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Unexpected journeys with DJ Jazzy Jeff

"A good night is when the ebbs and flows change three or four times because that’s when everybody walks out and says they had a good time."

  • Marcus Aurelius Maurice
  • 11 January 2016
Unexpected journeys with DJ Jazzy Jeff

Ask any hip-hop DJ worth their weight in salt who their favorite DJ is and nine times out of 10 the words Jazzy Jeff will be uttered immediately. Yes, Q-Bert is otherworldly with scratching. Yes, Z-Trip plays so many songs that no one ever dared to play in a hip-hop set before. Yes, Funkmaster Flex has dominated the airwaves in New York City for nearly two decades. But none of these three hip-hop legends comes close to Jazzy Jeff in all-round party rocking ability.

Jeffrey Townes came into the public eye as one half of the PG-rated rap group DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. With his partner, now global megastar Will Smith, Jeff became half of the first hip-hop act to win a Grammy. Soon, Jeff was a recurring character on the 1990s smash hit, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, usually getting tossed out on his ear by Uncle Phil. After The Fresh Prince went off air, Jeff got into producing and started working with neo-soul artists like Jill Scott, Musiq Soul Child, as well as rappers like Eminem, The Roots, Talib Kweli and more. Jeff now makes a living by touring the globe and rocking parties worldwide. He posts weekly updates on his YouTube show, Vinyl Destination.

Watching DJ Jazzy Jeff is like seeing a world-renowned chef cook the most mouthwatering meal of sonic stew that you will ever have in your life. When he gets behind the decks, he plays samples, remixes, classics, accapellas, tracks that only he has and 10-second snippets of one song which blends perfectly into the next 20-second snippet of a song. His sets always cover all the bases from funk to Latin to party rock to dubstep to house and soul. His nickname, The Magnificent, is fitting because there is no one who really does it better than he does.

Jazzy Jeff spent a few days aboard Shipsomnia earlier this January and we first found him getting a dose of Amtrac on the first night. He had a whole crew with him and he didn’t hold back talking to fans, snapping flicks and taking in the stunning sunsets over the Andaman sea. His late night party rocking set on day two kicked off with Major Lazer’s Lean On before going deeper in the hip-hop. We sat down with him that same evening at dusk and talked about his travels in Asia, his words of wisdom about the DJ culture and the backstory to his upcoming tour with the Fresh Prince.

You play in Asia on the regular. Is it just another gig for you or is there anything that excites you about the region?

Man, I get a little bit different excited in every place that I go. I pretty much tour Europe twice a year, I tour Asia and Australia once a year and the rest of the time North America. It’s very different in different places and the energy is very different. So it’s not a better or worse – it’s just different levels of excitement. I always get excited because I only come here once a year. People are very inviting and very friendly, they’re very music oriented and I just enjoy it. You have this little bit of mystery about being so far away from home and on the other side of the world, when it’s cold at home it’s warm here. It’s just really really exciting and I get chills every time I know an Asia tour is about to happen.

What are the differences between the music scene in Asia versus other parts of the world?

Everywhere is a little bit more advanced than North America, it’s sad to say and shocking. You get a lot of people that think that America is at the forefront but I find most of the interesting music outside of North America and then it comes there later. I get a chance to experience that because I travel so much that I get to see it first hand. I’m on the other side of the globe and I get records and I’m like ‘Oh my God this is so cool’ and then six months later someone’s playing it in the United States. Then I’m kinda like ‘I’ve had that for six months’.

In the rest of the world, people are just a little bit more open and a little bit more free, so you can experiment and push the boundaries a little bit more than you would in America. I definitely enjoy that. I’m feeling all kinds of music from all over the world, so wherever I go and hear someone play something really cool and interesting, I ask what it is. You really want to try and get to know some of the music outside of your own territory.

What are some of the changes you have noticed over the past few years in the club scene in Asia? Do you think the DJs are getting better?

Absolutely. I do a lot of stuff with RedBull Thre3style, which is a really big international DJ competition that covers all the bases of DJing like mixing to scratching to crowd participation, and over the last five years I have seen the international talent get really really good. Like you can tell that the scenes are cultivating and growing in territories from Korea to Ukraine, you just see how it’s grown. One of things that I’m really pushing is the better the DJs, the better the parties and the better the parties, the more people enjoy them and the happier they are. We want to create a healthy scene because that helps the whole DJ network globally.

What are the positives that are coming out of the competition for the DJ culture in general?

It goes back to the talent getting a lot better. People are getting a lot more into the idea of DJing and what an actual good DJ can do. To me, a great DJ can change someone’s life. Depending on the record they play, you can make a memorable moment for somebody. And I think that once people start understanding that it’s not just playing records – you can give 10 DJs 10 records and all of them will play them differently. It’s how long you play them, what order you play them in, the volume – there are so many little nuances that the person in the middle of the dance floor doesn’t really understand but something very subtle can change that. The competition is also teaching all of those aspects. It’s not just about playing a whole bunch of records with a bunch of people in front of you. People often ask how some DJs can play the same records and get a different reaction, and that’s because of those little nuances.

