DJ Jazzy Jeff interview: Philadelphia’s Humble Magnificent

by Mark Pollard on January 8, 2009 · 1 comment

in Interviews

“You could be the greatest DJ in the world, and your equipment messes up, your needle skips and you’re wack. That’s what makes it great. That’s the challenge.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff - close-up

You can do nothing but respect Jazzy Jeff and his contribution to music. As a producer and turntablist, he has given us hip hop, Philly Soul, a bit of pop and a bunch of summer holiday anthems. With Will Smith, The Fresh Prince, his early music career quickly led to TV and the duo even won the first rap Grammy in 1989 for Parents Just Don’t Understand. He’s a humble kind of guy and if you ever get the chance to see him live… DO!

There are two song titles from Rock the House the first album you did with Will Smith, that you have maintained or brought into your projects, the first one being your production crew A Touch of Jazz…
Jazzy Jeff: Yeah, it’s a production company, a crew, a musical safe place that we basically are really trying to push as much musical freedom as we can. We’re just trying to bring back artists who want to do music.

And that’s been the stable for a number of successful artists even though a lot of people outside Philadelphia may not have connected them with you – people such as Jill Scott
Jazzy Jeff: Absolutely. It’s not really set up to try to be this big, blown out of proportion situation. I’m really happy with the acclaim that A Touch of Jazz is getting. We just love music. It’s compiled of a bunch of producers and song writers that love all kinds of music. We sit in there all day long and listen to music. And to be able to just go in and make music or make whatever you want and be creatively free is incredible.

Now, apart from A Touch of Jazz, the other song title that you revived from Rock the House is The Magnificent. Rock the House must be very close to your heart.
Jazzy Jeff: Well, it was the first record that Will and myself ever recorded and released and the energy that you have as a new artist is incredible. You don’t have anything to lose. It’s brand new, you’re just trying to piece together what you feel you for the world to see so definitely it holds a very warm spot in my heart.

In terms of record deals, what were the steps you took to land a demo in the right hands or did you even have to go through that process?
Jazzy Jeff: It was a little funny because from being a DJ and Will rhyming, and us doing all of the parties, I had a drum machine and a four-track and Will and me started to put together what we thought were records. And he ended up taking the tapes and gave them to a record guy who used to put out a lot of hip hop records in the city and he called me up one day and said they wanted to put out our record. I didn’t even know he gave them the tapes. It was wild because it couldn’t have been a month later that the record was out.

Were you involved with any of the meetings or was that something that Will took care of?
Jazzy Jeff: Well, back then it was so primitive that there wasn’t a whole bunch of meetings. It was kind of like he wanted to put the record out and there was the contract so we can put this record out. It’s funny because back then you didn’t get the chance to make a record so we were like, “Let’s just sign it and see what happens.”

Was that Word-Up Records or Jive?
Jazzy Jeff: That was Word-Up.

And what was the connection between Word-Up and Jive?
Jazzy Jeff: Well, what happened was when we put out Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble the record really started to do well and then Jive came in and said they wanted to pick up the record. So he [Word-Up Records] ended up selling the rights to Jive Records and that’s how we ended up on Jive.

I know you can’t really speak on behalf of Will but the content of the album was pretty adolescent-focussed which would have worked well for a record company. Was that something you concentrated on or was it more a by-product of where you were at in life?
Jazzy Jeff: You know what’s funny… when you look back, me and Will weren’t aiming at anything. We weren’t thinking about whether they were going to play it on the radio or in the clubs. All we thought about was, “Wow, you rhyme, I DJ, let’s put together something that one day we can show people something and say we made a record.” I talked to Will about two weeks ago about how we had absolutely no expectations about what was going to happen to us. We were just happy doing music. We were doing it and not making any money. This was not something we did to make money. We were doing it and having a ball.

