Interview: Jazzy Jeff

We talk to superstar DJ Jazzy Jeff about life after the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and DJ'ing for the President of the USA.

 

When does your tour over here kick-off?


I’m actually going to South America next week for a week, and then I think I have about two weeks off before I come over there.


Can we kick off back to your very early days because I think a lot of people perhaps know you from where you picked up with Will Smith and the Fresh Prince and those days, but perhaps don’t know that your roots were actually in DJing, you weren’t just a character in a programme. Can we find out a bit more about that? So what started you off, when did you first get into playing music at parties, what started it all off for you?


I think that just growing up in Philly and they would have a ton of bloc parties and house parties and just things like that. There was a lot of bands around. I think I came up like right after the band thing started to die down and people would just have dances and it was kind of like - who was going to play the music at the dance - and I think just being the youngest in my house and having a love for music.

 

I didn’t really pick my music taste ‘cos I was too young so I just adopted the taste of my older brothers and sisters and that was a lot of the Philly International stuff, the Motown stuff, cos music was pre-Hip-hop and I just kind of became, with this record collection from my sisters, I became the person that just played the music at the parties, and I think that just stuck with me before the DJ explosion really happened. I think I was playing music, not calling myself a DJ because I was so young. I had a spin of 45s, one record would go off, I’d take it off, put the next one on and I think people kind of liked the order that I was putting them on and I played music.

 

That’s pretty much where it started so I think it was a blessing to kind of almost be in the bubble when the whole DJ culture really started to form. Especially at an early age, you become that guy, and you play for 30 people in a basement and then all of a sudden you do it for 50 people at a hall and the crowd starts going in to it and one day you just look and you just say ‘Oh, shit, I guess I’m a DJ now’ and everything really fell in to place.

 

Because ultimately you have a love for music and you have a love of playing it for people and seeing the reaction that people have off of the music that you play. I didn’t make the music but I kind of wanted to feel responsible for making people dance in the order that I played it.


For me there’s a difference between a DJ and someone who is an accomplished turntable-ist and you’re pretty accomplished and you’ve taken it to a pretty high level where you’re held in very high esteem by many world famous DJs, DMC World Champion scratch turntable-ists in their own right. So when did you discover that actually you weren’t just very good at picking tunes, that you were pretty accomplished at working a set?


It has started from music and I think the big reason of where I’m at right now, it started with the love of music. Unfortunately, I know some incredibly technically skilled guys that don’t have the knowledge or the love of music, this is technical. The blessing that I had is just loving music and then you start kind of falling in to this thing of - OK, well I can play - and then you start understanding the technical side like - You know what, I’m learning how to back cue my records, learning how to needle drop my records, I learnt how to backspin, now I took the matt off my turntables and now I have a 45 on cos it makes it slide better but the 45 makes the needle jump, let me cut out a piece of wax paper.

 

I enjoyed being around at a time when we didn’t have all of the tools that we have now. We had turntable mats, we have needles that are specifically designed to scratch with. I had needles from the store Radioshack that were $12 that if you put a quarter on top of it and set the weight at zero they would hold. But it would eat your records up, so are you going to perform this incredible routine and pull it off but you can only do this maybe 12 times before your records are ruined. So it was a trade-off in those days but it was great because you were there when this started. We were learning these techniques altogether, you know - you’re watching Grandmaster Flash cut in the kitchen and you’re watching Grandmixer DXT all wild style and you’re paying attention to how he’s holding the records and how the record is sliding.

 

You’re doing so much of this because somebody is inventing what it is, as we’re going along. So I think it’s a blessing to be there from the beginning and I think the reason that people may hold me in high regard is there’s a foundation. The one thing that I talk about especially with new and up and coming DJs is there are a lot of DJs who are like ‘Oh my god, I learnt how to scratch like you off of YouTube’, and I’m like - Oh man that’s amazing because we didn’t have have YouTube - it’s an amazing tool, you don’t know how many times that I want to figure something out but I don’t open an instruction book because someone is on YouTube telling you exactly how to do it. Oh my god, I’m trying to put my cell phone on Target Mode I go to my cell phone and go to YouTube ‘how do you put your phone on Target Mode?’ Somebody will tell me faster than I can figure it out. So I think that’s beautiful but what YouTube doesn’t show you is your history. YouTube doesn’t show you the bar structures of records, YouTube doesn’t show you how to read a crowd, those are all things that come with real-life experiences, and that is the one part that we cannot get away from, is just...you have to really go out there and do it. That’s where all of that kind of came in, you had the structure being there from the beginning but not just that it’s understanding that there are so many people that I learn from every day but you never go in to the mode that you know everything.

