DJ Jazzy Jeff rose to hip-hop fame alongside “The Fresh Prince” Will Smith.
This Labor Day weekend, you can watch him spin at Célébrez en Rosé, a two-day wine and music festival at National Harbor on Sept. 4 and Sept. 5.
“I think this is amazing,” Jeff told WTOP. “We’re celebrating in pink, so everybody needs to have their pink outfits on, we are sipping wine and we are listening to great music. … Put your swanky outfit on, grab a bottle of rosé and come out. Make sure you wear some comfortable shoes, because I expect you to be on your feet dancing and having a good time.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff leads a lineup of BJ The Chicago Kid and Estelle on Saturday, followed by Lupe Fiasco, Marian Hill, and DJ Z-Trip on Sunday. You’ll also see local acts Black Alley, The Future Band and DJ Farrah Flosscett.
“It’s a very diverse lineup,” Jeff said. “You’ve got a mixture of hip-hop, a mixture of R&B, you also have myself and Z-Trip who play a very wide range of music. This is for music lovers. If you love music and you love sipping on wine, we put the two together and it’s gonna be an amazing night.”
Born and raised Jeff Townes in Philadelphia, he grew up listening to all the greats.
“I was the youngest of six,” Jeff said. “My dad was very deep into jazz from Wes Montgomery to Jimmy Smith, my sisters were into the typical Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Philly soul with Gamble & Huff and the O’Jays, then my brothers were more into a fusion jazz with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, so being the youngest, you are the sponge, and I soaked it all up.”
How did he actually get into hip-hop himself?
“They had block parties and park parties and I was more drawn to the control that the music gave over people,” Jeff said. “I would watch these guys play songs and people would lose their mind. I would watch them calm down any tension with the music they played. I remember watching and saying, “I want to do that. I want to be able to play music and make people happy.'”
His life changed forever when he met Will Smith.
“We knew of each other in Philadelphia,” Jeff said. “I was called to do a party and the rapper that I had, I called his house … and he wasn’t home. I went and did the party by myself and I didn’t realize the party was next door to Will’s house. Will came in the basement and said, ‘What’s up? Where’s Ice?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t get him on the phone.’ He said, ‘Do you mind if I fill in?'”
An iconic hip-hop duo was born, winning a Grammy for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
“We had just come from an amazing show in New York,” Jeff said. “I come home and start telling my mom how amazing this show was. She stopped me, ‘Do me a favor, run to the store and get a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of milk.’ I stopped, a little deflated, and Will and I started walking up the street. He looked at me and shook his head and said, ‘Man, parent’s just don’t understand.'”
They followed up with another Grammy for “Summertime,” played at barbecues to this day.
“He was in California [transitioning to acting],” Jeff said. “On the East Coast, we have seasons. … He didn’t get that, so he would call me and I’d be like, ‘Yo, it’s 72 degrees today, I broke my car out and went to the car wash, drove out to the plateau.’ I’m naming all the nuances in Philly that he’s not getting in L.A. He missed it so much that he wrote ‘Summertime’ about what that feels like.”
Eventually, Jeff wrote the TV theme for Smith’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-1996).
“I said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to be on a TV show and we not do the theme song,” Jeff said. “I made something really fast in 15 minutes. … I did that song as a place holder. I thought it would just be in the pilot … but that was the last time anyone said anything to us. Next thing you know, it’s on Monday night exactly how I gave it to him and I never had a chance to go back and fix it.”
Soon, “Jazz” became a regular character on the show.
“Will called and said, ‘Hey man, they want you to do a guest spot on the show.’ I said, ‘Nah, I’m OK.’ … He basically came to me with a plea. He said, ‘Listen, they want you to do three episodes. If you do one and you love it, you’ve got two to look forward to. If you do one and hate it, you’ve only got two more to do.’ … I remember standing on the set saying, ‘How the hell did I get here?'”
Fans remember him routinely getting chucked out of the house by Uncle Phil.
“It was actually me,” Jeff said. “I had to jump out onto a mat with the appearance that someone was throwing me out, which meant my body had to be pretty much horizontal. … I remember one time filming in about 10 different outfits and the next day I had to take off because I was black and blue. … When you see me walk in with that shirt, you know they’re gonna throw me out.”
Does he have a favorite episode?
“The one when I got married,” Jeff said. “That one stood out because that was the most lines I ever had on the show. I remember walking in and we sat at the table and I looked at the title on the script and I started sweating like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a lot.’ … My kids are really starting to get into the show. … It’s really funny how that show has transcended generations.”
After that, Smith jumped to movies like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.”
“We had set goals that he wanted to do movies and I wanted to do the music for the movies,” Jeff said. “These are things we talked about before they happened, so nothing he’s done has surprised me. … I was watching him knock down every last one of the goals that he set out, so it wasn’t surprising, it was inspirational. I watched him put in the work … to knock down those walls.”
Not only did he become the biggest movie star, he became the biggest music star with “Big Willie Style,” which Jeff helped produce for hits like “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” and “Miami.”
“When we were DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, once we finished our deal with the first record company, I did not want to sign another record deal,” Jeff said, “I was always going to be by Will’s side, I was always going to go in the studio and keep my same role, it just didn’t matter to me that my name was on the record. I needed a break from the music business, but not the music.”
He’s also worked with other stars with his production company A Touch of Jazz.
“Guys like Raheem [DeVaughn], Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild — I enjoy making music more than anything else that I do,” Jeff said. “It’s not just hip-hop, it’s not R&B, I believe music is the background of the pictures that we see. If you take your favorite movie and put the sound on mute, it’s no longer your favorite movie. You favorite movie has something to do with the music.”
Speaking of which, he did the scratch tracks for the film “Straight Outta Compton” (2015).
“I did all the scratching in the movie,” Jeff said. “Dr. Dre is a very old-time friend of mine. He reached out and was like, ‘Hey I finally signed off on the story of my life and I need someone to do the scratches that was around in that time period to make them authentic. I was happy that he asked me and I jumped in. It was great to watch how they pieced all of the stuff together.”
Today, he lives along the Philly-Delaware border, still cranking out tunes.
“I’m in the studio all day every day just making stuff, whether it be for the world, or I have albums I’ve made to clean the house,” Jeff said.
That’s real house music, ladies and gents.