TW2AW: The Return of the Magnificent
By Andrea Woo
Perhaps to most, he is known as Jazz, the streetwise best friend of Will Smith who Uncle Phil routinely tossed out of his mansion on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But to those with hip-hop in their blood, the man born Jeff Townes is the magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff, a legend who has been holding it down at the wheels of steel for more than two decades. He is the man, who, along with the Fresh Prince, spawned countless rap careers with the 1988 classic, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper. He is your favourite DJ's favorite DJ.
What began as a hobby in his mother's west Philadelphia basement more than 30 years ago has blossomed into a career of doing what he loves, garnering him unrelenting respect from those who matter and enough awards to collapse a mantle. Jeff's talent at the turntables has also taken him, quite literally, around the world, with a seemingly endless tour schedule that he himself refers to as "grueling." In the past year alone, he estimates that he toured the UK six times, Canada three, Asia twice and Australia once.
"It's grueling and it's hard, but what's really cool is to know that you have friends in Hong Kong, and know that you have friends in Shanghai," says Jeff, on the line from his Philadelphia home. (Just three days prior, he rocked a show in New York with Smith, and in three more days, will be kicking off yet another European tour in Norway.) "That you get off the plane and you can call these guys and they take you to your favorite restaurant over there, and take you shopping…. It's like, 'Wow, I got friends in Hong Kong like I got friends in Philly.' It makes you really understand that as big as the world is, it's not as big as you think."
Throughout the course of a 30-minute interview, this endearing humility permeates almost all of his answers. From speaking with him, one would hardly expect that he became a millionaire at 24, or that he has sold more than 10 million albums, or that he and Will bagged the first rap Grammy ever. He is humble and appreciative, good-natured and patient. He answers questions about his Fresh Prince days as if he has not been asked the same questions 2,500 times before.
It seems that this down-to-earth modesty extends outside of interviews. He is widely credited, for example, for creating the Transformer scratch, and yet he refuses to acknowledge this, insisting instead that he simply popularized it by being the first to put it on wax. His Grammys (for 1989's "Parents Just Don't Understand" and 1991's "Summertime") are in a box tucked away in a closet somewhere, not having been touched since he moved houses a couple of years ago. Several of his other awards—three American Music awards, two NAACP awards, two Soul Train Music awards and one MTV Music award—are at his mother's.
"As much as I appreciate all the awards and accolades, I have never let that get me to a point like I have to keep that on display and things like that," says the bespectacled beatsmith. "It's always kind of been something for me that I felt as soon as you get too wrapped up in what you've done, what you're doing is over. I still have too much more that I want to do to worry about what I've done."
The latest thing that he has done is complete The Return of the Magnificent, the follow-up to 2002's The Magnificent. The 16-track album features an eclectic range of artists that Jeff says he has always wanted to work with: Method Man, CL Smooth, Kardinal Offishall, Jean Grae, Peedi Peedi, Raheem DeVaughn, and more. He began the project last year, and with nine songs completed in a month, was on pace to finish in a month-and-a-half. His "grueling" tour schedule, however, threw a wrench in the plans.
"DO ME A FAVOR," he wrote on his MySpace blog last December at 6 a.m. from Oxford, England. He was on the third of four tours scheduled for as many months. "IF YOU SEE ME…AND THE ALBUM IS NOT OUT…TELL ME TO TAKE MY ASS HOME N FINISH…BUT WAIT TILL I'M DONE ROCKIN THE HOUSE…..HAHAHA."
Caps and all, the message was written in jest, as Jeff is one artist who genuinely seems to love being on tour.
"One of the biggest things recently is putting together [a tour] DVD, and just kind of looking [at it], like, 'Wow, I'm on stage in front of 1,500 people in Hong Kong, and then I'm on stage in front of 1,500 people in South Africa, then 2,000 people in London,'" he says. "I'm playing the same music. We don't speak the same verbal language, but we speak the same musical language."
Last year, a phony press release circulated stating that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince would be reuniting for the "Boom! Shake the Land" tour in 2007. While Jeff laughs at this, he says that the two have certainly talked about hitting the road again.
"He really, really, really wants to do that, but it's just kind of hard," he says. "Will's one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and it's really hard to juggle two careers. He often [says] that the movies and television really messed his music career up because he couldn't really devote all his time [to it]. His heart is always there."
He adds that every time Will does promotion for a movie, he plans on integrating a concert or tour with Jeff. The show they did together three days prior, in fact, was for the wrap party of Will's upcoming film, I am Legend.
"I look at it like, any time Will calls me, I'm there, because Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince is what started his movie career as well as my music career," he says. "We always kind of take whatever time we need to take out for that. You know, I keep my fingers crossed."
One of his tentative plans for 2007 is to complete three more records. ("Not necessarily my records. I want to do another record that's going to be a little bit different, just with a lot more worldly music, you know? Some Brazilian stuff…some house stuff, and some funk stuff….") Another is to produce about three more records for other people. And, not surprisingly, throw himself head first into another "grueling" year of touring.
