When your resume lists DJ, producer and actor, it’s safe to say that you have a solid spot in entertainment. When you’ve deejayed around the world, produced a record that earned the first Rap Grammy Award and acted as a character in an iconic sitcom, it’s safe to say that your spot is deeply rooted.
As a music provider, DJ Jazzy Jeff is known for making crowds rock, whether he’s lugging crates or carrying his digital collection on his back. He started 2014 by playing for 15,000 people in Dubai and then knocked them out when he brought out his former partner-in-crime Will Smith for a last-minute, surprise reunion performance. Could that be the beginning of more to come? Jazzy flirts with the idea, teasing that it could be a possibility. On the solo side, what mainly separates Jazzy Jeff from his peers is his openness to the new. New artists, new genres, new sounds, new software. He understands that in order to move forward, you must embrace (at the least, recognize) the new generation. For any human, the evolving audio scope can be overwhelming but the Philly native is sure about one thing—his passion for music.
DJ Jazzy Jeff Details His Reciprocal Relationship With Mac Miller
HipHopDX: In past interviews, Mac Miller had described working with you as “hands on” and says that you trust him to do what he does. How has it been working with Mac?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: The funny thing is that I became a fan of Mac without him even trying to make me a fan. I became a fan of his via his independence and just his respect for the generation of Hip Hop that came before him. Mac is a student, and he’s really, really good. It was funny because this was my first kind of social media reach out, so I kinda tweeted something to him that I really liked one of the videos to his songs. He tweeted back, we ended up exchanging numbers, got on the phone and we talked. It was just like, “Hey man, let’s hook up.” He came down, and we ended up knocking something out. He’s kinda been a little brother since then.
DX: So the chemistry kicked off between you two?
Jazzy Jeff: Yeah, yeah. That was immediate. The funny thing about it is that it was a very reciprocal relationship. He would ask me questions, and I would give him advice. But I would ask him questions, and he would give me advice, because one of the things I was very intrigued about is there are people in the senior generation of Hip Hop that look at today’s Hip Hop and say, “It sucks.” Oh my God, look at what happened to the music.” But if you talk to somebody from today’s Hip Hop, they’re like, “This is the best time it’s ever been.” I really wanted to find out where the disconnect was, and his explanation was extraordinary to me. It kinda gave me a completely new insight to just the younger generation, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. It’s their turn to make their mark. It’s their turn for the independence. We always will have those relationships. It was great to watch [Mac Miller] because this was the beginning, when everything just exploded for him. Him calling me, telling me that his tour in the UK—his first time in the UK—was sold out, two months out before the tour came. It’s that level of excitement. You appreciate those times. Those are magical.
DX: You mentioned that he had an explanation to why there was a disconnect between the older and newer generations. What was it?
Jazzy Jeff: It wasn’t that he had the explanation, it was almost putting two and two together that I kinda equated, almost like the microwave. People who grew up before the microwave was popular was used to heatin’ their food in the oven. This generation realizes that, “I can put a plate in the microwave and in 15 seconds, I have hot food.” Sometimes, that’s a culture shock for someone who’s been used to using it in the stove, unless you keep yourself open minded to realize that things change. Everything changes. There was a time when you really wanted to talk to that girl, you had to wait for her to be home and then get past her parents on the phone. You couldn’t text her, Tweet her, Instagram her. You couldn’t do any of that. You talked to your friends when they were home and when you were home. All the stars had to align for you to talk to somebody and now, they’re pretty much accessible. All of that is just times changing. I think sometimes the older generation doesn’t understand that things have to change. There’s times that you can be extremely popular, and in the blink of an eye, somebody else is popular. Something shifts. The time shifts. Not to get off track, but it’s almost kinda like the explosion of Electronic Dance Music feels a lot like the explosion of Hip Hop.
How Jazzy Jeff Learned To Relate To Younger Hip Hop Artists
DX: Yeah, and now they are crossing into each other.
Jazzy Jeff: Yeah, but you know what it is? It’s the music of the youth. It’s their turn. I think of when I used to DJ those parties and how important those parties were. You couldn’t tell me that this wasn’t the “Fresh Fest;” this wasn’t the Jay Z and Kanye tour to me, and it might have been 300 people at a YMCA in Philadelphia. But at that point in time, that was everything to me. When I started to look back at how important those and how much they shaped my life and my career, I realized I was 17. So, how could I dispute what another 17-year-old is going through or what he deems important? It kinda makes you realize that you have to pay attention to the generation behind you and what they’re doing because they’re the ones that are in their room, molding and shaping the future of music, and for that matter, what the culture is going to be.
DX: You said it’s important for an older artist to see what’s going on and understand and accept the change. On a flip note, how important do you think it is for a newer artist to respect and pay homage to the musicians that came before him or her?
