DJ Jazzy Jeff is in just as much awe as everyone else, taking in the sprawling metropolis laid out before the W Hotel Taipei. “This is amazing,” he says from the immaculate 10th-floor pool deck, enamored by not only the sweeping city views, but also the manmade green oasis decorated with ivy walls, spindly trees and peaceful, picturesque nooks. As he imagines what the space would look like if he were here in June and not January, it’s hard not to imagine his and Will Smith’s anthemic (and Grammy award-winning) 1991 hit, “Summertime,” queued up to soundtrack the hypothetical party. But as Jeff gawks at the sights, the real on-site marvel—and part of the reason scores of worldwide DJs have flocked to Taiwan’s buzzy capital—is him.
The man born Jeffrey Allen Townes has spent the better part of his week in Taipei bonding with not only his Vinyl Destination tour bredren Rhymefest and Dayne Jordan, who came along for the trip, but also with what feels like a brotherhood (and sisterhood!) of DJs striving to keep the culture alive. Prior to his rooftop break, Jeff sat in front of a packed room of Red Bull Music 3Style attendees leaning forward in their seats, listening to him backtrack his journey from being a West Philadelphia “street DJ” to rocking booths and stages all around the world.
The animated tone made familiar by his character’s witty quips on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air hasn’t changed too much. He still sounds borderline cartoonish when he cracks well-timed jokes or cuts the air with cuss words. Only now, that signature voice belongs to a more relaxed, less wiry, and salt-and-pepper haired Jeff. “She’s in the kitchen cooking. She had to endure me working out stuff without her saying, ‘This sh*t is getting on my nerves, can you turn that down?’” he said, drifting down memory lane. Jeff, now 54, still remembers the days of his mother tolerating his many teenaged practice sessions.
At the time, he was dealing with a scrappy starter setup in his dining room: Technics B101, mismatch turntables that jumped, needles with tape on them. Essentially a janky operation he made work. “I found myself practicing cuts that I felt would make my mom pleased. If I’m practicing something to a specific song, how can I become a part of this song? How can I become a percussion in this song instead of fighting against it? I almost want my mom not to know that I’m scratching over it because I’m so much embedded in the song that [I’m] cutting on. That kind of developed somewhat of a style.”
When not doling out anecdotes like this and advice to turntable enthusiasts, he’s spinning for the international audiences that still love him. Before taking on his official judging duties alongside DJ Skratch Bastid, DJ Nu-Mark, Nina Las Vegas and DJ Craze—they eventually crowned Bay Area DJ, J. Espinosa the Red Bull 3Style IX World Finals champion—he spun to a sold-out crowd of over 3000 people at Taipei’s temple-laden national landmark, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. You can consider Jeff the OG of the multi-genre DJ competition that has crowned winners in France, Canada, Azerbaijan, Japan, Chile, Poland, Taiwan, and looking to Russia next year, all thousands of miles away from the Pennsylvania city that launched his career.
Jeff’s infectious charisma makes plain that he is still equally as excited about his career as when it kicked off in Philadelphia over 30 years ago. “I think that if there is anything that keeps me going, it’s me realizing that I play music to make people have a good time,” he says from a break room at the W, after dapping up and taking pictures with the diverse room. “It’s just really paying attention to how things change, and [then] adapting.”
Funny enough, Jeff didn’t want to even leave Philly at first. In a shocking confession—and one that he says Will still won’t let him live down—he turned down an opportunity for the two of them to tour Africa when the duo started getting hot. As he says, he just wanted to live off the local success and ride around his city in peace. Then in 1998, he wised up. A show in Bristol, England was the first time he realized the viable success of touring as a DJ. Hearing the cheers from the modest-sized audience, one so far removed from the comfort of his state lines (and getting paid that lump sum immediately), “fed his soul.” Once he got a taste, he just couldn’t stop.
“It’s a big world out there,” Jeff says, grinning. At some point, he had to start bringing his homies along to witness his new reality every time he booked a gig. “I am going to bring you ‘cause you gotta see this sh*t. You don’t understand… you’re at the house party, at the ballroom party, thinking that ‘this is it,’ and there are 50,000 people on the beach [abroad] enjoying this music.”
