music as he is performing alongside the world's best turntablists, Jazzy Jeff is respected throughout hip hop circles and further still as a true master of the art of DJing. 

Your father was an MC for jazz bandleader Count Basie. Was his style more Biz Markie or Busta Rhymes?

[Laughs] Probably more Biz Markie. No, back in those days an MC was a master of ceremonies, so you would just introduce the band and you got everybody ready. It was MC in the true sense of MC. 

Your brother played bass for one of the founding acts of the Philadelphia soul sound, The Intruders. How else has the label they were best known for, the famed Philadelphia International, impacted on your own life?

Oh my gosh! Well, Kenny Gamble has always been a big brother figure to me. It was a blessing just to be in the same city and have a mentor like that. He basically opened up a world of knowledge to me early on in my career.

Periodically I'd go and have sit downs with him and when I was honoured by the Philadelphia Walk Of Fame he presented me with my star. That kind of thing is invaluable to me. That's like growing up in Detroit and having Berry Gordy as a mentor.

What do you think characterised the music of acts like The Intruders, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and The O'Jays as being classically Philadelphian?

I think (Philadelphia International label owners and producers) Gamble and Huff produced the sound of the city. You can tell the sound of Philadelphia just like you can tell the sound of Motown. And I kinda miss those days when certain areas, certain cities or certain parts of the world had a very distinct sound.

Philadelphia International's sound was less pop orientated than Motown but less blues and raw funk influenced as Stax, would you agree?

I think Gamble and Huff relied heavily on the orchestration. Their arrangments were more intricate than Motown. I think their approach, the way they did stuff, was different.

That orchestration you mention was mostly played by the in house Philadelphia musicians who were collectively known as MFSB (and later renamed Salsoul Orchestra). Can you tell me the connection between musicians like ?uestlove from The Roots and producer/keyboard player James Poyser and your own A Touch Of Jazz productions? Are they part of your own MFSB Orchestra?

Well, you know what it is? Philadelphia, in our generation, we established a very big music community. ?uestlove, The Roots, James Poyser and all those guys are a part of a very big, extended musical family. You would call on these guys to play on records.

Like, we have a plethora of bass players, guitar players, keyboard players that, when you made records, you could call on them to play. That's created a really big musical family.

Aside from the mixtapes you've produced and a couple of remixes, until 2014/2015's work with Dayne Jordan (below) you've not issued any original Jazzy Jeff produced material since about 2007. Why did you take that break?

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Well I've been touring very heavily. That took up a lot of my time, more than anything and you just want the right project. After I did The Magnificent and The Return Of The Magnificent I released a project by a young lady from Toronto called Ayah and then I just took a little bit of time out, away from production, away from the studio.

It wasn't really until Dayne Jordan piqued my interest and pushed me to open the floodgates back up that I was ready to release any more music. 

Why was it this particular artist that made you want to get back in the studio?

I never left the studio completely for any real length of time. I would go in and work, I just didn't want to release anything. I was very disheartened with the state of the music industry. My love of music has never gone anywhere, I just didn't really like the way the business structure was.

I don't think my interest in putting out music again came until I saw how flourishing the independent side of music was, people just putting stuff out. It kinda turned into everything I've always wanted. I've always wanted the creative control of making the music that you've wanted to do, of putting it out when you wanted to put it out.

I love the fact that now you can not only create your own music, but you can do your own artwork and album covers, your liner notes and you can shoot your own videos. It basically gives that creative independence back to the artists. I think that was the thing that really won me over, because that was something that I've always wanted.

Over recent years, many rappers and other artists have gone back to the format of releasing mixtapes over actual albums. Can you tell me why you think that's happened?

Well, you know what's funny? Personally I can't really understand the difference between mixtapes and albums in the current market. I grew up when mixtapes were something that were done by DJs who actually mixed on the tape. It's almost like the term mixtape has been taken for use on what is basically a free album.

