I’ve interviewed a few personal heroes over the last couple of years. I’ve had lunch with Raekwon, talked New York with Mobb Deep, and got chatting about 808s with Arthur Baker. I’ve got relatively used to speaking to people who have populated my life with amazing music, and I’d like to think I’m pretty chilled about it these days. That all went right out the window when I interviewed Jazzy Jeff. Who knew? The issue is, and I know this is glaringly obvious, but he sounds exactly like Jazzy Jeff. Having grown up obsessed with the Fresh Prince, Jeff phoning me was like Jeff reaching over the decades to drop some knowledge, as warm, obnoxious and funny as the role he played in the show, where I suspect he was basically playing an amped up version of himself. It took me about 5 minutes to stop having a tiny mental freak out, by which time I realised I was having an amiable chat with someone who part of my brain had long filed away as a fictional character. It was a sweet moment.
Moving on, the reason we were talking was that Jeff is about to host a seminar for Abelton – so this was a chance to talk about how he’s stayed relevant since the 80s, why he hates rappers who mumble, how he introduced Kenny Dope to digital crate digging, and his secret admiration for OT Genesis..
You’ve been in the game for years now - can maintaining relevance be distilled into a set of rules?
No not at all, because the rules change! Technology changes! The way you have to approach things change, and that’s the hardest part, people don’t’ adapt to change well. When I first started people didn’t have social media, you weren’t on the internet like that. Then you got to the point where you had to adapt to tools like the internet, then you had to adapt to tools like social media, it took a little bit longer to do things, now things are very fast. When you really look at it, a newspaper hasn’t got time to print the news before everyone knows it – technology comes so fast, I was used to going to a store, being a piece of gear or software, going back and installing it, I can actually order it online, download it now and have it in the next five minutes. Its more that you don’t look at it like there are rules, but view it as an ever changing flow, keep your eyes and ears open and never be afraid to change the way you do something.
What’s been the hardest thing for you to adapt to?
I guess how fast everything is. It used to take me maybe a month to create something, then you’d have to get it to the manufacturer and distribute it to the people. I can make something right now and push it out to a million people. That was hard, you had to change your pace, and that can be hard for a creative. It’s a gift and a curse, because now I have instant access to my audience. I love the fact that I can give my music out to people and they can tell me what they think right away, but I hate the fact that now everyone is a music critic
Maybe they were before, you just couldn’t hear them?
Exactly! Now everyone thinks they have the ability to tell you what to do to make your album better for them. So it’s a gift and a curse. One of the things I don’t like is that the art of the collaboration has died off because everyone is in their bedroom making music on their own – most of the music you know and love was done by more than one person. BUT I do love that I can make a piece of music and send it out to an amazing keyboard player in LA and he can send it back to me within ten minutes, so there’s part I love and parts I don’t. I have a tendency to try and look for the stuff that makes it easier and beneficial, but not the stuff that cuts corners.
You’re music was developed in such a localised way, you’re coming from the block party era of having this small local focus group of people, so maybe you developed in a very specific direction – that’s gone now, do you think that means that things are sounding more similar?
Yes, absolutely. One of the biggest indicators of that is radio. I used to drive from New York to Atlanta, and I could go through every state and get a feeling for what the climate was in each of those territories. You know, you wanted your Baltimore Club, you wanted your DC GoGo, you wanted your Philly music, your funk and disco – and now you can almost go around the world and everything around the same. I miss having feelings and flavours. You go to Texas for barbeque, you go to London for fish and chips – you know I don’t want the same Texas barbeque in London and I don’t want London fish and chips in Texas!