DJ Jazzy Jeff - fence

Two things that definitely differentiate you as a duo to most groups around today are, firstly, that the DJ’s name came first, and secondly, that you had DJ tracks on your albums.
Jazzy Jeff: Everything that I am and everything that I have musically has all stemmed from me being a DJ first and foremost. I’m very active in the DJ community. I do a lot of shows and do a lot of travelling and have a lot of DJ friends. I’m very open to meeting all the dope DJs around the world. We’re in a very special fraternity. And then to be an old school member of the fraternity that’s very active… to me, finally the DJs are starting to get the respect that it should have gotten a long time ago. So I have definitely have to represent the DJ. I feel that a lot of music now neglects that DJ. The DJ’s name would never be first and then most of the commercial guys don’t even have DJs any more and the DJ is one of the four cornerstones of hip hop.

Were you continually signed to Word-Up for every future release or did you gradually move to Jive?
Jazzy Jeff: I think Jive ended up buying Word-Up Records out. They just bought the label out so we just signed to Jive and Word-Up didn’t have any affiliation after the first record.

How was your relationship with Jive?
Jazzy Jeff: We had a good relationship with Jive. To a certain degree you can only have an OK relationship with record companies because, in my opinion, record companies don’t treat artists fair. But we had a good relationship. Everything was kind of cool for the duration while we were making records.

What do you mean by fair?
Jazzy Jeff: Basically the way that the record business is set up… if they sell a record for ten dollars a record, you’re making eighty cents out of that ten dollars. It’s really funny to me that you are only getting eighty cents per record when you are the one that wrote it, produced it and then you went on the road and promoted it. I just feel that the payment ratio needs to be more even between a record company and an artist. It’s not fair all the way across the board. It wasn’t fair for Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince just as it wasn’t fair for Michael Jackson.

Did Rock the House recoup?
Jazzy Jeff: No. I don’t even know if we received a royalty from Rock the House.

Not even the fact that it is on Jive’s back catalogue?
Jazzy Jeff: No. Well, once again, and this isn’t to bad-mouth record companies, but their job is to make money and not pay you. And I explain this to a lot of people. The best way to describe it in a visual manner, if you stand straight up, a record company’s profit starts at your ankle, and your profit margin starts at your waist. All I have to do is come anywhere between your ankle and your waist. If I hit you in the knee that means that I make money and I don’t have to pay you.

Is the record industry that savage?
Jazzy Jeff: Oh my god. I don’t think there is anybody in the record industry that doesn’t know that. It’s extremely that savage.

DJ Jazzy Jeff - DJ-ing 2

Is that something that influenced your decision to go to the UK and release The Magnificent (2002) on BBE?
Jazzy Jeff: Exactly. But you know what it is… I don’t like the payment ratios but now you are going to tell me what kind of records to make? I’m the artist. I’m the one with the creative freedom. Because the payment ratios are like that you want me to make a record that will sell you the most, so it’s not about the creative freedom. I had a gentlemen in the industry tell me one thing a long time ago and that is that everybody in the music industry wants to be second. You don’t want to take your chance and potentially miss out by doing something new, creative and innovative. If somebody plays the banjo on a record, and it sells ten million copies you need to put out a record with a banjo. You try to take the best route to be a calculated success but in doing that we have a tendency to lose a lot of the real and true artists. If you turn back the clock, and think about a group like Public Enemy – you never heard anything like that. If it wasn’t for Public Enemy there wouldn’t be an X-Clan, there wouldn’t be any socially conscious rap. But, now, the formula seems to be that if you get a platinum singer, put them with a platinum rapper and then sample a platinum old school song and get a platinum producer to produce it you are going to sell a million copies.

