Most people may remember DJ Jazzy Jeff for his comedic role as Jazz from the iconic 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. What many people may not remember is that DJ Jazzy Jeff helped tear down walls musically alongside his partner in rhyme, The Fresh Prince, or to the younger generation, Will Smith.
In 1989, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince made history for a blossoming hip-hop culture by not only winning the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” but also leading hip-hop’s boycott of that year’s ceremony over the fact that the award wasn’t televised. Despite the two venturing into acting—The Fresh Prince debuted in 1990—they returned in 1991 with the infectious hit “Summertime,” which earned them a second Grammy. Jazzy Jeff helped forge a formidable rap duo with Will Smith and is today considered an ambassador in the world of DJ’ing. With many aspiring producers and DJ’s hoping to kick the proverbial door down in hopes of one day realizing their dreams, Jazzy Jeff is serving as their helping hand in getting the job done.
This month, Jazzy Jeff teamed up with Red Bull to kick off the 2015 Thre3style National Finals, which will give DJ’s an opportunity to showcase their talents on a large platform. Hundreds across the nation will partake in this competition in hopes wowing celebrity judges Jazzy Jeff and Z-Trip. XXL caught up with DJ Jazzy Jeff to speak on the Thre3style Competition, the evolution of DJ’ing, how Mac Miller changed his perspective on music, if Will Smith is working on a new album and why the music industry is lacking in originality and diversity. Class is in session.
XXL: How did the collaboration with Red Bull come about for the Thre3style Competition?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Well, I’ve been dealing with Red Bull on a DJ level for about six, seven years. You know, from Red Bull basically throwing events to them entering the Thr3style Competition in Canada and then them turning it into something global. If you ever follow what basically Red Bull, to me, is about, they actually really care about the authenticity of something. If you look at the Red Bull B-Boy battle, they always find the best break dancers. If you look at the motocross, they always find the best bikers. It’s always about wanting to go to the actual core of the art form and getting the actual guys. So I think them jumping into the DJ competition and tapping guys like me, Z-Trip, and just people who have been around, to keep the authenticity of it [is a good thing.] You watch it grow every year.
How is this DJ competition different from the previous ones held in the past by other events?
Well, you know what I think? What Red Bull did is they sat down and they basically said, “Alright, let me ask somebody like Jeff or someone like Z-Trip: What makes a good DJ?” I was like, “Okay, well you gotta have somebody who has great play selection.” First of all, I don’t know a great DJ who doesn’t play multiple types of music. So you need somebody who knows how to change it up and not just play hip-hop and not just play dance music. Like, how well can you go from this, to this, and to this, to change the mood of something? How well can you read the crowd? With all of that data, that’s the criteria that all of these DJ’s adjust on.
It’s called Thr3style because you gotta play at least three different genres of music. You can’t just be the dance DJ or the hip-hop DJ that’s gonna play that one type of music all night long. I don’t know anybody who likes one type of music. You know, all of the other competitions are great. But I think this is the competition that’s not just trying to breed the greatest scratcher, or the greatest DJ who does tricks, or the greatest DJ who just mixes. I want to make the greatest overall DJ that can do a little bit of all of that. So whatever else is needed, I can fill in the gap.
With that being said, who do you think is keeping the essence or art of DJ’ing alive right now?
I think it’s a bit of everybody. I mean, you have house music DJ’s that have been going strong for 20, 30 years doing what they do and not changing. I’m just the type of person that always played different kinds of music. I played a little bit of everything. So I wasn’t the guy that when the dance music got really popular, I told myself, “I’m now a dance music DJ.” Like, I think that’s where the culture kind of gets rocked. You know what? My job is to add music into what I’m playing, not take it away. So if it’s something new, then that’s something that’s gonna be added. I ain’t ever taking anything away because I think a good DJ is somebody who takes people on trips depending on where it’s needed.
I agree. I noticed that a lot of hip-hop DJ’s and producers have been segueing over to the EDM side of things lately.
And you know what happens? When the EDM starts to die down, all of a sudden, “I’m a hip-hop DJ again.” Like, I’m not gonna sacrifice my credibility for that. I never look at music as a fad. I don’t look at it like, “Okay, it’s hot today and it’s gone tomorrow.” If it’s a great record, it’s gonna be a great record 20 years from now. I don’t play it because people—you know a good record is a good record. You go into a club right now and you play Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” and everybody sings it. It was a good record 25 years ago and it’s still a good record now.
Do you feel like DJ’ing and producing has evolved in a positive way from when you first started, or do you feel that it has taken a step back?
You know what? I’ve said this before. I kind of feel like it’s in the same position because it has taken three steps forward and it has taken three steps back. You know, you kind of got people pushing the envelope and you’re hearing new, different things. But then you have…You know, there was a point in time when you could go to New York and you knew what New York sounded like. You heard the popular records, but you knew what New York sounded like. You knew what Philly sounded like. You knew when you went to D.C. that you have all of the popular records, but you got the Go-Go. You knew what D.C. sounded like.
[Now] you can drive from New York to Los Angeles and nothing changes. It was a treat to go to somewhere where you’re not from and get their culture. You should not be feeling like you’re in Atlanta when you’re in New York City listening to the radio. That’s where I think it’s taken a few steps back because I feel like a lot of places have lost their identity and their identity has started to become one. It’s almost down to the point that I’m listening to the radio and I’m hearing hip-hop records and R&B records that I can’t tell apart. I know we cannot live in a world where my R&B sounds like my hip-hop. All of that shit needs to be spread out, be genre-specific and give me a different feeling, because that’s where it came up from. “Rapper’s Delight” did not sound like The O’Jays.
So you don’t necessarily feel like there’s a particular region that has the upper hand right now?
