Highly respected in Hip Hop circles for 25 years, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s DJ Jazzy Jeff has built an R&B empire just as well. Known for his turntable mastery, Jeff’s production, which held down five albums with The Fresh Prince, further developed in R&B hits for Jill Scott, Raheem DeVaughn and Musiq Soulchild with his A Touch Of Jazz team and imprint. With established proteges up and down the east coast, Jeff now crosses the border with Ayah, a powerful voiced singer from Toronto, Canada with an E1-distributed album (2009’s 4:15) already under her belt.
Today, Jeff and Ayah have released Back For More, their second free project, showcasing the pair’s chemistry and direction. They spoke with HipHopDX recently about meeting through MySpace, and executing a sound that’s more relevant than ever in the soundscape today. Also, DJ Jazzy Jeff, a longtime supporter of Little Brother, reacted to this year’s reunion between Phonte and 9th Wonder, and he compares them to his own golden-era peers.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & Ayah Meeting Online To Collaborate
HipHopDX: Can you speak about what brought your paths together musically?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Well the irony is Ayah sent me a message on MySpace, [back] when everyone was really on MySpace, just saying “Hey, you know I’m a big fan and you know check me out” and sent me a video clip of her singing live – which was the best thing in the world and it was great. I hit her back and was like, “Yo, love it,” and we just kind of started an e-mail dialogue and after about two or three e-mails it went from MySpace to just personal e-mail and she just started sending me stuff she was working on and I was just like, “Wow, you know, this is really cool.” I hadn’t really planned on doing anything [musical at the time]. I was just traveling and deejaying and one day I did a song actually for a friend of mine, he needed some music for a DVD and I put something together and it just so happened to be the same day that she e-mailed me you know just checking in and I sent her the song, and 15 minutes later she sent me back the first verse and a hook and I was so amazed that I was absolutely impassable. She had to be in a booth when she received it and I told her I loved it and told her to finish it and about two hours later, she sent me back everything, I kind of layered everything into the track and for about six months, everybody who came down I would play the song for and everyone was like, “Oh my God, this song is ridiculous,” and then I would tell everybody the story of how it happened so I knew at some point in time that we had to hook up and maybe about six months later she ended up coming down, we went in the studio and that was it the chemistry was there.
DX: Ayah, tell me a little bit about why you wanted to catch Jeff’s ear in particular and how surprised you were by the kind of response you got?
Ayah: Well here’s the thing I’ve been in the industry for a while and I’m obviously up on DJ Jazzy Jeff and all the work he’s done and he’s a legend and I definitely hit him specifically because I wanted to work with Jeff and I didn’t know if I’d get a response but I mean the worst thing you can do is try and the worst thing you can hear is no. I just felt like of all the people in the world and this has just been solidified for me now, of all the people in the world and in the industry, the one person that I had a feeling that would work well with me in terms of personalities and whatever and the music sound and style and just the appreciation for real music was Jeff and so I hit him specifically and I was really surprised to actually get a response as fast as I got it especially because literally I sent the message, went back into my main MySpace page, did a couple things, checked my inbox and there it was and I was like, “Wow.” The story just went from there exactly how Jeff said it. It was really crazy and I’m so honored.
DX: Tell me about you guys making that decision of actually getting into the studio together and the importance of that…
DJ Jazzy Jeff: I think me coming from that era. I’m a geek, I’m tech savvy but I’m still old school. Me coming from that era, I still kind of need some kind of interaction with somebody I’m working with. I kind of need to be in a room and see your face, so as great as it is to be able to send something over the internet and get something back and never have to meet there’s a level that a project sacrifices with that. So it wasn’t even a question. Once this was something that I knew I wanted to do, it was like we have to get face-to-face, we need to sit and talk and what you want to do is you want to find out a little about the person that your working with. You need to know what kind of buttons you can push in order to get what you need to get out of the project. So I’m happy with the whole façade of technology that allows you to do it without meeting somebody but you kind of need that vibe, you kind of need to been in the same room with somebody at some point in time.
Ayah: That technology is how we connected but definitely getting in the studio with somebody makes a world of a difference and after we corresponded for a while and he constantly checking in and things you know I’m still here and I’d love to work with you and blah blah blah. At the end of the day when we finally did get together it was cool. Jeff can tell you about this but Jeff is really good at making you feel comfortable when you meet him and like he said getting to know that side of the person and knowing what buttons to push because once you make somebody feel comfortable in the studio especially the first time you are face to face and all that it takes the pressure off the situation and that leads to the vibe that we had in the studio, which lead to our project happening.
