DJ Jazzy Jeff, who rose to Grammy-winning fame in the early ’90s as the Fresh Prince’s musical partner, is one of the world’s greatest party-starting deejays. He brings his skills to CIAA weekend for the eighth year, soundtracking parties on both Friday and Saturday.
The 49-year-old music vet talked to The Observer last week from his home in Delaware about his dance-floor philosophy, the popularity of DJ culture, and what he thinks of today’s hip-hop.
Q. Does DJing an event like CIAA differ from a regular gig?
A. It’s people from all over, which is great. It’s why in Vegas and Atlantic City the parties are so good. When you travel outside your city, you have a tendency to force yourself to have a better time than at home. Any kind of event that it’s not just the local people, the energy level is higher. It’s like a vacation.
Q. Did you have a philosophy of what you wanted to do with a set when you were starting out?
A. Not at all. This is one of those things I equate to basketball. You start (deejaying) because all the girls like the guy that plays the music. Then it turns into more of a skill. Paying attention to sets and set lists didn’t come until later on. What you want to do is to take people on somewhat of a musical journey with the records you play.
Q. Do you alter the set by reading the crowd?
A. A little bit. I get more of the energy than reading or looking at them. There are times I’ll play a record for two verses or one verse or there are times when you bring a record in and people scream when they hear it and then you switch it out really fast. It’s the feeling. Your goal is to get people every night. Sometimes you can have them before you even start. Sometimes it takes 10-20 minutes. Sometimes the whole first hour. You have to gauge that. That’s when you can take them somewhere special. I’ve got to the point I science it out depending on the age demographic of the crowd. I don’t care what the age is, you can’t keep people at a high level for two hours. That’s overkill. You take them to a peak and drop them down a little bit. Sometimes I’m sending them to the bar to get a drink or talk to that girl you seen that was dancing. You have to bring people back down.
Q. Sometimes your crew is even surprised by something you play. Is that part of the goal?
A. Absolutely. You’re not going to walk out of the event talking about the DJ played all the popular records. You’re going to talk about the curveball. I want to play at least one thing every set that makes people say, “I can’t believe he played that.” I started maybe 10 years ago and I’ve done it at CIAA a few times – the last 15 or 20 minutes I play slow jams. When is the last time you went to a party and heard slow jams? That’s the thing they’ll walk out and say, “I can’t believe he did that. I haven’t danced a slow jam in 25 years.”
I do it. If I hear a DJ play something I haven’t played in a while, I have a folder in my phone called “Records.” I’ll make a mental note to pull such and such back out. I was walking through the airport yesterday and they were playing a Gloria Estefan record that I put in my phone. You drop this at the right time, people are going to lose their minds. The only sucky thing is sometimes it stops me from enjoying music. I had a conversation with Will (Smith). He says sometimes he doesn’t enjoy watching movies. You always look at a movie as an actor. Sometimes I hate the fact that’s how I can listen to music. I’m always listening to how I can play it, unless it’s smooth jazz.
Q. What do you think about the way DJing has blown up?
A. I look at it like I was an investor in the stock market before the stock market became popular. This has always been part of me. It was amazing to watch it go crazy. I never thought in a million years it would be at the level it is or have DJs making the money they do. No one really paid attention to the growth or the DJ community until The Wall Street Journal posted what the top DJs were making. That’s what makes the business world start to take notice. I’d been touring forever before it got popular. If the day comes that it’s not popular, it’s not going to change for me.
Q. What’s your take on current hip-hop?
A. I’m careful. The music that, to me, defined everything in me, my mom hated. I try to make a conscious effort not to be my parents. The dumbest record I’ve ever heard in my life may be that life-changing record for my kids. I have to sometimes figure out ways to incorporate those records – that I may find is not the smartest record – into my sets. That’s my job.
One of the biggest discrepancies with DJs I know is that it’s all about them. My job is to make you happy. Sometimes you go to events and feel like the DJ is solely playing for them. If I’m booked and they want to hear what’s popular on the radio, my job is to play it in a way that they’ve never heard it.
I grew up in a different era. People put more emphasis on the hip-hop and R&B records. (Today) I’ll hear 10 records. The drum sounds are the same. The samples are the same. If you put 10 artists on a shuffleboard, I couldn’t tell you the difference. When I grew up there was so much diversity. You knew that LL Cool J record when it came on, not because of his voice, but because of the sound. Now it seems like when something is popular, everybody does it.