HITS Daily Double


Like many kids, DJ Jazzy Jeff fell in love with music at an early age. As the youngest of six, he became the family “sponge,” absorbing the household’s eclectic musical tastes; his father, an emcee for Count Basie, collected 78s by jazz greats like Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith and Cab Calloway. His older brothers,
meanwhile, were immersed in the jazz fusion of Chick Corea and Weather Report, while his sisters were deep into Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

A native of Philadelphia, Jeff was in close proximity to New York City, where this thing called “hip-hop” was bubbling up in the Bronx. It spread like wildfire throughout the Big Apple and soon made its way to Philly. By the time The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1980, he had already established himself as a DJ. After a serendipitous meetup at a house party Jeff was DJing, Will Smith (aka The Fresh Prince) wound up becoming DJ Jazzy Jeff’s MC—and the rest, as they say, is history.

What was your reaction to hearing hip-hop for the first time?

I felt, “Damn, somebody made something for me.” And it’s not like I didn’t like the music I was listening to, but that was really my brothers and sisters’ music. So when hip-hop came along, that was the first time I felt somebody had made something for me and my friends. Every day on the bus to school, somebody had a radio and it was blasting the latest hip-hop song. You wanted to learn all the lyrics―you got gold stars if you knew all the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight.” It was a beautiful time because it exploded so fast; it seemed like there was a different hip-hop record coming out every week.

Was it hard to keep up?

No, because none of us had jobs―we were all in high school. Being a kid, all I had to do was my homework and learn the songs. That was it.

What made you think you could get involved and contribute?

I think what was special in my situation was that I started DJing before hip-hop. When I first started DJing at block parties and house parties, we were playing slow jams. We were playing funk and soul records by the Bar-Kays, Mass Production, Brass Construction. It got to the point where it was, like, “OK, I have more records to play now.” And then, as the culture started to evolve, people started to rhyme. I thought, “Well, if you rhyme, I’m going to DJ and give you the music bed.” That turned into, “Hey, why don’t we call ourselves a crew? And why don’t we go out and start doing parties?” So the beauty for me was being there from the beginning.

What was your first crew called?

The Network Crew. My first DJ name was Mix Master J, but I couldn’t afford to be Mix Master J―that required too many letters on your shirt. It was too much money, so I needed to shorten it.

How old were you when you formed The Network Crew?

I was probably a senior in high school. I might have been 16. I graduated when I was a little younger.

When did you meet Will?

I went from The Network Crew to just being DJ Jazzy Jeff. Everybody had an MC. I had an MC named Rockwell and another named Ice. Ice and I got really big in Philadelphia. I got a call to do a house party last minute “Hey, can you do this party on 59th and Woodcrest?” I called Ice but he didn’t answer. This was long before cellphones. But I had to do it, so I went by myself. It turned out to be the house next door to Will’s.

We go down to the basement and we’re setting up. I knew of Will and he knew of me. He came down and I was, like, “Hey, what’s up?” He looked at me and said, “Where’s Ice?” I said, “I called him but he didn’t answer.” Will said, “Well, you mind if I rock with you?” So he got on the mic.

We had a magical night. It was almost like we were reading each other’s minds. At the end of the night, we sat around packing up the equipment and talking. I said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” And he said, “Nothing.” So I said, “Well, I got another party if you want to come.” And he was, like, “Yeah.” And that was pretty much 40 years ago.

So we really have Ice to thank for all of this?

We all have Ice to thank. And if I’m not mistaken, we did one or two shows with Will and Ice. But Will was so charismatic that Ice just kind of faded out. At that point in time, none of us knew this was going to be a career. We never thought about that. It was just something you did. Will was on his way to college, and I was working at an ice cream parlor.

But then Will and I started taking the Delaware Valley by storm. We went into the basement one day with a routine he had and I recorded it. He took it to a record company that was around the corner from him. He called me up one day and was, like, “Hey, Dana [Goodman] and Lawrence [Goodman of Word-Up Records] want to sign us to a record deal.” I thought, “One day while I’m working at the post office, I’m gonna be able to tell my kids that I made a record.” I really thought that, but the music just never stopped. I’m still waiting for that post office job!

In 1989 DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince became the first rap act to win a Grammy, for Best Rap Performance for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” But you and the other rap nominees protested the awards, which must have felt bittersweet.

We were so excited to finally get acknowledged—because hip-hop was so young—but they chose not to televise the rap portion. We felt slighted. I don’t want to act like we were this big protest group, but we didn’t feel it was right. A year before that, I’m sitting in my mom’s living room watching the Grammys on television, so I’m excited to call my friends and tell them we were nominated for a Grammy. You want your friends and family to see you, and then somebody tells you, “We’re not going to show it on TV.”

