MAKING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING WITH SERATO
“The only thing I had to sacrifice is I didn’t get a chance to dance with the girls, but I was the music guy.”
Jeff Townes, aka DJ Jazzy Jeff, might still be, for a certain swath of America, the guy who was always getting thrown out of the house on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air—but for hip-hop fans, he’s the Grammy-winning, ground-breaking, former world champion (1986) DJ credited with developing the “transformer” scratch, who also put the music behind Will Smith’s words for “Summertime,” “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” and “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.” He’s also a well-respected R&B, soul and neo-soul producer whose production company, A Touch of Jazz, has been a force in working with artists like Jill Scott, Musiq and many others.
Jazzy Jeff’s deep connection with music was forged early in life, listening to his brother’s funk and soul band. “They would rehearse in the basement, and I would sneak [in]— because I wasn’t supposed to be down there—sitting on the steps watching this four-piece band rehearse in the basement,” he says. “I was intrigued by the different components: the drummer, the bass player, the guitar player and the percussionist—how they would all be playing different things, but all be in synch. I think that was one of the early stages, because you hear music, but you don’t ever really see music being made, and that was the first time that it was kind of like, ‘Wow, that sounds like what I hear on the radio.’”
Though his brother would encourage him to play the drums, he says that he was too young at the time to totally dive into the musical world. “I think my initial introduction came from DJing,” he reflects. “I was the guy in the neighborhood at 11, 12 years old, that brought the spindle of 45s over and borrowed somebody’s component set and [was] the guy that was basically in charge of playing records. Then that grew from just on [my] block to a three-block radius to a five-block radius and one day somebody gives you ten dollars for it and you’re kind of like, ‘Wow! I made ten dollars for being the guy that played records.’ The only thing that I had to sacrifice is I didn’t get a chance to dance with the girls, but I was the music guy.”
Playing all those records almost inevitably resulted in a deeper interest in how the music was produced. “It was, ‘I want to know how they made these records,’ especially in the early days of hip-hop,” Jazzy Jeff says. “It was kind of like, ‘Okay, let me get a drum machine and I know how to program my own beat and how to make [it] swing. Now I want [it] to sound like what I hear on the radio. What’s that sound that’s on this record and how can I get it?’ I think that’s pretty much where the whole thing started.”
It’s the mysteries of the process that keep him excited and exploring—the feeling that goes hand-in-hand with the creative act. “The creation process is amazing to me,” he says. “I’ve always said that, unless you do music, it’s really hard to understand that you’re really taking nothing and making it something. It’s amazing to people like my wife, or someone who’s not creative, for you to just sit down with a bunch of equipment and in 15 minutes have a piece of work that is something that you just made.
“Everybody wants to know, ‘Where did that come from? How did you think of that? How did that inspiration come? How fast did you make that?’ And I just think the thing that is still extremely exciting is [that] every time I walk into the studio and sit in the chair, I have no idea what I’m going to make. I think it’s amazing to make your favorite record—for you to do that. So I think if there’s anything that brings me joy or excitement still, it’s the creation from nothing to something.”
For DJ Jazzy Jeff, that creation is all about connection and emotion. “I have never been the producer that could hear somebody and just say, ‘I want to work with them,’” he says. “It always has to be some type of connection. A lot of times it was [going] in the studio with somebody, and we just started talking. I played something and they did something, and it was just some kind of energy between [us] that we just started to work. But I think it’s the emotion—it’s the emotion that [makes you go], ‘Oh, my God!’ you know—and then it’s taking nothing and making it something. It’s really great when you work with a vocalist or someone else who takes nothing and makes it something and then you take your two ‘somethings’ and put [them] together and create something else. That’s the beauty of it to me.”
In fact, for 2007’s Return of the Magnificent, Jazzy Jeff took the philosophy of “just making music with your friends” to heart. “I had a ball. I literally had a ball. Everyone, for the most part, came to the studio and we just got in and worked. It took two and a half weeks. The biggest issue was the scheduling, but I think once you have that, it’s not a long process. For me, it’s not a long process. It’s [not] something that you have to labor over for months and months, or even years. It’s just capturing the moment.”
The commitment to creative spontaneity doesn’t end at the studio doors. Still a regular live performer, who has had a residency at The Palms in Las Vegas and who just played a New Year’s show in Dubai with his old partner, Will Smith, DJ Jazzy Jeff takes the approach that spinning records is closely related to what he does in the studio. “I always tell people that what a DJ is, is a producer on the fly. My job is to produce the night. I don’t have as much time or leeway. It’s kind of like I see a thousand people in front of me and I have to read and understand what they would like and I have to pick this record and then see what record, after this record, would go together seamlessly. How can I take these people on a musical journey through records that are already made? A really good DJ is like going to church—he can make you have an out-of-body experience. He can make you forget about every last one of your problems and he can make you reminisce of lost loves. It’s just how you string these records together.”
One of the tools that tie together his studio and live work is Serato. “Serato has enabled me to take my producer brain into DJing. They were always two separate brains. Serato kind of brought everything together. I was already a computer geek, so it brought everything into a world I was already living in. Just to be able to sit and say, ‘I’m going to put a cue point on the beginning of the song, I’m going to put a cue point on the hook of the song, so I can go right from the beginning right to the hook, go right from this hook to this hook’—to me that way of looking at DJing is very similar to a producer. So it allowed me to marry the two worlds.”
To say that DJ Jazzy Jeff lives his music might just be an understatement, and (as with many artists throughout history) one important part of that musical life is sharing it with his audience. As he says, “I feel like I have been making an album since I was 11 years old and the only thing that I do is I cut pieces off and [give] people pieces [one] at a time.”