DJ Jazzy Jeff returns to National Harbor wine festival, reacts to Will Smith’s Oscars slap

Hear our full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews DJ Jazzy Jeff at National Harbor (Part 1) (Jason Fraley)

DJ Jazzy Jeff spun a pair of rap Grammys into a role on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

On Saturday, he joins Robin Thicke and Tamia for “Célébrez en Rosé” at National Harbor.

“It’s a wine festival, a rosé festival, but everybody wears pink and white,” Jeff said. “It has great talent and people have a good time. Last year was the first one that I did and it was just amazing looking at a sea of people enjoying themselves. … My job in between these acts is to make everybody have a good time, so throw your glass in the air and let’s go!”

A lot has changed since he last played the festival last August. His longtime friend, Will Smith, infamously slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Academy Awards in March.

“A lapse in judgment,” Jeff said. “It’s just different when the lapse in judgment comes from one of the most recognizable figures on the planet, but that is probably nothing more than 99.9% of us have done at some point in our life. It just so happened that he did it on national television at the Oscars. People aren’t defined by their lapses in judgment.”

The slap earned Smith a 10-year ban from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

“It’s unfortunate,” Jeff said. “More than anything, I know Will and I know his character. He was very remorseful, and I’ve stated before, I’ve seen this man avoid bad lapses in judgment more than anybody I know when he could have. It just so happened that this was the one. … This is one of my closest friends. I made sure he’s OK, and he’s OK.”

Born and raised Jeff Townes in Philadelphia, DJ Jazzy Jeff grew up loving music.

“You’re growing up in the home of Gamble & Huff, which is like growing up in Detroit with Motown,” Jeff said. “We always had great music from people in the city, so we come from a really good lineage. When it’s around you, you can’t help but feed off that same energy. … Will and I have had a long career of music and television, but the roots all started in Philly.”

His life changed forever when he got a call to play a party next door to Smith’s house.

“I had another rapper that used to travel with me … and he never answered the phone,” Jeff said. “My life would be greatly different if he would have answered the phone, but because he didn’t, Will was at the party, he asked where my MC was, I said, ‘I couldn’t get in touch with him,’ and he said, ‘Mind if I fill in?’ and he’s been filling in for 38 years.”

An iconic hip-hop duo was born, winning a Grammy for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

“My mom was like, ‘Listen, I need you to go to the grocery store to get me some milk and eggs,'” Jeff said. “I was like, ‘Mom! We just came from doing this show for 20,000 people!’ And she said, ‘And I need some eggs.’ … I looked at Will and said, ‘Parents just don’t understand.’ It was like, ‘Hey, that’s a good one.’ The rest is history!”

They won another Grammy for “Summertime,” played at barbecues to this day.

“Will was on his first year on ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ and he was missing growing up in Philly because we have the seasons,” Jeff said. “Him being in L.A. where it’s 90 degrees all the time, he didn’t get that season change. … It really inspired him like, ‘I want to write about the nostalgia people have on the East Coast coming from spring into summer.”

Soon, Jeff wrote the TV theme song for Smith’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-1996).

“I thought we were making a filler,” Jeff said. “I thought this would be a thing they would use until they figured out what the real theme song was. We did it, I mixed it and that’s the same thing that plays on television today. That still trips me out. It never changed.”

He even began acting as “Jazz,” becoming a regular character on the show.

“Will asked and I was like, ‘No,'” Jeff said. “He called back like, ‘Listen, I know this is not what you want to do, but I got an idea. Why don’t you do three? If you do one and love it, you got two more to look forward to. If you do one and hate it, you only got two left to do.’ I was like, ‘Since you put it like that, OK.’ I didn’t realize it would be five or six years.”

Does he have a favorite episode from the beloved sitcom?

“I think it was the one when I got married, just because that’s the most lines that I had,” Jeff said. “That show was predominantly me. … It was challenging, but a lot of fun.”

Mostly, fans remember him routinely getting chucked out of the house by Uncle Phil.

“That was extremely painful,” Jeff said. “It really got to a point where I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ That’s why they kept using the stock shot, then that became funny because whenever you saw me walk in with that shirt, everybody kind of understood what it was.”

In real life, he loved working alongside the late James Avery, who died in 2013.

“James Avery is the guy who made me understand the value of vacation,” Jeff said. “I was never trained on going somewhere, completely relaxing and going off the grid. … He was like, ‘Go to Cancun, it has some of the prettiest beaches and the best seafood. … You should go to Hawaii.’ I appreciated the insight he gave me on expanding your horizon.”

After “The Fresh Prince,” Jeff moved behind the scenes to produce Smith’s rap album “Big Willie Style” (1997), featuring hits like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Miami” and “Men in Black.”

“We had been ‘DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’ traveling and doing the rest for 10 years, so the only role that changed was that my name wasn’t on the album cover,” Jeff said. “I still produced [the albums] and whenever he had shows, I still did it, but I just didn’t want that contractual obligation because there was a bunch of other stuff that I wanted to do.”

He also watched Smith become a movie star in “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.”

“That was the plan from Day One,” Jeff said. “He wanted to be a movie star and I wanted to do music for movies. None of this was a surprise. … It was a means to the end. It wasn’t meant for us to be a group forever. We had already thought past that.”

Today, Jeff lives along the Philly-Delaware border with his production company A Touch of Jazz, working with artists like Raheem DeVaughn, Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild.

“It’s great because it doesn’t pigeonhole you into one thing,” Jeff said. “I’ve been able to pretty much make the music that I’ve wanted to make whether I’m the artist or not. It’s very weird having a goal and achieving the goal. When people ask, ‘Where do you plan on being in the next 10 years?’ I’m like, ‘Right where I’m at.’ If I’ve found utopia, why leave?”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews DJ Jazzy Jeff at National Harbor (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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