DJ Jazzy Jeff Talks “Making Beats” Program, “Fresh Prince” Days, & Reminiscing With Will Smith
There’s nothing like speaking with an icon such as DJ Jazzy Jeff while celebrating Hip Hop’s 50th Anniversary. With nearly 40 years in the music industry, calling Jeffrey Townes a legend is an understatement. He emerged in the infancy of Hip Hop alongside Will Smith, with low fades and high hopes. The pair were known as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, as in those days, such pairings were common. In current Rap culture, DJs are sometimes seen as an accessory to an emcee’s team; however, Hip Hop’s inception was built on the backs of beatmakers, producers, and scratchers. Often, DJs were the stars that fans wanted to see during live shows. Many started with humble beginnings, teaching themselves the ins and outs of production.
While we live during a time when lessons on just about anything are at our fingertips, not all accessibility is helpful. Townes saw a lane that needed occupying, so he launched his CafeMedia music program, Command Central: Making Beats with DJ Jazzy Jeff. Over a course of six weeks online, students learn to build the foundation of music production with the Hip Hop icon. There are award-winning surprise guests, and for a lucky few, DJ Jazzy Jeff will play their tracks during his live sets. There are more visible creators than ever before in history, and Making Beats is the perfect opportunity for aspiring musicians.
If ever there was a teacher to have, Jeff is it. Early successes with Smith—classics like He’s the DJ & I’m the Rapper and Homebase—etched them into Hip Hop history. This includes the pair receiving the first-ever Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1989 for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” However, DJ Jazzy Jeff’s extensive solo catalog shows his skills outside the famous duo. The megaproducer has worked with everyone from Eminem to Talib Kweli, and he has a passion for teaching emerging generations what he has learned in his journey.
In our interview with Jeff, his love for Hip Hop’s evolution is palpable. He revisited those early days of his career alongside Smith, working extra jobs just to afford studio time. The longtime best friends rose to fame side-by-side, winning awards and topping the charts. Even at the peak of the entertainment world, they still reflect on what they could have done with this generation’s resources.
“I think for me, I am more happy that I am still around and still relevant in this time, because I’ve been on the phone with Will. And we both have said, ‘Man, do you know how many albums we would have done? If we had it like this? We had to go into big studio and do all the rest of this.’ Man, if we could just sit somewhere and make what we wanted in my mind. If the sh*t that we made in my mom’s basement could be put out?!”-DJ Jazzy Jeff to HNHH
Read more from our insightful (and fun) conversation with DJ Jazzy Jeff as he detailed his intimate Making Beats program, why the advice he would give artists 20 years ago differs today, and what it was like for him starring on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Additionally, Jeff gave us a few Boom-Bap Rap producer recommendations, shared why doing art for the love of it will always win, and explained why he’s the same Jeff from Philly all these years later (Fish Filets and all!).
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
HNHH: It’s such a pleasure to meet you, the depth of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s imprint on my childhood can’t even be explained. I’m an ’80s baby, so I remember purposefully scaring myself to “A Nightmare on My Street” every Halloween [laughs].
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Yes! Man, that’s what I’m talking about [laughs].
I’m excited to learn about how you’re encouraging creative generational wealth through your program. Tell us what Making Beats is all about.
Thank you! Well, the pandemic really kind of changed the focus for so many people. So, I decided to do a DJ course that was really, really successful. And my approach to it was—most of the courses that I have seen people do, they all start at level five. They all start kind of like, “Well, let me show you how to do this super-duper intricate scratch.” And I’m kind of like, “So, what about the people who want or need to learn about the equipment and the people who want to know about beats and bars and structure and all the rest of that?”
When I did the DJ course, I basically did it from level one to level five. Because one of the things that I realized is sometimes you don’t even know if you like something unless you try it. And you’re not going to like it if you try it at level five. So, when that was successful, the idea came about. Why don’t we do a production course?
So many people come into the studio and look at all of the buttons and all of the equipment. They’re so enamored, like, “Oh, my God, do you know how to use all of this?” And I’m like, it’s really not as intense as you think. Like, “Here’s one strip, this cuts it on and off, this turns it up and down. This is how you EQ it and all the rest of this. And it just so happens to be 36 of them.” When you explain it, it’s like, okay, I understand that. It’s not really rocket science.
HNHH: That’s crucial for today’s creatives, especially when people are teaching themselves how to do everything online. YouTube University helps people take matters into their own hands. But, the experience with any sort of mentor, teacher, veteran, or icon is totally different. Beatmaking and production have evolved exponentially from your beginning to now. What are some shifts you have seen on the production side of the culture?
