The guest DJ at DJ Soul Sister's Friday night birthday bash at Tipitina's made his career overseas while Will Smith made his in the movies.
For many Americans, DJ Jazzy Jeff is one half of a stick used to beat the Grammys. In 1989, “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince won the first Best Rap Performance Grammy, and at the time many in the hip-hop community considered it a travesty that it beat Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West” and LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali,” along with JJ Fad’s “Supersonic” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It.” How legit could the institution be if voters preferred their playfully domestic track over strong songs by two hip-hop pioneers at the top of their games?
If people weren’t fixated on that song and factoid, they knew him as “Jazz,” one of Will Smith’s friends on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but overseas is a different story. In 1998, organizers brought the DJ born Jeffrey Townes to Bristol to play well before jet-setting DJs had become a thing. “I walked into this humongous venue with a massive sound system and asked them who was the venue for,” he recalls. “They said, You,” which blew him away. “Our big clubs were 4,000 people.”
That difference indicated the strength of the rave and dance party scene in Europe, where it quickly grew beyond the subcultural status it occupied in the United States. Townes is proud that he established himself as an international presence well before jet-setting DJs became a cliché, and he has become enough of a world traveler to maintain Vinyl Destination, a web series about his travels since 2013. He has played residencies in Dubai, and his destinations are similarly exotic, but it’s a sign of the growth of the dance music festivals worldwide.
“I’m playing this festival in Singapore called Zoukout—300,000 people on the beach,” he says. “The stage that I’m playing on is 65,000 people, and I’m playing on the small stage.” At Zoukout, he ran into American college students who said it was cheaper to go to Zoukout than it was to go to Miami or Las Vegas, two of America’s dance music capitols. “You’d bump into people and that is their culture. Now, we’re living in a festival world, and from April to now I may have done 45 festivals with 100,000 at each of these festivals.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff will play Tipitina’s Friday night as part of DJ Soul Sister’s 11th Annual Birthday Jam at Tipitina’s, and he’s enthusiastic when talking about performing. The languages and locales may change, he says, but the gig remains the same—pleasing people. “I don’t change the way I play anywhere I go,” he says. “As humongous as the world is, traveling around it makes you realize that it’s very small. Playing ‘Hypnotized’ by Biggie goes over in Dubai like it goes over in South Central like it goes over in South Carolina. I can do festivals where I don’t think anybody out there speaks the language, but I can play a record and everybody sings every part of the record.”
Carrying a record library big enough to get Townes through a set used to require three flight cases full of vinyl—one of new and old hip-hop, one of R&B, funk and soul, and one or reggae and house. He considered it an occupational hazard, and he would have continued to schlep almost 200 records around the world until the airlines raised their luggage fees, which forced him and many other DJs to rethink their attachment to vinyl. “Your baggage allowance is 50 pounds, and each record case is 40 pounds,” he says. “I got two record cases that are over and my clothes. I did one tour in Asia, and it might have been $2500 to $3000 in extra baggage charges. I came home and said, You can’t do this.”
Fortunately, that coincided with the development of Serato, the software program that allows DJs to work from their laptops. Townes could carry all the music he used to carry and much, much more on a hard drive or two in his shoulder bag instead of flight cases that had to be checked. At first, he also carried a box of vinyl because he didn’t entirely trust the software, but once he got used to it, he quit touring with vinyl altogether. He encountered some suspicion from people who’d never seen a DJ work with Serato—“This is cheating! This is fake!”—and he occasionally had to prove in some way that he was actually doing something musical on his laptop, but those people were always in the minority, as were those who wanted to see displays of turntablism. Tracks on DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s 1987’s Rock the House and 1988’s breakthrough album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper put his scratching skills front and center and there were always people who wanted more. He found over time though that turntable workouts blew away a handful of guys at a party and brought the party to a standstill.
“If I’ve satisfied everybody in the crowd for an hour and twenty minutes, I’ll take 10 minutes at the end of the show for all the turntablist geeks to get off,” he says. “And everybody walks out satisfied.”
That doesn’t mean he’s done with vinyl. Townes still collects it even if he doesn’t tour with it. “Every time I go out on the road, I’m vinyl shopping,” he says. “Some things never change.” He will also do 45 sets on occasion because their are physical aspects of DJ’ing vinyl that he misses.
“All vinyl sounds different. All vinyl was recorded different,” he says. “You not only have to be the play selector but you have to be the engineer because I have to bring levels up on some records and levels down on some records, and take bass out on some records and add bass on some records. That was always kind of exciting.”
He now thinks of song selection as the new turntablism, and that people are as wowed today by his ability to blend songs with drastically different tempos or from very different genres as they once were by his ability to physically coax unusual sounds out of a record and stylus.