At this point, Jeff’s many professional lives, all of which have reached major levels of success, are well-known. “He’s had an incredible career. I think we all look up to Jeff, because how do you stay relevant over three decades of music?” DJ Skratch Bastid says, visibly in awe. “In the ’80s he started as a house party DJ, then eventually started making his own records, then he signed to a major label, and then The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air created this level of celebrity and this Hollywood thing. Then he went back and started to work more in the studios—A Touch of Jazz Studios—doing a bit more of the production side and then after that, he started realizing you can go out and do more DJing again. Now he is a full-time headlining DJ. He never stopped moving.”
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Take, for instance, his annual Playlist Retreat (the idea of which was sparked in 2015 by the 3Style sessions), which have brought together guests as diverse as Masego, Young Guru, Mac Ayres, RCA executive Tunji Balogun, activist Deray McKesson, J. Cole, a bevy of tech figureheads and more. Every year, they camp out at his Delaware home to exchange ideas, skills, inspiration, and advice in a comfortable setting without any set expectations. “It’s providing creative spaces that build collaboration,” Jeff says. “I can make music by myself, but if I make music with you, it has the chance to be twice as good.”
Going from someone who didn’t have someone to follow to being a pioneer, the effect Jeff has had on the culture—both within and outside of the DJ space—has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
“I saw [Jeff] in L.A. at the Conga Room and I had never seen him play a DJ set before that night,” DJ Nu-Mark says of an unforgettable 2004 memory. “I watched it and I literally teared up for a lot of reasons, it was really hard to verbalize it. One of them was, Jeff was one of the people that I highly looked up to in the game. There was no way to learn [how to] scratch or learn how to do this other than picking up the needle on his records and going, ‘Okay what is he doing with the fader? Is he cutting it out? Oh, let me try it, oh got it wrong again.’ I’m 13 or 14 in my bedroom trying to figure it out. So watching him play live was amazing.”
Now, even from what presumably feels like the pinnacle, Jeff has no intentions to slow down his stride, stop learning or loving the craft that has brought him so far, and stop trying to groom the next crop of selectas to carry on the (digital) crates.
“Because you can change the musical form of hip-hop, it will fit into any whole. It’s hip-house, it’s hip-jazz, it’s hip-jungle, it’s hip-disco, it’s whatever you want it to be because it attaches itself to any type of musical form and for that reason and that reason alone, it will always be the biggest form of music.” —DJ Jazzy Jeff
Skratch Bastid has personally felt the effects of Jeff using his many platforms to expand and uplift the DJ community. “Jeff knows just by positively supporting people with simple actions you can help change peoples lives or help bring the spotlight,” Skratch says, recalling a time he casually gave Jeff a mix CD at a dinner and he actually listened to it later. “One day he tweeted three or four months later, ‘Rolling through Vegas bumping my man’s Skratch Bastid’s mix CD.’ I was like holy sh*t, jumping off the ground. Jeff uses his influence and that is the currency we all have. It doesn’t cost anyone anything to big this thing up.”
“You know, as grateful as I am, I am not supposed to be in the position that I am in,” Jeff says, adamant about sharing the spotlight with those who are down to put in the work. “Like, Michael Jordan is not supposed to be one of the best basketball players at 50-something. Him being one of them points out an issue. We need to do something to break this because there is no way that you want the culture to die with you. No, that is selfish.”
Here, in a candid sit-down, the living icon opens up about the tricks and truths he’s learned about the music industry, how Beyonce changed the trajectory of music consumption, all the ways a DJ is the servant of the people, the major label exodus, and why an international career is undefeated.