Well, what it is, I have always been, always been, and always wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible. Not to say that you do it all. But, I don’t want it to be—I don’t want to be relying on anybody in any form. The music industry was absolutely not that. And that’s why I got really, really excited. You know, as time went on, social media and the internet kind of came became a place. I think what I’m more excited about is us having to get summer jobs to save up money to get a $ 1,500-a-day lockout in a studio to try to record two songs.
For $1,500, you can go to the Apple store and buy a computer that has a studio in it! It has a recording studio in it, it has a photography studio in it, and it has a video studio in it, right? So, I love the fact that what you get now, sometimes, is some of the most creative stuff you’ve ever heard because it’s somebody in their bedroom breaking all the rules. Like, that’s what I’m more excited about.
It’s kind of like, me, the way that I use a turntable is not the way a turntable was designed to be used. But you broke the rules and created a culture. So I’m all for when it comes down to creativity, that there’s zero rules. There’s zero rules, try everything because all that has to happen is people like it.
“I have always been, always been, and always wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible. Not to say that you do it all. But, I don’t want it to be—I don’t want to be relying on anybody in any form. The music industry was absolutely not that. And that’s why I got really, really excited.”
Are there any particular producers within this generation or beyond that you’ve been keeping an eye on? I love Boom-Bap Rap, so I try to stay tuned into artists’ adaptations of old-school sounds.
That’s my jam. I love producers like The Alchemist.
His approaches, it feels as if I’m visibly watching something happening sonically. Are there any producers in any generation that have caught and held your attention?
So, if you like Alchemist and you are a fan of Boom-Bap Rap, then you should take notice of the people that I’m going to tell you.
Follow Vitamin D on Instagram, follow Soundtrakk on Instagram, follow Tall Black Guy on Instagram. The thing that I love is these guys are—they got some skin in the game. But I love the fact that they’re making sh*t and posting it on Instagram, and people are losing their minds. I’m like, “How great was that?” Like, we used to have to send out a beat tape. You can almost put a beat tape on Instagram. And one person—because if I get it, I’mma tag Questlove like, “Yo, you have to see [this]!” And then he’s gonna tag somebody else, and it just keeps going over and over and over. I’m like, yeah, there’s a ton of them. And what ended up happening is you’re gonna follow them. And then it’s going to lead you to other people.
I think for me, I am more happy that I am still around and still relevant in this time. Because I’ve been on the phone with Will, and we both have said, “Man, do you know how many albums we would have done? If we had it like this? We had to go into big studio and do all the rest of this.” Man, if we could just sit somewhere and make what we wanted in my mind. If the sh*t that we made in my mom’s basement could be put out?!
But, I’m happy to be around. I’m like, yo, I can sit and make a piece of music. And I can pretty much upload it today for people to hear, right? When we started out? You finish an album or finish the song, and they’re telling you, “Oh yeah, that sh*t ain’t coming out for six months.” I really feel like I’m living in The Jetsons.
[Laughs] For real! Even touching on Will Smith. I recently wrote an article on when he rapped “Just the Two of Us” with the video of that 10-year-old playing the bassline. That’s one of my favorite things about this generation of artists. Seeing producers—there’s one, I forgot his name. He’s on TikTok, he changes theme songs to specific neighborhoods and eras in Hip Hop. It’s nice to see a producer create something, a rapper can see it, spit a few bars in a split-screen, and now people all over the world are begging for it to be released.
Yes, that’s what I’m talking about!
Just a few more questions, I want to shift into advice. We often talk about generational wealth within the culture as primarily financial, but there are other ways to pass on relevant information that could aid one generation to the next. What advice do you have for this era of Hip Hop?
It’s weird because the advice that I would have given 20 years ago, ten years ago, is not the advice that I would give today. So, it’s wild when you have to kind of change the mentorship up, because it doesn’t really apply. Twenty years ago, I would have been like, “Man, make sure that you are completely different than everybody else, you want to stand out.” Ten years ago, I would have been like, “You got to make sure that your sh*t sounds exactly like everybody else,” if you’re following an industry standard. But if you are following your heart…because that’s the thing.
“If you want to try to make a bunch of money, then I’m going to give you a different set of advice than, ‘Hey, man, I just love music, and I’m just trying to get my stuff out.'”
