DJ Jazzy Jeff will keep the DeLuna Fest party going from Friday night into Saturday morning. / Special to GoPensacola.com
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“He’s the DJ” to Will Smith’s “I’m the Rapper,” as one half of the history-making hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. But Jeffrey Townes, better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, has continued to have a successful and innovative career since separating from his partner in the mid-’90s, long after they’d earned the first Grammy Award ever awarded for hip-hop with “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
An always in-demand turntablist, DJ and producer, he was a playable character in the game “DJ Hero,” and he’s worked with some of the top names in hip-hop, R&B and EDM. He still knows how to get the party started. He and Smith remain friends, and still collaborate sometimes. And yes, he’s a parent, and admits that sometimes, he just doesn’t understand.
Jeff spoke about his long career and his perspective on the changing role of the DJ and the state of the music industry in an extensive telephone interview.
Q: What was it like to have such major success at such a young age?
A: There are a lot of times when the average kid was just enjoying his life, and it’s not like we weren’t enjoying it, but we were working. Everything kind of happened so fast and so much at a young age, that our summers were on tour instead of just kind of hanging out at the park. So that was definitely different. And then, making a bunch of money at a young age, and not really having a whole bunch of the guidance around you at that time to tell you what to do and what not to do, a lot of times we made mistakes that we shouldn’t have made.
Q: Is there anything, looking back, that you’d change about it?
A: No. No. Especially where I’m at now, how everything has come, we learned lessons that paid a lot bigger dividends down the road than maybe somebody else, so that was great.
Q: You have something on your resume that nobody else can ever duplicate: the first Grammy Award for a hip-hop record. How does that make you feel?
A: One of the things that was tough about the Grammy – the American Music Award was great, we really enjoyed that, that was a very big highlight – but the Grammys were kind of sad because the year that we won the first, they didn’t acknowledge the rap category on television. So in all actuality, we were there, but we didn’t go (to the ceremony) just to make a statement. So it was kind of bittersweet that we had sat in the house for years and watched the Grammys on television, and finally to get to the point to not only be nominated, but to win, and it not be acknowledged, man, it kind of sucked. We eventually won (again) and were able to go on stage and accept our award, but the first one was a little bittersweet.
Q: When I mentioned on Facebook that I was interviewing you, I got a lot of comments along the lines of “ask him if his parents ever understood,” “ask him if he survived the nightmare on his street,” that sort of thing. Is that the kind of thing that people ask you if they meet you on the street? Do you still hear a lot about the old days?
A: Yeah, and you know what? One of the things that I think is amazing is that I’m asked questions by a 45-year-old woman, and I’m asked questions by a 21-year-old guy. So I look at it like I’m blessed, because I get it from so many sides. It’s amazing to me that (with) all of the stuff that I’ve done, there are people that come up to me and think that everything started with “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” So they don’t understand that it was a whole other career behind that. And that just makes me feel blessed. That kind of stuff doesn’t bother me, because people, I think, when you really sit and look at it, the first thing you said to me was that “Parents Just Don’t Understand” came out when you were in high school, so we’ve actually grown up together. It took a minute for that to kind of fit in, that “wow, these are people that have kids.”
You know, I have a 25-year-old son, and I’m absolutely amazed that there are times that I’ll play, and I’m playing for friends of his, and still extremely relevant. It’s kind of funny, because at the end of the day, you want to go over to him and be like, “put that drink down! You’re not supposed to be drinking!” “Parents Just Don’t Understand” – and then you’re the parent! It gets really funny sometimes.
Q: Obviously, you play a lot of parties and a lot of clubs. What are the crowds that you see like? How many people are there for a nostalgia thing, and how many are there for what you do now?
A: I mean, it’s everybody. You know what it is? I am a music fan first, and I think that has attributed to a lot of my longevity. I don’t believe that you can ever say that you know it. It’s constantly changing, and you just have to put yourself in the mindset that “I’m going to be a sponge” and just keep grabbing music. I grab music from everywhere in the world, from anybody in the world, and it’s just about making people move. I’m playing in Vegas tomorrow at a pool party for a bunch of people, and then I do the Palms later that night, and it’s 4,000 people. And then I’m going to do something else in Tunica, Miss., for a whole different crowd of people, and then I’m gonna do an outdoor, backyard barbecue in Portland on Sunday – it never allows me to get bored, because I’m always playing so many different kinds of music, so many different genres of music, and I like the fact that I can adapt to any situation.
Q: What’s the difference for you between playing a club gig or party for 3,500 to 4,000 people as opposed to coming to a festival like DeLuna Fest with, potentially, tens of thousands of people?
A: My job is to take people on a musical journey. So you can take 5 people on a bus trip, or you can take 5,000 people on a bus trip. To make 5 people enjoy themselves is great. To make 5,000 is incredible. So to make 35,000 people have a good time, there’s no better rush in the world.
Q: The past few years, the status of the DJ in the music world has stepped up with the rise of EDM. How has that affected your sets and your shows?
