West Philadelphia, born and raised.
Jeffrey Townes, better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, is in the most peppy of moods. He may be known by many as the guy in DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince who's not Will Smith, but he's not complaining. In fact, on his latest album The Return of the Magnificent, he jokes about it.
A few songs on Return are connected by skits which see Jeff on a cross-country drive to visit his son, and getting harassed along the way by folks who ask him where his former partner-in-rhyme is.
"I think what I wanted to do was kinda poke fun from both sides," admits the 42-year-old Townes. "I'm tired of everyone asking me, 'Where's Will?' And yet, and still, if I'm stopped by the cops and that would get me out of a ticket, I'm gonna use it."
Jeff's old pal makes a cameo on Return, in a phone-call exchange where Jeff asks Smith if he's ever had people ask him for Jeff's whereabouts. (The answer is no, but he does say people ask him, "Yo, yo, where's Carlton?")
"I called him and laid out the scenario," Jeff says. "And that was a one-take thing. It was funny because I had to edit out the engineer's laughter, because it caught him off-guard. He couldn't believe that, without rehearsing, we jumped into it that easy."
This Prince Paul approach to recording the album was something Jeff also conceived in talks with Smith. "We talked about how people don't make records that make you laugh anymore," he says, "making a skit that can make you laugh as opposed to just making these records to say that, you know, I'm the richest MC in the world and I have a million girls."
From the CD's cover, which is a clever recreation of funk/jazz keyboardist Eumir Deodato's 1973 Deodato 2 cover, to the skits to the rundown of guest artists, Jeff's mission with Return was to make it just as fun and entertaining as 2002's The Magnificent. And it is. Just like that album, the guest lineup runs the gamut, including old pros (CL Smooth, Big Daddy Kane), indie mavericks (Jean Grae, J-Live) and fresh faces (Twone Gabz, Kel Spencer).
Says Jeff, "I started writing a list of everybody I wanted to work with. I said, 'You know what, Jeff? Pick up the phone and call. The only thing anyone can tell you is no.' And no one told me no, which was very refreshing."
For a while Jeff wasn't even thinking about making a follow-up to Magnificent, but an overwhelming response from fans led him to consider a sequel.
"After The Magnificent I kinda got out on the road and just never came home," he remembers. "And I started getting people asking me, 'So when are you gonna work on the next record?' I don't think I was paying attention that there was a demand or people even really wanted another record."
It's not as though Jeff needed to prove anything by dropping another album. People in the know are aware of his clout in the black-music game. His locally based Touch of Jazz studio, approaching two decades in existence, has housed the recording sessions of many a performer. (On Return, he even uses a sample from Floetry's "Say Yes," which was recorded in his studios.)
But it's also been the breeding ground for some of black music's most in-demand producers (James Poyser, Dre & Vidal, Ivan "Orthodox" Barias and Carvin "Ransum" Haggins). Ever the humble mover and shaker, Jeff says this wasn't all part of a grand plan--it just worked out.
"I didn't look at A Touch of Jazz like I was doing this monumental thing, or like I'm grooming these guys," he says. "I look back now and it's like, wow, that was kinda crazy how everything just kinda panned out."
At the moment Jeff is psyched not just with promoting his album, but with the state of music in general. He's one of those rare artists who actually has an optimistic outlook on where music is headed. (Yeah, we're surprised about that too.)
"I'm more excited about music today than I've ever been," he exclaims. "When Will and I were putting out records, we didn't have MySpace. We didn't have the Internet. I look back and say, 'Oh my God! Do you see all the angles and directions and outlets we have for the world to discover your music?' If you live outside the industry, this may be one of the most exciting times for music, and I'm looking to explore that."
PW's Music Issue 2014