So you were talking about there being one moment that can change a person’s life, what was the one song, one DJ or one rapper that made you fall in love with hip-hop in the first place?

I don’t know if there was one song. You know it’s funny because I always say that special moments are timestamps and those timestamps can be a picture of something, it can be a sound and sometimes it’s hearing the right record in the right club with the right people that will make you fall in love with the song. There are songs that I absolutely hated and walked into a club when someone was playing it and was just mesmerized. Now every time I hear that song, my brain automatically goes to that moment and that happens with people. It can be like ‘Ok, he played this record and I looked over at a girl and 10 years later we were married.’ Then every time I hear that record, it will remind me of that moment. So you want to try to set up those moments for people and you never know when you are or when you’re not but that’s the goal. And when you get that random tweet or that random Facebook message that I was at such and such and you changed my life, I kinda know what someone means.

You’ve talked before about throwing curveballs to audiences and surprising them with tracks they thought they would never hear out at a club. Besides yourself, who do you think is another DJ that does this well?

All of the good ones…

I can’t really just pinpoint one. Your job as a DJ is to take people on a journey and sometimes a journey needs to be unexpected. I’ve always felt that when you walk out of a club, people don’t necessarily talk about the night and all the records they expected you to play, they talk about the few they didn’t expect you to play. You’re never gonna kill the party doing it—if you do it smart.

I look at it like there was a point in time that I wasn’t really into Soca music but if I was at a party and the DJ played Soca music, I never left. You would go get a drink, talk to a girl, but you never left. You understand that a party has ebbs and flows for everybody, so if you just pick your spots then you don’t need to worry about killing the party. You know that this is the time you need to go to the bar and get a drink.

I think that a good night is when the ebbs and flow change three or four times because that’s when everybody walks out and says they had a good time. No one’s going to be on the dance floor for six hours straight, rarely, yet if you give them their fill, they go home happy.

What is the most Philadelphia thing about you?

(heh heh hehhhhhh)

My attitude. I have a very blue-collar attitude; you know I love everything that I do. But anytime someone sees me play, it’s almost like it’s the first time I’ve ever played in my life because you have a level of appreciation for it. It’s like now, I’m on a cruise ship and I’m playing music for people, it doesn’t get any better than that. What could you possibly be mad about? And having that attitude and appreciation, it never gets old.

How do you think fame changed you from the person you were during Fresh Prince versus who you are today?

Just the amount of people that recognize me.

Me, personally, it hasn’t changed anything at all and that was a very big conscious effort. The more fame you have, the more problems you have – so it’s not like that gets easier. You also don’t know what to expect until you have it, and once you have it you kind of understand what it is and the longer you have it, the more level it gets. Then you try to warn people because it’s not exactly what you think it is.

I try to navigate very quietly and you just learn to appreciate it.

Is there anything better than winning a Grammy?

There are a lot of things in the world better than winning a Grammy. It’s not like you don’t appreciate it, it was an incredible accomplishment. But it’s funny because when we won the second Grammy, I probably had like US$500 in the bank. So it was definitely one of those tap you on the shoulder, eye openers that you know, sometimes being on the top of one place doesn’t mean you’re on top of every other aspect of your life and that really puts things into perspective. I’ve had people ask me at what moment in my life was I the happiest and it was when no one knew me. Like every moment that I trace to being happy had nothing to do with what I’m doing.

What are three skills that every great DJ must have? Who has those to you?

Patience—first one. My job is to get people every time I play, sometimes you get people as soon as you walk on stage, sometimes you get them after the third record, sometimes it takes an hour and you have to have the patience to know that sometimes it’s going to be a bit of different night. If I get them on the last record, fine because the job is to get them whether it be before I start, in the middle or at the end but patience is definitely one.

You have to have humility to be able to learn from anybody that this is never something that you’re going to know. Every day, the older that I’ve gotten and the longer that I’ve done it, the more I get excited to learn. I think that’s where the longevity comes in.

And I think you just have to have the love for what you do. I hate when I can see people play and I feel like they’re just playing to get a check because you can feel that. If you pay close enough attention, you can really feel when someone doesn’t enjoy what they do. I kinda look at being a DJ as being a football player or a basketball player, as in this is something that you do in the school yard for free that you got good enough that someone paid you to do it, you should never lose that schoolyard appreciation. That’s really important and people can tell that, I think somewhere they can feel the authenticity.

Do you still practice deejaying?

You know what’s funny, I have been one of those kinds of people that has never practiced in my life. I don’t really understand what practicing is. And I say that because I think I do and I just don’t really understand it just like I don’t really understand what studying was in school. People would ask if I studied for the test and I just didn’t know how to study. Is that just reading over the material that someone is going to ask? If that’s the case then yeah, I do that – I’ll randomly just go into someone’s house and play music for my wife and kids for three hours and everyone is dancing.