“How do you start with ‘ABC’ by Michael Jackson and go into ‘OPP’ and people realize they’re the same record?” Townes asks, and it makes sense to him that the new art is the art of the mix. “Everybody has music on their on their phone, and the only people that I know who put their music in playlists are DJs” he says. “So everybody in the world is listening to all their music random. They’re listening Biggie, then a Third Eye Blind song comes on, then a Steely Dan song. When you’re listening to your music, you’re all over the place, and that made me realize that that allows me to push the envelope a lot more in what I play. Nobody walks away saying, Wow, did you hear that Drake record Jeff played? They only talk about that curveball you threw that they didn’t expect. I want to show you how I can string this music together to tell a story because you really can do that.”
His love of selecting records drove him to become a DJ far more than cutting and scratching did. When he was 10, he was the guy who would bring a bag of 45s to family parties and play songs. He grabbed his brother’s Motown and Philly soul singles, his dad’s Wes Montgomery records, and whatever else was around the house and spun them for the afternoon. “I liked that role,” he says. “I enjoyed the role of being the guy who would curate the music for the party.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff has covered a lot of miles since starting in South Philly, but the original influences remain present in his music. Hip-hop came from New York, so naturally he and Will Smith took cues from New York. At first, there weren’t so many rap records that they couldn’t keep up, even when they had to listen to tapes of New York radio broadcasts to hear them. They sequenced their stage names as they did because Grandmaster Flash put his name ahead of the Furious Five.
“That basically birthed Will and I,” Townes says. “We would do our own parties, what we felt our interpretation of New York was.” It wasn’t until they put out their records that they realized that while their music came from the same roots, their hip-hop sounded a little different from hip-hop out of New Jersey and every other city that had a scene, and they were all unintentionally a little different from hip-hop out of New York.
As important as New York rappers were to him and Smith, Philadelphia rappers including Schooly D, Steady B and Eddie D making hip-hop seem possible. Pop Art Records was Philly’s top local hip-hop label, and one of the brothers who owned it released their first album on another label. Lady B had an early rap record and became a radio personality spinning hip-hop at a time when rap radio shows played a crucial role in letting people hear new releases that didn’t even have citywide distribution in some cases. “She ushered in the entire generation of hip-hop in Philly,” Townes says. “Friday night, you would turn the radio on hear what she was going to play. If she played your record or came to a club that you played and talked about you on the radio, you were a local hero.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince cut three albums before The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air changed their world, and they released Homebase (1991) and Code Red (1993) before hanging it up. Smith’s acting career was starting to take off, but the shelf life for hip-hop at the time was so short that just six years after their 1987 debut Rock The House, they were old news and felt a need to update and toughen their sound for Code Red. By the time Independence Day made Smith a genuine movie star in 1996, the duo was done but not for good. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince reunited in 2005 for Live 8 in Philadelphia, and again in 2013 on The Graham Norton Show.
In August, they played in Croatia and at an EDM festival in Blackpool, England. “I don’t think they could have gone any better in my wildest dreams,” Townes says. During the first show in Croatia, he couldn’t believe there were people there rocking their baseball jerseys. At Blackpool, he and Smith got emotional. “At one point in the show, he asked everybody to put their camera/phones up and turn the lights on, and to see 26,000—I froze like a deer in headlights.” The two have talked about doing more reunion shows, and though nothing has been confirmed, Townes says, “I think there’s about to be a whole lot more.”
At 52, Townes understands that their fans might not know Grandmaster Flash, but he’s optimistic because young people will go down YouTube rabbit holes and discover previous generations of hip-hop when they’re ready. He’s conscious of differences between the hip-hop he made with Smith and the world of Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, but he’s cool with it because it’s not made for him. He’s more excited by Jay-Z’s 4:44 and the door it opens for rappers. “We are the first generation to grow older with hip-hop, and we don’t know what to do,” he says. “We don’t know what to do. To me, one of the greatest revelations in hip-hop was Jay-Z putting out this 4:44 album because he was the first person to say, I am going to make an adult contemporary hip-hop album.” Rock, soul, folk and country artists have figured out how to make mature music, but until now, hip-hop has largely lived in an endlessly teenaged world. He hopes the respected Rakim of Eric B and Rakim fame will get off the bench and make hip-hop that reflects the perspective of a middle-aged African-American man in America today, and that others will follow suit.
“My older brothers and sisters grew up with The Temptations, and there’s still a version of The Temptations that’s on the road that people go see,” he says. “There’s no reason why that can’t be Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, or Jay-Z. When you’re the first of anything, you have to take the brunt of it because you’re opening the doors for the generations after you.”