Even if DJ Jazzy Jeff retired twenty years ago, a spot in the Hip-Hop history books would still be his. As one half of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, he and Will Smith were the first rappers to ever win a Grammy (“Parents Just Don’t Understand”), their album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper was Hip-Hop’s first double album, and then they won a Grammy again for their timeless hit, “Summertime.”
But by the mid-90s, Will had become a television and film star. And even though him and Jeff remained close friends (and still are), Will’s work on screen began to take precedence over his work in the mic booth. Jeff, however, has continued on with music and, among other things, released solo albums, produced records for other acts, and currently spends most of his time touring the globe as a DJ.
For AllHipHop.com’s continued Lessons from a Legend series, we recently spoke to Jeff and he had plenty of wisdom to share- from his early days to traveling the world to how he still brings the “Brand New Funk” after over 25 years in the game.
Lesson #1: Everything Happens for a Reason
I knew it was something special (working with Will) because before we recorded it (“Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble”) we would go to parties and we would do it. I would play the record and he would rap. And I would watch everybody just stand there [and hang] on every word that he said. So I knew if it had that kind of impact live, that we could have that kind of impact on the record.
AllHipHop.com: And you guys first worked together by accident because your emcee didn’t show up to a gig, right?
Uh, huh [laughs]. He (the original emcee) actually missed the night. And I had to do it, so I ended up taking my equipment and when I got there, the first person that walked in the basement was Will. And I recognized him. And he asked, “Hey man, where’s your emcee?” I was like, “He couldn’t make it.” And then he said, “Mind if I get on the mic and rock?” And I replied, “No.” That was it. And that’s crazy to even think that if my guy would have shown up what might have not happened. Know what I mean? That would be a real interesting story. That if you take my guy showing up, how much different…I probably would’ve been working at the post office with a wife and nine kids. Who knows? [laughs]
Lesson #2: DJs Make Better Producers
As a DJ, your job is to produce on the fly. Sometimes you have to make last second decisions. You have to be able to read a crowd. You have to know when [you] can take those chances. I’m very big on taking chances. When I play, I can play all of the stuff that people want you to play. But when do I throw that curve ball in? But it’s the same thing as being a producer. If you learn how to produce on the fly, then it’s a little bit easier to learn when you have time to produce. But I think DJing and producing go very much hand-in-hand.
Lesson #3: Keep Your Ears Open and Change With the Times
The crazy thing about a DJ is [that] I think keeping longevity has a lot to do with keeping your ears open and knowing what people like. It’s not me actually making the records, it’s just me keeping my ears open-what are the records the people are really vibing to now? And even forecasting-what did you hear that you think might be big later? But as a rapper, you kind of have to physically go in there and know that this is where it’s going and what record [you are] gonna do. And that’s not easy for people to do. But I just think, as an emcee, if you’re trying to have that kind of longevity (with commercial acceptance), then you have to really, really change with the times.
Lesson #4: Hip-Hop is Cyclical
I just think we’ve been around Hip-Hop long enough to watch the cycle go around. It’s kind of like when we did the Jill Scott record, that was reminiscent of the seventies. Nothing is new, it just goes out of style and comes back in. It’s like me looking and realizing everybody is wearing Starter hats and Starter jackets and I did a Starter commercial in 1985. It just all comes back around.
Lesson #5: The Journey is More Significant Than the Destination
The first thing that runs through my mind (about the Vinyl Destination footage) is that I’m extremely tired [laughs]. The funny thing about Vinyl Destination is that I look at it almost like it’s not me. Just for the places you go, the travel you put in, and the different people you play music for. To kind of be a third person, you can really appreciate a lot of it. I get a better appreciation for [the fact] that we’ve been doing it and just the impact you make playing music for people all over the world. Especially Hip-Hop, you’re sitting here saying, “Wow, I remember the first time I heard a Hip-Hop record and now I’m in Indonesia playing Hip-Hop for people.” It’s an amazing journey.