DJ Jazzy Jeff
Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh
With a career that spans over thirty years, DJ Jazzy Jeff, born Jeffrey Allen Townes, is a renowned producer, turntablist, international DJ, and actor. From being awarded the first Grammy for best rap performance with Will Smith (and playing Jazz on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) to working with the likes of The Roots, Durham’s own Little Brother, and Talib Kweli, it seems like Jeff has just about done it all. Reflecting on his career trajectory, he says that for the past few decades, he’s felt like “the luckiest human being in the world” and compares the past thirty-some years to a smooth Uber ride. “It’s like you get out and you look around and you get back in and you do it all over,” he says.
At the age of ten, Jeff realized he enjoyed breaking down the structure of records and playing them in an order that made people feel something. His work ethic has helped him established a reputation as one of the hardest working DJs in hip-hop, touring with an average of 168 shows a year. Before embarking on the Vinyl Destination 45 Tour, a collaboration with DJ Scratch that honors the traditional elements of deejaying playing only 45s, Jeff headlines the Magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff show at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh this Saturday, August 24. The INDY spoke with him at length about his upcoming shows, how he got his start, and the importance of collaboration.
INDY: What can attendees expect from the show on Saturday?
I like telling stories through music. I got a bunch of music and it’s not always about the stuff that you expect to hear. I’ve always felt that no one ever leaves an event talking about the Drake record that I played. They talk about the record that I played that they didn’t expect me to play. More than anything, I want to make it an experience.
I pay a lot of attention to what they play on the radio. I want to take people on somewhat of a trip. It’s crazy, because I don’t feel like people do that as much as they used to. You get up in the morning and you listen to the radio and you hear your favorite top ten records. You hear them on the way to work, you hear them at your desk, you hear them on the way home. The last thing you want to do is hear me play the exact same records. I want to give people something where they can walk out of the door and be like, “I can’t believe he played that” and “Oh my god, I haven’t heard that in so long.”
Technology has made deejaying far more accessible. What are the necessary foundations a person needs to know in order to be a “real” or “legit” DJ?
Well, you know, I look at that exactly like basketball. I have a basketball court in my backyard, and I go out every day and shoot. I enjoy playing one-on-one with my son. But I’m not trying out for the Sixers. There’s a level of disrespect when I automatically try to insert myself as a professional basketball player. I don’t criticize anybody who DJs at all, but there is a different level in a professional versus someone who just DJs. I look at it like, “Hey, you know, if you got the equipment, and you got the music, and you got the people in front of you, more power to you,” but it’s a lot deeper than that. There are people who weren’t DJs that started deejaying that are legitimate DJs now. And there are people where you can tell that the DJ culture kind of became a thing everybody wants to do, and it’s not real. I just wait because they will flush themselves out.
In addition to your solo show dates, you’re about to head out on a joint tour, and you released a project last year—what inspires the grind?
I love music! It’s weird to go on a six-week tour and come home and people ask you, “Well, what do you do in your spare time?” I do the same shit that I do when I’m on tour, but you know, it’s almost like I said, equating it to a basketball player. We all started playing ball because we loved it. And then you realize that you were kind of good at it, and next you realize, “Oh shit, somebody will pay me money for this talent” Now, you’re playing basketball—what a great life!
People don’t realize I got a summer job to save up money to buy turntables just to do parties for free. I didn’t set out to try and make money or make this a career. I don’t ever really look at this so much as work—it’s a blessing. I became a huge advocate of telling people to find what your joy is and do it. If there’s a way that you can make a living off of your joy, try and figure that out.
The role and visibility of the DJ has shifted throughout hip-hop’s forty-plus-year history. Where do you see the role of the DJ in the next five years?
There’s two sides of it. The commercial side of it, that is dictated more so by businesses. And then there’s the artistic side. You’ve got a DJ like Khaled, who has made his niche and has records playing on the radio, and you’ve got a DJ like Louie Vega, who has been deejaying for thirty years and has played all over the world and has loyal fans. At the end of the day, Louie Vega may have never in his life played a DJ Khaled record and is still just as successful as Khaled, if not more.
I think it gets to a point where you have to figure out, what fork in the road are you trying to go down? Are you trying to go down the commercial route? Going down the commercial route means you have to change as it changes. Somebody like Louie Vega has never had to change his life. There’s no right or wrong. You just got to pick which way you want to go.
There is an abundance of talent in the Triangle—producers, rappers, DJs, etc. And there’s a lot of pressure on N.C. artists to make it a place that is no longer overlooked. What advice would you give to someone who is up-and-coming in the industry?
One of the first things that I will tell them is, there is no path. If there was a path and plan, somebody would’ve put it in a book and we would have a million great artists. It doesn’t work like that. There is no formula. I tell people the first thing that they have to ask themselves is, “What am I trying to get out of it?” Let’s start there, because trying to get fame and money versus getting your art out and being true to your art is two different things.
The closest way to get to your goal is to be honest with yourself. It is nothing wrong with saying, “Man, I am trying to do this because I’m trying to be rich. I’m trying to make a shit load of money,” because guess what? I can give you better advice in doing that! There are a lot of times artists lie to themselves or they lie to other people. If you say ‘I’m about the music’ and you’re really about the money, then you’re never going to get it because you’re not being truthful with yourself. Like I said, this is an Uber ride.
If you asking me for directions, you gotta tell me where you want to go first, because if you’re telling me the wrong place, you’re going to end up being mad, saying, “How the fuck did I get here?” when you told me you wanted to go to the land of art, not the land or money. … Are you trying to be the next 9th Wonder or are you trying to be the next DJ Khaled? Because they’re different, and that’s no knock, but I can give you better directions with you giving me a clear understanding of where you’re coming from.
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