Monday, November 9, 2009

Old School, New Tricks (DJ Jazzy Jeff)

A celebrated virtuoso in the world of hiphop, R&B, and turntabling, DJ JAZZY JEFF possesses both an ear for a music and a mastery of scratching techniques that earned him worldwide acclaim.

It’s a video that is both familiar and unfamiliar to our generation. “Drums please!” Out comes Will Smith, aka, the Fresh Prince, decked in sky blue monotone, equally matched and complemented by his long-time partner and collaborator, Jeffrey A. Townes, aka, DJ Jazzy Jeff, in head-to-toe orange. Segue to a smooth, throwback tune of the now classic and feel good hit, “Summertime,” the two are spotted chillin’ on the wayside on what appears to be a moving porch, migrating through emerald fields, the big city, and past a spandex-clad Lolita who summons mischievous hoots from the two guys coloring their cool. Nothing to it, just boys being boys, though Jazzy Jeff is wearing his token dark shades that his partner Will would later lionize in the 1997 Hollywood sci-fi hit, Men in Black. “Summertime” would also mark the duo’s palpable return to the music scene in a fourth album entitled “Homebase,” years after their debut single in 1986. 

One pea of the talented pod is the “Magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff,” as a track in the duo’s first album would put. “Music always told stories to me – about when and where I was when I first heard it,” reveals the Philly-born artist who, at age ten, would practice on the turntable in his family’s basement to perfect his craft. He shares, “I just loved music and wanted to play at parties. I never thought it would come this far.”

The work that he put in proved instrumental to his ascent in the block party and ballroom circuit. “I got a lot of attention in the neighborhood, which was cool,” he says, adding, “I feel that my job is to make people happy with music by playing (their) favorite songs, (songs they hadn’t) heard in a while, or something new.” This nonlinear and experimental take on music enabled him to roll with various crews and emcees in the area – taking Philly by storm, one mind-blowing house party at a time. While he credits his ‘hood for the vast musical knowledge and his instrumental exposure to all genres of song, it was in 1985 when Jazzy Jeff would first touch base with then relatively unknown rapper Will Smith, and jumpstart what would be a decades-long career in the music biz.

Note: This was not your cheesy Troy and Gabriella karaoke moment from High School Musical. Since Jazzy Jeff’s MC had been out of commission one evening, Will stepped in and let’s just say, the rest was bro-mance history. Will became the smooth raconteur we all fondly knew as the Fresh Prince, and Jazzy Jeff became the architect-DJ that put it all together. In 1986, they teamed up and released their first single “Girls Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble” which spliced elements of the popular TV theme “I Dream of Jeannie” with Smith’s ridiculous wordplay and Towne’s smooth hip hop beats – emerging proof of the duo’s incomparable eclectic savvy.

They later tailed this effort with the gold-selling “Rock the House” – an LP, which Jazzy Jeff pioneered alongside signature turntable moves like the “Transformer” and the “Chirp” scratch. For the latter, he would spin the record to make it sound like a bird’s chirp. “It’s all very natural to me now,” he shares, when asked if he’d still discover new “scratches” along the way. The LP also thrust the DJ to into the legitimate spotlight with “The Magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff,” heightened later on by the duo’s sophomore endeavor, “He’s the DJ. I’m the Rapper.”

On one side of the track, there was the Fresh Prince’s quick-witted and lyrical storytelling, and on the other, Jeff’s undeniable propensity and almost perfect manipulation of the turntable, translating the pair’s efforts into one of the first hip-hop double LPs in music history. In that Jazzy Jeff’s heart and soul would bleed over his works, and through his fingers, his genius would often pave the way for many young musicians to take to the turntables and learn the craft. “That still trips me out,” he shares of being considered an icon and inspiration to young turntablists all over the world, adding, “It’s very hard for me to grasp. I really appreciate that. Wow!”

1990 marked an important year in Jazzy Jeff’s life in the limelight. It launched both his eponymous TV career as fan-favorite Jazz, Will Smith’s cheeky and ill-mannered best friend in the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and A Touch of Jazz, a production facility he set up to cultivate homegrown talent from Philly. While in Fresh Prince, his TV persona became notoriously known for his signature shades, constant rejection by Will’s cousin Hilary Banks (played by Karyn Parsons), and getting dropkicked out of Will’s Bel-Air home through almost every episode, the Jazzy Jeff in real life cultivated musical acts like Jill Scott, Musiq Soldchild and Floetry. “We also had the honor of working with the likes of Michael Jackson, and tons of other artists,” he adds.

Of all the acts that Jazzy Jeff had produced, he says he is most proud of Jill Scott in the latter’s debut album “Who is Jill Scott?” He shares, “We made something from the heart and made the whole world listen.” The album penetrated the market with fanfare close to nil but true to form in Jazzy Jeff’s tradition of letting talent do the talking, the album hit double platinum. That is, to this day, his career-long tour de force although admittedly, the boy in him is most thrilled with recently coming out in the DJ Hero game by Activision. “(It’s) the best thing so far in my career… wow… little kids will be playing DJ Hero as Jazzy Jeff… wowz!”

Admittedly though, a long tenure in the music industry is not without challenges. At the moment where an artist is propelled to turn to the past, and look forward through today’s cutthroat music scene, figuring out the nooks and crannies that keep an artist afloat and relevant to today’s pop-engrossed generation, audiences have consistently changed and made known their insatiable demands. Jazzy Jeff connects, “I feel that people (nowadays) are fans of records not groups. (Back then), we couldn’t wait for Run DMC or LL Cool J’s album to drop. We didn’t need to hear a single or see a video because we were fans of the act. Today, it seems like people won’t like something unless everyone else does. I blame radio for that.” Which is why he remains proud and grateful to Kenny Gamble, songwriter, producer, and pioneer of Philadelphia soul, for mentoring him on the ways of the music biz.

Years later, his partner Will Smith would move on to become one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men. But DJ Jazzy Jeff continues to bust his groove as one of the world’s celebrated DJs and music producers. He eventually produced Will Smith’s first solo album “Big Willie Style” in 1997, and the latter’s sophomore release “Willenium” in 1999.  In that the two have managed to stay friends and collaborators over the years, it makes you wonder if he would ever consider getting together with Will again for an album or reunion tour of sorts? “We have been talking about it for six years. It’s just hard with him being one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and with me traveling all over the world. But I’m sure it’s gonna happen,” he relates.

Looking back and moving forward, he sees a book and a movie in the near horizon, adding, “I’m also doing an album with a singer from Toronto named Ayah, and an album with an MC named Phil Nash. I’m really looking forward to those.” Evidently, more than two decades later, he’s still on top of his game. Silly, at times, yes. Psychedelic prints and hi-top fades, definitely no. But DJ-ing, producing, and letting his bona fide Philly talent still do most of the talking – most definitely. Though when asked what his hands would say if they could speak, he says, “Slow down… lol.” Damn straight.


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