DJ Jazzy Jeff Interview: “Looking back, all of it had a level of impact”
Ahead of his appearance at Liverpool Disco Festival and reunion with Will Smith in Blackpool, Shaun Ponsonby talks to Jazzy Jeff about his career.
As soon as I heard his voice, I jumped out of my skin.
“Hey, this is Jeff!”
I’d recognise that sound anywhere!
I am confident that the vast majority of my generation grew up with this man in one way or another, be it on hits like Summertime and Boom! Shake The Room or as Will Smith’s low rent, dim witted friend Jazz in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The image of Uncle Phil literally throwing him out of the mansion every other week is one of our defining images, and I defy anybody to challenge the claim.
But having played a key character in such an iconic TV show, it is perhaps easy to forget how serious DJ Jazzy Jeff is about music. As one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince with Smith, he chalked up a plethora of hits, and the duo even won the first rap Grammy in 1988.
Despite the goofiness of the duo’s image, Jeff managed to keep everything from edging into out-and-out ridiculousness. His skill as a DJ and producer is probably underplayed slightly, but the impact of those records are palpable.
Disappointingly, he isn’t calling me from West Philadelphia, where he was born and raised, but Los Angeles, which is almost like life imitating art. But he sounds chilled out, laid back and completely affable.
One can’t help but go into this thinking of his freestyle poetry on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
My love for you is like a river
Like a summer breeze that makes my soul shiver
One look from you is more precious than gold
Let’s go get some barbecue and get busy
Planet Slop: I think a lot of people think of you as a hip-hop DJ, so in terms of Liverpool Disco Festival are you going to do anything different for that, or are you just going to go out and do your usual thing?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Well, you know what’s funny is I play everything. I came up when it wasn’t just hip-hop. I enjoy playing music that makes people move. So I enjoy playing festivals where I can stretch out a little bit more and play a little bit more up-tempo and play, you know, just really, really cool stuff to make people dance. So I’m extremely looking forward to it.
PS: Yeah, they did it the first time last year and it just took off, the whole vibe was great.
PS: I’ve seen some of your sets on YouTube, and I’m just going to brown nose you for a minute, because skill-wise you’re like Eddie Van Halen is on guitar or like Buddy Rich is on drums – and you are very fast and you switch things up very quickly. So I was wondering how much planning goes into that, or is it all off the cuff?
DJJJ: It’s a little bit of both. I may have about 100 set and I play in between all 100, and I’ll have a folder of stuff that I really want to play; these are my classic stuff, these are my curveballs. And so what I’ll do is, I’ll get on a roll and bounce between all these folders, and if you feel that right now is the time to maybe go for something a little more up-tempo, you can jump right into that folder.
PS: So you have a sort of half idea, and then feel the crowd out and play to them?
PS: You probably helped bring scratching into the mainstream, and I actually found a record from about 1985, I think it was called Jazzy Jeff Scratch…
DJJJ: Oh, wow!
PS: Yeah, I did some digging! Was that before Will came along?
DJJJ: Yeah! That was very close to around the same time, and I did some records with some local people before Will and I kinda came out.
PS: How did Will come into your life, because I believe you were already a popular DJ in Philadelphia by that point?
DJJJ: Oh, you know what? The DJ’s knew a lot of the MC’s, and I knew of him, just bumping into each other at different events. And we just so happened to be at an event together one night, and I didn’t have an MC, he asked if he could get on the mic. And it was just a very natural chemistry between the both of us that I almost felt that he knew what I was going to do before I did it, and I kinda knew where his punchlines would fall, so I would drop the music out so that he could deliver the punchline and then bring it back. And not really knowing each other, it was crazy for that level of chemistry to be there, and that basically started it. Then the next night I was like “Hey, what are you doin’?” and 30 years later we’re still doing it.
PS: I kinda feel like DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s impact is underplayed a little bit these days, so how important do you think that you were in introducing hip-hop to a more mainstream, pop audience?
DJJJ: Well, I think looking back all of it had a level of impact. The fact that we were on a TV show opened a lot of eyes and a lot ears to people on what we were doing. All of it had something to do with making it mainstream. Will was pretty much the first rap artist to get into acting and doing television. It was kinda frowned upon when he first did it, and now everybody does it.