Part of the radio thing was down to Clear Channel buying up a huge monopoly and imposing playlists
The funny thing about Clear Channel was that they were started by a guy who’d had a car dealership, and he just tried to adapt the car dealership model to radio, which made him a lot of money but it destroyed radio
Yeah, and it nearly destroyed hip hop – I’d think if anything, the internet did hip hop a lot of favours by breaking the Clear Channel monopoly
Yeah, and we needed that, we needed another form for people to put music and information out that wasn’t going to be monopolised. Going back to the technology aspect, I grew up in a time when only the very wealthy or the very well connected could get into studio to make a record because a studio would cost so much. Now you don’t know if a song’s been made in a studio or in someone’s bedroom. The playing field is level –I always felt that tomorrow’s music is being played in someone’s garage right now
Do you remember what a hustle it was for you to get your first music out?
Oh my God! You would have to find someone who would pay for you to go to the studio to record, and if you didn’t have a connection you’d have to travel by bus to New York City to stand outside a record company hoping that you’d see someone you could give a tape to! We did that a lot, and you’d cross your fingers cos you didn’t know if someone was gonna take this tape or if they were going to walk off and throw it in the trash. Those are the levels we went to to get our music heard, so I am 100% happy that you can make something and push it out there, and your fanbase will tell you if they like it or not
A friend of mine was playing with you the other day, and he was admiring how much new stuff you’d played, but he told me that there were some heads that had come that were expecting a set of pure 90s tracks who were disappointed – what’s your feeling on this?
Well, you know what it is- I play everything. And the reason that is, is I have everyone who comes to the show. If everyone who comes to the show is 40 years old then I pretty much know that you don’t want me to play Drake. I don’t know anyone who likes one type of music, so I like to play a little bit of everything, I’m never gonna play 100% 80s/90s, or 100% all new, I’m always gonna give you a little bit of everything, because that way you satisfy everybody. I don’t think anybody who comes to the show ever leaves really disappointed – you might be disappointed I didn’t play as much old stuff as you wanted, but I guarantee I played something you liked
Have you got any insight into why so many fans of old school hip hop are so dead set against the new school?
Well there’s a couple of reasons. I came up in the 80s and the 90s – there was a lot of shit in the 90s that I hated! Not all of the hip hop in the 90s was good, but what I will say is that I may not be into all the new stuff, but there’s a lot of stuff that I like. I know there’s music that I like and music I don’t, and I tell everybody, there’s shit I didn’t like in the 90s.
Are there any records you thought were shit that you’ve later realised were alright?
Well that’s funny –Coco [by OT Genesis] – when that came out I thought it was the dumbest record in the world. I hated it, until I heard it in a club with 3000 people. Someone played it and I was like WOW. I didn’t like the record, I liked the energy the record bought. There are records that you don’t feel, but you’re in the right setting and someone plays it, you’re like , yeeeeahh, this is kinda banging! But I give myself the freedom to say that. There’s a lot of people who look at new music and they just hate it because it’s new. I’m not going to shut my ears off to a time period or a genre without listening to it, I gotta do my due diligence.
And what do you feel about people bemoaning the state of lyricism today? Because there were a lot of equally bad lyrics going round in the 90s…
That’s true, but I tell you, we didn’t have anyone mumbling in the 90s! That’s my biggest issue. It can be the most basic lyric in the world – there are times when I’m like, this guy ain’t saying shit! But that’s a little different to the mumbling, like I don’t even know what words you just said!
Who are you thinking of here specifically?
Well I don’t have specifics, but let me tell you another thing I don’t like – Idon’t like that I can listen to the radio now and it can be one of 20 different people. You never had that in the 90s, you know exactly who you were listening to, everyone had their own sound, their own style. When a Das EFX record came on you did not say it was Ice Cube. But now I don’t know if it’s Young Thug, Young Joc, Young Jeezy…
No, now come on – I gotta pull you up on that, Young Thug and Young Jeezy sound totally different. I’ll give you Desiigner and Future sound the same though
Yeah, OK, so I don’t like if I can’t pick out who you are. I think it’s more prevalent in modern RnB than it is in hip hop – if Trey Songs uses the same producer and same beat and same tempo as Chris Brown, their voices aren’t distinctive enough for me to automatically say that’s someone else. That’s my only criticism – I like a lot of these records, but I kinda want these artists to stand on their own, you start to feel that the record is more important than the artist
So which modern MCs do you listen to?