However, to some degree, there are more options for artists now. Instead of only being able to rely on majors you can go to a label like BBE or one of the big independent labels in the States…
Jazzy Jeff: Exactly and that’s what it comes down to. What really turned me around is that about four years ago I made a mixtape. I’m always making mixtapes for the car or whatever. And somebody was like, “Jeff, you can do it in one shot. Why don’t you make a mixtape and see what happens?” So I went into the studio, grabbed my turntables, did a ninety minute set, and made a mixtape. I had a friend of mine do my covers. We went to Kinkos and printed them out. I went and bought a bunch of blanks and made about a thousand CDs. I took them to the stores and I was like, “You know what? You sell them for ten dollars and I’ll give you five.” So I sat down one day and said, “Wow. I’m Sony. I produced the mixtape, I’m the artist on the mixtape, I mixed the mixtape, my friend was the graphic designer, we were the pressing plant because we ran off all of the CDs, we were the distributor because we took them to the stores and we’re doing it on a fifty-fifty split.” All this to get signed to a major record company and get seventy cents. I’m like, “Wait a minute. How can I do it in the most primitive way possible and get fifty per cent of my product? But if I go the route that everybody wants you to go, you end up getting seventy cents.” But you’ve got to keep in mind that that’s the way you become famous. That’s the way you get on MTV. So they paint this picture that this is the glamorous route but nobody talks about whether this is the way you can make a living. A lot of the artists I work with I ask them, “Why are you doing this? Are you doing this to be rich? Are you doing this because you want to be famous? If you tell me why you are doing this then I can tell you the best route for you.”

How did you connect with BBE?
Jazzy Jeff: Through Masters at Work. Kenny Dope and Louis Vega are very good friends of mine. They have released a couple of compilations on BBE and they hooked me up with Pete from BBE who is based in London. But it’s wild because most of the record company owners are business men not music men. We talked about records, we went to record stores, we went beat shopping. And he’s a DJ and he was like, “I’m thinking about doing a series basically going to a pretty eclectic group of dope producers and just saying, ‘What makes you up as a producer?’ And answer that in a record.” And I was like, “Man, that’s incredible,” because you don’t get that amount of creative freedom. I was scared to go first; I was confused. I never had that amount of creative freedome. What was dope was Jay Dee going first. He set the precedent. For Jay Dee to start off with a really dope intro on some underground hip hop, then drop into a Donald Byrd remake of Think Twice, and then to go from there to a bounce records, it was like, “Wow, you covered the whole spectrum, and it was cool that you did because it made me respect you that much more as a producer.” Then myself, Kenny Dope, DJ Spinna, everyone was like, “OK, cool. Now we know what we want to do.” So it just became this really big eclectic group. Pete Rock decided to do an all-instrumental record. Will I AM covered all the bases. Marly Marl – it was good to get him back into the studio. To be given that much creative freedom, I had to jump on it.

DJ Jazzy Jeff - close-up fence

Going back to DJ-ing and turntablism, when did you first get behind the decks?
Jazzy Jeff: Well, from the time I was ten years old I really wanted to be a DJ. I remember going to the block parties in Philadelphia, riding my bike – I was ten or so years old. It was amazing. I was looking at this guy set up on a table on a sidewalk. He got speakers stacked almost to the roof, power amps, music blasting, nice bass, and he’s playing records and he’s got all these people in the middle of the street dancing. And I was like, “He is the captain of a ship. He is controlling everybody. If he takes the record off everybody stops dancing. That is the coolest job in the world and I want to be him. I want to be the guy that plays the record, I want to be the guy that sets the mood for the party, I want to be the guy that gets everybody on the floor. And I’m willing to take the chance that I may be the guy to get everybody off the floor.” But there’s no better feeling than that. I pretty much started around when I was 11 years old, 12 years old. And growing up in the hip hop scene made it even better. When I started DJ-ing, there was no hip hop records. We were playing all funk records, and soul records. When hip hop records came along it was like, “Oh, man, now I’m playing that I feel is mine.”

Who do you consider your contemporaries back then in Philadelphia?
Jazzy Jeff: Wow. There was Grandmaster Nel, Cosmic Kev. There were a bunch of guys who used to do all the parties and who were on the scene. That was one of the best parts of my career. It wasn’t about money. There was a couple of times we got fifteen or twenty dollars and at the end of the night we’d go get something to eat and all your money was gone. It was all for the love. It is amazing to play in front of a crowd of people who enjoy you and then you get paid. It’s almost like you’re cheating.