PS: On the subject of the TV show, I don’t know what it is like in America, but over here I’d say The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a generation defining show, but it was also a very strange career move. So how did it actually come about?
DJJJ: I think from us doing some of the videos that we were doing, they took notice that Will had some level of acting talent. I remember we were on tour and he got a call, and was like “They want me to come to LA to read for a TV show”. Of course, because this was so new, we just kinda blew it off, like “OK”. And he came back the next day and was like “Hey, I got a TV show”, and once again, just kinda blew it off, just kinda like “Yeah, whatever”. It wasn’t until they shot the pilot and came round with a video tape, and we sat down and watched it, and I was like “Oh, shit! This is a real TV show, with real actors and a script?” And I know some of the people who were in this! That was the first time that we looked at it like “This is real, this is happening”. And that was it, it took off.
When he went to do the very first one was when he called and said that because of the video stuff they wanted me on the show, and I didn’t really have an interest in it, because I was so much into music. But it was really like “You know what? This might be kinda fun.” I went out and did it, and was on the show for six years.
PS: I always remember your first scene where you do that drum solo. I wouldn’t be surprised if that one scene convinced my brother to become a drummer, to be honest with you!
DJJJ: [Laughs] I love it!
PS: I can’t imagine you ever thought you would be on a TV show…
PS: Were you anything like the character of Jazz, was he based on you at all?
DJJJ: No, what I tell people is that I did not know how to act. They basically gave me lines and I said the lines, and people laughed. But I was just kinda like “OK, I have no idea why this is like it is, but I’m not gonna question it!” I’ve never wanted to take acting lessons, I’d never wanted to do anything, it was just one of those things. But when I did it, people laughed and that was…you know, don’t try to figure it out.
PS: The whole getting thrown out of the mansion thing, which became such a popular running joke – was that the same shot every time?
DJJJ: Erm…it was the same shot to a certain degree.
PS: Because I remember you always seemed to be wearing the same shirt.
DJJJ: Yeah, because it became this thing that whenever I walked in with that shirt on, everybody laughed – they knew what was coming. It was cool, it was really cool.
PS: The workload must have been huge at the time, because you were still doing the records, and the promotion, and now the TV show, so how did you cope with doing all of that stuff at the same time?
DJJJ: When you are in the middle of it, you never think about it. It was just like, this is great! It was just non-stop. We looked at it like it was just something we had to do. We had really no off-time, from the way that the TV show was shot, and then us going on the road. We had Summertime and The Fresh Prince out at the same time, so it was just non-stop.
PS: Since you mention Summertime, I think of all the records you did as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, it is probably the one that has endured the most, you still hear it every summer.
DJJJ: Yes, definitely.
PS: I’ve read quite a lot of people believing that Rakim had something to do with it – and you’ve denied that many times – but why do you think people thought that Rakim was involved in the track?
DJJJ: I think that more than anything, Will’s delivery on it was very laid back. Will is a very hyper person, and the concept of the song was so chilled and so groovy that we suggested that he bring his vocal tone down and laid back a little bit, which is very similar to Rakim. You have never heard Rakim excited on a record. So it was all about getting Will to drop into “This is the kind of music that was made, and this is how you need to deliver it”. And that’s where the correlation came in.
PS: I think it is Summer Madness by Kool & The Gang is the sample on Summertime?
PS: I’m interested to know how you write around the sample. Do you just find a groove and write around that? Or do you have an idea and find a groove that will work for the idea?
DJJJ: A lot of the times when I’m making sample based music I’ll find something that feels really good, and you programme drums around it to see if it’ll fit, then if it fits you just expand on the idea. And that was just one of them things, that [Summer Madness] was one of my favourite records. So when it was pieced together, it worked.
PS: You also had a number one in the UK around that time with Boom! Shake The Room, which I think was a much bigger hit here than it was in America. Is it fair to say that was a bit of a reaction to the rise of gangsta rap? Because it is a bit more aggressive than what you had done in the past.