I think people have started to put out mixtapes as free projects in an effort to increase their fanbase. I think a lot of acts fanbases started to waver and it had a lot to do with the business structure. I think in order to have your fanbase believe in what you do, sometimes you have to do something for them to let them know you care. It's like a musical gift.

You were asked to do the scratch overdubs for the recent film Straight Outta Compton. Was it a challenge to remember what advances had been made at that time, in terms of technique, in order to make the music historically accurate?

Ha! Not at all. Not at all. Being there at that time and knowing what we were able to do, I was prepared. It was funny because, the first take of scratches that I did, I sent to Dr Dre and Dre asked me if I could modernise it a little bit. He was like, "hey man, make me look good".

So, in the end I was a little more advanced than the actual time period of the movie, but not too advanced so as it would make it sound unbelievable.

Strange to think that 25 years ago the first Grammy was awarded to a hip hop artist, yourself, but at that time it was deemed not important enough a segment to warrant televising, yet here we are in 2015 with a hugely popular, major Hollywood movie having been made about part of the hip hop story.

Yes.

Do you think hip hop and Hollywood make comfortable bedfellows?

Well I think it's a little bit different now because, when you think about it, the new generation of people in Hollywood, everyone including the CEOs, are our generation. They were hip hop fans.

They grew up with NWA, Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Kid n Play, Salt N Pepa. That's why I think that when you turn on TV you see so many commercials using classic hip hop records. The demographic they are aimed at can now relate to it.

There was a period starting in the 1990s when gang culture became entwined with hip hop culture, specifically rap music, both within the lyrics of the music and with some quite heavy figures becoming active within the music industry.

Those are themes that are raised in Straight Outta Compton and they are evident in a lot of the music that came from the east and west coasts of the US in that period. Being based in Philadelphia, were you somewhat removed from that culture entering into the music?

[Laughs] Not at all. Not at all. We just chose not to talk about it. But it was the exact same thing in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Atlanta. There was no difference. Any of the music that came from the inner city, from the urban side, had all of those things impacting on it, the gang culture, the crime, the violence.

A lot of it was just people expressing what was going on. It was almost like being a newscaster and what you're doing is talking about some of the things that you see in everyday life. Schooly D discussed it, Steady B too. There were just some artists who did and some who didn't. Kid N Play from New York didn't discuss it, 2 Live Crew from Miami also didn't.

It was almost like you had some people who would talk about the serious side and others who would talk about the fun side. But even the guys who talked the fun side did not escape living it. Just because you lived it you didn't necessarily have to talk about it.

Although there are four disciplines to hip hop (rap, turntablism, b-boying and graffiti), at the beginning it was the DJ who was the focal point of the movement. At what point do you think the MC started to steal the limelight and why do you think that happened?

The four cornerstones of hip hop all changed when the financial side of things got in the way, when people realised that hip hop was this huge, money generating art-form. I think a lot of MCs were the first ones to think, hey, we don't actually need these dancers. And then it turned into 'you know what? If I have this instant replay machine and I can just play my instrumentals, I don't necessarily need a DJ' and you started seeing everything change.

The DJ used to be the backbone, you needed the DJ to play the music, to make the show. It all got a bit weird for a time when you started missing the DJ on stage at some hip hop shows, like Jay Z didn't necessarily have a DJ, but Linkin Park did!

You now document all your travels with the Vinyl Destination series. Travel can be really exhausting. Are you always in the mood to have a camera pointed in your face?

Well no. But that was a decision we had to make when we started shooting Vinyl Destination, that we'd have to take the good, the bad and the ugly. Not every show is great, not every hotel is good, not every meal is good, not every travel experience is good. So, we've got to show it all.

There are times when I really want to say 'Get the camera out of my face', but I made the decision to show all the aspects of it in the beginning, to keep it real. The people that approached us who wanted to take it to a bigger platform wanted to script it and it was like, you know what, this is one thing that I just wanted to keep pure, let this be exactly what it is, instead of let's make believe that we are fighting, let's make believe that we lost the bag. Everything on Vinyl Destination is the 100% truth.

