One of the pioneers of hip-hop, Jazzy Jeff introduced many record-buyers to an underground world and helped to make it accessible. As he once again begins working with Will Smith, MusicTech are honoured to speak to a bona-fide legend…
From making colossal smash hit records such as Summertime and Boom! Shake the Room to being one of the inventors of the ubiquitous ‘Transformer Scratch’ to being repeatedly lobbed out of Uncle Phil’s Bel-Air mansion in one of the most treasured television shows of the 1990’s, Jazzy Jeff has been a high-profile figure in the world of music and popular culture for over 30 years.
Perhaps due to his comically naive, dumb persona on that legendary show, we were surprised to discover during our conversation with him that, in actuality, Jazzy Jeff is one of the more intelligent, deep-thinking interviewees we’ve ever had in these pages. His consideration for the science behind how music works and, indeed, his music-focused approach to everything he does was fascinating, refreshing and totally in-line with our philosophy too.
In west Philadelphia…
For Jeff, the road to stardom started at a young age. “I grew up in a really musical family,” he tells us. “My Dad was an MC for Count Basie, my older brother played bass with The Intruders and so music was always in the house. As the youngest, you’re the one that gets to soak it all up because you’re too young to really have an opinion.
“So I got a chance to listen to loads of different things. My Dad’s 78 jazz records and guys like Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith and then I got a chance to listen to my older brother’s records too, stuff like Earth, Wind and Fire and The Headhunters, so really I just absorbed all this musical knowledge without really knowing that I was doing that.”
It wasn’t just listening to music that Jeff absorbed at this stage – via his brother he started to understand the practicalities of record handling. “I was blessed with my brother giving me the ability to use his records and his stereo and, at eight years old, he taught me how to take records out of the sleeve, how to handle vinyl and put it on a turntable. This was all pre-hip-hop too, so when the hip-hop explosion happened it felt like ‘my’ music, and I already had all of this other knowledge of other music that I enjoy.
“I remember going to a block party and this guy had these huge speakers, and he was set up in a way that you couldn’t see him and all you could do was hear his voice and the music. All I did was sit there and stare at these big speakers and then just gaze out at these hundreds of people just dancing. I was like, ‘He’s controlling all of these people with the music he’s playing – I want to do that!’ I thought that was amazing.”
Once Jeff realised what his calling was, he seized any opportunity to get hands on with some DJing equipment.
“We had some older DJs on our block that I grew up with. Later on, one summertime, one of the guys across the road got this big 15-inch woofer speaker out on his porch and he’d just play music. All of the neighbours would let him. DJs like that would let me hang around them and I would help carry their records. It was funny because every once in a while they would give me the headphones and say ‘Alright, I need to go to the bathroom, when this record goes off, play this record’. I loved it, all of this was important learning and a vital stomping ground.”
Enter the Prince
As the years progressed, Jeff became one of Philadelphia’s top DJs, working with rappers and establishing a large fanbase. A chance series of events would flip-turn his life upside down.
“Well I started DJing and started making a name for myself in Philadelphia and basically I got a last-minute call to do some DJing. It was funny – we didn’t have cell phones back then, pagers or anything modern. The only way to get in touch with somebody was if they were in the house.
“So – luckily! – I was in the house one day and one of my friends called quite late and was like ‘Oh hey, a friend of mine is having a birthday party and they need a DJ, can you do it?’ So I called my DJing partner at the time – they were home too! – and they were like, ‘Yeah we can do it’.”
Jeff continues the story:
“The irony was that I had a guy that used to travel with me who was a rapper and he wasn’t home, so we ended up going to do the party without a rapper. It just so happened to be on Will Smith’s block. So Will comes into the party and, you know, I had seen him before but we’d never really met. I remember him coming up and asking, ‘Where’s Ice?’ [Jeff’s rapper]. I was like, ‘I couldn’t find him’. So he asked if he could rock on the mic. I said, ‘Go ahead’. Oh man, it was legendary. It was almost like we had been together forever.