DX: Is there a theme to Back For More musically, or in terms of songwriting?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: We got in the studio and what I try to do is a lot of times is I don’t try to put a limitation on when a project is finished or not and we got in the studio and just started recording as the ideas came out and we just started recording stuff. It wasn’t a point in time where that it was kind of like, “Okay, we’re done,” and we looked up and we had thirty something tracks that we realized, “Wow, we just really got it in.” And then the idea came that we had so much music that we really need to share this with the world and we kind of came up with the concept of lets put this out for the summer. Namely and solely what we’re trying to do is let the fan base grow and let people understand what the Jeff and Ayah project is. It’s kind of like when you start looking at the concept of fan base, that’s why the Rolling Stones have been around as long as they have, that’s what The Roots have. Once you have a loyal fan base, they will follow you to the end of the Earth and it’s kind of like you have to give the fans something the grab onto, you got to give them that glue. So we were kind of like lets put out as much stuff as we can people to that light bulb place where you kind of like, “Oh Jeff, Ayah, ah yeah, I’m with that,” and that’s what this project was. This was something for the summer that you put it in your iPod, put it in your car, play it at your barbecue, you know this is just some straight feel good music that once you get it, pass it on to your friends, let your mom hear it, play it for your dog and cat and you know that’s what it’s about.
DX: Is this another free project or are you going retail with Back For More?
Ayah: This one we’re giving out to the people, it’s kind of like our offering. You know we did do the sampler but this is a complete project, a 13-song project and we’re just really exited about it we just want to get it in people’s hands and keep it on the iPods and get people kind of vibing with us and understanding exactly what we do and like hits people will come back for more and a full debut and that’s about it. So it’s really just about exposure and building up a fan base.
DX: Tell me a little bit about what you feel, even though it might not honor the traditional genre of Hip Hop, what this offers to fans that just might know Jeff from the work that he’s done with Ted Brown or what have you?
Ayah: Well I truly believe that as much as this is R&B/Soul, it’s Hip Hop. I mean you have me coming from this R&B background but it’s deeply rooted in Hip Hop and you have Jeff who is Soul/Hip Hop so basically we never sat down in the studio and said, “What kind of sound do we want to make?” We didn’t have those discussions. We just kind of went in and did it. So definitely the Hip Hop influences are in there, definitely were in my lyrics. It’s reminiscent of an emcee I think sometimes and just the emotions and statements and the messages that we portray and then just the sound of the music is very Hip Hop, it’s so melodic so it’s a fine line but I think it fits in really well and it’s something everyone can appreciate and it’s going to be something for everybody.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Well what’s funny is I’m actually working on it today and last year we released it over the Fourth of July weekend and we’re just trying to follow the same concept. It was just one of those thing where [Mick Boogie] came to me with the idea, you know, let’s do a summertime mixtape of basically songs that not only say summertime or have summertime in them but something that makes you feel like a barbecue or cookout. So we just compiled songs that I really enjoy and did it and had no idea that it was going to have the kind of response that it got that starting in February we started getting requests like, “You got to do a part two.” So it was just a natural progression. I kind of pieced together my playlist and he pieced together his.
DJ Jazzy Jeff On The Little Brother Reunion
DX: You opened for Little Brother in 2003 when they were on tour with Blackalicious here in Philly. And we talked about it in 2007, at a time when I never thought they’d get back together as a trio. How do you feel about all these great reunions going on in Hip Hop and as a big brother to that whole movement to see those have even talks about making music again?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Even looking at the A Tribe Called Quest documentary [ Beats Rhymes & Life] what a lot of people don’t realize is there’s a lot of things other than music sometimes that has an affect. We know these guys from their music. We love their music and what their music has done for us, how it makes us feel and you don’t really know what the ins and outs of the reason why something stops but we are always excited when the concept of these guys getting back together and doing it again you know that’s what makes Rock The Bells tour so great, you get to see your favorite artists go back and do their classic material and a lot of time it takes you back to a time that has special memories to you. So I’m forever keeping my fingers crossed that one day I will be able to see the A Tribe Called Quest, Little Brother, De La Soul, Pharcyde tour. I’ll be on the bus following that tour around myself.