DJ “Jazzy Jeff” Townes was born in West Philadelphia and developed a love of music at an early age. Jeff was just 10 years old when he started spinning records at parties using his family’s basement as a training ground for his expert mixing. Since 1985, DJ Jazzy Jeff has wowed us with his flawless turntable skills, innovative production and musical versatility. From the success of “DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince” with partner Will Smith, to the critical acclaim of his production company “A Touch of Jazz”, Jeff proved time and time again that he would always be a force to be reckoned with. And he continues to represent with his solo projects, collaborations, mixtapes and live shows. His love of music shines through in everything he does. Over the course of his career, DJ Jazzy Jeff has achieved many accomplishments including a DMC Championship and multiple GRAMMY and American Music Awards and nominations. But he is a humble man who is still doing it as his 2002 hit said: “For Da Love of Da Game.”
Let’s start from the top. How did you first get involved in the Red Bull Music 3Style World Finals?
I was invited to judge and it was cool because I’ve judged DJ competitions but when they started outlining what the criteria for this one was, that you have to play three different styles of music, I just was like, ‘Wow this is dope.’ The first one I judged was in Paris [in 2010]. People pulled out different styles of music. It was really exciting. I’m not picking the best scratcher or the best mixer. I’m picking the best overall. Like, ‘Who can do a little bit of everything? Who would I want to go see if they were in a club? Will I have a good time?’ And I thought that was super important because you want as many great DJs to be around because that strengthens the culture. We are just trying to find, build and hone the skills of these DJs that will end up being the ones that run the clubs.
So when you’re in the crowd, taking off your DJ hat for a second, what do you think makes that great set?
The best DJs aren’t the people that play the most popular records, it’s the person who played the most unexpected record at the right time. You don’t go to a club and walk out and be like, ‘Yo the DJ killed it when he played Drake.’ You know what I mean? Because you expect that. It’s kind of like, ‘Yo, I can’t believe he played such-and-such and then went into…’ Those are the moments. When you have people who come up to you and are like, ‘Oh my God, I saw you in Vegas 10 years ago and that was the best night of my life, I met my wife.’ You want to create some kind of mood and environment that will get people there and that’s what I am looking for, too.
As you are touring quite often, regardless of where it is, what are your techniques for mindfulness? Do you have any particular activities, places, things you know you can use to “wind down”?
Music is everything to me…so I’ll pick an album and let it take me somewhere!!
How old were you when you got your first set of turntables and what inspired you to DJ?
I got my turntables late which I think actually helped. I got them when I was about 18; I started DJ’ing when I was around 10. I was part of a crew and the guy who owned the turntables basically had them at his house, so if you wanted to practice you had to go there, and you were always on someone else’s time. It made me practice mentally, and work out routines in my head before I had a chance to actually put ‘em down. I did that for a really really long time. In the group I was the one responsible for buying the records. So someone else had the equipment. The most important thing for a DJ to have is records, in hindsight. So when I decided to go off on my own I had a massive record collection.
Who has been your main inspiration?
Um, back then it would be guys like Grandmaster Flash, because Flash was DJ’ing to get world recognition and now everybody in the world knows who he is, so he showed you could get that kind of recognition. He’s like a brother to me, even still, there’s a level of the smoothness of what he does…I still get the chills over the way he cuts a record.
Back in the day, when you developed your routines and won the world supremacy title, why didn’t you enter the DMC World DJ competitions?
Well it’s a funny story. I entered in 186 or 1987, won the regional and national finals, but when it came to go to London to enter the worldwide competition, I had a temperature of 105°. When I won the U.S finals most of the DJ’s were just mixing records together, and they complained that because I was scratching, there was no way they could beat that ‘cos it was something new!
How have your personal music tastes evolved over that timeline? What are you listening to now, just as a music consumer?
I don’t know if it’s changed, I think it’s adding. I’ve added new music, but I think overall there was sh*t in the ’90s that I thought was great and there was sh*t in the ’90s that I thought sucked and it’s the exact same way. There is some new trap music that I am like, oh this sh*t is knocking, and there is some new sh*t and I am like, it sucks. It’s the exact same thing and it’s just really accepting what you like and understanding that there is some stuff that you don’t. If it deserves to be here, it deserves a space. I think it’s a form of prejudice when you say, ‘why they playing that trap sh*t, that’s why these black people here.’ It’s the exact same thing. Just ‘cause you don’t like it or just ‘cause you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it should not be here.
You and I recently appeared together on a track, but other than myself, who are you most proud of working with during your career thus far?
I don’t think I look at it like that. The people you work with are all different experiences. I always equate it to a chef using different ingredients. I think the reason why you don’t see a million and one collaborations with me is I can only work with people I vibe with. I get mad; I wanna be Pete Rock, or DJ Premier, cos they can make magic with nearly anybody. I’m not that guy though, I have to feel something with someone to make it work.
What keeps you in love with the craft despite any of the doubts you admitted pop up every now and then?
Loving music. That’s it. I don’t know if the construction worker is in love with picking up the hammer and smashing it. He’s doing something because he has to. Realizing that this is a blessing to do something that you love does not mean that the work is easier. It just means that I am doing something that I love and I can make a living off of it. I think that if there is anything that keeps me going, it’s me realizing that I play music to make people have a good time. It’s as simple as that, there is no deep analogy. I could have a hammer in my hand or I could be digging a ditch in 10-degree weather, so there is not really too much I should complain about if I am playing music for people to have a good time.
What advice would you have for any budding DJ’s or producers out there?
Find out exactly who you are. Experiment. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to surround yourself with people who will be brutally honest and not just agree with you on everything. Would you like your man to tell you your breath stinks or would you like the pretty girl you hope to marry one day to tell you? Because that first impression may turn her off forever. So I surround myself with people who tell me “Jeff, you need a mint!”