DJ Jazzy Jeff, known to his mother as Jeffrey Townes, is a legend in hiphop. He, along with partner in crime Will Smith aka the Fresh Prince, are counted amongst hiphop’s first “superstars”. Their tunes Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble and Parent’s Just Don’t Understand are absolute classics. Many people may think of Townes as the lesser of the duo, because he is not in the spotlight as much as Smith, but he hasn’t been sitting back on his fat mountain of bling bling from selling over 10 million records doing nothing. He is the founder and head of A TOUCH OF JAZZ, nurturing the careers of a roster of young producers, writers and artists, including the wonderful Jill Scott, and houses them all in a studio complex in the downtown area of Philadelphia.
He is famous for getting his start as a bathroom DJ. “Basically that’s the guy that really gets to play no records or does nothing pertaining to DJing until the main DJ has to go to the bathroom”, he laughs. “Then he gets to put a record on, and make sure that the record the main DJ put on doesn’t finish. I was just hoping those guys would stay in the toilet a lot. I used to give them a lot of drinks, lots of water to keep their bladder active.” His skill quickly developed and got him noticed at parties, and it was at one such party he teamed with Smith. “The guy who was my usual MC didn’t show up, and Will came in, and we knew each other from previous parties, and he just grabbed a mic and things went from there.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were well known for using samples of cartoons and old TV shows, such as I Dream of Genie. “We got in trouble for a couple of the samples that we used,” he laughs. “That was early hiphop days when nobody really understood the sampling laws and what we had to do. But it got to a point where after we got into trouble you start to become wise, and you start to compensate whoever you use”. Yet some people in the rap game weren’t appreciative of the sounds the duo employed, or the less aggressive take on rap they used, calling them ‘soft’ and equally dismissive names. “It was when hiphop started to become multi-dimensional, and just because Will and I chose not to do Gangsta records, or really curse in our records, and talk about shooting and killing anybody, we got criticised, because at the time that [Gangsta] was what was most popular. Now you look at hiphop and it’s grown in so many ways… it didn’t really bother me because people didn’t understand how big hiphop really was.”
For someone who is a “superstar”, Townes is quite unpretentious about his work. “I never look at that,” he says of the accolades and so on from his early days. “I think because I’m so active in what I’m doing now I don’t think I’ve ever look at the contribution or the credit we’ve got in the past, and I think it keeps me grounded.” Even being on a high rating TV show doesn’t seem to have overblown his ego. “The exposure was incredible. I’m more recognised by what I’ve done on the TV show than what I’ve done in music,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter what you’re recognised for, I try to bring people into what I do, just use that exposure as positive energy”.
Exposure is what his record label A Touch of Jazz is all about. “My issues right now have more to do with not about what is in hiphop, but what’s not in hiphop. I don’t understand how you can get radio stations that play the same 25 records over and over again, and there’s a hundred thousand records out! I think it’s more important, to me, to give everybody a chance, because that only benefits the music and culture of hiphop, instead of narrowing it down to what someone deems important,” he says of the current state of hiphop. “That’s the main reason I set up A Touch of Jazz. Just to have a little more musical freedom and creativity to do what I want to do, and to put records out for music lovers. The beauty of a lot of the stuff I do is there is no great expectation to sell millions and millions of copies of records; we put records out for people who love good music. If you love it and support us we’re very grateful, and if you don’t then hopefully one day we can make something you’ll love and start to support us. That’s the main reason why I do it. It’s not so much we have to do what’s popular, or what people deem is popular, or top 40, you’re making music because you love it.”
Townes love of music can be easily heard in his voice when he talks about it, whether it’s talking about the latest releases on his label, or his upcoming tour. “The fact that two turntables and a mixer and some records has taken me completely around the globe – especially now – I am so grateful for that. It’s a joy for me just to spread the love of music. We’re all linked together through music, and for me to be able to come and play music for people who love it and enjoy it… you know I probably enjoy it more than the people I’m playing for!” he laughs, “and I’m so grateful for that.”
Soon Adelaide gets a chance to witness Jazzy Jeff in action. “I play very high impact, high energy. In a period of about an hour and a half I may play about 200 records”, he says nonchalantly. “I like to take people on a journey through music, not just hiphop. I play hiphop, I play classics, I play breakbeat, I play house, I’ll play pretty much anything! It’s more about the excitement of the night, and the more energy I get from the crowd, the more I give back. Just tell people to watch out because you’re gonna have a great time!”