You don’t have to be a hardened hip hop head to be aware of DJ JAZZY JEFF, but it helps. To the vast majority, he is known as being one half of the long-time musical duo Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, comprised of him and Hollywood superstar Will Smith, as well as having a smaller role in the 90s TV sitcom phenomenon The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. Fewer may know just how significant Jazzy’s individual influence has been on the cultural landscape of hip hop; pioneering sampling technology in the 80s, as well as creating the now legendary turntable scratch technique known as ‘the transformer’.
Speaking over the phone from LA, Jeff talks honestly to Chris Carr about his career, his legacy and where he’s headed from here.
There was a time, before hip hop really blew up and before turntablism really became an art form, when the DJ was the main musical focus of attention and MCs were a little more in the periphery. As someone who developed your craft during that time, how do you think the culture changed as the focus shifted onto rappers and solo acts?
Well, I think that the irony is that it had shifted, and, if you’re old enough to be around something long enough you get a chance to watch it go full-circle. And I think that the explosion of EDM was very reminiscent of when the focal point was on the DJ. Yeh, it’s amazing how many rappers, or how many musicians, now DJ because they think that that’s the main thing to do. It just kinda went full-circle and, you know, no disrespect, but I think the music has gotten progressively worse, because everybody can do so easily now. I don’t want somebody to come in and play some of the good stuff but then 19 songs that nobody wants to hear. I’d rather hire a DJ who really knows what everybody wants to hear and can play that stuff.
It could be said that, in some ways, the commercialisation of hip hop ended up destroying the mystique of rapping and rappers. With DJs never achieving solo heights of commercial success for a long time, it helped protect the mystery of the craft, and consequently, people like Grandmaster Flash, Grandwizard Theodore and yourself are spoken about as legends of the craft. The mystery of hip hop is still there.
Yeh, yeh. You know, like I said, it comes back around in time. I had a conversation a couple of years ago, with Flash, and we were laughing about how we have never worked more than we work now!
With technology having advanced at the speed that it has, do you think that traditional turntablist DJs are still relevant, or has that role morphed into that of a producer?
Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. Another conversation I had not too long ago, [myself and Flash] were talking about the fact that relevancy is as simple as paying attention. Like, someone who’s not relevant has more to do with them not having paid attention to the shifts. So, I kinda think, the main thing with turntablism, is that if you incorporate the art form into what’s going on today, then it’s relevant. Embracing technology into some of this stuff, but still keeping to the foundation of what we do is the main reason why I still work as much as I do. My job, it’s a public service. So, there was a time in the 90s when I felt like the focal point was all on me. What I realise now is that the focus is on me making sure everyone has a good time. So, it’s not about me saying ‘Hey guys, look at me and what I’m doing here’, it’s more like me making sure I can take you to a place where you’re enjoying yourself and I can sprinkle some of my own stuff in, but everybody should be walking out at the end of the night saying ‘This was amazing’.
As far as your direct influence on hip hop, you helped to pioneer sampling and created the legendary transformer scratch technique, to name just a couple of your contributions. What inspired the transformer – and did you know how significant it would be when you first recorded it for The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff?
You know, it’s funny: there’s nothing that I’ve done that I thought was going to be legendary. We didn’t know, when we were doing it, if anybody was going to like it or not. We just did it. And that’s where the feel good part comes in, that you can remember when you first started doing something, and you were talking about it, and then 30 years later people are still talking about it. And you just, you never thought of that! It’s kinda like, you know, if you’re in the basement, and you’re working on something and you do something that sounds really cool and you go out to a party and you do it, you know? The first time I did anything remotely close to the transformer might have been in front of, say, a hundred people. And then you just keep pushing and pushing and pushing, and then, you look up, and suddenly it’s 30 years later and people are still talking about it. And that’s the whole beauty of it. What you’re doing right now, you don’t know how it’ll impact the future.
It’s incredible to comprehend that so many younger generations, who may have grown up listening to the likes of DJ Qbert and DJ Shadow or Cut Chemist, will have been witnessing the use of this technique without realising where it came from. It seems like a small thing but it’s had such a huge and significant impact.
Yeh, it’s just, you know, paying attention to just one small thing. Like, friends and I talk a lot about tech and the future and everything, and we were talking about the music industry and Napster. That like, when Sean Parker invented Napster, it was just a humongous look into the future. But, the record companies were too greedy to look at how important his invention was, and the whole thing became a legal matter. But if the record companies had just been paying attention, they would have seen that he had just created what is going to be the main platform for the next 20 years. You know, they were so busy shutting him down, that they didn’t even realise that he’d changed the music industry forever. And what we have now, like iTunes, Tidal, Spotify, it’s all based on the platform of Napster. So it’s just about paying attention at the time. You just cannot shut a great idea down.
Liverpool Disco Festival takes place in the Baltic Triangle on 6th May, celebrating 30 years of the Southport Weekender.