July 13, 2016
DJ Jazzy Jeff is busier than ever, and he’s probably not surprised that you’re surprised to hear that. The West Philly-born DJ who, along with Will Smith (then the Fresh Prince), won the first-ever hip-hop Grammy in 1989, plays a lot of gigs overseas these days, mostly in Europe and Asia, where DJ culture is better appreciated. You can follow his adventures in his YouTube web series "Vinyl Destination," a video travelogue following him, young Philly MC Dayne Jordan and DJ Ferno as they tour the world rocking clubs and eating airport Big Macs. But choosy hip-hoppers choose Jeff, including The Roots, who snuck him and Smith into June’s Picnic for a surprise performance of “Summertime,” and Dr. Dre, who enlisted him to do all the scratching for “Straight Outta Compton.” Along with Lady Gaga and Lenny Kravitz, DJ Jazzy Jeff will be performing at the “Camden Rising” show at the BB&T Center in Camden during the Democratic National Convention. PhillyVoice is the official media sponsor for that event, so I got to chat with the man earlier this week:
I’ve been watching your 'Vinyl Destination' videos, and you’re always on the road.
Yeah, you definitely can’t complain about working. And especially working globally is great.
Do you feel that international audiences get you?
They know more than the United States audience. Absolutely. Traveling like that gives you a really good perspective of how things are. And especially realizing that people take the music and people take the culture a lot more serious outside the United States.
The culture like hip-hop culture?
Just music in general. Just music. The arts in general. They have a tendency to get it. And it’s funny because you can tell, there are a lot of artists that people over here don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re at, and you bump into them walking on the street in London or Germany somewhere. A lot of times, I think — especially when it comes to art — people go where they’re appreciated.
Someone asked you recently on Twitter to name the city with the toughest crowd to please and you said, ‘Philly, all day.’ I was wondering why that is?
This is just something that I’ve noticed from the beginning. It’s almost like you have to do good here. You have to do something. You cannot come to Philadelphia and get away with things. I’ve seen artists get away with a lot of stuff coming from Philly. That has been instilled in me since growing up and doing house parties in Philadelphia. People often talk about how great Philly DJs are and how great Philly artists are and it’s because having to perform in front of a tough crowd gets you sharp. It really gets you sharp. And I think, back in the early days, some of the demands that Philadelphia put on Will [Smith] and I served us very well going to New York. It was kind of like, ‘This isn’t tough.’ Being at the Wynne Ballroom in Philadelphia where everyone just stands and expects you to be great at all times, I think that was something I definitely owe a big portion of my longevity to — getting [my] teeth cut in the Philadelphia area.
I was wondering about the early days. You won a Grammy in 1989. Did you already know hip-hop wasn’t going anywhere?
Yes. Well, you know what it was, it didn’t have feet yet. We were very protective. We boycotted the Grammys that we won in ’89 because they chose not to televise it. A big portion of that was, we were unsure about the longevity of hip-hop. It was just starting to pique into the mainstream, it was just starting to get some recognition. To be a part of a genre of music that you could tell that there were other genres of music that kind of turned their nose down to it, like it wasn’t legitimate, or it wasn’t credible, there was a group of us that fought for the credibility of the art form. So when you have early-on DJs like Rick Dees, who was a very popular DJ, basically say 'hip-hop is over' or 'hip-hop is dead,' that was a crushing blow to us. … Fast forward to now, it’s probably one of the biggest-selling art forms out. And there are credibility issues. But definitely back in ’89, it was kind of like, 'Oh my God, I’m hoping this isn’t going to be like one of those fads.'
It’s funny to think about it, that anyone would be worried about it, just because now it’s so much a part of the culture.
Yeah. It was definitely shaky ground back then. You weren’t really comfortable and confident telling people you were a hip-hop artist, if that was even the terminology back then. Because this was an art form that you were fairly new to, and a lot of the public was fairly new to it. You just were trying to make sure that people took it seriously.
Along those lines, you helped make DJ culture what it is. Are you amazed it’s still around all these years later?
Yeah. I wouldn’t have expected that. I definitely wouldn’t have expected working more now than I ever had in my life. …
Will came to visit; I have a residency in Dubai, and he came two New Years ago. 'What are you doing for New Year’s?' 'I’m in Dubai.' So he and Jada [Pinkett Smith] flew down. And I was scheduled to play at 12:30 and we were on the balcony looking at the beach where I was playing, and there were 18,000 people. And we were toasting right after New Year’s and we were looking down and you heard the DJ ask everyone, 'Are you ready for Jazzy Jeff?' And 18,000 people roared, and he just shot me a look. It was kind of a look like, 'Wait a minute. All of those people are there for you?' There was a point in time that Will and I didn’t perform in front of 18,000 people, so to just watch… And I knew what that look was, it was of amazement that this is where it’s at now, that you basically are in charge of making thousands of people have a good time through music.
So you and Will Smith got back together at The Roots Picnic. What was that like?
