DJ Jazzy Jeff is struggling to make sense of it all. When you insist that the man born Jeffrey Townes is a certified hip-hop legend, he seems uncomfortable with such a notion. Yet, the stat sheet doesn’t lie. As one half of the highly influential late ‘80s rap duo Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, the celebrated tandem sold millions of albums as they helped push the rugged boundaries of hip-hop to Middle America. The irony? The kindler, gentler young men from the otherwise two-fisted area of West Philadelphia presented a PG alternative to the hardcore likes of Public Enemy and NWA. Indeed landmark songs like “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and “Summertime” garnered Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince universal acclaim. Still, there were the critics who dismissed the MTV darlings as mere pop fluff.
Never mind that. Jazzy Jeff went on to stake his claim as one of the most celebrated hip-hop turntablist of all time; an underrated talent that made the music industry take notice after forming the successful production crew A Touch of Jazz—an outfit that has hammered out hits for everyone from Jill Scott to Michael Jackson. Jeff’s gregarious partner Will Smith? He conquered Hollywood, becoming one of the biggest box office stars to ever walk God’s green earth. From the Fresh Prince to his own Magnificent album series, Jazzy Jeff looks back at a history-making career that spans more than two decades.—Keith Murphy
Rock the House (1987)—DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
You know what’s funny? When you are young and working on your first album you are not thinking about anything. You’re just excited. You don’t have any expectations. Hip-Hop was so young back then that we didn’t have a bunch of super groups like we do now…a bunch of acts that were selling millions of amounts of records. Everybody back then did it for the love, so for us to have the opportunity to make our first album, Rock The House, the only thing that was going through my head was I’m going to have a record and an album cover that I can show my son one day and say, ‘Look, your dad made a record.’ Will and I didn’t think this was going to be our career because in ’85-‘86, we didn’t know anybody in hip-hop who had a long career of making records.
When I was putting the songs together for Rock The House, I would have my drum machine in my mom’s basement and I would make beats while Will would come over and write his raps. I would later lay down my scratches in the studio after we recorded the songs. I was producing records before I knew what a producer actually did. Then Will and I would do shows at various proms and the after parties in Philly. I knew that Will was a great MC early on just because I remember us doing a show where he rapped an early version of “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.” We would do it off the Art of Noise’s “Moments In Love.” I remember being at that party watching 500 people stand there anxiously waiting to hear what the next part of the story would be. I’m standing there like, ‘Wow, Will can take them wherever he wants them to go.’ That’s the way we approached our earlier songs like “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.”
Once we saw that we thought, Well, if we can get 500 people to pay attention, maybe we can get 5000 with one record. We ended up selling close to 400, 000 with Rock The House! But we weren’t going crazy about record sales back then. We were just excited to go on tour. We were on the road with Whodini and Whistle…all of these guys were our friends. Pretty much back then, the two big groups were Whodini and Run-D.M.C. Those guys really showed us the ropes. They taught us that on tour you have wear some of the merchandise that you are selling onstage. They taught us about putting fried chicken on your tour rider in your dressing room, so you can take it with you on the tour bus to have something to eat while you are driving through the middle of the night. That’s something we didn’t know about. We were on the bus hungry as shit realizing, ‘Damn, they got chicken and juice because they put it on their rider! [laughs]’
Just think about that. We were from West Philly…we had never been to California or London, so every time we went somewhere it was like, ‘Man, I’ve never seen a palm tree in my life. What are we doing in Miami? What are we doing in Atlanta?’ Everything was new for us. And the shows were great. Will would do his raps, Ready Roc C would do his beatbox and I would cut something and everybody in the audience would go off. We always had a good show. As far as being a DJ, I learned a lot from [Whodini’s] Grandmaster D, who was a great show DJ. He was somebody that showed me that you have to really capture the crowd. D would be onstage scratching while literally being carried off the turntable! That was one of the early lessons Will and I learned; you have to play to the crowd. So that meant I was going to do this scratch that sounds like a bird and point up in the sky and say, ‘Look, it’s a bird!’ And the crowd would go wild. We brought the fans to our level.