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DJ Jazzy Jeff

Jazzy Jeff

Article from Phaze 1, November 1988


"my turntables are my instruments and the records that I use are portions of other instruments. As a matter of fact, I've been picking up bass, drums, keyboard, saxophone and violin over the years. But I've never learnt to read music. I just play by ear."

These days the DJ doesn't just play music, he makes music. And the familiar combination of two record decks and a mixer has become an instrument which the DJ plays like a musician plays guitar, keyboards or drums - with a daunting array of techniques to match.

One young master of those techniques is 23-year-old Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeffrey Townes), who can even lay claim to having invented a technique: "Transformer" scratching. Jeff is one half of rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff 8c the Fresh Prince, currently the hottest rap act in the States courtesy of a Billboard Top Five album 'He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper', and the singles chart double-act of 'Parents Just Don't Understand' and 'Nightmare on My Street'. This side of the Atlantic, the pairing is probably best known for last year's hit, 'Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble'.

In the studio, remixing an album track for possible single release, Jeff is a soft-spoken and modest man, quietly confident in his abilities. He started learning how to manipulate the decks when he was 10 years old. Tagging along with the DJs in his home town of Philadelphia, he got to play at parties.

"Finally there was one party where none of the other DJs turned up. I was stuck with 3000 people on the street and me all by myself. That's when I became known as the DJ of my neighbour-hood. And that was about six or seven years ago."

Today, there's only one type of deck to go for if you're serious about mixing records: the ultra-sexy, direct-drive Technics SL1200. Unfortunately these don't come cheap (around £300 each) and you need two of 'em. But when Jeff started, the SL1200 didn't exist.

"The first decks I had were a pair of Technics SL23s. If you go back through the history of Technics decks, I had the entire line. I had the SL23s, then a pair of SB1s, then a pair of SB101s... The early decks were all belt-drive. You could change the speed on them, but you didn't have the freedom you get nowadays. You couldn't really do running mixes - usually you'd just drop records in. So long as the BPMs weren't too different, you could wait 'til one record got to the end and then drop the next one in on the beat to keep the people dancing."

When scratching came along, Jeff taught himself how to do it - not an easy task on belt-drive turntables, but where there's a will, there's a way.

"I used to take the mats off the turntables, and put 45s, wax paper or cutup album covers between the records and the decks. Anything that would work."

And even though today's decks don't come cheap, a mixer need hardly cost anything.

"I use one of the cheapest and smallest mixers around, a Gemini MS2200. It would probably cost around £17 in the UK. There's nothing to it: just a mike input, two turntable inputs and a cue - no master volume, no EQ, no anything. But it's my mixer. It's compact so I can carry it around easily. I can fit my turntables into compact spaces, and I can go from turntable to turntable very quickly 'cause there's not much distance between them."



"I CAN DO EVERYTHING THERE IS TO BE DONE ON TURNTABLES; THE TURNTABLES ARE MASTERED. NOW ITS JUST A PROCESS OF MAKING UP NEW TECHNIQUES."


Practice makes perfect, or so the saying goes, and Jeff is the first to admit that developing his own awesome technique took hard work, determination, and more hard work.

"A lot of the things I do now were impossible for me four years ago. Right now I feel that if I can't do something one way then there's got to be another way - I just haven't found it yet. I can do everything there is to be done on turntables. The turntables are mastered. Now it's just a process of making up new techniques.

"A lot of people ask me to describe what I do, and it's very hard. I never have a set routine, I just do it. It's just my hands moving. I'm not even thinking about what I'm doing; I'm just flowing. I like to go back and forth, stop the records, start 'em, slow 'em down, speed 'em up, kill the power to make the record stop dead, mix one record at 45... and do all this in the matter of a minute. I do so much that I just confuse people."

The lifeblood of the DJ's art is the perfect break and the ideal scratch, and Jeff has no shortage of records on which to find them. Ready for this?

"I have 40,000 records in my basement. I don't throw anything away. They're just all over the place, and some days I'll stumble across something I haven't seen for six months and I'll play it. One day I'm just gonna sit down for maybe a week and try to put them all in order!"

But a massive record collection isn't the only thing lurking in Jeffs basement. Like many of today's DJs, he's acquired a huge personal armoury of hi-tech musical equipment.

"I have a full studio in my basement. I have E-mu SP12 and SP1200 drum machines, Roland TR909, TR808 and TR707 drum machines, an Emax sampler, numerous turntables and mixers, Roland Alpha Juno 1 and Yamaha DX synths, a Korg SDD2000 sampling delay, three Yamaha SPX90 reverbs, various digital delays... just so I can work on stuff at home. I do all the drum-machine and keyboard programming for Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince records."

Yet despite this DJ's vast vault of vinyl and insatiable appetite for new equipment, there's another, subtler point to be made about how creative mixing works.

"You have to be able to mix without equipment. You have to be able to think of mixes, think of things that might work together, while you're sitting down eating your dinner. Examine everybody else's techniques and learn from them. Incorporate those techniques into your own mixes, but use them in your own way."

So that's one last tip from the cool cut creator: use your head, not just your hands.



Previous Article in this issue

FrontLines

Next article in this issue

Kee Marcello


Publisher: Phaze 1 - Phaze 1 Publishing

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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Phaze 1 - Nov 1988

ChitChat

Artist:

Jazzy Jeff


Role:

DJ / Producer

Interview by Simon Trask

Previous article in this issue:

> FrontLines

Next article in this issue:

> Kee Marcello


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