What it is, it’s kinda like it’s whatever’s popular. Like, I don’t necessarily look at it like it’s a region, I think it’s whatever is popular. Because listening to the music now, I don’t know if this is the downside. But, trust me, there’s a lot of it that I love. I love it. I’m just mad because I don’t feel like I get the diversity that I used to. I get mad because I’m like, Man, I’m going into New York and I’m driving up. I remember when the radio station would change and you would be like, “Whoa. I ain’t heard of that. I ain’t know he had a new record. Oh, this is cool.” It’s kinda like—I don’t care if it’s Power 99 in Philly, WBLS in New York—it’s kinda like nothing changes but the commercials.
I remember a couple of years back, you and Mac Miller linked up and worked together on a couple of records. Are there any new artists out there that pique your interests that you would consider working with?
There’s a bunch of ’em. I talk about Odd Future a lot because I really like the structure of what they did; we became so engulfed in trying to make everyone happy instead of, “This is the music that I make. The people that like the music that I make, that’s who I mess with.” I think that’s what a jazz artist does. A jazz artist isn’t trying to make a record for everybody to like. “I’m just trying to make it for the Jazz lovers to like.” When you think about it, our R&B and our hip-hop were the only two genres of music that people went in with the intent to make music for everyone to like. You can’t do that with anything. I think that’s why we started to lose ourselves in that.
What’s crazy is my introduction to all of this started with me linking up with Mac. The first conversation that me and Mac had, he sat me down and taught me so much more than I’ve learned in the past 20 years. “Who are you making the music for? Why are you trying to be so engulfed in selling music? Why don’t you worry about getting your fan base up and they’ll love everything that you do instead of putting so much emphasis on, ‘I gotta sell music?'” It was such a mind-blowing thing for somebody who’s been in the industry for 30 years to have this 19-year-old school me from top to bottom. But it definitely changed and shaped everything that I’ve done. Me asking Mac, “Yeah man, you’ve ever played in Philly?” And he’s like, “Ah man, I sold out PLA nine times.” “What? I didn’t know about that.” You know why? Because it’s not on the radio. You know why? Because his fans know already. I’m like, Wow. I’m so busy looking for advertisement in the place that I’ve always looked into advertisement that what I’ve realized is that when you have a one-on-one line of communication with your fan base, you don’t need radio. You don’t need press. You don’t need nothing. That’s why these guys are functioning without a record company.
It’s the beauty of independence.
And you know what? That’s what we’ve always dreamed of.
For the past couple of years, rumors have been circulating regarding Will Smith and a possible new album on the way. Are you taking part in helping Will come out with new music?
Will and I have talked about doing new music for the past 10 years. What I always say is this all has to do with time. When you’re dealing with somebody like Will—who’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet—it may not be the easiest thing in the world to physically and mentally put yourself in a space for three to four months that what you’re focusing on is your art. So it’s never been a desire. There’s been at least three, four times a year [where] me and Will hook up somewhere and do a performance. It’s still in the blood, but it’s kind of like, all it is is just finding the time. Listen, when he’s kinda like, “I’m ready. Let’s go…” We talk about it. We talk about it every time we see each other. The day that he says, “I’m ready. Let’s go,” we gone.
In 2015, if Will was to drop a project, do you feel you guys would able to lure the listeners and grab the attention needed to be successful?
You know what? I think you would have to drop something—which kind of goes into what I was saying earlier—with the expectation of that’s not the reason why you’re dropping it. I think you gotta drop something with the mindset of an independent artist. “This is my art. This is something that I do. This is something that I’m good at doing. Let’s drop something and hope that people will find the entertainment and the art value of it. Let’s not drop it to go platinum. Let’s not drop it to go on tour. Let’s not drop it to be like, ‘We back.'” I think you gotta look at it from a Mac Miller perspective. Like, “Hey man, I just made something dope. Check it out and let me know if you like it.”
Now, understand, that’s not where we exited. It’s very different. That’s another thing that Will and I talked about. This level of creative freedom that you can have right now sometimes can scare you. We’ve always been in some level of a box. You always been in a box where a record could only be this long, or radio is not gonna play it, or it gotta have this subject matter. Let me tell you something: People now are making whatever they wanna make. So how do you go into a studio and take your creative lid completely off, especially when you’ve never made that record from that perspective before? Think about it. There’s probably so much stuff that Will wanted to say before that he probably couldn’t have because of this, this, this and this. So what happens now when he can be 100 percent himself and creatively free?
I personally don’t know if the public would allow him to get away with certain things because of his profile and who he has become in the media.
And you know what? That sucks. Because that’s not creative freedom. One of the things that I will give Kanye West credit for is Kanye West fights for his creative freedom.
Let me pose you this question: Are the DJ’s to blame or the artists themselves?
Man, let me tell you this: I think everybody has to kinda take a piece of the blame. You can blame the record companies because they’re the ones that are signing all of the artists. They are asking and stressing that they want something to sound like something else. Everybody knows that. I don’t think there’s a record company now that’s looking for something new and original. I think that’s just something that everybody says. “I want something new and fresh.” No you don’t. You want something that sounds just like the other thing that is popular so that you can ride the bandwagon. You don’t really have somebody trying to push the envelope.
I think you gotta look at it from the commerce side. It became so much of a business that when you look at the heads of most of these record companies, or even music entities, none of them are music guys. They’re finance guys! I’m not trying to get my food cooked by a carpenter. I want somebody who has cooked food, has experience in cooking food and loves cooking food to make my steak. I don’t want a scientist to make my steak. So I think there’s so many levels that you can blame as to why it is like it is on the mainstream level. Because there’s a subculture going on that is thriving so big that people just don’t know about.