 

I remember putting my head down in the early days of Fresh Prince, in my brain I’ve accomplished everything someone can do as a DJ - I was as fast as anybody on earth, I have mastered all of the scratches that were out and there was a period, I wanna say about a year and a half, that I kind of put my head down and was really focussing on Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and this was the early days of Fresh Prince, and I remember picking my head back up feeling cheaper and I was like Holy Shit, someone has taken everything that I did and took it 10 steps beyond, they’re faster than I’ve ever been - I’m like How did this happen? But instead of falling into a hole it was like - I need to meet him and I need to have a conversation with him and it was just amazing at how he did exactly what I did - I took what Grandmaster Flash did and added my own twist and what tools - how can I bend and break the tools to allow me a little bit better advantage, Flash probably couldn’t scratch as fast because his turntable mats weren’t really big you know but to watch someone like Qbert - OK we’re going to turn the needle in a way that it will never jump, we’re gonna invent these things called Butter Rugs that the needles will slide, I’m gonna learn how to cut and reverse because these were mind-blowing things to me that just jump started me all over again - like Yo, I gotta learn that shit, wow that’s amazing I don’t understand how you do that - and I think once again, that comes from someone who loves it...I didn’t wanna learn it cos I wanted to be the best I was just like Yo, you’ve taken the culture it’s very similar in basketball Dr J (Julius Erving) wasn’t dribbling around his back and doing  at triple reverse dunk but Michael Jordan did.


But you haven’t stopped there have you - I watched one of your sets on YouTube in Philly - The Boiler Room - not only have you taken your scratching and your mixing forward but you’re using technology like a Serato and using Timecode, discs rather than vinyl - that’s quite unique for someone who’s from a different generation, to continue to innovate, that’s quite something...


That’s also from the love, the love of the culture, in realising as I say, I started when there were no tools, so now you’re starting to watch not only the tools being invented, the tools becoming better. To realise that I have 200,000 records in my computer that I can call on anytime and play is genius to me, I’m not only saying this from a DJ’s perspective I’m saying how cool is it that you don’t have 200,000 records in your living room, but you’ve got them in this little box that you can pick and play anything that you want to at any time, to me those are things that I get excited about technology - I am in to any kind of technology that makes your life easier or figures out something.

 

My wife bought these light bulbs that connect to our Google Home that I walked in to the bedroom she was like - turn the lights off in the bedroom and all the lights went off - I went crazy - that’s genius to me - I like stuff like that - it’s not so much of the gadget - how many times have you been in the bed and dozing off to sleep and you’re like Shit I’ve got to put the light out, how great is it to say Google can you turn the lights out and they do it!


Obviously, technology is hugely advanced nowadays and you as you say YouTube helps people learn from one another. We, growing up in the UK, we came into the whole Hip-Hop thing quite late, if it wasn’t for people like StreetSounds and the whole electro-range of albums we probably wouldn’t even have heard about it but nowadays something can off in a distant country and we can hear about it immediately that day and that’s really empowering for a modern music generation and for sharing experiences. How do you feel about that, how have you found that change in the way that you operate, the way you perform?


Well - it’s a gift and a curse. When you think about it the gift of it is, have you ever been to Philadelphia?


I haven’t no


But you saw the Boiler Room?


Yep, exactly


So, technology-enabled me to play in Philadelphia and someone in a completely different country, in a completely different time zone got a chance to see it. That’s beautiful cos that allows you to connect with people all over the globe. The curse to me is that we become so consumed with it that now things don’t have lasting power like they used to.