“After that night it became one of those things where I sat down and thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ I thought this guy was incredible and so I ended up letting Ice go and Will and I started. That was the beginning. Just playing parties at first turned into, ‘Hey let’s make a demo’. That turned into, ‘Hey somebody wants to put a record out’. Then that turned into ‘What are we doing in London!?’ That’s how the ball started rolling for us.”
Break from the norm
For Jeff and Will (re-styled as The Fresh Prince) an internationally successful music career beckoned, with their singles, albums and tours presenting a less tough, more relaxed, inclusive version of hip-hop that made the genre more commercially viable and opened doors for many.
A particular example of this was their timeless Summertime. Their loveable personas and mainstream success yielded an opening on television, with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air being an instant hit with viewers.
“We definitely had a hand in popularising hip-hop. But you know, you never realise that you’re ‘making history’ or anything like that.” Jeff admits, “We were just having fun and were pretty astonished by the success.”
“If you make music, you hope and dream that you’ll have something that stands the test of time. Something that just never goes away,” Jeff says. “A real ‘classic’ that you can really be proud of. So to have something like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as well as something like Summertime… Having more than one ‘thing’ like that is mind-blowing.”
We ask Jeff if his approach to music-making has changed over the years as technology has evolved so much and what the differences are for him, in terms of mindset, between making a track and DJing?
“I’ve always been a tech-fanatic. Summertime and songs like that would not have sounded like they did if I wasn’t. As tech changed, I changed. The funny thing with me was that I never got rid of any of my old stuff. I’m standing in my old studio now, which is an eclectic mix of technology. I have the Neve mixing board which they recorded Sesame Street on – I love it. But it’s a wide range. I’ve always tried to stay ‘up’ on technology, but I also pay attention to sound.”
“I was having a conversation with someone yesterday and they were saying, ‘What you want to do is make music that sounds good. When all the technology has evolved and is all different and popular culture is wildly different, they’re still going to be playing Thriller’. That’s because it sounds great.”
“What you want to do is be inspired to write a piece of music not just because it feels great but because it sounds great and will stand that test of time. You can’t stick on Thriller and not agree that it’s an amazingly recorded album. So that’s one of the reasons why, for me, technology will always have a place, but I do not allow technology to block the music. Regardless of what tech you use, if the song sucks, it doesn’t matter! You have to make sure that you put the music at the forefront.”
Jeff says, “I learned a long time ago about a guy who had the biggest record in Philly at the time and he made it on a four-track. I realised that I have never in my life heard a music lover say, ‘I don’t like the mix’. They don’t care about that!.”
Jeff’s involvement with Pioneer, and his commitment to inspiring the next generation of DJ’s has been long-standing. The DDJ-SB3 marks Pioneer and Serato’s third variant of their entry-level controller series. It’s specifically tailored for Serato DJ. For the SB3 Jeff has contributed eight scratch recordings for its ‘Pad Scratch’ feature, this enables users to reproduce Jeff’s style in to their own performances. “I jumped at the chance to work on the SB3” he tells us.
The new version features:
- Standard DDJ-S series elements
Jog Wheels, Performance Pads, Play and Cue buttons, Auto Loop Buttons and easy-to-reach faders and knobs
- Pad Scratch
This function uses eight of Jeff’s scratch recordings and syncs them with whatever track you’re playing, to very cool effect.
- FX Fade
This reduces the volume and applies FX at the same time to smoothly blend tracks together. Includes a high-pass filter, low-pass filter, loop playback and back spin.
- High-quality design
Built from premium materials and internal circuitry, complete with aluminium jog wheel. The SB3 is a pro-built, entry-level product designed to appeal to the next generation of budding DJs.
Trapped on the dance floor
So with this music-oriented approach in mind, how does Jazzy Jeff class himself? DJ, producer or songwriter?
“Man I am all of the above. DJing gave me my love for music to the point that I wanted to be able to make every record that I heard. Every sound that I heard on a record I was like, ‘What is that sound? How can I make it?’ I wanted to know that anything that I heard I would have the ability to make – that’s what pulled me into production.
