At one point, one of hip-hop's most important DJs was primarily known to mainstream America as the guy that Uncle Phil used to throw out of the house on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
While his profile in mainstream America may not be the same today, DJ Jazzy Jeff become one of the genre's most respected legends, an artist at soundtracking parties and a Serato auteur. He still tours the world, spinning for diverse crowds, and recently appeared with fellow DJs A-Trak and Z-Trip to judge the Red Bull Thre3style Finals in Los Angeles.
We spoke to him about that a couple weeks back, and while we were meeting, we got to ask him a few more questions about what his life is like touring the world, how he structures his DJ sets, and what he thinks of contemporary R&B.
Interview by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
When you DJ nowadays, what’s your favorite stuff to play?
I play everything. My whole thing is taking people on that journey that you’re supposed to take as a DJ, no matter what type of music that is. When I came up and I was carrying a crate of records, I would have a hip-hop crate and an R&B crate, and you would have a reggae section and you would have some rock records and some breakbeats. You had a smorgasbord of music that you picked from through the night.
As the whole DJ thing evolved, it started to become like, “oh, he’s a hip-hop DJ,” or “he’s a house DJ,” or “he’s an electronic music DJ,” and a DJ is supposed to be able to play whatever makes the people move. Now, it’s going back to people playing a more eclectic set of music. During the course of the night, I can play a David Guetta record, a Mobb Deep record...So you're like, “he’s playing a dance record, and now he’s got everybody singing Mobb Deep!” [laughs]. Like, "How did he do that?” I don’t know anybody that likes one type of music.
When was the last time someone surprised you with something that they played, or made you want to find out more about the artist?
I get that a lot, especially like in the [Red Bull] Thre3style. Me and the other judges, A-Trak and Z-Trip, are always jumping up and down when you hear that record that you absolutely didn’t expect and the hair on your arms stand up. It was like, “he’s not about to bring that in... OH! Oh my god!” You know? And you like that, because it’s kind of like how it was. Especially when you’re used to hearing the same ten records over and over again. A breath of fresh air in anybody’s set is good.
Obviously you’ve probably seen Z-Trip perform and you’ve seen A-Trak. How would you describe the difference between the three of you guys as DJs?
The funny thing is all of us kind of came from the turntablism world. I was around a little bit before that. But being able to take what you do, and put it in a party setting. There are a lot of DJs that are incredible DJs that just never left that arena of, “I think it’s supposed to be all about me.” I think it shifted. It’s not about me. It’s about you. It’s about me making you have a good time. But showing them that you have the skill and [are at] the level to do stuff. It’s kind of meshing it all out.
I think A-Trak, just being the youngest DMC champion ever, to just watch his transformation into being not only an incredible DJ, but an incredible producer ... and he plays all kinds of stuff. I enjoy watching his set because A-Trak will play from the deepest electro record, to a routine off of a hip-hop record, and play a trap remix of something he did, it’s just all over the place. And then Z-Trip—pretty much considered the father of the mash up—he’s made his career off of being so diverse and playing stuff that you just don’t expect. His set is always that journey of, “let me just sit here and just see what he’s gonna do.” I just try to be the Swiss army knife, whatever the situation calls for. It’s giving people what they want, giving people what they didn’t expect, all in the same night.
Who were the DJs when you were first starting out, when you were very young, that you first looked up to?
It was local guys. The first guy I ever looked up to was a DJ from Philly named Disco Doc. He would do these massive block parties, and he would set up on someone’s enclosed porch, so you couldn’t see him. And he would talk on the mic and talk to the people. But through the records he played, I watched him take the people almost like a herd of cattle, and he could kind of shift them, and shift everybody on the floor. Just give everybody this music experience.
I remember the first time that I really noticed that—I never knew what he looked like. I’m looking at this enclosed porch. He's the mystery guy, he’s like the Wizard of Oz. He’s sitting in the back and he’s controlling all these people and making everybody have a good time. That was the whole thing. That was where I started. It was more about making sure everybody had a good time. And then when you start developing your skills, you kind of get into “OK, let me give you a little bit, let me get a little bit, let me give you a little bit, let me get a little bit,” and just do an even trade.
When that was first happening, when you first started DJing, what were the big records that you were playing? What did you like to play?