That was great. It was funny because I never really paid attention, but he looked at me and said, 'This is the very first time that we’ve performed "Summertime" in the summer in Philadelphia.' And I was like, 'Wow… Something’s very wrong with that.' Something is very wrong with that. So many times we were scheduled to make surprise appearances and things have come up, and it was really cool to have that moment. He came out on stage basically on his daughter’s show. There was a whole lot of emotion tied to all of that. I remember when Willow [Smith] was born, and Willow was on stage at The Roots Picnic, and we came out and did 'Summertime.' That was a little deep.
I saw online that there were rumors of a tour. Is that still something you guys are thinking about?
Yeah, it’s just scheduling now. He really wants to do it and it’s just working out the schedule. I was excited that he made the announcement because that lets me know that he’s very much closer to making this happen. I joke with him all the time and tell him that I’m pretty much out on tour, I’m just waiting for him to meet me.
“I joke with [Will Smith] all the time and tell him that I’m pretty much out on tour, I’m just waiting for him to meet me.” — DJ Jazzy Jeff
That’s what it looks like in those 'Vinyl Destination' videos. It just seems like you’re always on the road in interesting places. You never stopped touring.
No. And we bumped into each other. … It’s really funny that I was touring Asia in January and my last date was in Malaysia. I landed in the airport and got a text message, and it was like, 'Hey, are you in Malaysia?' And I’m like, 'How random is this?' He was like, 'I just landed. I’m in the lounge.' And it was like, how in the hell did we bump into each other in Malaysia? He was over there doing something and found out that I was going to be there, and we went to dinner and just hung out. It was another one of those moments where he was like, 'We have to do something. This is too much of a sign.'
That’s really cool. And it’s cool that you guys are friends. You’ve both had lots of success and it hasn’t changed your friendship that much.
Oh, not at all, not at all. Not even a little bit.
Let’s talk about Dayne Jordan, the young MC you tour a lot with these days. It seems like he’s in boot camp with the master. How’s he coming along?
Yep. He’s great. It’s really great to just have someone from Philly who's from a different time and a different generation and brings a different kind of energy. From the first time that we linked up, you could tell that it was something different. It was a really big desire to want more or to see more outside of Philadelphia. Once we got linked more so in the studio, I would let him and [DJ] Ferno basically use the studio to record. I would go to the studio every once in a while and show them some stuff, and we ended up recording something that, when I listened to it, I realized just how good it was. And that was the first spark of me realizing that he had something.
And then it was a natural progression. We started working on music together and working on more stuff and just putting stuff out. I credit a lot of me staying in tune to Dayne, because he was very adamant. I’m very open to listening to ideas and pay attention to the way the landscape changes. Because it’s very different from 1989 to how it is now. It’s different on how you present the music, it’s different on how you make the music. It’s different because we have direct access to your fan base, that you can kind of keep them informed on what you’re doing. So when the time came, I started taking him to a few shows, and then it was like, 'I’m going to throw him in the deep end.' I took him on the tour and he was incredible. His energy was incredible. He was very eager to learn and he’s a very personable person. After the show, he shakes hands, he talks to people. Before the show, he shakes hands and talks to people. Sometimes I can’t do that because it creates too much of an issue. But him having that level of interaction, people really appreciate it. It’s been great. It’s really been great.
It’s cool that at a young age, at a young point in his career, he’s getting to see the world.
And I think that’s important. That changes a lot of perspective. Sometimes we make music just from our surroundings. Some people make music just from the perspective of North Philadelphia. And your music changes when you realize that there’s someone in North Africa digging your music, as well as North Dakota. When you start to go out and you start to see… I watched him change, not only musically, as his scope has become more broad, I watched him change as a human, having friends in Tokyo. Having a friend that every time we land in Tokyo, he meets us and he takes us around. When you have those relationships with people all over the world, you realize just how big and how small the world is.
“Some people make music just from the perspective of North Philadelphia. And your music changes when you realize that there’s someone in North Africa digging your music, as well as North Dakota.” — DJ Jazzy Jeff
So you’re playing a Democratic National Convention show in the Philly area with Lady Gaga and Lenny Kravitz. Do you feel political? Do you ever talk about politics?
I don’t. Not necessarily openly in public. And then sometimes I’m politically confused, which I’m sure so many people are, especially this year, and just trying to get a handle on it. I don’t ever think when it comes down to politics that there is 100 percent a right answer and 100 percent a wrong answer. You just try to have the best answer when it comes down to the individual.
Is it fair to say that you’ve been more of a Democrat than a Republican in your life?
Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. It’s weird. My wife and I have these conversations a lot, just talking about that. I think there’s a bit of a Democrat and a bit of a Republican in a lot of us. Sometimes more than not. I think I’m one of those people. … I don’t like the fact that the political process is deliberately confusing, instead of 'What are the issues? What do we need to change and how can we change it?' Why is it the red side and the blue side? Why can’t it just be one side and figure out what needs to be changed and let’s change it.
Have you watched any of the recent footage that’s come out of the police brutality and police shootings?
