DJ Jazzy Jeff on Vinyl Destination, Phife Dawg, and Choosing Positivity
Each year, we're told this track or that single will be the song of the summer — usually dictated by the charts, some radio personality, or a media outlet like this one. But if we're being honest, for the past 25 years, there's one pervasive jam that could easily win that title every beach season: "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Along with hip-hop classics like "It Takes Two" and "Just a Friend," it's a breezy, feel-good number that never gets old.
As the beatmaking half of that duo, Jeff Townes never let the party stop, proving himself to be just as timeless as the track that helped launch his career as Jazzy Jeff. While his better-known partner became a Hollywood A-list actor, Townes stayed just as busy, touring the world 160 days out of the year, releasing mixtapes and singles, and chronicling his adventures on his popular YouTube web series Vinyl Destination, with stops everywhere from Austin and SXSW to the busy streets of Hong Kong.
Between gigs in Europe and the Middle East, promoting his work with rapper Dayne Jordan, and working on a new LP, the legendary turntablist took time to speak to us.
New Times: With your music, you've always kept it super-positive; why did you never go over to the dark side, so to speak?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: You know, what's funny is people kind of have this opinion that just because you have positive music, you never had any negative. We grew up in the heart of West Philly, which was absolutely, you know, not the good side. But just because you see some darkness and despair in your everyday life doesn't mean you have to translate it in your music. It's kind of like, you want to project what you want to see instead of what you're actually seeing. I never disrespected or had any problems with guys that went that route, because they just talked about what they saw, and we talked about what we wanted to see.
How did the Vinyl Destination web series come about?
Just traveling, and one time I decided to take a friend of mine who's a videographer, because I wanted him to document it and put it online. I didn't really know what it was gonna do. After the first trip, he talked about how amazing that was for him and his life, being able to photograph and see all of the stuff he'd seen... People don't understand all of the things that go into traveling. Sometimes it's a 19-and-a-half-hour trip to get off a plane, and you have to go right to the club and play. The time differences — right now, I'm 13 hours ahead, so night is day and day is night, and you gotta get your body acclimated in three days. Going places and eating food you never would have in your life — that's where the whole joke about McDonald's in Vinyl Destination came in. I am not a McDonald's guy, but sometimes when it's a naked duck hanging in the window and a McDonald's right next to it, I'm gonna choose McDonald's.
You've probably played a thousand DJ sets by now. Have you ever had any go off the rails?
We did an event in South Africa — we flew all the way to South Africa — it was supposed to be this huge, giant festival with all of these acts. I'm walking through the streets of South Africa and people are like, "Oh, my God. Jazzy Jeff, what are you doing here?" And I'm kind of like, "Oh man, we doing this festival." "What festival?!" We couldn't find one person that knew one thing about it, not one sign up, and we get to this place that's supposed to hold 30,000 people, and there might've been less than a thousand people there. It was more people working there than in the crowd. I'm the type of person that that made me want to work harder. I wanted to make sure those thousand people had the show of their lives.
It's been 25 years since "Summertime" was released. How do you feel about that song today?
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Every musician and producer and singer/songwriter, you want a record that will stand the test of time. Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P." stands the test of time. Generation after generation, "You know O.P.P.?" and they'll say, "Yeah, you know me." You're superduper-blessed to have any kind of art that stands the test of time. You have to understand how great it feels to have the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air passed through generations — that it's still on television... You're waiting for the summer to come that "Summertime" isn't the song of the summer. It's a huge blessing.
Would you like to share any thoughts on the passing of Phife Dawg?
Aw man, it crushed me. He was a really good dude. Between a Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Pharcyde, they were three of my top, top, favorite groups. It's enlightening on so many levels when you have peers who start passing away. Guys like Sean Price, guys like Phife, it just brings stuff in your face, like how we didn't always take the best care of ourselves...
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