Well this was pre-hip-hop, so it was all funk and soul. This was Mass Production, Brass Construction, you played rock records. Like I said, you played whatever made you move. Being around at the birth of hip hop, and when people start playing “Rapper’s Delight” on your way to school.... I never got rid of those funk and soul records, but then you can grab all of these hip hop records and bring them in. I think one of the things that DJs don’t realize—when EDM music got really big, you started to hear DJs say, "I don’t play hip hop anymore." And your job as a DJ is not to cut music out, it’s to add music in. You’re saying “I don’t play hip hop anymore” because of the new fad that’s coming along. So what happens when the new fad is hip hop again? Now you’re hearing a lot of these guys, like, “I’m breaking out my hip-hop records again” and it’s like, "You should have never put them away!"
It seems like on the Internet, a lot of people like to think of themselves as "tastemakers." And at the same time, they do sort of follow along with what the next person is doing. Do you remember that being a thing back when you first started DJing? Was that something where DJs were really proud to break a record? Were there any records that you were associated with?
You know what? I don’t know. Because the goal wasn’t to break a record, it was to always go and find something that you think is really cool and be one of the first people to play it. And it wasn’t for the novelty factor of it. I think now, it’s almost like you get some DJs that want to be deep and want to be weird. It’s never about that.
I remember going record shopping every week, or two or three times a week. And new records would come in, and the guy would just play them in the store while I’m looking, and if I liked it, I put my thumb up and if I didn’t put my thumb up, he didn’t do anything. But he would make this pile, and it was almost like he was guy that was like, “yo, check this out, just got this is, don’t know if you like this...” and he’d play it, and I’m like “oh shit! That’s great!” and you grab the record. "I’m playing out the night, I’m gonna drop this tonight." And it was also at a time when people weren’t afraid to jump into something they like even if they don’t know it.
Today is very weird, because you can be the most popular artist in the world, and put out a record, and if I play it first in the club, everybody’s gonna stand there. They don’t say “oh my god! This beat is great!” They’re gonna stand there, because if the radio didn’t validate it, then they can’t move to it. But what’s interesting is pretty much its only like that in the United States.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Travelling internationally, you get a lot more educated music fans outside of the United States than you do here. And we’re supposed to be at the forefront. That’s where you see great DJs and hear great music selection. I have no shame. If you play something I think is great, I’m gonna tap you on the back and be like, “What’s that? Where’d you get that from?” Because that’s what it’s about. It’s just being educated and learning new music and just exposing people.
What are the records that you like to play the most right now? What’s in the bag?
You know what? It changes. Especially having so much music on your computer, sometimes it gets really overwhelming because when you would go and do these shows, you would maybe take 400 records. I got 100,000 records in my computer. No one could ever possibly DJ from their entire record collection. So sometimes you can really get lost, if you don’t really have a method to orchestrate.
I treat my computer just like I treat my boxes. If I have something to do tonight, I’m gonna make me a folder and I’m gonna go through my records and pick the records that I want to play. I try not to deviate out of what I picked. It’s great to have that safety net, that I have all of this music at my disposal, but it’s kind of like, as a DJ, put your foot down and say, "This is it, this is what I chose."
Do you change the whole set of your show, from show to show?
No. I have maybe about 50 to 60 folders of different kinds of sets. This one might be extremely eclectic, where I’m going from here to here, this may be my 90s hip-hop set, this may be my New Jack Swing hip-hop set, this is all 80s, this is electro.... Sometimes I will label them, depending on the event that I did, because only I know through that event. I did something at the Hudson hotel that was all classic 90s, so that folder might be entitled “Hudson,” but I know what “Hudson” means. And a lot of times, I’ll play within these folders. All of these are set, but I got 60 different sets that I bounce back in and out of, and it always creates a different picture every night.
You mentioned that a lot of DJs jump on to EDM when EDM gets hot and sort of leave other stuff behind. Is there any style of music that you wish you heard out more these days?
Like I said, my music isn’t so much style, it’s just “is it good or bad?”, because there’s bad EDM, there’s bad trap music, there’s a lot of bad hip hop, there’s almost no R&B. So it just kind of gets to a point that I don’t care what it is, just don’t play a sucky record. It can be anything.
What do you think of R&B right now?
I think it’s interesting seeing that our biggest R&B stars are doing EDM music, and Justin Timberlake came out with probably the most R&B record that I’ve heard in the past five, six years.