 

I came up with a time when an artist put out an album nearly every year/year and a half because you put it out and people lived with it for a considerable amount of time and then when it died out they took in something else and then you almost felt it was time for me to come back out cos you don’t want to rush it an oversaturate yourself, and now, someone can put out an album and 2 weeks later you’re on to something else. Even with the television shows you have shows that are on Netflix that we’re not going to show you an episode a week - people get mad at that now - it’s kind of like Give me the entire season and let me binge watch it at my own leisure and I think that’s great.

 

With almost anything, there’s going to be a positive side and a negative side. I love having access - the access is incredible, I just hate the fact that things don’t last, thing don’t resonate. The biggest news in the world today is not going to mean anything 2 weeks from now. Positive or negative.


Your roots are very much in Hip-hop and that’s something which comes through in your performances and in the music you produce but you’re also quite eclectic - that Boiler Room set, I don’t know how many tracks you put through in that set but it was a lot and there were some surprises in there that you wouldn’t imagine to be in there, things like Toto Africa made an appearance and Tears for Fears all the way through to Lionel Ritchie, Farside (?), Lenny Kravitz all sorts, I think there was a bit of Barrington Levy (?) as well. It’s eclectic and it all fits together really nicely and that’s a skill very few DJs have as far as making that work. Do you find that’s something that comes naturally or do you have to work at that, do you do a lot of crate digging to get those pieces to sit together nicely and find those tracks that work well together or do you have one of those heads that just goes Oh yeah, that track would go here…


I think I have that type of brain functions when I started DJing it wasn’t genre specific. When I started DJing it was music, there wasn’t a Hip-hop category there was an RnB soul which covered so many different kinds of stuff, it wasn’t so specific as time went on I felt like things started to get in to...I came up and it was House, it was House music - floor to floor - then all of a sudden it’s Soulful House and it’s Techno House and it’s Disco House and you’re kind of like - Wow I’ve only become confused recently. I was cool - I was like there’s good music and bad music so when I would go out my set has always been...because it’s funny how I’m classified as a Hip-hop DJ but I was DJing before Hip-hop.

 

I made Hip-hop records, but as a DJ my job was to go out and play whatever was going to make somebody move and I remember my senior year in high school, in a predominantly all-black high school was the year that 80s pop music became super-duper big, The Cars and Deefro. We’re black kids and this was what we were listening to because it didn’t have a colour it was like this is what we do so I thought it was dope that I could play Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five right next to Blondie, that’s sick to me so all I did - I just never changed.

 

The funny thing is, I’m playing as I played for 30 some odd years for someone who’s under 30, so of course they’re like - Oh my god I grew up in a genre-specific world and I can’t believe he just played Biggie and played Tears for Fears and they’re saying - How does this go together - and it’s because it’s music, music is seasoning. I very much look at music like music is seasoning and guess what, milk and Orio are not going to go together and there are two songs that trust me, won’t go together but milk and cereal go very well together so it’s really in my brain so many times.

 

I don’t have a preconceived set, as much as I have different genres of music that I’ll just play something and there is a feeling that’s kind of like yo, I really think that this will work and you just try it and I’ve always said that the wildest thing about this, no-one ever talks about if you go, if you listen to The Boiler Room set no-one talks about the Drake record I play, they only talk about the Tears for Fears record I play.

 

What sticks with you is the unexpected record that someone has. My whole thing is that I want you to come to a set and when you’re walking out, I want you to have 3 or 4 things that you a friend say I can’t believe he played that, like - Oh my god he played that - because you start going out and it’s almost like, I can preconceive and tell you everything that somebody’s going to play - what is the top chart record, I have to play that, what is the top chart records for the last 10 years, I have to play that, no-one plays the curveball, you’re looking for so much acceptance that no-one plays the record that’s like - Yo, I really can’t believe he played that - and then sometimes you can play that obscure record that no-one understands what you’re playing for 10 seconds.

