DJ Jazzy Jeff Talks Hip Hop Culture Then And Now, What New DJs Need To Do And Uncle Phil Just Before His Friday Night Show At It’ll Do.
“In west Philadelphia, born and raised on the playground is where I spent most of my days…”
If you were raised in the 90s’ like me – hopped up on Zebra Gum in your JNCO jeans as you destroyed your friend’s POGS with that sweet slammer — theres’s no doubt you can recite this song verbatim.
But regardless of age, the influence of hip hop culture and the DJs that continually push it forward can’t be ignored, especially now that it has become the dominant choice of music for Americans today. One of the greatest to ever lay hands on vinyl (FACTS), the selector DJ Jazzy Jeff, has been in the foreground of hip hop long before his iconic exits from the Bel Air mansion via uncle Phil.
I had the pleasure of speaking to the icon before he brings his talents to the Big D this upcoming Friday – breaking down the way music is created has changed, his newest album and what any aspiring DJs should be doing to shore up street cred.
Hip hop is now currently the most dominant genre in the U.S. I know that DJs have always played a big role in music circulation. What, since your beginnings, has changed to push the culture this far ahead?
I think that the biggest thing is that it’s global now. Hip hop wasn’t in Indonesia and Thailand and all these foreign places like it is now. It was still new and wasn’t even in some of the states. Hip hop was in New York, might have been in Connecticut, Philly, D.C. You can’t turn on the TV [now] without seeing the influence of hip hop in a commercial, on a TV show, in a theme song; it’s everywhere and it’s a blessing to be around and watch that growth from something that people thought was a joke to arguably being the biggest music in the world. You know what’s crazy to me? A big part of radio – especially black radio – was probably one of the last people that accepted the fact that hip hop was here to stay. I used to feel some kind of way about having radio stations that wouldn’t broadcast hip-hop. Hip-hop is black music you know what I mean? Radio stations didn’t embrace the culture, it almost took it to be embraced by television and media and all the rest of that so now you get stations to turn around like “Yeah, you know your top 10 is hip hop and R&B”…okay, what took you so long?
Every year you host an exclusive creative retreat for artists to hone their skills by interacting with some of your more well-known music friends. How does that work?
You know what’s funny: I got a bunch of DJs together for the purpose of us trading music and figuring out what are some of the things that can help us. It was really like let me just get some of my friends together and we started this. Then I wanted to invite some key influential producers that a lot of the other DJs play their music, it was just me picking up the phone calling people that I knew and then some of the people that I admired from afar and it just spiraled into what it is now. I equated this to me getting all the carpenters together and we’re just sitting down talking hammers and nails and how we can get better at building houses. This was me getting a bunch of the rookies together with a bunch of veterans in the NBA and the rookies are talking about their experiences and what they see and the veterans are showing the youngins’ the pitfalls. It was an even exchange between old versus new. Keeping it 100 percent real – as a DJ, we are servants of the people and I don’t care if you use a laptop, vinyl, a controller, you are a servant of the people and if the people are having a good time, you’ve technically done your job. And I understand there’s a bunch of debates between the purists on “They’re not using this” or “That’s not in the culture.” I’ve been doing this professionally for God knows how long, but someone who just started five years ago, do you criticize them because this is the time they were born and the time they entered into the DJ game? To me, there are a lot of people that are mad at what they had to go through and feel everyone else should go through the same struggles they did. Hell, if that were the case, we’d all be slaves! When me and Will [Smith] did shows, we weren’t getting paid what these guys are getting paid now, I’m not walking around saying it’s messed up that they’re getting $200,000 for a show, it was the time.
I’ve listened to your newest project Chasing Goosebumps twice now and it’s a neo-soul odyssey through black culture, politics and self-empowerment in America. I wanted to know where you were creatively when crafting this project?
I got a group of incredible people: musicians, producers and singer/song writers in a room and we created that in one week.