A: I think it’s great. You know, I told somebody, I was talking about Las Vegas, and I said, “15 years ago, I thought that Vegas was going to be, seriously, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat.” That was going to be the transition from Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and all those guys. That’s what I thought it was going to be. Never in a million years did I think it was going to be all DJs, that you’d have these big mega-clubs.
I remember the first big tour I did overseas, I walked into a club, and the club was humongous, and there were, like, 5,000 people there. And I looked at the promoter, and I was like, “who are all these people here to see?” And he was like, “They’re here to see you.”
Even just going back and explaining to Will that some of my DJ shows are bigger than the shows that we used to do, it’s absolutely mind-blowing. So I’m really excited that people are starting to pay a lot of attention to the DJ.
There’s the good with that and the bad, because now you have EVERYBODY who wants to be a DJ, and everybody who kind of thinks that they’re a DJ just because they have an iPod, which sometimes can dilute the whole situation. But I just look at it like, at the end of the day, the quality and the purity of it will always rise to the top.
Q: Has it changed anything about how you do what you do?
A: No. Not at all. I mean, if anything, it makes me focus more, because there are times that I really am out to prove that the person who just picks up and says that they want to DJ, and thinks that they can do what I’ve done for 30 years, I need to show them why you have to put in the time. I’m not mad at anybody in this world who says that they want to do it, but there’s a side of me that kind of thinks it’s disrespectful, just like it would be disrespectful of me to go to Kobe Bryant and say, “hey man, I think I want to go and play for the Lakers.” And he’s looking at all the time that he put into getting to the Lakers, and just because I can dribble between my legs and I can hit a shot, I think that I should be able to play for them.
Q: That touches on the whole big debate in the DJ world of some DJs calling others “nothing but button-pushers…”
A: But you know what? They’re not DJs! That’s no disrespect. The DJ/producer world has always been very close-knit. I know a ton of DJs who produce, and it’s like, “I go in the studio, and I make my music, and I go and I play it.” It’s just a little bit different know, because guys like Louie Vega, and Kenny Dope, a lot of legends, Carl Cox and those guys, actually know how to DJ.
From vinyl to CDs to whatever, I know how to mix records together seamlessly and make people dance. And a lot of these other guys, what they basically do is they put everything together in the studio, and they basically come out and push the button and play it. I’m not mad at that at all, I just think we need to define what that is.
It’s almost like, back in the day, a mix-tape was a recording of a DJ who was actually mixing, and now the terminology “mix-tape” is used for anybody putting out almost a free project. It’s like, “no, the wording is wrong.” It’s a project, but it’s not a mix-tape. These guys are in the clubs and they’re playing music, (but) they’re not DJing.
I’m not mad at the approach, I’m not mad at what they’re doing – I think what they’re doing is incredible – I just think that we need to kind of define it for what it is, because that confuses people.
Q: What do you think is the state of turntablism right now?
A: You know, I’m kind of in a weird position, because as much as I’m a purist, I’m a gadget fanatic. I’m a tech geek. And I understand that technology evolves. I was one of the first people to use digital vinyl, and I remember the first time I went out (with it), I got dirty looks from every DJ that came out to see me play, until they understood that it didn’t sacrifice any of the integrity. All it did was make you be able to carry the library a whole lot easier than you did back in the day. That was just the difference. So it’s a little bit different now.
I know DJs that are a little bit scared because they feel that when everybody starts using controllers and things like that, it levels out the field to the point that, you have situations and programs now that basically mix the records for you. And it kind of just get to the point that when you make it so that anybody can do it, it dilutes the situation.
So I’m kind of in a weird place that I’m always going to use turntables until the day that I can’t, but I’m always going to embrace whatever new technology comes along, because that’s just my nature. You’ll be a dinosaur if you don’t embrace what’s coming on new.
Q: In addition to playing the festival, you’re playing a private party for one of the acts during the festival weekend. Is it harder to get a crowd of other musicians – celebrities – going than it is, say, a festival crowd?
A: There’s a level of paying attention to the people, but there’s also a level of sticking to your playlist. A lot of those guys, being professionals, put together a playlist, and they go out and play their playlist, because you have to have a level of confidence that you’re going to suck people in with what you do – that’s why someone asks you to do it. A lot of times, I like to put together something really creative, and like I said, my job is to take people on a musical journey for however long I do. But to take people places, places that they’ve been before, places that they’ve never been before, places that they haven’t been to in a long time, and even throw them that occasional curveball that makes you chuckle and smile and say, “I can’t believe he just played that,” then play something behind that that makes people say, “wow, that was very entertaining.” I just want, for however long, to make people have a good time.
Q: You had something of a mentorship relationship with DJ AM. What do you think he could have accomplished had he not passed away at such a young age?
