DJ Jazzy Jeff on the 25th Anniversary of "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper"

The Fresh Prince's other half takes time out from his neverending spin cycle and recalls what it was like being at the center of hip-hop's mainstream breakthrough.

By DJ Jazzy Jeff as told to Chris Wilder
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Mar. 26, 2013

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DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith in 1988.

One of things Will and I do is we probably have one of the best stage shows in hip-hop. So, we just wanted him to watch. We smashed it that night and then ended up going to Russell’s room later on. We told him, “Man, we’re just looking for management.” It was funny because Russell said, “Man, you guys don’t understand. I tried to sign you to a record deal.”

“What?”

He kept on: “I was trying to get you through [Will and Jeff’s old label] Word Up, so you know we’re gonna take you guys on as management.”

At that point, we were now officially on Jive Records, we were officially on Rush Management, and we got an album coming out. Russell sat down, listened to the album and said that he wanted to put us on a tour. A few weeks later, we went out on the Run’s House tour. It was us, Whodini, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, EPMD … there was a bunch of us. But before we went out, I remember Russell telling us one thing. He said, “Listening to this album, you’re gonna go gold within a month.” Of course, we were like, “Whatever.” So, we started the tour. And maybe three-and-a-half weeks into it, he was at the show at the Spectrum—and presented us with gold records.

One of the things that we thought was really cool was that while we would do these shows, all of the groups—Run DMC, LL Cool J and all of these groups—they would throw towels on their heads and come out to watch the show. We would really be flattered because we were the underdogs. That’s how we looked at ourselves—as the underdogs. Looking at Will now, at how great of an actor he is, it’s no wonder we were doing all kinds of stuff in our shows. When we would do “Nightmare On My Street,” I had a voice pitcher on my microphone, and I would do the Freddy Krueger voice and [security guard] Charlie Mack would come out with the nightmare hat and the mask and the hands, and he would roll on the stage, and they would change the lights to red. People weren’t doing that kind of stuff—adding that technical aspect and that theatrical aspect as well. Then I would do a DJ solo to rile everybody, and then [human beat box] Ready Rock C would come out and beat box Donkey Kong while Will was playing Donkey Kong and rile everybody. Then you had the record.

Everything in the show had a place that depended on how long we were gonna perform. Are we doing 30 minutes? Are we doing 45 minutes? If it’s 45 minutes, we’d add a couple more songs to the show. We had segues in and out. There was a lot of crowd response. We would work out a rough idea and go on the road, do the first show and then do check-ups: “That worked. That didn’t. That absolutely sucked. That’s great.” We would take the stuff that sucked out, so the people that saw our shows five or six shows into a tour actually got the best shows because it came after we worked out all of the kinks.

It was definitely cool being on the road back then. Sometimes sound checks became events all in themselves. Now I’m in this arena that holds 20,000 people. I’m doing a sound check, and I can do turntable tricks that I won’t do in the show in front of all of the staff and all of the other groups. So, you kinda gain a level of respect, and there’s admiration from people, even from sound checks. I always say that a lot of people don’t make records for their fans; they make them for their peers. A lot of the time, you want your peers to be like, “That shit is hot!” So when you get LL or Run or Jam Master Jay and all of these guys that you became close with to give you those kind of props, that’s validation all in itself.

Meanwhile, some people in the hip-hop community were starting to diss us. We never got dissed on Rock The House. We never got dissed on “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” we never got dissed on “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff.” We never got dissed on “A Touch of Jazz.” We didn’t even get dissed on “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which to me, is the exact same record as “Girls”—just with a different subject matter—until it blew up. I paid very close to attention to that. We were cool as long as we stayed on black radio and stayed amongst our hip-hop peers. Once it started to cross over, once it started to really blow up, that’s when we started getting dissed because at that time, hip-hop wasn’t mainstream. Hip-hop wasn’t [for] the kids in the suburbs. But we never made that record for it to do that.

We do stories. Will paints a visual picture with what he’s saying. Instead of talking about getting caught up with a girl, he talked about how his mom was tripping and what happened was, how mom is tripping was a much more commercially-appealing subject than getting caught up with a girl. And the record started to blow. The crazy thing about it was all of this stuff started happening after we went out on tour. We left home and didn’t know how much radio play we were getting. We didn’t know how much the record was blowing up. It was really mind-blowing, too.

There was a comedian who was the emcee for the shows, and every night he would come out, and, you know, he’d say, “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for EPMD?” And the crowd would cheer. “Are you ready for Run-DMC?” And the crowd would cheer. “Are you ready for Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince?” And the crowd would cheer. Three nights later, I’m looking at Will like, “Yo, am I tripping, or did these motherfuckers cheer a little bit louder?” Three nights later, they cheered more.