I’m pretty sure hip-hop was either the biggest or second-biggest genre of music at that time, and they chose not to televise it. So we said, “OK, if you’re not televising it, we’re not coming.” Looking back, I didn’t know how much of an impact that was going to have. But we didn’t do it for the impact. Hip-hop was so young and there were people claiming it was a fad. We were fighting just to stay in the conversation. So for them to take us out of the conversation on Music’s Biggest Night? We were, like, “No, we’re not coming.” And I do believe us banding together and not going helped make them change their tune. [In 1990, the Grammys televised the presentation of the award for Best Rap Performance, won by Young MC for “Bust a Move.”]

You and some of your fellow legends graced the stage for the Grammys’ Hip-Hop 50 tribute in February. What was that like?

It was wild. Most of hip-hop has had this weird up-and-down relationship with the Grammys―the Grammys don’t care, then the Grammys love you, then they don’t care and then they love you. Celebrating 50 years of hip-hop wasn’t necessarily for the Grammys; I appreciate the Grammys for giving us the platform, but we were just celebrating hip-hop. And that was magical. I don’t think all of us had ever been in one room together. It was the biggest hip-hop family reunion I’ve ever been to. I loved the rehearsals as much as I loved the show. I loved the behind the scenes, just to be standing onstage in a rehearsal hall and be able to look at LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa all having a conversation. I loved the conversations. It was beautiful.

LL COOL J and Ice-T were even taking pictures together backstage years after their feud.

We’re adults now. We have families. And it was one of those moments where I think everybody reflected, “I have been on tour with almost everyone in this room at some point in my life.” DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B. & Rakim―we were all on the Run-DMC Run’s House Tour in the ’80s. And here we all are at a rehearsal hall at the Grammys four decades later. I just thought, “Wow.

Early on, when you and Will were working on Rock the House (1987) and He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper (1988), what did you learn about the music business and how did you apply those lessons?

One of the biggest lessons was you have to see the creative process all the way to the end. There were times I would make a beat, Will would do his part and I would leave and let someone else finish it. And I ended up hating the record. Then I would be there to finish it, but I wouldn’t go to the mastering lab. I’d do something in a mix where I was trying to push the boundaries sonically. And when it got to the mastering lab, they changed it because they thought it was a mistake. And because I wasn’t there to tell them, “No, that’s how I wanted it,” this is how the record came out. And it’s almost to the point where I can’t even listen to that record. That’s what turned me into a producer. It’s an entire process you have to go through. But we’d never really been in the studio before, so all of it was on-the-job training.

There have been so many technological advances since then. How has the process changed for you?

For our first record, we went into a recording studio that was anywhere from $175 to $250 an hour. You would probably get a day rate of maybe $1,500. To go in and record, you had to pay for the tape, you had to pay for the engineer and that’s just to record it. Then you had to go back in and pull up the tracks and mix it and send it to a mastering lab and let them master it. Then they had to send it to a pressing plant, then to a distribution plant to be distributed so it could go to your local record store. Now, you can go to the Apple store and buy a computer and there’s a program on it that you can use to do a fully executed record. You send it to a website that will master it for you and upload it to Spotify that day. We are officially living in the Jetsons era!

Do you think that’s helped or hindered the creative process?

It’s a little bit of both. The negative is that you don’t have to go through the process, and it’s a lot of drag and drop; you can drag and drop a beat, you can drag and drop vocals on top of it, you can drag and drop plugins to make it sound good and, again, you can upload it to an AI site that’s going to master it. But it just doesn’t have the same emotion if you do it that way. I still go through the process but with today’s technology. I can still do it in a day, but I like to craft my sound, tweak it and get it exactly how I want it. That story of not going to the mastering lab and somebody changing what I’d done? I don’t have that issue anymore. Another benefit is that, because there aren’t as many middlemen in the way, you can really capture the personality of the person making the music.

And you now have entire websites dedicated to providing legally cleared samples. How has that changed the game?

Sampling is a lot less of a headache. But there’s something about a group of guys getting in a car, driving eight hours to a tiny record store to go underneath the tables and dig for gold. You’d have these little portable turntables and you’d listen for things that you could chop together and make these new creations out of. That was fun. But I can say that I do not mind sitting in front of a computer scouring an archive for samples that are right there.

Another thing is that I was telling a producer friend of mine today that I wanted to get a new set of speakers for the studio. I realized I have a million places I can buy the speakers but zero places I can listen to them. There are no more music stores. You used to be able to go into a music store and they would have 30 different kinds of speakers. Now, you have to buy something online and if you don’t like it, you gotta ship it back. It’s definitely a gift and a curse.

What would you like to say on the 50th anniversary of the culture that’s given you so much?

I would probably just say, “Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for allowing me to see the world. Thank you for allowing me to touch people and make people happy through music. Thank you for giving me a definitive purpose.” None of this stuff was planned. I didn’t go to school for this. It started out as a love of something that turned into a job that turned into a career. And I am extremely grateful. I’ve never lost sight of that. I don’t think there has ever been a show that I didn’t look out at the people having a good time and say inside, “Thank you.”