 

I remember I did former President Obama’s last birthday party in office and I remember having a conversation with him and his wife and they were saying - Don’t look at us being the President and First Lady or look at our age and say we just want Smokey Robinson, we love everything and I was like - OK, if you allow me to take my handcuffs off, I’m going to pay everything and they were like - You can do whatever you want - but I remember Shonda Rhimes was there, you know the television producer and I had something that I would do that I would play - the Rocky theme - The Eye of the Tiger and I would only play it right up to the beginning - I dropped it and I remember she looked at me with this look of - What in the world are you doing - and before ‘doing’ could come out if her mouth I played LL’s (Cool J) Mama Said Knock You Out so it came right out “Don’t call it a comeback” and everybody went Waaaaaaaahhhhhhhh and it was really one of those moments that you may not understand it, just let it happen and that is what I am trying to give at some point in time everytime I play. I want to give you that moment, I want you to say - What in the hell is he...Oh my god that was amazing. That’s all you want.


Definitely, there has been some of that going on, it hasn’t been so open in Hip-hop I think that’s been quite insular - abit like House music, you wouldn’t go to a House music or Techno gig or one of the old raves back in the day that there would have been a genre of music where you would have no variance at all and it’s unusual to hear that in the Hip-hop culture that you’ve brought to it and it seems to be well received rather than….a lot of change can be rejected by the populus…


Yes, there’s some people who do that now not well and it doesn’t work, like this isn’t a gimmick for me, I think that this can work out really really well and depending on how all these records and things line up...I’ve seen it, I’ve seen people attempt it and you can almost sense that it’s not genuine, you almost think - OK the new style is I have to play something left field and it’s like I’m not trying to play something left field as much as I’m trying to capture an emotion - that approach to me is very contrived so they fail miserably.


Well certainly from that Boiler Room set there seems to be a journey that you go on, there’s logic and there’s a reason why, whether it’s lyrical or whether it’s the way the two tracks fit together well, there’s a journey that you take people on it’s not just I’m going to throw this in just for the shock of it  and that definitely comes across. I want to touch on, perhaps away from DJing to production because you produced a number of albums recently and you’ve put together M3 with Dayne Jordan - how does your approach to music production differ to your DJing or is it all the same?


It’s very much the same to a fault sometimes. My DJ brain and my producer brain are not the same brain and that drives me crazy, that really really drives me crazy. The way things are now I could probably be one of the greatest remixers or editors in the world if my DJ brain and my producer brain mixed.

 

I never go in to my studio to make something for me to play. And I think that is the biggest fault, I can’t get over that hump - that the two brains don’t mix, that when I go in to the studio to produce my brain is solely on production - how can I make this sound good. I want each part to mean something. I don’t want to do too much, sometimes less is more, when is less more? When are you finished. The problem with being a producer is you have to figure out when you’re done and technically you’re never done. You can fix something to the point when you’ve made it absolutely perfect and then you realise that music is not perfect and perfect doesn’t sound right, so then you start to doubt. You can really drive yourself crazy - like I’ve done on many occasion, but I think my approach has turned in to - I don’t want something to sound good I want something to feel good, that’s where the DJ part comes in.

 

I don’t DJ to necessarily sound good I want to DJ to feel good, I want you to feel good by the records that I’m playing. Sometimes you realise - OK I’m changing records I play one version and then another version the next record and another version and then you get to that moment when it’s kind of like I need to play something to let this ride cos I need people’s emotion to come and settle down before I hit them 1, 2, 3 and hit 3 again and let it ride.

 

I think my approach in making music has turned in to, sometimes 45 seconds of repetition sucks you in and it’s not monotonous to suck you in and sometimes 45 seconds of repetition becomes monotonous. It’s almost similar in a DJ set if I’m doing something and I’m going back to back, I realise that if I do it 5 times everybody’s like - Oh my god this is great and it feels really great. If I do it 12 times you’re like OK that’s enough, he’s driving me crazy with that and it’s understanding people’s body clocks cos we all have that so it’s the same way that if I have to do that when I DJ, I have to do that when I’m producing. When is repetition a good thing when is it a bad thing…


I guess you don’t get that feedback when you’re producing - you don’t have that reaction from the crowd to bounce off….


Oh no, you’ve got to do that on your own.