Can you tell me any of the ideas you have for the third part of The Magnificent, which I believe is in the pipeline to be released next year?

You know, I don't really come up with the ideas until I start. I have tonnes of musical ideas, things that I want to do, but I have like a light switch in my brain that I don't really turn on until it's the official time to start, because I kinda want it to just flow naturally.

I know I have it in the back of my mind that I want to do it and I'm always writing down ideas and artists that I want to work with. It's just a case of looking at the calendar and deciding this is the day that I'm gonna turn the switch on. That's hopefully when the floodgates open. 

You worked with J-Live and  Raheem DeVaughn on both and with CL Smooth, Biz Markie, Method Man and Big Daddy Kane on the last one. Are there any artists you have decided you definitely want to work with on it?

No. What I've done over the past two albums is I've recorded a lot of stuff, then I just pick and choose. 

Can you tell me a bit about what the school equality project you've been involved in is about and what are its aims?

Over here in America, unfortunately the neighbourhood that you live in dictates the kind of education you get. If you're in a poor or underprivileged neighbourhood, the schools don't have the same resources and I don't think that's fair. I think you should be able to get the same standard of education no matter what race you are, what financial background you come from or what area you are from.

That's just something that, having kids and caring about your kid's education, does to you. I really don't think it's fair that one kid should have a radically different education from another kid who maybe lives just two miles away. The movement pushes for more equality and that's important because that's all of our futures, that's everyone's future. 

In 2016 it's the 30th anniversary of Rock The House, your debut with Will Smith. Will you be doing anything to mark the anniversary?

I don't know, we haven't really talked about anything definite. It's funny, when you said that, that was the first time I realised that it's the 30th anniversary. I think it's a little bit different now, we're the first generation who has grown older with hip hop. And I think because we don't have any plans of stopping, I don't think we count the milestones. This is just something that you do.

I've always felt that if you have a career in the arts, you never really retire. You may not do it professionally on the same level forever, but I don't think you ever retire. I don't think someone like Count Basie ever retired from playing the piano. I think you just count yourself as being blessed to have longevity. As long as you can keep doing it, you keep doing it.

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There have been quite a few stories in the press recently saying there might be a tour for next year of Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. Is there any truth in that?

We've been talking about it. I think the only thing that has really stopped it from happening in the past is just scheduling. I'm touring 100 and odd days the year and he's one of the biggest movie stars in the world. So, it's just a case of us saying, ok man, let's allow this time to do it. We're drawing very close to a time when we can say, it's good, let's do it now. He's very excited.

Will's back in the studio making music for the first time in many years at the moment. Has he approached you to do any of the production on that music?

Oh yeah, we just haven't gone in. He's in the studio knocking some of the dust and rust off, getting some of the ideas out. A lot of it is just understanding the differences in how things are now as opposed to how things were when we recorded.

We always laugh and joke at the fact that we would have these million dollar studios that we'd go in and work on albums and now you can just take out a laptop and a microphone anywhere and record. We try and imagine the level of music that we could have done, had we had those kinds of resources available to us.

So, I think it's really interesting time for us to do something, having those kinds of resources now available. He's getting comfortable using them now, because a lot of times, if you're used to doing something one way, it can be hard to change. I've had a humungous studio forever and the idea that the music I can make with my laptop on a plane is just as good as the music I can make in the studio, took a very long time to sink in. 

The age of the classic hip hop duo - one DJ working with one MC - is kinda something from the past, these days. If you had your time over again, aside from your partnership with Will Smith, is there any other MC you would have liked to have paired up with?

No. You know what it is? I love my wife, my wife is the best thing that ever happened to me. I don't think about being married to anyone else. When you're married, that's it. And I've been married to Will for 30 years! So I don't think about another one. As much as I've made music, as much as I've worked with other MCs, like Dayne Jordan, who tours with me and who I make records with, that's not Will.

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