I’ve seen people go over the same thing over and over and I’ve never done that, which to me is like a gift and curse because I feel like so much of what I do comes naturally. There have been times that I’ve done stuff that was great and I’ve only done it once because the only way I’m going to remember it is if I record it. There are times where I’ve been like ‘I did something last night but I can’t remember how I did it’ because it was just so spur of the moment. So it’s a gift and a curse but any random person that comes into my house will be like, ‘Oh my god, Jeff just DJed for like three and half hours and did the most incredible shit.’ So if that’s considered practicing, then I’ll do that until the day I die.

But do you ever just go home and look at them and play by yourself?

All the time. I love discovering new music and I also love discovering music that I haven’t played in a while. You really only play a certain amount of records, and there are times where I will hear a DJ play a record I haven’t played in five years and light bubble will go off that I need to grab that and put it back in. So a lot of the time it’s just rotating the music that you play. Rotating different sets. Especially someone like me who plays more open format, I’ll play anything as long as it makes people move.

You seem to always be in the cutting edge of technology. How have companies like Serato changed deejaying to you?

It’s made music so much easier to carry. Serato came along at a time where airlines were going through a time with baggage where it turned into only being allowed 40 pounds per traveller. Each of my record cases were 50 pounds and I would take three, so when I was taking three record cases and my luggage I was three bags over every time I went anywhere. So when I’d come home from a tour after having spent $3,500 on overweight baggage, it started to really make sense. And you don’t want to cheat people of the musical experience so it wasn’t about carrying less music. So it came along at a really good time and the technology kinda fit in the moment. Especially for someone who played vinyl, I was seeing record companies press less vinyl so I was getting nervous—like if I can’t get it, I can’t play it, so that helped to. I tell people all the time, everybody has all the records now but it doesn’t help you be a better DJ—if you sucked before Serato you’re gonna suck after Serato. The only thing that it does…is give you the ability to carry your entire library.

What other technologies have really changed it for you and made life easier?

I am a gadget fanatic. I get a kick out of it when someone comes up to me and gives me something that makes life easier or makes things navigate more smoothly. Look what you’re doing with your cell phone, you’re asking questions from your cell phone, you’re recording on your cell phone and you can get a call and answer a text. We didn’t have that 20 years ago. It was 10 different devices. It’s the same with DJing – DJ mixers now have everything that you want. Before you had this machine, this machine, and this machine and now it’s all in one machine and it just makes everything easier. Now, my music is on my computer and anything that allows me to do the job to the best of my ability, I love.

Do you have a favorite city to play in around the world? Why is that place your spot?

I don’t have one favorite. I have a lot of favorites. I love Tokyo. Tokyo is a place I always look forward to. Malaysia is another place that I always look forward to because the people in Malaysia are so friendly. Malaysia and Ireland are two places that I’ve traveled to that throw people off. Like there is no way that these people know so much about music, and I would play the most obscure shit and everyone would go crazy.

Will there be a Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince album and tour in 2016?

A tour is absolutely going to happen. We had a chance to sit down when he was filming Suicide Squad, because every time he shoots a movie I’ll do the opening party and every time I do the opening party, we end up doing a performance and people are absolutely shocked at how we don’t have to see each other for two years and we can walk on stage and have the same eye signals and perform the show in a way that people don’t believe that we did it without rehearsing. And every time we walk off stage, he’s like ‘Yo, you know we can go on tour’ and I’m like ‘I’m already on tour, I’m waiting for you’.

So the last time in Toronto really resonated with him and it was the longest we had to sit down and really talk about it. And then all of a sudden he was like, ‘Me and Jeff are going on tour this summer’ and I was like ‘OK.’

Are you going to come to Asia?

It’s going to be a world tour. We’ve gotten offers from all over the world and they’re working out the logistics right now. The easy part for me is that I’ve been touring for the last 25 years so I’m cool, I’m just waiting for all the rest of the pieces to fall into place.

It’s funny because two years ago, I did Dubai for New Years and he was like, ‘What are you doing for New Years?’ and he would always ask me what I was doing and he would never show up so I just kinda blew him off, but he was really like, ‘I think I might come’ and I just texted him and said ‘OK’ and then all of a sudden he was like ‘I really think I’m gonna come’ and I was like, ‘Well, he’s never said it twice’.

So he said send me the info, so I sent him all the info and my manager called and said that his security details called for all the layouts of the place and she said ‘I think this is going to happen’. And he showed up, and there were 18,000 people on the beach. He was absolutely shocked to see how things were. He came on stage and we rocked, and he stayed and sat next to my wife and danced the whole night. He was asking her questions the whole time, like ‘Is it always like this?’ so I think he’s just really excited. He came to Dubai so he’s half way there.

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