Then we did a show, and Will did the first verse of “Parents,” and then he said, “Listen, I need y’all to help me out. I’m gonna say a line”—this was a gamble—“I’m gonna say a line, and I want you to say the next line.” I remember the first night he said he was gonna do it, I was like, “Eh, if they don’t say the next line, it’s not gonna be good.” But, he went out there: “I remember one year, my mom took me school shoppin’…” and 20,000 kids said, “It was me, my brother, my mom, oh, my pop and …” We were like, “Oh, shit!” And that became a part of the show.

But it got bigger and bigger every night. Because what you don’t pay attention to while you’re on the road is radio play and how big this is. I’m not from St. Louis; I don’t know how much they play it. I don’t know if they play it at all. All I know is that I’m on a bus, I go to a hotel, get grub, go to sound check and do the show. The record was growing, and we didn’t know it. The next thing we knew, they were telling us that we were gonna go on after Public Enemy. They were sliding us back in the order, and it was really bad because the song kept growing. And as they slide you back, you don’t want any animosity from anybody else on the tour.

Now, the record was growing, but what’s not growing is the amount of money we were getting paid. Actually, I think we did get a raise in the middle of the tour. Bigger than that was the notoriety: “Dick Clark wants you to do this,” and “Such and such wants you to do that,” and we were still on tour. Back then, the tours lasted for four months. Now you get people that are on tour for three weeks, but these tours lasted for four and a half months. So, we were out on tour, and the record was just growing.

And that’s when we started hearing, “Aw, man, that shit’s for the suburbs.” I think [that] criticism [was] the hardest part for me, especially outside of Philly ... I’m sitting there thinking, “Southwest Philly is so far from the suburbs. You have no idea the shit I’ve seen or have gone through. For you to turn around and say I’m from the suburbs, just from the music?”

I feel like hip-hop—and especially black people—we want something that’s just ours. We don’t want to share it. And I think it’s like that as much today because we are a lot more exposed to stuff, but hip-hop was ours. Hip-hop was the music. Hip-hop was like soul music. It was like ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t understand it. You don’t know where it comes from or the origin or why we were doing it—and it’s ours.’ I felt like people started to think we were trying to take something else from them without realizing that all this is was a recognition that we’re doing something good. And the crazy thing is, it wasn’t just white people falling in love with hip-hop; it was Asians, it was Africans, it was people from Australia. It was the globalization of hip-hop actually happening right then.

Next came the awards season. The American Music Awards came up first, and it was great. We went out to the AMAs and took half of the neighborhood with us. I’ll never forget us sitting there and JL telling everybody that was with us, “If Jeff and Will win the award, nobody goes on the stage. The only people that go on stage is Jeff and Will.” He made it very clear, and everybody agreed. Then, about 15 minutes later, they announced the category and announced the winner—“DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince!”—and 30 people ran up on stage. Like, everybody from the neighborhood went on stage. And we thanked them all. And it was cool.

Then the Grammys came up. We were nominated, and we thought it would be really great to win a Grammy ‘cause I remember sitting in my mom’s living room the year before, looking at the Grammys on TV, not even thinking that a year later, I would be nominated. This was the first year that they had rap as a category. But we found out they weren’t going to televise it.

I didn’t understand. I watch the Grammys, and there are lots of times when they do the 13 country and western awards and the 15 classical awards, and I don’t really care about that. So, we’re thinking they’ve got to be able to move one of those awards to the pre-televised portion for one of the rap ones.

At that point, we had probably sold about two and a half million copies. Looking at it from a sales point of view, you got Run-DMC nominated and all these other rappers; there’s a lot of records that got sold. More than the jazz section, and they got 10 categories. I’m not trying to diss anybody, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re prioritizing sales, notoriety or even the crowd response, hip-hop is a lot greater than that.

So, we pleaded and pleaded, and we stated our case on The Arsenio Hall Show, so that hopefully they would televise it. They still declined.

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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. rekall said... on Mar 27, 2013 at 03:53PM

“i always wondered about the backstory to 'live in union square' - glad to get it direct from the source!”

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2. Damion said... on Mar 29, 2013 at 10:59AM

“Awesome Article! I grew up in the 'Golden Era' of hip hop and I remember being tuned into the radio on friday nights (they only played rap on friday nights between 8pm-12 midnight in Atlanta back then) to record Jazzy Jeff and then I would try to emulate his scratching on my techniques 1200's. I think Will and Jeff did a great job at the time of helping to globalize hip hop that they don't get enough credit for. Great Job, you have a true music hip hop fan for life!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 30, 2013 at 02:08AM

“lol @ techniques”

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4. Buy Soundcloud Plays said... on Apr 21, 2013 at 10:25AM

“Congrats Dj Jeff for the 25th Anniversary of "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper". Well its good to see that that you have completed successfully 25 years & still keep going. Well I think that it is the interesting & motivating story for all of us.
We will definitely learn a lot of things from this bog & thanks for sharing your deep insight with us.

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