VIBE: Let’s start from the top. How did you first get involved in the Red Bull Music 3Style World Finals?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: I was invited to judge and it was cool because I’ve judged DJ competitions but when they started outlining what the criteria for this one was, that you have to play three different styles of music, I just was like, ‘Wow this is dope.’ The first one I judged was in Paris [in 2010]. People pulled out different styles of music. It was really exciting. I’m not picking the best scratcher or the best mixer. I’m picking the best overall. Like, ‘Who can do a little bit of everything? Who would I want to go see if they were in a club? Will I have a good time?’ And I thought that was super important because you want as many great DJs to be around because that strengthens the culture. We are just trying to find, build and hone the skills of these DJs that will end up being the ones that run the clubs.
So when you’re in the crowd, taking off your DJ hat for a second, what do you think makes that great set?
The best DJs aren’t the people that play the most popular records, it’s the person who played the most unexpected record at the right time. You don’t go to a club and walk out and be like, ‘Yo the DJ killed it when he played Drake.’ You know what I mean? Because you expect that. It’s kind of like, ‘Yo, I can’t believe he played such-and-such and then went into…’ Those are the moments. When you have people who come up to you and are like, ‘Oh my God, I saw you in Vegas 10 years ago and that was the best night of my life, I met my wife.’ You want to create some kind of mood and environment that will get people there and that’s what I am looking for, too.
“Just ‘cause you don’t like it or just ‘cause you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it should not be here.” —DJ Jazzy Jeff
How do you as a DJ deal with the request game? People who want to hear that new Drake?
I don’t. I don’t at all.
When did you draw that line?
I never drew it, I never had to. When I first started DJing that wasn’t a thing. Requests came when the club culture changed to bottle service and managers started being demanding with the music. It was kind of like, ‘I feel like I can tell the DJ what to play.’ I try to remove myself from those situations, because if I’m going into a restaurant to get a meal, I am going to let the chef cook it. If I am going to tell the chef how to cook it, then I might as well just buy the ingredients and stay home and do it myself.
That’s true. Do you think it’s reversible?
It’s reversible if you don’t buy into it. It’s also one of those things when you go to the club that somebody takes requests and you go to the club where someone doesn’t. You can tell the difference. At the end of the day, you end up going to the place that you don’t know what to expect. I think that is the issue with radio or with commercial radio. When you can pick up the phone and request your favorite song, you can almost tell exactly what is coming up next. I remember driving down the street flipping stations and you get a chance to hear all of the stuff. Now I hear the same thing. There was a point in time where if I drove through Baltimore, I turned the radio on and heard a Baltimore club song that I didn’t hear in Philly. When I got to D.C., I played some D.C. gogo that I didn’t hear. You go to Atlanta, you hear some down south stuff that you don’t normally hear, and now it’s just the same thing from New England to San Diego and you’re just like, ‘What happened to that discovery?’
You’ve said before that you try not to play at the same spots too often. Give them something to miss. Would you say that has attributed to your longevity? Because people do not surpass those passages of time, especially now with our short attention spans.
Absolutely. It’s really paying attention. You have to pay attention to not only shift in music but just to shift in culture, where you realize that we are at a time that you can’t tell someone something is coming. We used to be like, ‘Oh my god I am dropping my album in June.’ That sh*t doesn’t work. I never forget when I realized that culture has completely changed. Beyonce dropped Lemonade right after Scandal. Scandal went off and that was just genius. It was like Scandal went off and it’s just like, ‘Oh sh*t what happened to Fitz? Wait, she dropped an album, when? She just dropped it?’ It caught everybody off guard and that was the, Okay this is where we are. Now you get an understanding of how you can release something. When we started doing Vinyl Destination, it was a point in time that we would shoot a tour and four months, three months later we would put the recap of the tour out. Now we are putting recaps out of 3Style every night. It’s just really paying attention to how things change, and [then] adapting. It really doesn’t have to do with you liking it. There is a lot of sh*t I have to adapt to that I don’t like.
Well, I don’t like the way that we consume music, but in order for me to stay relevant, I have to figure out ways to play both, that it is not so much about me. I can’t change the culture. You would have a lot of DJ friends that will just play none of this new sh*t and I completely respect that. I completely respect your approach to what you want to play and what you don’t want to play, but you can’t be mad that they don’t throw a ’90s party every week.