“The production side also helped the DJ side because, at the end of the night, I try to produce a DJ set like I would produce a record. I want it to be a journey – I want it to be a start, a middle and an end. You need to understand how psychology and body chemistry react to music. That involves learning which BPMs work together. Those are the ‘producer-brain’ things that I apply to everything I do in music.
“You know that these are things the general public knows, but don’t actually know that they know.” Jeff continues “It’s all in the ears and the head – If things don’t sound ‘right’ or feel ‘right’, they might not be able to articulate what just happened, but they feel it and know it. I’ve seen it happen.
“It’s not just the rhythm, but the music too. I’ve done tests in the studio with people and someone will start playing dark chords and the whole mood in the room changes. People get melancholy and they start reflecting on their life. Then you can play happy chords and everyone gets joyful, or angry chords that put a frown on your face! People don’t fully understand the extent of the power of music. It really affects people. To me it’s a beautiful thing. It’s great to have that power – to make people reflect by design without them realising it.”
He’s the DJ
One of the things for which Jazzy Jeff is particularly held in high regard for, in DJ circles at least, is being an inventor of the now-ubiquitous ‘Transformer scratch’ We ask Jeff how he created this technique.
“I don’t really classify myself as inventing anything,” Jeff says. “I’m one of those people that believes that everything was here, and all we ever do is take something and remix it and flip it and give it a new approach. When I started scratching I had a turntable setup in our dining room and it’s to my mum that I give the ultimate credit.
“My mom was very supportive. She could have said, ‘Oh that sounds like trash’ and it would have hurt my feelings and I probably would have stopped right then and there. But my mom was very supportive. I would throw jazz records on and I would scratch to the jazz records with a rhythm like I was part of the percussion. I wanted it to be pleasing to her ears. I didn’t want to just make noise. It was always an approach of, ‘I’m a percussion player and I’m just adding extra percussion on this.’ So, with that mindset I thought, ‘there’s a part that I’ll solo and a part that I’ll just play like I’m a member of the band’.”
Jeff tells us that this approach made it, “more tolerable to people who would say, ‘that’s a little weird, because I don’t generally like that scratching stuff, but that doesn’t sound too bad!’ People don’t actually need to know you’re scratching as you’re really adding to the track. Like I say, it was really born out of not doing something that my mom would call ‘noise’ and that made me approach things more rhythmically and pleasingly for the ear. All transforming is is cutting the signal on and off at a rhythmic pace that is really just on/off on a beat.”
Where did the name come from? “One of the first times I did it at an event, a friend of mine said, ‘Wow, that sounds like The Transformers cartoon when they open up’. That’s where the name came from!”
Jeff is highly engaged with providing the next generation of DJs with all the tools they need to experiment and get creative.
“I came in to Pioneer to help with some of the functions of their new DDJ-SB3 controller: to make it as accessible as possible. It’s an entry level controller and it’s designed to let newcomrs to DJing hone their skills. I got involved because I’m a firm believer in paying it forward and pushing the culture forward and I don’t ever want DJ culture to end with me. I also understand that my turntables alone are $700 a piece.
“If there’s a kid out there who wants to try out DJing – just to see if they like it – then there’s a massive financial barrier in the way. All in all for a decent DJing setup, it’s around $3000. Who has that to spend on something they might not be that into!”
“When Pioneer came and said, ‘We want to offer an affordable piece of equipment that will give the user an understanding of the skills required to DJ’, I jumped at the chance to help. I care about the 10-year-old that could be the next Jazzy Jeff. It’s no different from, say, a basketball or soccer player. You get them a ball, you give them some shoes and you let ’em play! You can tell when someone’s like: ‘You know what? I really like this!’”
The 2-channel Pioneer DDJ-SB3 is certainly revolutionary in its simplicity: combining the features of Pioneer’s SB2 with their top of the line Serato controllers, the SB3 features an intuitive layout that includes everything you’d expect: jog-wheels, performance pads, play and cue buttons and easy-to-reach knobs and faders with Jeff’s innovative scratch recordings easy to apply via the Pad Scratch option. “The SB3 really gives you a template on how to do it – and hopefully encourages the user to DJ how they want to DJ,” Jeff adds.