Ahh man, I love Kendrick. Kendrick is a cut above everybody else. Kendrick to me could have been around in the 90s and held his own. I love J. Cole. It’s because they add a level of lyricism but they also add a level of substance. I think Anderson.Paak is one of the most talented artists in the world right now, because he does everything, he plays everything, he raps, he sings, his live show is incredible, his subject matter is great.
What about Kanye?
I like the old Kanye. Listen, I get it, but I like the old Kanye’s beats, and his raps. What I will say is that Kanye on Schoolboy Q’s album is the old Kanye. The first time I heard that song, my eyes lit up, I knew that people were gonna love that song, and it’s the biggest track out there right now.
So you still have that love of finding new beats
Oh absolutely. I don’t think I’ll ever have a time when I don’t get that feeling from music. Sometimes I might have to search a bit harder, but I don’t think I’ll ever not feel that.
Going back to the internet, one of the things that I never get tired of is the way it lets me crate dig beyond anything I could ever afford – is this something that still gets you excited?
Ahh, I remember the first time I discovered the internet for digging. I’d never thought of it like that, matter of fact, Don Cannon was the one who exposed me – he gave me maybe about 20 sites that he was like, I do my internet digging here, it was Don Cannon and No ID. And I remember spending hours down the rabbit hole. You’d go to one site and click a link and then you’d go to another site and click a link and then it’s ‘Exotic Moods from France’ from the 70s and you click that and it’s all of these 70s obscure tracks that some guy did… and it was amazing! I remember turning Kenny Dope on – he was like, no, no – I dig. Then he hit me back four days later and said “I haven’t got dressed for four days” he’d been on the internet! He said “I found files of $3000 records on there!” But you know what, you have to open your mind up to things changing like that. It’s a new day, including for the guys who dig for records. I remember I had a producer friend of mine who was a really big record collector, but he was just so far out of the loop. And he came down to the studio and he was like ‘I got this beat that I wanna make’ and he was so secretive, saying ’I can’t really tell you who it’s by’ and I’m looking at him, like, whaddaya mean you can’t really tell me? And he goes in the studio and he flips this record and I walked in and said, yeah, uh Pete Rock used that on a remix already. And he just looked at me. This guy was still covering up records, and shadowing out the names so no one could know the beat – I went right in my iTunes and hit play, and played the record. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It’s different now. There’s no off limits now. It comes down to if you know it, you can find it. You may not be able to find a physical copy, but if you want to hear it, you can find it.
Do you think this changes the shape of hip hop, because the pool that people sample is so much wider?
What I really want is for more and more people to show me the artform. I want to give the tools to everybody – that’s what I love so much about a program like Ableton, it’s allowed me to use records in ways that I only dreamed of. Now I can, and now everybody else can. So now I’m sitting back saying holy shit, listen to the stuff such and such did, because we all have the same tools. I wanna see how other people are gonna flip things. I was never afraid of somebody else having the same records as me, or playing the same records, cos I’m gonna play them differently
Talking of DJing, do you get into the digital capabilities?
Oh man, I love the fact that I can take a record, get to a certain part and then loop it three times to get into another part. It brings in the production side. It’s always gonna be me, two turntables and a mixer, but the fact that I can live remix tracks, and play things from the original sample going into the sample, making everyone go ‘OOOOOHHHH’ - that’s a game changer. That’s a very big part of my set, playing something and then morphing it into something else – I love playing Aretha Franklin and then morphing it into Mos Def, cos people don’t know – you do it live, basically how people sampled it and every one goes crazy. It’s a curveball, I’ve done sets like that and people have said to me, ‘I didn’t know that was a sample’
Do you still buy records as well?
Oh absolutely. Hehe, that’ll never stop. I’ve done my share of it though, so I’m happy to digital dig right now
Jeff talks at the Ableton Loop event in Funkhaus, Berlin on November 2nd-4th. More details here