You have to understand, hey if I open up a Thai restaurant, I am only going to get people that like Thai food. You can’t be mad that the industry does not support everybody coming in. It’s like nah, you have a specific restaurant and you are going to get the people that like what you do. There is a difference between a Thai restaurant and Walmart. Walmart has everything, you’re gonna get a piece of everybody. I think that the advice I give a lot of people is to figure out what type of store you want to open up. Are you trying to open up the bodega that has everything, or are you trying to open up the hardware store that has nails? None of them are wrong, you just have to pick what you want and own it and be cool with change, too. I mean, if the sh*t ain’t work I’m gonna open up a bodega.
Be adaptable. I was listening to some of your stuff earlier and it’s super melody, R&B-based. Much of your roots reside in that neo-soul vein, but I’ve heard some people complain about today’s R&B space. ‘It’s not quite as authentic as the old stuff. I’d rather hear trap.’ Is there a space and a balance for both?
Absolutely. You know what it is? I think when people pay attention to what mainstream is doing, there is a deep soulful emotional musical culture in every city out there. It’s just not the main culture. If you are turning on the radio looking for that, the radio is only going to play what is popular. You’re not going to find it, but don’t think that it doesn’t exist. It may not be the ad on the radio, it may not be the billboard, it might be the flyer that somebody gives you. You may go to the function and realize that it’s 200 people instead of 2,000, but it exists. I have a bunch of DJ friends that that’s all they do. I go, I play this sh*t, have these great events and I do really really well because I play somewhere every week. Somebody like Rich Medina may not be the household name like Calvin Harris is, but Rich Medina has been doing this sh*t for 20 some-odd years, playing Afrobeats, funk, soul, hip-hop, and all the rest of that.
How have your personal music tastes evolved over that timeline? What are you listening to now, just as a music consumer?
I don’t know if it’s changed, I think it’s adding. I’ve added new music, but I think overall there was sh*t in the ’90s that I thought was great and there was sh*t in the ’90s that I thought sucked and it’s the exact same way. There is some new trap music that I am like, oh this sh*t is knocking, and there is some new sh*t and I am like, it sucks. It’s the exact same thing and it’s just really accepting what you like and understanding that there is some stuff that you don’t. If it deserves to be here, it deserves a space. I think it’s a form of prejudice when you say, ‘why they playing that trap sh*t, that’s why these black people here.’ It’s the exact same thing. Just ‘cause you don’t like it or just ‘cause you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it should not be here.
There is something for everyone. There is an entire world out there. What has that been like exploring that international scene, and do you tell that to artists or DJs who are not understanding, ‘why am I not blowing up?’
Absolutely. That was something that once I realized that, I never not wanted to have that. I remember. I want to say that it was easily 2000, I did the ZoukOut festival in Singapore. It was 50,000 people on the beach. I started bringing people with me, some of my friends. I am going to bring you ‘cause you gotta see this sh*t. Like, you don’t understand, you’re at the house party, at the ballroom party thinking that this is it and there are 50,000 people on the beach enjoying this music. It’s going into the culture side. I was really telling my son that you spend all of your money in college and on spring break you drive down to D.C. and hang out in Georgetown. I know people who save their money and their spring break they are in Amsterdam at these music festivals. Understand that there is a lot of sh*t out there that you just have to open your mind up to. Thank God with social media and the Internet, it makes it a little bit easier for people to see that there is something other than what you are used to.
What keeps you in love with the craft despite any of the doubts you admitted pop up every now and then?
Loving music. That’s it. I don’t know if the construction worker is in love with picking up the hammer and smashing it. He’s doing something because he has to. Realizing that this is a blessing to do something that you love does not mean that the work is easier. It just means that I am doing something that I love and I can make a living off of it. I think that if there is anything that keeps me going, it’s me realizing that I play music to make people have a good time. It’s as simple as that, there is no deep analogy. I could have a hammer in my hand or I could be digging a ditch in 10-degree weather, so there is not really too much I should complain about if I am playing music for people to have a good time.
All around the world. And to see how hip-hop has grown legs since the Grammys in 1989 to become the most popular genre in 2019. What is it like to have just been in there from that early time?