Jazzy Jeff: I think it’s important for them to do, but I don’t think it’s necessarily mandatory. The respect should always be there. I get that. But the one thing I do understand is, say if I got into music in the ‘80s, and I needed to kinda know who The Beatles were in the ‘60s. There was a point in time when I would only go back so far. I don’t think my musical knowledge or my musical tastes even went back to the ‘50s. I got the ‘60s. I got the ‘70s, especially with the Soul movement and the rest of that. I’m born in the ‘80s, and I’m coming along in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Now take someone who’s getting into music in 2010. Do you think it’s fair that they have to go back into the ‘70s? It’s a point in time where I think it’s up to them, but you can’t really fault when you have generations. It’s almost like you can’t expect the older Jazz artists to be mad that I don’t know everything that Duke Ellington did. I know who he is, but I’m not that familiar with his catalog because I’m not that old. I have enough music to learn.
DX: There’s so much to learn.
Jazzy Jeff: Me and Mac got into a conversation, and I also got into some conversations with some younger artists and just being a fly on the wall to realize that they went back to Nas. That was it. [They say,] “Nas was the first album that I heard that blew my mind,” and I’m like, “Nas?” But it’s the same thing that we will joke, and we talk about The Color Purple, and we talk about Roots and just some of the things that we saw when we were younger. And they’re like, “Oh my god, The Lion King.” Dead serious, though. Like The Lion King was the throwback for them. They don’t know old Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock; they’re like, “My comedian for my generation is Kevin Hart.”
DX: Especially with a lot of them being born in the late ‘90s.
Jazzy Jeff: Understand that the modern day Rap artist or someone who is born in the late ‘90s was never around for anything that The Notorious B.I.G. did or Tupac. Anything. They only know the legacy. I’ve deejayed a J Dilla event, and it was crazy to look in the crowd and most of the people there had only heard of J Dilla. They weren’t around when he was producing records or when he was actually here. They’re fans after he’s gone.
DJ Jazzy Jeff On Being Relevant & Mac Miller’s “‘92 Til Infinity”
DX: They listen and take in the knowledge. That’s all part of being student.
Jazzy Jeff: Even switching that around, it’s not always important for the older artists to understand what’s going on out here. My point to that being, if you want to stay relevant, you keep your eyes and ears open to what’s going. If you’re comfortable staying where you are, ‘cause somebody like B.B. King is a Blues guy, and he has been doing Blues forever and that’s all he’s probably ever gonna do. He doesn’t need to know who DJ Premier is or someone else is. It’s a catch-22. I know a lot of guys that don’t want to take the time to figure out what’s going on today but then ask, “How come I’m not being booked? How come no one is calling me?” It’s two-sided.
DX: You used B.B. King as an example, but what about in Rap? Sometimes an older artist doesn’t want to accept a “new” trend, whether it’s EDM and Rap or on experimental beats.
Jazzy Jeff: In that case, it’s a level of respect. If you give respect, you get respect. If you don’t want to know who Tyler, The Creator is, you can’t expect him to know who you are.
DX: Going back to Mac, when are we getting 92 Til Infinity?
Jazzy Jeff: It was pretty much almost done. Mac—like I said to his credit, and I’m extremely proud of him—Mac got super busy. Mac got his TV show and his records. I’m here whenever he is. I’m just happy to just watch his growth. I think that’s one of the things that I’m just kinda like, “This is absolutely amazing.”
The concept was, I did a song or two. I think Premier did a couple of songs and Pete Rock did a couple of songs. He got a lot of classic producers to do stuff. He’s now the business of Mac Miller, so a lot of times, you just have to figure out where this project fits in that business.
DX: Yeah, the timing needs to be correct. We’re all excited to hear it!
Jazzy Jeff: Yeah, me too [laughs].
DX: Let’s talk about deejaying. What are some adjustments you’ve made from transferring from vinyl to computer software?
Jazzy Jeff: It wasn’t really a lot of adjustments. I play the exact same way that I played. It’s just that technology enables me to carry a lot more music and not really worry about losing it. One of the most nerve-racking things about being a DJ is that every time that the plane lands, you would hope to God that your records came. You know, just being able to carry all your stuff on your back makes you a little bit more confident, because at least you know you could do a good job every night. The general principal and my approach has never changed.
DX: How was it carrying boxes of vinyl?
Jazzy Jeff: Nerve-racking. Extremely nerve-racking. It was funny. I tell people, the weight restrictions was 44 pounds; each record bag was 40 pounds. I carried four record bags and my clothes. So if I’m going away for a month to the UK, I’m pretty much four record bags overweight. I remember coming home from a trip to Japan, and I had spent about $4,500 in extra bag charges. It was like, “I can’t do that.” You don’t want to change the records that you’re taking, because now the fans suffer because I’m gonna carry less music because of the baggage restrictions. I’m sure any traveling DJ at that time was saying, “What are we gonna do?” I’m not the DJ that plays CDs. I’m sitting here like, “Oh man, this is going to be really bad.”
