DJ Jazzy Jeff talks Hong Kong, getting back with Will Smith, and his vinyl addiction

He’s widely respected as a DJ and still tours relentlessly, but Jeff is most looking forward to returning to the studio, and maybe even touring, with Smith, the actor with whom he rose to fame

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 2:27pm

DJ Jazzy Jeff has played in Hong Kong so many times, he’s practically a local. He’s actually lost count of the number of times he’s spun here (“15 or 16?” he muses).

His most Hong Kong recent performance, on January 14, was at Play in Central, which makes a change, at least; most of his previous shows have been at Dragon-i, including a memorable 2011 gig with Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre. “There were more people watching it in the street than in the club,” he says. “Those guys were like: ‘We’ve come all the way to Hong Kong to perform for 300 people?’”

Born Jeffrey Townes in Philadelphia, Jazzy Jeff is something of a musical polymath. He rose to fame in the late 1980s as one half of big-selling hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, alongside the rapper now better known as film star Will Smith.

He’s an endlessly inventive, endlessly sought-after DJ who still tours remorselessly. At 50 he’s recognised as a pioneer who, alongside the similarly legendary DJ Cash Money, is credited as the inventor of the ante-upping “transformer” scratching technique, and as a respected producer of sounds for successive generations of musical talent, including Jill Scott, The Roots, Eminem, Jewel and Talib Kweli. The latest vocalist for whom he has provided a suitably soulful sonic canvas is lyrically inventive, cerebral Philadelphia MC Dayne Jordan, who was also on his recent Hong Kong trip.

For most people, though, Jazzy Jeff remains best known for his early association with Smith, and for a stream of hit singles including Parents Just Don’t Understand (1988), Summertime (1991) and Boom! Shake the Room (1993), the first two both netting them Grammys. They were catapulted to even greater fame by TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; a culture-clash comedy set in Los Angeles that ran from 1990 to 1996, it starred Smith as the title character, kicking off his acting career, with Jeff appearing as his charmless best friend Jazz, whose main role was to be humorously ejected every episode from the family home in which the programme was set.

Since Hollywood came calling, Jeff has worked regularly on Smith’s solo musical material, but the actor’s schedule has always kept a possible reunion on hold – until, that is, Smith recently announced in an interview that the duo were planning on working together again.

“We are potentially going on tour,” says Jeff. “He kind of threw in into the atmosphere to see if people cared [which, it transpires, they definitely do]. Then we want to find time to go into the studio. For 10 years, it’s not been about his heart, it’s been about time. To do a proper body of music, you need to focus, which is hard when you have movies lined up until 2019.”

In fact, Smith still very much enjoys getting up and MCing – and regularly uses his film career as an excuse to get back on the mic.

“Every movie he does, there’s a kick-off party and we do a show,” says Jeff. “After every show he looks at me as he walks off and says, ‘We should do this’, and I say, ‘I’m already doing it’.”

The pair have also performed together recently in a very different context, when Smith turned up for a surprise guest slot at Jeff’s New Year’s Eve 2013-14 performance in Dubai. “He always calls and says he’s going to come, and then he never shows up,” says Jeff. “He was asking me questions and I was like an angry housewife, giving him one-word answers. ‘Where are you playing at New Year’s?’ ‘Dubai.’ ‘I’m going to try to come along.’ ‘Cool.’ When his security people started to get in touch about arrangements, we knew it was really happening.

“I think he had a good time. He’s been in an acting bubble and didn’t really understand the recent DJ explosion. There are 18,000 people on the beach and a massive sound system. He said: ‘When are U2 coming out?’”

It was very nerve-racking, going to the baggage reclaim and wondering if your records are going to appear
DJ Jazzy Jeff

The DJ revolution has swept Jeff along: known as an obsessive record collector, he switched to digital a few years ago after a trip to Japan landed him with an excess baggage bill of several thousand US dollars. “I realised I was going to have issues with records,” he says. “I didn’t want to use CDs, and this was before I discovered [industry standard DJ software tool] Serato. It was very nerve-racking, going to the baggage reclaim and wondering if your records are going to appear. I had a gig in the UK when the only box of records that arrived was all reggae, and I couldn’t explain to people why that was all I was playing.”

While he might not carry vinyl around with him any more, that doesn’t mean he’s over it. “I’ve fought off my addiction for 12 to 15 years,” he says. “I’ll go back to my hotel when I’m on tour because I don’t want to end up in a record shop.”

If he’d had access early in his career to the sort of technology that’s ubiquitous today, he adds, “I probably would have been on my 51st record. It was such a major process to make a record – renting a US$1,500-an-hour studio and all the equipment, and it was so time-consuming. Now I can carry better equipment with me than we used to have in the studio.”

The other advantage of technology is that it allows him to bypass record labels and take control of the creative process, he says; he even travels with a videographer to shoot his warts-and-all video tour diary, “Vinyl Destination”, available on his website.

“I love it,” he says of his new-found freedom. “What you lose is the ability to drive down a highway and see your name on a billboard. But it’s better from a creative viewpoint than ever before.

“The record company controlled the switch to your fanbase. Now you have 100 per cent control of your own fanbase, which older artists often don’t understand. I always say that it’s like someone opened the prison door but no one escaped, because everyone thinks it must be a trap. Established artists think social media is something you turn on and off, but you have the ability to do something every day that reaches people.”