DJJJ: You know what? I have no idea what happened with Boom! Shake The Room. The funny thing is that everybody has an idea about what will work. I think what I realised, especially with something like Boom! Shake The Room, is you have no clue. Because I couldn’t see that working at all. I could see people liking it, but when that became one of our biggest international records, it let me know that you have to take your hands off of the wheel and just let whatever’s gonna happen, happen.
PS: And it wasn’t long after that Will went off into his movie career, and he started releasing records just as Will Smith, but you were often involved in the production on those.
PS: So, was there just a feeling that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince had just sort of run its course?
DJJJ: I had a lot of bad experiences in the music industry, and when we went to do the deal over at Sony, I really needed a break from actually being signed. Every record that Will has made, I have some level of involvement. But I’d rather my involvement be behind the scenes than on the album covers. Being signed to a record company for ten years and just some of the pitfalls of the music industry really damaged me, to the point where I did not want to sign my name on a recording contract. And that’s basically it. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince never stopped behind the scenes, it got stopped on a piece of paper.
PS: Did Will actually intend to quit music, then? Because he hasn’t released any for a very long time.
DJJJ: No. I mean, listen, I’m supposed to talk to him later on this week about going in the studio and doing some shows. He really, really wants to do it, but he is arguably one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
PS: I think that’s without question!
DJJJ: I think it drives him crazy, because he wants to do it, and it is a conflict between him and the movie crowd. So, I feel bad because he really, really wants to do it.
PS: I think we all do! I can imagine the world’s arenas being filled with “Willennials” if it does! Moving on, I was actually looking at a list of the people you supposedly helped develop…
DJJJ: For real?
PS: Yeah, I was kinda shocked at some of the names on there – people like Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, I think Eminem was one of them. When it says you helped develop their careers, what does that mean?
DJJJ: Well, you mentioned a lot of people that I worked with, and I worked with them before they got really popular. I’m feeling the music, I don’t care how big someone is. If I like what you do, I’m very quick to be like “Hey man, let’s do something together”. Eminem had out a couple of very small, independent records. But I thought he was one of the greatest lyricists that I had ever heard. I reached out, I said “I’d really like to do something”. Not too long after that he blew up. But I don’t look at it like I’ve developed anyone, as much as if I’m a fan of what you do, maybe I can invest time and energy before someone else. I thought he was great.
PS: I told some friends of mine that I was talking to you – and they all freaked out, by the way – but one of them told me to check out an album you did recently with Glenn Lewis called Chasing Goosebumps, and I found out you made it in seven days…?
DJJJ: Seven days!
PS: Was that intentional, or did it just happen that way?
DJJJ: It was very intentional! It was really an exercise amongst a bunch of creatives. People take, you know, eight months to complete a project. We were just talking like “You know what? I make music, I know how long it takes to make music. I know how long it takes to make great music. So why not do it?” So we basically challenged ourselves to write and record it in seven days, and the company Stems, which is an amazing company that can put your music out on all of the platforms, within pretty much three or four days and all the money that is collected basically goes directly into your account. They solved the transparency.
PS: The first track on there, Distraction, I thought was really Gil Scott-Heron-ish…
DJJJ: I think it just came out that way. The funny thing is the title of the project, Chasing Goosebumps, came from when we were talking about what we want to achieve, musically. And we really wanted to make music that evokes some kind of emotion. Goosebumps are transferable. If there’s some music that makes you feel really, really good, why not make someone else feel really, really good. So the whole idea was that we don’t care what type of genre, hip-hop, rock, funk, soul. As long as it feels good, we’re good with it. And that was it, so we were just trying to tap on any kind of music that made you feel good. It might have been Gil Scott, it might have been a million ideas.
PS: I guess all music just uses the same notes, you know what I mean?
DJJJ: Yes, definitely.
PS: What’s next for you after this project?
DJJJ: Like I said, the whole idea of this company Stems, and the transparency and being able to get your music out. Now that we have realised that we can do this, and that this works, I don’t think I am ever going to stop releasing music. I think this is opening Pandora’s Box, this album is being received very well. We did this as a little project, and it charted on Billboard, and we didn’t expect that. We just wanted to make some good music. What it basically shows is there are a lot of people that like good music. So we’re just kinda like “OK, now that we know that it works let’s keep giving them good music.”
PS: Probably the best way to go, I reckon the industry is gonna end up going that way anyway.