You land in Germany, and you’re sitting in baggage claim, and one case comes down and another case comes down, and they say your other two cases are stuck in London. And now you show up to a party and everybody’s standing, and the only thing you have is your record box with Reggae in it, and everybody’s wondering like, “Why is he playing Reggae all night?” It’s just hectic.
DX: In an interview, you said that right before Serato came out, you were digitizing your vinyl records into MP3s, just as a precaution. At that time, did you ever think, “There has to be an easier way?”
Jazzy Jeff: No, I didn’t know. All digital purists say the would never play CDs, but if that’s the only way I can deliver music to people, then that’s what you have to do. That’s kinda where I was stuck. I was just thinking, “You guys are gonna make me have to start playing CDs and carrying CDs booklets.” Thank God for digital vinyl, because I could cut and I could scratch. I could still do the same things that I’ve always done and have my music on my back.
Jazzy Jeff On Working With Will Smith Again & James Avery’s Impact
DX: In the spirit of groups reuniting like OutKast, Wu-Tang, have you and Will Smith discussed making a new album?
Jazzy Jeff: Well, we haven’t discussed a new album as much as discussing a tour. At least once or twice a year, the bug comes in. Like I said, it’s really hard. He’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. I don’t know how much the movie guys really like me coming around, because I’m always trying to pull him out of the movies. “C’mon let’s go to the studio or c’mon let’s hit the road.” It’s so much in his heart and in his soul. I played in Dubai over New Year’s, and he called me like two days before asking, “Where you at for New Year’s?” I was like, “I’m in Dubai.” He would ask me that before, and he would never come, and him and Jada popped up. I walked out and it was 15,000 people on the beach, and I walked out and dropped “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and everybody went crazy, and I stopped. I was like, “If I’ma do it, I’ma do it right,” and he walked out on stage. People just stood there because they couldn’t believe it was him. We ended up doing something and he said, “We gotta do that!”
DX: If you guys did put out a new album, how would you like it to sound?
Jazzy Jeff: I don’t know. It’s been so long. I’m always in the studio making music. If we ever did a project, I would almost insist that we did it like we did it back in the day. Just him and I in the studio. “Let’s go somewhere and just look ourselves in the room for two-and-a-half weeks. You got a pad and a pen and I’ll have all my machines, turntables and a bunch of records, and let’s just come out with something.”
DX: With the recent passing of James Avery, what are some of your favorite memories of Uncle Phil on the set of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air?
Jazzy Jeff: More than anything, being young and being on the show. He was one of those guys...he knew I was a DJ. He was a really big Jazz listener. So every time I walked past his dressing room, he would call me in, and he would play me something. He would give me a new CD or give me something that I’d never heard before and just really expose me to a lot of different types of Jazz music or new artists that I’ve never heard of. When I wanted to take a vacation with my girlfriend at the time, he gave me his favorite top 10 beaches. It was those jewels and nuggets that he would just kinda give you. “You should try going to Memphis and going to see where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.” To see historical landmarks. He would say stuff to me, and that stuff always kinda resonated. More than anything, it was that. He was always someone who would give you something. “Aww man, have you heard this new album?” I would say, “No,” and he would sit there and play me a couple of tracks. He would either give it to me to copy and give me the CD. I definitely appreciated that. Anybody in music would appreciate that.
DX : How would you compare The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to either The Cosby Show or A Different World as one of the most influential TV shows to feature a predominantly black cast.
Jazzy Jeff: I’ve never…. When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t look at it like that. I’ve never looked at the social significance of The Fresh Prince [of Bel-Air]. Maybe until recently, when someone said that when after James Avery passed and I sat down and said, “Shit. Wow, that’s kinda deep but you got it.” We didn’t look at it like that. I wasn’t one of the main characters. I was just there and it was great. But to kinda look, to realize that it had that level of impact. So many things that it had that you’ve never really kinda paid attention to, until now. Sometimes you find yourself being a overwhelmed that you were even a part of something that big.
DX: Sometimes you don’t realize that you’re making history because you’re having so much fun.
Jazzy Jeff: My entire career up until the past 10 years has been like that...like a blur. Also, keep in mind when you’re young, you don’t think about stuff like that. We were in the studio having fun, and people liked it. We didn’t realize that we were making any kind of an impact or making any kind of history. Someone once told me a long time ago, “When you’re making history, you never know that you are.” Just looking back, I found myself over the last 10 years paying a lot more attention to the things I’m doing. Just because, you want to smell our roses while you’re still here.
Catch DJ Jazzy Jeff on April 18th in London at Scala. For more information, click here.