In 1989, it was the most popular genre. We just didn’t get the props for it. So just to realize that you have watched props be given, you watched the props be taken away, and then you watched the props be given again, that’s that whole cycle thing. That’s if you are around long enough, you watch it come and go, and it comes and it goes. I really think, too, that a big part of this success has to do with, in my opinion, hip-hop isn’t a musical form, hip-hop is a lyrical form over any kind of music. So because you can change the musical form of hip-hop, it will fit into any whole. It’s hip-house, it’s hip-jazz, it’s hip-jungle, it’s hip-disco, it’s whatever you want it to be because it attaches itself to any type of musical form and for that reason and that reason alone, it will always be the biggest form of music because it takes the shape every kind of music imaginable.
I think that is true. It’s just that people will always want those props, that stamp of validation from an institution, whether it’s from the Grammys or whatever award show or a cosign. It is very hard to separate that desire for acknowledgment. Do you think that’s good or bad or will it change?
It’s funny because there was a period in time where your validation came when you got signed to major label. We are going through a thing now that everybody is fighting this exodus to get off the major label and become independent because you realize a lot of this stuff you can do on your own and someone taking the majority of your work isn’t really cool anymore. It’s the same thing, this has been around since the beginning of time that I think the validation that we all are looking for you used to have to go through an entity to get it. You almost felt like in order for me to get the recognition or that Grammy nom, I have to go through this record company in order to get that. Now it’s at the point where I can go direct to consumer and I can get that nod without it. I am realizing that this isn’t cool and I want to change it, but I think the desire to get that nod has not necessarily changed. You have just realized that you do not have to go through a middleman to get it.
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Do you think an award show statement like your Grammy boycott in 1989 would have the same effect now that we have a lot of extra things like social media?
I don’t know. I think the music industry is a lot smarter now. I think that boycott, when you look at it from a business perspective, something like that gets that side thinking of how not to let that happen again. So I think you can but you’ll never be able to do it the exact same way. I almost feel that they desensitize things to the point that it kind of works out in their favor. Which to me is extremely smart; it’s so smart that the average person does not think about it like that, but it’s kind of like, you know they are not dumb. When the whole industry changed with social media and everything got to a point where you could become more independent, it was really silly to think that the music industry was just going to roll over and die. All they did is adapt.
It’s okay, we’re not selling music anymore. The record sales are down, people are bootlegging, you have Napster, you have all of these things. Someone pointed out to me that I signed a record deal in the ’90s and my record deal was for albums, CDs, and cassettes. My record deal wasn’t for streaming, so who negotiated my terms for streams? Who negotiated my money for streams? Someone is making a lot, a lot, a lot of money off of streams and it’s not me. Everybody who complains about the streaming industry are only artists. I have never heard a label say one bad thing about the streaming culture. They figured out a way to make themselves relevant and latch on to something and they also figured out the way to be very quiet about it. They don’t say anything. Understand, everybody didn’t go to the store and buy records, but everybody’s got a phone. Everybody got some form of streaming something so we are getting paid off of everybody with a phone.
“From the perspective of the [Playlist] Retreat, it was really getting people in the room and rebuilding this collaboration culture that I felt like we really lost.” —DJ Jazzy Jeff
Unless you are independent.
Yeah, and then you kind of have a lot more control with that and that’s where I think the fight is. There is a tennis match, you know we hit it over to them and they won the last set and now it’s back over and we’re are trying to figure it out, but do not think there is not someone in some room figuring out the next move. Everybody wants to be independent. I guarantee you, the independent market place is about to become the new majors. Easy. Everybody says “own your masters, own your masters,” that’s all you hear. What do you do with them? What do they look like?
I don’t know.