Oh, absolutely. It’s very hard to get away from. And it’s even harder to understand it, having international friends. This is one of the first times that we look really bad. We look really, really bad to the rest of the world. Like, really bad. I’ve got friends all over the globe. I’ve sat down and had conversations with some of my friends. I’ve had a conversation with my friends in Australia, and I asked questions. 'How do you guys really view Americans?' And for the first 10 minutes, it was a very political dialogue. And then it almost got to the point that they forgot I was there and started really telling the truth. And you just kind of sat there with your mouth open because there wasn’t anything that they were saying that you can deny. It was like, 'Wow, this is exactly how you guys view us. You view us as greedy, that we’re arrogant…' We’re like, aw man, this is not good. Especially in light of what’s going on now, I don’t know if we’ve ever looked worse. I think that it’s time that we stop pointing our finger at everybody else and maybe clean up our side of the street.
I hadn’t even thought about it from an international perspective.
Yeah. I was just in Canada over the weekend, and it was really one of those times that you almost felt like there were so many people who wanted to give you a hug. And we all talked about it. Like, 'Are you feeling this very weird energy?' People are shaking their head like, 'Do you guys want to come move up here?' It’s like, wait, we were supposed to be the great nation that everyone is supposed to be inspired to be like and everybody wants to come here. It’s not like that at the moment.
There’s that image going around from 'The Fresh Prince' from a grim bit of humor about your character Jazz not wanting to put his hands down in front of a police officer. It’s hard to believe that all these years later it’s still relevant.
It’s sad. I have a lot of friends who are police officers and I firmly know: All police aren’t bad. Not at all. I just think it’s a situation that when you have bad ones and nothing happens to the bad ones — that becomes an issue. You get lumped into this crowd or this group. You know, not all Americans are bad. Not all people in North Korea are bad. Sometimes you get lumped in with the masses. Everybody turns a deaf eye or a deaf ear to a situation; that’s not right.
Let’s move on to something lighter. I didn’t know that you did all the scratching for 'Straight Outta Compton.' That’s amazing.
Yes, that was great. I got a text message and I didn’t know who it was. They were like, 'Dr. Dre is trying to get in touch with you,' and I just blew it off thinking that it was a joke. Then I got a text message from Dre’s assistant. 'How’re you doing? I’m such and such, Dr. Dre’s assistant, and he’s trying to get in touch with you.' And I thought it was a more elaborate joke. Then I got a text from an old manager in L.A. He hit me and was like, 'You know Dre’s trying to get in touch with you.' I was like, oh s---, I guess this is real. And 10 minutes later, he called.
It was cool because we had seen each other a couple of years ago; we bumped into each other in Hong Kong. He was over promoting Beats by Dre, and I was over doing a show. We hung out and he actually came to the show and stayed the whole time.
And we talked about the Beats deal and I was just like, 'Congratulations,' and we kind of laughed, had a little private moment because this is all predicated on hip-hop. And it goes back to the story that I was talking about in the beginning, how in 1989, we were so busy fighting for legitimacy in the art form that we didn’t know if it was going to be there, and here this guy just became one of the first hip-hop billionaires. But it all goes back to, 'Wow, this is crazy.' Because it was just two turntables and a mixer and records that started all of this.
“In 1989, we were so busy fighting for legitimacy in the art form that we didn’t know if it was going to be there, and here this guy just became one of the first hip-hop billionaires.” — DJ Jazzy Jeff
But he said he finally officially signed on to the movie and it took him a long time because it was his life story and he wanted everything to be authentic. He was like, 'I need someone who was there to be able to do all the DJ work in the movie.' I was really extremely honored that he picked me. And he was very adamant about that. And it was a lot of fun. We talked on the phone a couple of times and cleared the music, and I was like, 'OK, let me go and do it.' And I was glad that they didn’t make me come out to L.A. and do it. I was able to do it in the studio and send it back and they would send me the clips. I was like, 'OK, this is where this needs to go,' and I’d do it and send it back.
It was definitely surreal going to the screening of the movie and hearing it. It was such a great movie. And also realizing that you kind of played a part in it. That was really great.
I’ve enjoyed your annual summer mixes with Mick Boogie. I just put them on and let them play while I work and walk around.
I have a file that I haven’t been able to find a place that can host it, but I have one file of all of the mixes lined up back to back that I give to my friends. You have a barbecue, it is eight and a half hours of consistent summertime music. And I just haven’t been able to find a place that I can host it. I joke with people, ‘Listen, if you don’t have a DJ for your barbecue, I’ve got you covered.’
FULL DISCLOSURE: "Camden Rising" is being sponsored by George E. Norcross III, a member of the Democratic National Committee and the chairman of Camden’s Cooper University Healthcare and the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, and Susan McCue, the former chief of staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and co-founder of Senate Majority PAC, and features special guest Congressman Donald W. Norcross. PhillyVoice.com is the official media sponsor of the event. PhillyVoice.com Executive Director Lexie Norcross is the daughter of George E. Norcross III and niece of Congressman Donald W. Norcross.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled DJ Ferno's name and misidentified the song DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith performed at the Roots Picnic. We regret these dumb mistakes.