Obviously, music is what brought you and Will together pre Fresh Prince days and I hear on the grapevine that there’s potentially some scope that you might get back in to the studio together - is that something in a pipe dream or are you making strategic moves towards?


We went out for a couple of dates last year. It’s always just been a timing thing it’s not a want thing. It’s his time schedule, my time schedule, especially with him arguably being one of the biggest movie stars in the world - he’s balancing wanting to do music and wanting to do movies. My balance is wanting to produce and wanting to DJ so it’s really just the time.

 

I think the older you get, the more responsibilities and the way things go, you realise as close as we are we don’t get the chance to spend a considerable amount of time together and it’s not for any other reason than you have different aspects of your life. There are times when I have off 2 weeks and I’ll text him - hey where you at - I’m in Costa Rica - OK, I’m not going to Costa Rica and if I go to Costa Rica you’re filming and we’re going to talk for 30 mins a day so that doesn’t fit and there’s times when he’s like - Hey what are you doing and I’m in Brazil - ah man I had off 2 days and I was just wondering...so you’re trying to make all that fit and at the same token trying to make it fit musically. Last year was the first time that we did a show together in 13 years so if it took us 13 years to do two shows...you know - if the worlds align right it will happen.


You mentioned a pretty epic party with Obama and you’ve been known to play some pretty big film rap parties too. Any parties that stand out, any memorable parties that you’ve played at?


That probably is the most memorable one. They were basically trying to get me to do a party for that Administration for 8 years and I wasn’t able to do it cos of my schedule - I can’t do the President’s party - that tells you how busy but I wasn’t able to do it until the year before he was coming out of office. But that was technically the longest set that I have ever played in my life to the point that I told myself - I will never ever do this again. They didn’t want anyone else, there could never not be music, so aside from 10 o’clock to maybe 10.45 that Stevie Wonder did a show or perform for the President, I played from 6pm to 4am. I’m used to playing an hour to 2 hours long - so I had to calm myself down, stretch it out. I literally played from 6pm to 4am on my feet, my feet were killing me, I played every genre of music in every way humanly possible and as memorable as it was and the people that were there and the amount fun that everyone had, how everybody enjoyed themselves, I said to myself I will never do this again.


So, what’s next for you, what’s next on the list, obviously you’re going to continue DJing have you got any other plans for things to do, are you slowing down…


Yeah - this album M3 is the first album I’ve put out on my own independent. Taking what I said about the way things are in the current state of mind, we had an initial plan that we’d put the album out in May and we’d promote it and we did videos basically in May and in June, and I’d do the Summertime mix tape with my friend Mick every year, I basically stopped promoting the album to let the Summertime Mixtape basically carry us through the summer.

 

Starting now, we’re back on to promoting the album because like I said, the way people consume stuff you can bring out a new song and new video and people are like - Oh my god he’s got a new album out - so we have 4 or 5 videos that are going to start dropping from about two weeks from now that will really round the album out. We’ve got some really really good videos it’s a blessing because we take and use our ability to travel in places that a lot of people don’t, as options to shoot videos. We’re planning on shooting a video in South America next week to really add on that. I’m excited because this is pretty much the kick off of my tour season.

 

I’m always excited to go to South America, I’m super excited to come over there because this is about to be the longest tour I’ve done. This is about 6 ½ weeks that we’re coming and shows all throughout Europe, UK and then we go to the Middle East and Dubai and then we go to Asia and we hit a bunch of spots there and then we go to Australia and New Zealand, so I’m excited.

 

When you get that chance to travel around the world and play music for people on that level, it is amazing, so I’m excited. I’ve been getting my music together, I’ve got tons and tons of music that I’m looking to just play and drop on people and give people that experience and at the same time promote the album. It’s funny, cos you’re asked alot of times - What’s next? And a lot of times my ‘what’s next’ is I just want to continue doing what I’m doing - this is an extreme blessing to make music and play music for people all over the world it’s kind of like I don’t have a ‘next’ - that’s it - if I can do that forever I’m good.

 

You can check out Jazzy Jeff's turntable skills at Electric Brixton on October 12 - 

http://electricbrixton.uk.com/events-article.php?id=1189