A: Oh, man. AM and I were very, very good friends. We played together a lot. We had a lot of plans and goals, because it was almost like some of the stuff that we did when we played together was stuff that I did 20 years ago, and it was amazing to do it in front of people and everybody looked at it like it was brand new. It was almost like he would laugh, and almost look at it like, “wow, we get to hit reset, start over at the beginning, and educate a whole new group of people to everything that we’re doing. And not only that, now we have all of the music from the past as well as the music of today.”
He was so much on the cutting edge, and so responsible for bringing the idea of a real DJ into the light. He would cut and he would scratch and would play rock records mixed with hip-hop beats and a capellas, and do these very original mixes that people would just be amazed that he would be able to do them live. And to just look at the level and how big the DJ has become, he was the guy that would have been sitting at the top.
Q: Talk a bit about how much the music industry has changed over the course of your career.
A: You know, from a personal perspective, I’ve always felt that the music industry was set up wrong. And I’ve had a chance to see that first hand from an artist’s side, from a producer, a production company, a label guy, just it was set up wrong.
Right now is probably one of the most exciting times. What really made me start to focus on that is that most of the people of my generation started saying the music industry and music as it stands today just sucks. It just sucks. And I started asking my son, “does it suck?” And my son was like, “you know what? This may be the most exciting time that I’ve ever seen in music.”
So what I wanted to do, instead of being the old guy and just saying, “I don’t understand why you’re using the microwave,” let me find out why you think it’s great. And when he started breaking it down, it really made me look at it.
The difference is now that we have the Internet, now that we have social media and iTunes, it allows people that make music to associate with their fans directly. The way that everything used to be, you would have to find a way to make the music, get it to somebody in the industry, then they would have to co-sign it in order to fund you doing it the right way, and then you’d go into the studio and do it, and give it back to them, and they’d put it through this machine just to get it to your fans. Now, I can make music in my garage and post it somewhere that all of my fans can immediately tap in and listen to it and say if they like it or they don’t. So it cuts out so much of what I thought was the BS of the industry. Now it’s a direct market to your fan base.
What you lose is some of the glitz and glamour. There are people that need to drive down the road and hear their favorite song on the radio before it’s validated; that need to see it on a billboard before it’s validated. So now, you try to figure out how are these guys selling out 10-, 15,000-seat arenas, and they’ve never had a song played on the radio. And there wasn’t any advertising on the radio. There’s a whole subculture that I look at that doesn’t need all of the tools that I needed – or thought I needed – when we were coming up, to make it.
As bad as, to me, that the industry has (become), I realize that we will never, ever live in a world without music. So that was never my concern. We’re always going to have music. What’s going to change is the way that people get it, the way that they make it, the way people receive it, the way you promote it and make money off of it.
Q: Who do you see as the up-and-comers in the DJ and production world right now? What do you listen to? What inspires you?
A: I listen to a little bit of everything. I mean, I like a lot of the EDM stuff, I like the energy. Just watching the explosion is exciting to me. I love the Mac Millers and the Odd Futures and the Frank Oceans and those guys who I’ve watched basically put together a bunch of their fans and go and supply their fans with their music, and they’ve gotten so big that they don’t need the big machine. They do it on their own. And I think that what’s amazing is you’re talking about guys that are 19 and 20.
Just being a student, I love the evolution and the accessibility. I think it’s amazing that I can do a mix and upload it somewhere and tweet it out and have 10,000 downloads in two days. That’s amazing to me. That allows you to find new and upcoming music.
I periodically get emails and texts from friends saying, “hey, check out such-and-such,” and you go on YouTube, and you see a bunch of videos that these guys did. And you’re like, “oh my god, they’re incredible.” And these are people that you’ve never known. You can just reach out on Twitter and say, “hey, I’m a big fan of yours,” and these guys will hit you back and say, “hey, I’m a big fan of yours, I grew up on your stuff, we need to get together and do something.” And I’m just sitting there thinking, “wow, this is really amazing,” because it allows you direct contact, whereas back in the day, you would need a manager, you would need a label, you would need all of this kind of stuff, and (now) you’re able to tell some of those people that you really like them. It definitely opens the world up a lot in music.
Q: Do you think that if you and Will were starting out today that you’d have been smart and savvy enough to capitalize on it?
A: Oh my god, Will and I talk about it all the time. Just the ability … we would go into million-dollar studios to create music. And he’s kind of like, “man, do you realize what we would do if we could just go into a hotel room and have a bunch of food and just create? If we could create music and put music out? Especially the amount of music that we did that we never released, can you imagine if we could just release it and put it out and set up tours and go and play for people, and didn’t necessarily need the machine that we did?” Sometimes I don’t even want to think about it, because it’s mind-blowing.
Q: For people that don’t go to a lot of DJ shows, or who only know you from the early taste, talk a little bit about what they can expect when they see you at DeLuna Fest.
A: Well, I’m one of those people that I play everything. So do not be surprised or shocked at what you hear. My job, and my goal, is to make sure that you have on comfortable shoes, because I want to make sure that you leave with your feet absolutely sore.