I often ask people, “What do you what do you want out of this?” You know, and be honest. You can tell me if, “Hey, man, I just want to make a sh*tload of money.” If that’s the case, then just be honest because I can’t give you advice if I don’t know what your end goal is. If you want to try to make a bunch of money, then I’m going to give you a different set of advice than, “Hey, man, I just love music, and I’m just trying to get my stuff out.”
So, just trying to figure out the right thing to tell somebody. But the one thing that I always keep in mind is to do it for the love first. Do it because you love it. Don’t do it for a job, don’t do it for money. If you do it for the love, and you start making money at it, then that is just an extra bonus.
My wife always teases me because I will always use the analogy of a basketball court. I got a basketball court in my backyard, I love to go out, and I love to shoot. I’m not trying out for the Sixers. I just enjoy basketball, but this is the funny thing. If you give a kid a basketball hoop, and he’d started shooting, and he becomes good, that may lead him to go play for an AAU team. It may lead him to play for his high school team, which may lead him to a college scholarship or maybe even the pros. But none of it starts unless you love shooting in your backyard.
That reminds me of an interview I did a few years back with RZA. I asked him, selfishly, for advice on staying self-motivated when my art is also my career. He paused for a second and said, “Well, you have to determine your end goal, and only you can do that for yourself.”
More or less, he said, “If the paycheck is the goal, then be honest about it with yourself and know that you will constantly chase that reward. However, if it’s not for the money, then figure out how to reconnect to the love, and live there.” Seriously changed my life [laughs].
That’s so good! And to add to that, it’s okay to do both. I tell people, I’m like, “Listen, I’m gonna give you real advice. I’m not gonna give you sh*t that you want to hear. Get a job to make money to pay for your love, until your love can pay for your loan.”
It’s as simple as that. Don’t go into this like, “My love has to take care of me.” That’s when you’re setting yourself up for downfall. Man, I got a job. I got a job to buy turntables to do somebody’s party for free. And then it spiraled into what it is now. But my initial thing was, “Hey, man, I got some equipment. I think I’m pretty good. I think I want to do this.” And the only way that I’m gonna be able to do it is I got to do Susie’s party up the street for free. So, people know you.
Next thing you know, it’s like, “Alright, Susie, listen, we killed it for the past two weeks. I need $20.” You know what I mean? But I worked a job until it passed me the baton and told me, “You know what, you might be able to pay your bills with this.”
This is my last question. I asked it to everyone just because I’m nosy. In celebrity culture, we know that a lot of it, if not all, is an illusion. And often, with people in your position, especially with the longevity of your career, fans often think that they know you, right? They’re familiar with your work and certain aspects of who you are. They hold memories that involve your art. But my question is, when that veil of celebrity and expectations are removed, what is something about the heart of you as a human being—not just DJ Jazzy Jeff, but just who you are, that you wish the world could see more of?
Oh, see, you spun me out at the end. For the simple fact that—and this goes even down to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I didn’t go in a phone booth and change into a character. I don’t know how to be anything other than me. Like, it was the craziest thing that someone would give me a script, I would say the lines and everybody would laugh. I would literally look in the mirror like, “I don’t f*cking get it! But you know what, I’m gonna go with it. I’m gonna go.” I never tried to be an actor. I never tried to be anything other than who I was because I don’t know how to do that.
So, I think where the spin-off comes is wanting people to know, because I’m kind of at the point of like, hey, man, I am who I am. I don’t care if you know or not. It’s not hard for me to wake up like I am. I’m a very caring person, I’m a very giving person. I got love for the world, I love animals. Man, I cook. I drink Kool-Aid. You know, I eat pork. Like, here’s the gambit. It ain’t gonna change. People who know me from 20 years ago are kind of like, “Well, that’s the same Jeff.”
You know, everybody knows I can make popcorn. I make the best popcorn on the planet. Everybody knows I make great Kool-Aid. And I don’t like college Kool-Aid—I don’t like Kool-Aid you can see through.
I’ve never been one of those people that the more money or success that you got, you start changing who you are. I’m kind of like, “Hey, man, if I like Fish Filets and I only have $5, I like Fish Filets if I got $5 million.”
[Laughs] The fact that you mentioned Fish Filets is wild. It’s my favorite thing on the planet. My mom ate them while pregnant with me and now I can’t get enough.
[Laughs] I love it! I love it.
That’s all I have today. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the time.
Absolutely. This is great. And listen to some of those producers! You will really get a kick out of it.