What We Talk About When We Talk About DJ Jazzy Jeff

Artwork by Mike Hague.

Artwork by Mike Hague.

Any discussion about Jazzy Jeff’s place in the All-Time Philly Hip-Hop Power Rankings has to be prefaced by the fact that we are grading on the curve. This is the case with most mid-’80s/early-’90s hip-hop artists and acts. Around 1993, the game got really dope and left loads of archaic acts reeling (see: Schoolly D). It’s why we can’t compare Will Smith to Beanie Sigel: Sigel’s flow is decidedly introspective, modern, and cutting, whereas Smith’s is corporately creeping, even in the ‘Rapping Granny’ era (see: 1987 genre abortion “Parents Just Don’t Understand”).

Naturally, it’s an unfair discussion, and adjusting talent for inflation is a vexing hypothetical responsibility. But I volunteer to shoulder it on my mighty haunches and deign to rend a grand decision: Jazzy Jeff deserves a place on the Philly hip-hop Mt. Rushmore, alongside Sigel, Eve, and all fifty The Roots in a horrible, Hydra-esque affront to God.

Jeff is forever shackled to Will Smith, which is as miraculous as it is painful. Jeff was largely a nobody until running into Smith in 1985. Within two years, the duo put out Rock the House, an album that, while cornier than Iowa, was deliciously balanced and showcased the DJ’s turntable skills. Check out “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff,” wherein The Fresh Prince momentarily turns into Jeff’s hypeman, utilizing his hyper-annoying cadence to wreck the parts of the song in which the DJ isn’t flexing. Jeff used Rock the House to show off skills that he was pioneering, like turntable chirping and the transform scratch—methods that would literally become hip-hop cornerstones over the next decade, not unlike “rhyming” or “metaphor.”

Cursory analysis suggests that early Will Smith tracks would be unlistenable without the presence of Jazzy Jeff. Try listening to the guy, like actually hearing his words. He is the single most noisome, unctuous rapper of his time, but he’s backed by a man who is arguably the greatest DJ of the second half of the ’80s. But, in fairness, who is Jazzy Jeff without Will Smith? Without the inescapable personality of the Fresh Prince and his humor, Jeff is one in a thousand, another maestro capable of bringing the heat and winning DJ competitions, but only that. The Jazzy-Prince relationship began as a symbiotic relationship, and turned into a parasitic one: Jeff backed Will for years, reaching milestones like winning the first-ever hip-hop Grammy, but Will left, flushed with dough, when he tired of hip-hop and decided to be the action star.

It’s not a tragic event. It’s not even resonant, really. Unlike certain Philly hip-hop all-timers, Jeff hasn’t disappeared: He’s the Saint Peter of modern turntablists, the missing link between Africa Bambaataa and the modern age when it comes to crafting back tracks. Hell, the guy’s still busy, and probably richer than God. By that metric, he almost doesn’t need to be graded on the curve; he’s adapted well in the face of what has caused so many other acts to disappear. The adjustment, though, comes not because Jazzy Jeff is less talented than modern DJ’s. It comes because his art is fading.

DJs, as such, don’t really exist anymore, much like the slow, squeaky, annoying flow of old-school rappers has faded out. The time of kids assembling battle stations and struggling to create new, mind-boggling sounds out of old Pips albums in analog fashion is dead, replaced by the modern electronica mode of skinny white kids in tank tops bouncing around in front of pre-made tracks chirping from $2,000 laptops as if they were Roger fucking Daltrey in 1968—and, I guess, mixing stuff occasionally. But when those kids go home and fire up Ableton and fade and cut their silly songs, they’re doing so on the back of Jazzy Jeff and his MC brethren.

Fresh Prince Fun Fact Because Your Mind Struggled Getting Through This Piece Without One And So Was Mine: Jazzy Jeff wears the same outfit in many episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, because he was only once filmed getting thrown out of the Banks house by Uncle Phil.