"I don't think I'll ever, ever stop DJing," he says.
As the interview draws to a close, Jeff seems reflective, as if evoking the feeling of rocking a faraway club. The Pharcyde, KRS-One, Pharoahe Monch… Coloured lights scan a sea of bodies lost in a blur of sweat and euphoria. Hands are in the air. Nothing else matters.
"I think this may be one of the happiest times in my life," he says slowly, pausing to organize his thoughts. "From traveling around the world and meeting people, I've learned so much stuff from children about the world that they don't even realize that they're teaching [me]…. I've learned to relax a lot more and take life as it comes, instead of trying to dictate it, and get this hit record, and chase this big thing. It's kind of like, 'You know what? It's a taxi ride. Let me just get in, shut up, and enjoy the view.'"
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Raw interview excerpts that didn't fit into the story, but that I love regardless:
What is it like being on tour with Jazzy Jeff? I imagine it ain't six dudes in a van driving nine hours a day….
You know what? The funny thing, sometimes it is. I mean, I like to experience— like, you know what's funny is, when Will and I were touring back in the day, we didn't care about where we were going, we didn't care about the location, the people. We wanted to do the show and go back home. So it's a lot different to go to these places that you've gone now, where you meet people, you understand the culture, you understand the food, you understand the sights, you're taking pictures, you're taking a lot more in. So a lot of the touring, you know, as well as spreading music to people in different places, is also experiencing different cultures, experiencing different music and the way that people live their lives. It gives you a great appreciation for where you're from. And I try to make it as loose and as fun as I possibly can, because I look at it like, my job on tour is to make people have a good time, and the last thing that I can do is make my job so stressful and my job is to make you have a good time. I gotta have a good time, and hopefully that comes through in my spirit to the people that you're playing for.
When it came time to provide the transforming sound effect for the upcoming Transformers movie, you were overlooked. Why does Michael Bay hate rap music?
[Laughs] You know, I never even thought about that. Never thought about that. It's funny, because I didn't even know Michael Bay hated rap music. It's funny that he hated rap music and did the movies with Will. But different people have different musical tastes. If Michael Bay is only exposing himself to the rap music that's on the radio, sometimes you can understand why he may hate it.
Where did you get your first big paycheck from and what did you do with it?
Ooh. First big paycheck was probably from a collection of shows that we did, and I took the money and I put it in my pocket. [Laughs] Bought a pair of shoes, and I put it in my pocket, because the first big check I was so afraid of putting it in the bank. I didn't trust the bank for at least a year. I just took my money and put it in my pocket, and when it got too much to put in your pocket, I just put it under my bed.
Do you take care of the MySpace page yourself?
You know what? I try. I tried in the beginning, and then I kind of got cool with the people at MySpace and they made me a MySpace DJ. In one day, it went from like 4,000 people, friends and friend requests, to 40,000. It just got to a point that it was like, "Okay, this is way out of my hands now." So I try to answer as many e-mails as I can, you know. It's getting kind of hard, because it's starting to be a whole bunch of spam, people trying to get me to buy something from Victoria's secret. If you check 30 messages and 28 of them are Victoria's Secret ads, you just end up giving up, saying, "Never mind." I know a guy in DC who told me he booked a whole tour through MySpace. I mean, I've bumped into people from Howie T to Mix Master Ice from U.T.F.O.—guys that I haven't been in contact with for 20 years—on MySpace. So it's definitely a community where you get these guys that can put their records and put their music out there and people can listen to it. It's definitely a big change, because now you have the accessibility to get your stuff out there and let people hear it without signing to a big record company. I just think it puts the power back into the artists' hands, or some of it.
Tell me something that no one knows about DJ Jazzy Jeff.
[Laughs] That no one knows? If I wasn't a DJ, or doing music, I'd be a chef.
What's your best dish?
I don't really have a best dish, I just love to cook. And I love to experiment, experimental cook. You know what goes together, just grab a bunch of seasoning, put some stuff in a pan, cook it up and keep your fingers crossed.
If hip-hop was a woman, what would she look like?
Ooh. At its current state? Well, I think if hip-hop was a woman, she'd have to be quadruplets. It couldn't just be one woman. One would have to be very afrocentric and very down to earth, and try to keep everything pure, and the righteous one fighting for equality, fighting for what's good. One would probably have a weave down to the floor and implants and a really tight skirt. One would probably have to be a banker who is very driven, just about being successful, and one of them would probably have on booty shorts and gold fronts.
Is Charlie Mack still first out the limo?
[Laughs] Charlie Mack will always be the first out of the limo. He's just a little bit older and he doesn't go get in too many limos now.
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DJ Jazzy Jeff on Tour, Courtesy of Rapster/BBE Records:
This is the video he was referring to in the story. It is a GREAT video. When "Summertime" comes in at the end? GOOD LORD. It's a wrap.
DJ Jazzy Jeff's Official Site:
Buy The Return of the Magnificent
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