Published Dec 04, 2013Jeff Townes is an inventor and a producer, a recording artist and a gear junkie, an actor and an ambassador. But above all, he's a disc jockey, a lover of all forms of music who's still passionate about rocking the house. When the Magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff rolled through Toronto to spin at Red Bull Thre3style and judge the world championships, we stole a few minutes of his time to talk about nightmare gigs, nearly getting knocked out by Mike Tyson, and what a 48-year-old master can learn from the young whippersnappers.
You have a lot of wisdom to impart of the younger generation, but what have you learned from the new crop of DJs coming up?
What I do like about this generation is they're a lot more open-minded musically. This being the iPod generation, I don't know anybody who has one type of music on their iPod. So you'll get the Biggie track, the Kendrick Lamar track, the Third Eye Blind track — you get the full gamut. They're taking me back to how it was [in the early days of hip-hop], when you could go in different directions and people accepted it more.
You've talked about the power of dropping a curveball in your DJ set. Can you give me a specific example of a track no one would predict you playing?
No. If I give it to you, it won't be a curveball anymore. [laughs] Everyone will expect it. It doesn't have to be a song that's obscure; it's something that gets dropped at a time no one would expect it. It has to be planned out. You're thinking, "They're not going to expect this, but they're going to love it." And sometimes the curveballs don't work. It can be playing a popular song at an unpopular time, and it can take people on a new journey.
Do you find new DJs have mastered the curveball?
At this competition, almost every DJ throws a curveball. I like that, being on the spectator side. I have the ability to sit back and listen to what other people's curveballs are, like, "Oh, my God, that was great." It's about timing and how long you play it, everything. You just know when to do it. Your curveball can't be your first record. You need the setup first.
What's one of your best battle stories?
When I was coming up, there was a guy in my neighbourhood I assumed I'd be able to beat — not knowing at that point in time he was more up on technology and the craft than I was. It was a very humbling thing. That was the last time I underestimated anybody. The best DJ in the world can have a bad night because of equipment failure. You learn to appreciate the craft and the equipment and the sounds system — there are so many other nuances that come into play that are not in your control. That perfect night or that perfect set has so much more involved in it than just your routine being flawless. You learn to appreciate that.
When you started making a name for yourself in Philly, did other DJs want to challenge you like up-and-coming MCs do?
Not really. I always approached it as, I am going to show you what I can do, and if I show you well enough, you'll leave me alone. I was never the battle guy. Like, not too many people wanted to challenge Mike Tyson. All you gotta do is knock the right people out. You can say, "I think I can beat Mike Tyson," but you're not going to say that to him.
Speaking of Tyson, how would you describe your relationship with him?
It was great. It's funny. They used to say if Mike liked you, he'd throw punches at you. Whenever he'd see me, he was like [mimics Tyson's high voice, starts throwing jabs at the air], "Oh, what up, Jeff?" But you got the heavyweight champion of the world throwing punches and pulling them this close [holds fist right in front of eyes] to your face. You would just sit there and feel the wind.
Did you slapbox with him?
Nooooo! He'd throw the punches; I'd just sit there. I don't want him to think I was ready to go. I used to make Mike mixtapes all the time, and he'd listen to them in the car. Back then, that was king. I knew to always have mixtapes with me when I saw him 'cause he always wanted mixtapes from me.
Of all the creative music videos you and Will Smith did, which was the most fun?
"Summertime," absolutely. "Summertime" was the one video that didn't feel like a video. Hey, I got an idea: Let's invite all our friends, let's get a barbecue grill and a caterer and we're gonna go to the [Belmont] Plateau in Philadelphia, and we're gonna shoot it. When you see the crowd scenes, that's basically a family and friends reunion that we shot in one day. There were about four or five extras; the rest was all family and friends.
What was your nightmare gig?
I got booked to do a soca party, and I said, "I don't play soca." And the promoter said, "No, we don't want you to play soca. We want you to do your set." And I kept turning him down: "No, I don't want to do it." Finally I agreed to do it because they asked so many times. They said, "Look. We want you to play whatever you want." I'm thinking, "OK, I'll be the departure from soca for an hour and a half, and then they'll go back to it." And right before the party, the guy said to me, "Can you drop a couple soca records?" I said, "I told you, I don't play soca!" So I walk in and, man, everybody was having such a good time. I play my first record, and I look down and see this girl looking at me with her arms folded, just shaking her head. And she shook her head for a full hour: "No. No. I don't wanna hear nothing you're playing." Some people booed.
So the magnificent Jazzy Jeff bombed?
Pretty much. That was a bombardier.
What gig did you turn down and later regret?
Meshell Ndegeocello asked me to do a record with her, and I was too busy to do it — and this was before she came out. So when her debut record [1993's Platinum Lullabies, nominated for three Grammy Awards] came out, I was like, "Oh, God. This is incredible." And the next time I saw here, I said, "Hey, I'm a big fan." And she said, "Yeah, and I asked you to do this record with me and you turned me down." I was like, "Oh, I didn't want you to remember that." So that was one I regret.