It was an exercise. I am a firm believer in independence, no one knows how to make music and know how it should sound better than the person [who] does it. So we took all of the middlemen out of the picture, got a bunch of creatives in a room and basically made the music that we wanted. It wasn’t genre specific, it was “We got Glenn and he’s going to sing everything” and we had writers come in. Like, when was the last time you heard music that gave you goosebumps? That was the whole thing when we went to piece this stuff together: if the music doesn’t give you goose bumps, throw it in the trash and let’s start over. So it was really an exercise and this is all a part of the retreat – to challenge creatives to get back into that mode. Let’s also talk about the fact of how nobody makes music together anymore. I’m going to make a beat and send it to you and you’re going to record the vocals and send it back. No. I’m going back to when we were all in the same room sharing ideas and bouncing those off of each other because that makes a difference in the music. Eric Roberson basically came up with the concept that we needed to chase goosebumps and that was it.
One of my favorite pieces on the album was “Die Empty.” What inspired that monologue?
My good friend Z-Trip told me about a book he had read and that was a passage in the book and I never forgot it. That conversation was one of the dozens of conversations we’d had while recording Chasing Goosebumps. I know some of the most incredible DJ’s, producers and artists that have some incredible music and I feel like they’re waiting for the magic wand to give them this success and fame before they share it with the world. My question is what if that day never happens? What do you do with all of that music? I’ve realized that I’m never going to release all of the stuff I’ve done. I have albums that I’ve done to clean my house and as a creative, when I feel like making some music, I just go make it and everything I do doesn’t have to be shared with everybody. There’s some shit that I share with my family, there’s some stuff that I put on SoundCloud, there’s some stuff that I just tuck away and that’s what you do as an artist. As an artist, I feel you need to get what’s in you out, and if you’re looking to come out and be sold, that’s never going to happen. So, God willing, the day that I leave this earth I want every piece of music that I’ve ever made to be put out for people to enjoy.
So we can look forward to DJ Jazzy Jeff’s entire catalogue when he passes?
[Laughs] Well, I won’t say it’ll happen just like that but I think that [music] was designed for people. Sell some of your stuff and, what you don’t sell, give it away. I believe your art out there has a better chance of bringing you something back than if you hold it in the house, on a hard drive – there’s no way that’s going to make you a dime.
To quote J Cole: “Rest in peace uncle Phil, for real.” As a black youth, James Avery was a positive father figure on TV for me and countless others raised on the show. What memory of him sticks out to you the most after knowing him as long as you did?
I really appreciated that he was a very big jazz head and he knew that I liked jazz. So many times he would call me into his dressing room and he would just give me CDs. “Yo, I know you like the Yellow Jackets, but listen to The Rippingtons.” And he was very big on traveling. Him and his wife would jump in the car in the summer and they would drive cross-country. He started to tell me about places I needed to go. He was basically trying to give me a blueprint for seeing the world; you have to see the world. We all know where we grew up and came from, but you have to see other cultures and learn their history all over and I really appreciated that. I’m from west Philly and there was a time when I had no plans of leaving west Philly. I thought, “I’m going to find my wife in west Philly,” “I’m going to raise my kids in west Philly” and it took someone to show me there’s a world outside of what you know and once you get a taste of it you can’t go back. That’s another thing I definitely appreciated about him.
Last year I interviewed a DJ of your caliber who lives in Dallas – DJ Spinderella…
That’s my girl!
Yes, sir. I asked her to give a little wisdom for DJ’s and artists out here grinding. She told them to step away from the technology for a little bit and experience the foundation, the culture of hip hop. What advice would you give to the aspiring DJ out here?
I would tell them that if you’re playing the same music, the same way as everybody else, why would someone pick you? You have to figure out what it is about you that makes you different from everyone else. You might play a specific genre of music, you might play it a different way, but why am I coming to eat at your restaurant if it’s got the same thing as the place down the street and you open at the same hours and you look the same? People tend to be around longer and have a greater impact when you have something that people are coming for. Get your foundation and understand your craft but once you do that, what is going to separate you from everyone else?
What’s something that separates you from other DJs?
Aw man, I don’t think I can answer that. I’ve been this way since I started so music is engrained in me. I don’t look at it like this is hip-hop, this is R&B…there’s good music and there’s bad music. I’ll be in the middle of a hip hop party and I’ll play some Brazilian shit if I think it’ll go over and people appreciate it. I grew up being a selector. Being technically skilled is a blessing, being a selector is a bigger blessing and being the technically skilled selector is the best of both worlds. I dig for music. I science out people’s body clocks to see how long I can hold someone before I need to send them to the bar or restroom. There’s times when you want to educate and there’s times when people don’t care and just want to party – it’s your job to figure that out.