It’s wild because you’re told to own something that you can’t give an explanation of what it looks like. You can’t give an explanation of, if you own it what are you going to do with it, because someone is telling you that you need to own it. And we are not doing the investigation work to realize why. Why do I need to own it? What is the purpose of owning it? I am watching this trend of, you got to own your masters, own your masters, your masters are your future, and it’s kind of like how are your masters your future? Okay, you own it, so if somebody uses something down the line you will always get paid for it. What if you make something that no one ever uses? Like seriously, you know there is a lot of music out here now I can’t see somebody remaking 10 years down the line. I can’t see a remake of “I got h*es,” and no disrespect to the rapper but you can’t see that remake, so the reason for owning that master is what? You watch the chess game and it’s very interesting especially if you’ve watched it for 20 or 30 years. This is the new thing. This was back in the day when somebody would come up to me in the studio and it was like hey, do you have an SSL? And you say what’s an SSL and they would kind of look at you like, ‘I don’t know, I just know the Hit Factory has one and I am supposed to.’ You don’t even know what it is.
Is it because of the lack of mentorship or lack of counsel?
Well, you know what it is, the music industry was set up on very bad principles. I have said on occasions, that if we start a business and we say we are going to split it 50/50 and we make $10, I know how much I am going to make. If you tell me that you are going to give me a dollar amount every $10 that we make, you get $4, I know how much I’m going to make. I have not in 30 some-odd years of the music industry been able to find someone to tell me how much 10 points is worth because there are so many factors that go into that. There are so many factors that you don’t know, but it also designed to throw you off. It is designed to confuse you. It’s kind of like, wow, this is crazy ‘cause I have never gotten an explanation and the more that I ask, the more I was deemed the trouble maker because I am supposed to just shut up. Michael Jackson didn’t know. Prince didn’t know. Prince wrote “Slave” on his face because he did not know. They are upset and they are frustrated. Michael Jackson had issues with his record company, Prince had issues with his record company. You don’t think I am going to have issues with mine? So this is like, I feel like I am trapped.
Maybe it’s not asking the right questions?
Well you know what is funny, I don’t know if it’s so much not asking the right questions. I think it’s not getting the right answers. You can ask the right questions, that doesn’t mean somebody is going to answer it, especially if the answer is not conducive to the person.
And this is where collaborative sessions come in. Masego rants and raves about your Playlist Retreats, and then we see Dreamville’s Atlanta sessions. What are those kinds of initiatives doing right?
J. Cole has come to the retreat. You know what it is, it’s providing creative spaces that build collaboration. I can make music by myself, but if I make music with you, it has the chance to be twice as good. I feel like we don’t have groups anymore as a result of the super bad infrastructure in a record company that when it got to the point that the individual isn’t making money, the five-man group really isn’t making money. If we are splitting crumbs, I got to split crumbs with five people, and I think that had a bad effect on the music. That got to a point that now you’re kind of like, well sh*t I need to make the money so I need to cut everybody in the group out and I need to do it myself. That’s why we don’t have bands as we used to. That’s why we have so many solo producers.
It’s kind of like with you putting a bunch of people in the room and everybody collaborating on it, it has no choice but to be better than if it was one idea. So I think from the perspective of the retreat, it was really getting people in the room and rebuilding this collaboration culture that I felt like we really lost. It was wild because a lot of the new artists that came to the retreat had never collaborated with anybody in their life. Think about it, the first time I went in the studio, I could not run the studio by myself. I could not go in the studio by myself and actively do something. You needed an engineer and you needed a keyboard player and you needed a such-in-such. Now you buy a laptop, you have a one-man show. Someone who grew up in that time period has never had to collaborate, so putting people in this position does like—well you and you, and you have to get together and you have to make something. You know it was a super level of making people uncomfortable.
Right, I was going to say, that’s got to have its awkward moments.
Everybody was uncomfortable, but what came out was the most incredible thing in the world. We did that challenge pretty much every year at the retreat and it may be one of the best albums of the year, that we’ve never played for anybody.
So those unplayed projects, are they just for…
Us. They’re just for us. Picasso didn’t sell every painting he made. Sometimes he saw something really dope and he painted it and that was it. A lot of times you get people that are like oh my God, this is great, you should put this out, you should sell it, you should sell it. Well, why don’t we just share it amongst each other and play this sh*t to clean the house? Everything ain’t going to be for everybody.