Put your hands up for the man who needs no introduction: DJ Jazzy Jeff. The icon has come a long way and done a lot since getting thrown out of Uncle Phil’s mansion on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the early 1990s. For those blinded by pop culture, Jeffrey Allen Townes might be from West Philadelphia, born and raised, but he was—and still is—one of the most respected turntablists in the business. A regular resident at the Palms with gigs at Ditch Fridays and Rain on July 20, he chats about DJ culture, mix tapes and, yes, Will Smith.
As a DJ who started on vinyl and a DMC champion, what do you think about the path the art of DJing has taken?
There was a time that the turntablist was probably the biggest aspect of DJing. But if you look at before that, the biggest aspect of DJing was the DJs who mixed and blended records—which were almost all house DJs. Me being a purist, I started off on vinyl; I still buy and collect vinyl. Using Serato basically saved not only my back from carrying five and six cases of records, but once you start doing all this international travel and somebody stipulates that you can only have 40 pounds of luggage—and I’ve got 140 pounds of vinyl—now I have to start figuring out ways to not play as much music. Serato basically kept me from cheating the public on having a good time just because I don’t want to pay extra baggage charges.
It started with that and then everybody kind of embraced Serato and the digital medium. You have to embrace change. It’s the same person who didn’t want to accept the microwave.
Do you think some folks just getting into DJing should at least play around with vinyl a bit to know where the culture came from?
[Laughs] Well, you know, the purist in me definitely says so. It’s the same argument that older artists complain that the new artists don’t know their history. But you got to look at it like, “OK, if I’m a new artist, how much history should I know?” Like me starting to DJ and playing parties in the ’80s, was my knowing some of the music that came out in the ’60s good enough? Or did I need to know what came out in the ’40s, ’30s or the ’20s? I have to give the benefit of the doubt to the newer artists that maybe their catalog goes as far back as Nas. You can’t necessarily get mad at them because they don’t know “Rapper’s Delight” because it’s unfair to ask someone who started doing music in 2010 to know 60 years of music, just because you started earlier. Where do you put a cap on that history?
What would you suggest as outlets for people to dig deeper?
I think what would be cool is them getting some of those DMC videos, but what else I think is a great benefit is YouTube. It’s amazing to me. I’ll get somebody to look at a video of me and [DJ] AM playing in New Orleans and they’re asking me, “What’s this record you’re cutting?” And I’m like, “That’s Run-DMC ‘Peter Piper.’” Are they really asking me what that is? But then I’m sitting back saying, “Maybe you’re 13.” Maybe you’re 13 and you don’t know this record that came out over 20 years ago.
There was a time when you would come in and I remember people who say, “Absolutely no cameras, no cameras allowed.” You can’t do that anymore. Everybody has a camera. So I think if you do a great performance sometimes you don’t even have to promote it. The Internet will just take it and run with it. So I think that’s an excellent educational tool for some of the people who are just getting into it. It’s amazing to me: I’ll buy a piece of equipment, and there’s something I’m stumped on. I’ll go to YouTube and somebody explains it to me. This is better than a manual!
You’ve got a new mix tape out, Summertime III. What prompted that series?
A good DJ friend of mine, Mick Boogie, came to me three years ago and said, “You should do a ‘Summertime’ mixtape. Just the way that when May comes and it starts to get warm and people start playing ‘Summertime’ every year, we should make a mixtape that is pretty much ‘Summertime’-ish records of all genres. The only thing that we stay away from is absolutely new records.
We released it on the Internet and got close to a half a million downloads. … This is the third installment. I hit Will [Smith] up, I gave him all of the mixtapes and he loved them. He actually did the intro to this third one. It’s definitely cool to impact somebody’s season like that. And then it’s even cooler that when it gets to November and December somebody from Australia tells me that they’re rockin’ the Summertime mix because it’s summertime in Australia.
You also do this cool Throwback Thursday contest for fans on your website. What’s that all about?
It’s from having people that enjoy what you do for so long. Everybody got together and was like, “It would be cool if we could make people post pictures that they may have taken with you, things that you signed, anything that is related to you that you’ve done in the past.” I get a kick out of it. It’s just a real engaging way to do something with the people that appreciate what you do.
Who are some of your favorite DJs to watch spin right now?
You can go down the list from guys like Z-Trip—I’m always a fan. We always enjoy doing shows together because I always get inspired and I know he’s going to play something that I didn’t expect. I love A-Trak and Steve Aoki—his energy’s just off the chain. And you know you have guys like Skratch Bastid in Canada, who I think is probably one of the most incredible DJs I’ve heard. Spinbad from New York. I enjoy a lot of times going to Vegas, staying an extra day or two, going into the club, being a fly on the wall, listening to the DJ and looking at the way people respond.
There’s a rumor that you and Will Smith might get back in the studio together. Care to comment?
We have always talked about going in and doing something. What the issue is, he’s probably one of the biggest movie stars in the world! It’s never desire; it’s always timing. And that’s it in a nutshell. He had the Men in Black release party and every time he has something, we get on the stage and do something. And every time he looks at me and is like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to do something!” Then he goes away and makes another movie and the next movie release party, he’s like “Oh, we’ve got to do something.” So hopefully it’s going to happen.
What about other studio collaborations?
I’m finishing up an album that I did with a young lady from Toronto named Ayah that hopefully will be dropping in the fall.
Do you ever get to take advantage of the studio at the Palms?
No, because a lot of the times I’m in and out and I take my laptop and I take a portable studio with me. It would probably be really beneficial for me to go in there and just mess around. A lot of times I just forget. I’ll get in the room and I’m going through music and I don’t ever think, “You know, there’s a studio right downstairs!”