Though Jazzy Jeff is most famous for his DJing, he’s also a versatile, skilled producer, operating out of his awesome studio which contains a plethora of tech.
“I have four UA Apollos and I have two 710’s. I have a great balance of analogue and digital stuff. I put my Neve back in the room because I really wanted a summing mixer and a friend of mine was joking because I had the Neve broken down in the back and he was just like ‘Man, you’re looking for a summing mixer and you have the best summing mixer in the world’. So I ended up taking it back out and putting it in the room and you know I really enjoy that balance, going out of my computer and into the desk and then back out of the desk, back into my computer and listening to the saturation.”
Jeff tells us that “I’ve got a ton of analogue gear from Massenburg EQs to Pulteqs and I also have a load of plug-ins. In my ‘nerding-out’ times I’ll check which one sounds better or which one sounds different. You just get to a point I find where there’s no real better or worse, there’s just ‘different’. You have to decide on what you want for the track. What do you think will make this feel good? So you just kind of pick-and-choose.”
So, with a vast pop cultural legacy that spans music, DJing and TV, how does Jeff reflect on his career, and indeed, what has been his personal highlight? His answer surprises us…
“Oh for me, there’s not just one thing that I’m most proud of. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve done the thing that I’ll be most proud of yet. I know that sounds weird, but I really believe that what I’m supposed to do, I haven’t done yet. I still don’t know what that is and I’m comfortable not knowing what it is. I’m just allowing it to manifest itself.
“I built my studio not for myself but for other people – a collection of people – to come in here and make music. I wanted to create that space. I remember when I used to record on a four-track so now that I’ve got all this gear, I don’t want anyone to not be able to make the music they want to make. The studio is always full and I often get calls from friends asking, ‘Is anyone in the studio today? Can I come cut some drums?’”
We’re instantly enraptured by Jeff’s utopian, musician-network building end goal and press him more on the subject.
“Well, starting this collective of musicians also allows me the ability to call upon musicians when I need them,” he admits. “If I need drums cut then I know I’ve got around 20 drummers that I can call! We all put stuff in the pot and we all help each other with our records. We can all just share our skills with each other. That is, I think going towards what I’m really here to do.”
Jeff informs us that, every year, “I do a creative retreat at my house, this year coming up will be the fourth year. It’s mainly for independents and people who are trying to put music out themselves. We’re trying to help give them the tools that will enable them to get their music out, but like I said it’s also really to create this giant network.”
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘What is your motive?’ I said, ‘My motive is to create a network of producers, musicians, singers, songwriters and MCs, rappers and performers so that I can make music until the day I die. All I really want is to start this network of people to make music with. Makingmusic by yourself isn’t as fun, I don’t think.”
Everything that glitters…
Jeff has recently reunited with Will Smith, and the pair are currently working on new material together, as well as taking to the stage for some rare live appearances.
“Yeah, me and Will have been doing a few shows, we did some last year and are talking about doing some new stuff. The biggest thing with Will and I is always scheduling,” Jeff explains. “I’ve told people that the desire to make music together has never left, but with Will you’re talking about arguably the biggest movie star in the world. What we fight more than anything is time.”
We move on to discuss what Jeff would advise anyone hoping to embark on a similar career to the one he’s enjoyed, Jeff takes his time and considers his answer.
“That’s hard because when the times change, situations change. As much as I would want to tell someone that, ‘You know what, you have to be original’ or ‘stand out’ or that sort of thing – that’s the kind of advice I’d have given 25 years ago – right now it’s almost like you have to be like everybody else to get heard! I hate that. I don’t want to give anyone bad information, that’s why the advice that I’d have given when I was younger isn’t really the best advice for them to succeed.”
But the one thing that modern music makers do have, that Jeff, Will and more longed to have back in the day is audience access.
“The thing I do love about the industry now is social media: If Will and I had it back when we started out, we’d have sold 100 million records… Will and I never had direct access to our fans – it went through our record company. We couldn’t connect with our fans. That’s what social media is for me. Everybody who just loves who you are, you can very easily just say, ‘Hi!’