He might be known as The Fresh Prince’s sidekick to some, but to JUICE and the rest of us who know our sh!t, he’s legendary turntable maestro DJ Jazzy Jeff – the Philly homeboy who, along with Will Smith, took hip hop to the mainstream (back when the Grammys meant something). As the brains behind more than just a snapback of classic jams, Jazzy Jeff travelled to Chicago recently for the Red Bull Thre3Style World Finals to fulfil his duty as one of the judges of the DJ competition, where we met up with him right some funky Chinese food…
Something smells good! What did you have for lunch?
Oh, Chinese food. My wife is from Chicago, and there’s a really good Chinese take-out restaurant that every time her family comes to visit us, they buy it and freeze it and they bring it for us to eat. So now I have the chance to be in Chicago for a week so I went and got my own.
That smell kinda reminded us of home, actually…
So how did you get your stage name?
Oh man, that was so long ago. I think back then DJs were just looking for great names to call themselves. I had Mix-master Jeff, and Nasty Jeff, and it was a guy who just got on the mic one night and started calling me Jazzy Jeff, and it just stuck.
Being there from the start, how do you find hip hop music has progressed over the years?
You know, it’s definitely more global. Hip hop used to be a section in the Bronx. And then New York, and then it kinda spread throughout the United States. Now though it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere, in everything, in commercials, on television shows. The biggest difference is just the worldwide acceptance of hip hop.
Do you remember how it felt like the first time you got together with Will Smith?
Yeah, it was natural chemistry! I knew him and he knew me. We just had a common link together and we were at a party one night and he came up and said “Wassup?” and asked if he could grab the mic and it was just natural chemistry. It was like he and I had kinda like had been working together for years. So the next night I was like, “Hey I have something to do, why don’t you come?” and we did it again, and we did it again and it’s thirty years later.
Do you still like call him out and hang out with him?
Absolutely. It was his birthday yesterday, so I called him and wished Happy Birthday.
Some people say that you and Will Smith split at the high point of your careers… Please confirm this isn’t true?
Well the funny thing is we never split. I just chose not to sign another record contract. But if you look at all the other records that we’ve done, my involvement was exactly the same. You never saw him on stage without me, and I was always in the studio making the record, I just didn’t want to be signed. We were pretty much signed when we were 20 years old, and we were signed for about 10 to 12 years, and I kinda got a little sick of the music industry. Just kinda being free, I didn’t mind not having my name on the record. My role still says the same.
That’s comfortable, not being in the spotlight. Being the person behind the music more of your thing then?
It’s not necessarily being in the spotlight, or being behind the music, but you just kinda want to do it on your own terms. Music is an art, and you just kinda want to be able to do your art on your own terms. You don’t want it to be dictated, you don’t want someone to say this is the kind of art that you need to do because this makes the most money, and unfortunately, you know what, the music industry, the bottom line is not art. The bottom line is money… Most artists, the biggest problem they have is fighting the battle between finances and art. Can you do what’s really inside of you and what your passion is, and can you make money off of doing it?
Do you dabble in anything apart from DJing and producing music?
No, not really. That’s a lot because there are so many different types of music, and types of production and I’m trying my hand at some film-scoring, but it’s all centred around music, I think everything in my life is kinda centred around music, somehow.
Do you play any instruments?
I play at everything. I can play the drums, I can pick at the piano. I play enough to get my ideas out.
In your opinion, who has left the biggest impact on hip hop culture?
I think James Brown. You know, James Brown was a rapper and we didn’t even know it. James Brown, the beats and the rhythms and just the way that he kinda performed, the synchronisation of his beats, the pockets of his beats kinda formulated as the backbone to hip hop. It pretty much set the blueprint that the kids are following today and didn’t even know it.
On the flipside, is there a negative side to hip hop?
I don’t think that there is necessarily one that you can look at… I always believed in balance. You can’t have all good without having some bad. The balance is kinda what makes it right. To me, hip hop is probably one of the purest forms of freedom of speech that we have because it’s pretty much a lyrical art form over any types of music. This gives the freedom to someone who’s going through a bad day, or not happy with the way that the government is set up, or the prejudice in the world that they can kinda express that through music. I don’t believe that someone saying something negative has to mean it is bad. It’s their freedom of speech. I don’t think I wanna live in a world that all the things that everyone talk about is good, that would be scary.
Do you think there’s more ego in hip hop music today?
I can’t say necessarily boastful because when you start talking about the legends of rap like Grande MC, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, they were extremely boastful. You know, “I’m the best, no one can beat me.” It’s funny ‘cause when you look at hip hop, hip hop was all about showing that you were the best in your particular skill. And then all of a sudden it’s turned into “I’m the richest, I have the most women, I have the most cars” and you’re kinda like, “well okay, what does that have to do with your skills?” [laughs] But like I said, the evolution was kinda like these are the spoils of my riches of my success in hip hop. And then it kinda just went along. So I don’t think it’s necessarily… it’s uh… I think it’s broader.
That’s nice. So you won the World DJ Championship in 1986 and now you’re judging one. What sorta advice do you have for the DJs and the eventual winner of the Red Bull 3style?
Umm, have a good time and enjoy yourself… and this is your moment. You have to seize your moment. Every DJ, especially every DJ who has ever competed or who ever thought that they were special, always knew that this type of moment could possible come. Don’t blow your moment!
Did this interview just blow your mind? Wanna try your skillz at the next 3style? Red Bull Thre3Style Malaysia 2013 will be in February and March. Checkout www.redbull.my and JUICEonline.com on how to enter! Or hit up Red Bull on Facebook at www.faceboo.com/RedBull.