How old were you when you first started battling?
Jazzy Jeff: Probably around 16. That’s when that kind of started. I never considered myself a battle DJ. I was so cool with all the other DJs it wasn’t about competition with me. If I liked you and you had skills, I was cool with you. So it was kind of hard me battling because most of the guys I would potentially battle were my friends. I was very sharp, very precise and very serious about what I wanted to do but I had fun. I had so much DJ-ing and trying to be innovative and come up with new things. Looking back in my career I don’t think I pay attention a lot. It’s so much from my heart that I don’t get a chance to really think, “Wow, I’m really good.” I didn’t know I was good. I knew people liked me, but I never went around saying I was great. I was having fun.

DJ Jazzy Jeff - DJ-ing 1

So you never told people that you were the Magnificent?
Jazzy Jeff: No, I didn’t get all of that stuff until I hooked up with Will. Will was like, “I’m going to let the world know how dope Jeff is.” If you talk to him he will tell you, “Jeff don’t like that to the day.” There’s times I’ll do stuff and Will will want “The World’s Greatest DJ” and I’ll look at him and say, “Don’t call me that.” DJ-ing is something that’s not only based on skill, it’s based on luck because you have a technical aspect in DJ-ing. You have the whole aspect of equipment. You could be the greatest DJ in the world, and your equipment messes up, your needle skips and you’re wack. That’s what makes it great. That’s the challenge. Everybody wants to develop needles that don’t jump, everybody wants to develop the cross-faders and mixers that help you do all these tricks. To me, if you can do your routine with the possibility of the needle jumping, and it doesn’t jump… if you can do all these intricate scratches on a mixer that isn’t the best to do these scratches with, that’s the skill.

You took out the NMS in 1986. What are your memories of that competition?
Jazzy Jeff: It was great. It was funny because I got put in by Lady B who is a very big, famous lady hip hop DJ here. There were a couple of DJs that got tape of me and I could tell they were paying a lot of attention to me, and I had never been to New York to do any shows so no one knew what I had and they were trying to get me out of the competition because they paired me up with the world champion in the first round. I was kind of mad about it. There was this long, drawn-out introduction about him being the world champion and then, “Oh, and here’s Jazzy Jeff.” What was funny was I walked up to him – it was DJ Cheese – and I said, “Hey man how’s it going? I just wanted to say good luck.” And I stuck my hand out to shake his hand and he looked at my hand, and looked at me then walked away. It’s really funny because I’m the nicest person in the world. I’ts very hard to get me mad. That’s why I would never be a good battle DJ but him doing that to me made me mad. When it made me mad it gave me a very competitive edge. I went up there, and I just did what I could do. What he was doing was non-existent to me.

Did you enjoy the acting experience?
Jazzy Jeff: I enjoyed it but I didn’t enjoy it a lot. It was fun. It was pretty much done because that was pretty much Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on screen but that was absolutely not my motive. I didn’t want to be an actor, I didn’t want to be on screen. We had no idea that it was going to turn into how big it became where you have little old white women coming up to saying, “We love when you get thrown out of the house.” And they had no idea that I did any kind of music. It just showed you the power of television. But it wasn’t where I was trying to go. Will and I had set out a plan and a goal. He kept saying, “I want to do movies,” and I kept saying, “I want to do music.” And I get a lot of questions like, “How did you feel when Will left you?” And it’s like, just because I took a lot less glamorous route does not mean I’m unhappy. I’m probably the happiest that I’ve ever been and I’m extremely happy for him because of where he’s come from, how hard he has worked for it. We actually did the little kid dream thing, you know, sitting down saying “I want to be this” and “I want to be this” and to know that we worked for almost twenty years to make it happen is the greatest thing in the world.

- DJ Jazzy Jeff interview conducted 3rd July, 2002

More Jazzy Jeff: Official website MySpace Last.FM A bunch of videos Wikipedia

DJ Jazzy Jeff in Shanghai – live footage

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Seneferu Khepera November 8, 2011 at 7:58 am

Jeff has got to be the most humble people around. As the saying goes from “The Magnificent” “He does claim to be the best, but he easily could”. If I could just evelop half of his skill, I would be elated. Jeff is also a pretty good drummer as well. Peace

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