Jazzy Jeff – or to give him his proper, post-legal battle with Jazzy Jeff of Funky Four Plus One fame title, DJ Jazzy Jeff – is difficult to know how to approach. He’s the man who used to have such a reputation on the Philadelphia hip hop scene that, by all accounts, Will Smith used to get bottled off stage because the headnodders wanted to trainspot Jeff creating the transformer scratch. He’s the man who made my 21st birthday such a good night for dancing I forgot to get blind drunk and earn a spot on Britain’s Most Pissed and Incapable. He’s also the man who most people only really know as the comic foil that routinely enraged Uncle Phil and caused Jeffrey’s eyes to roll skywards.
In short, a phenomenally talented DJ and turntablist who became a household name for reasons entirely unconnected to his most apparent skills. Speaking to Jeff, it becomes immediately apparent that he subscribes to the classic KRS-1 maxim, ‘Rap is something you do/Hip hop is something you live.’ He’s deeply frustrated with the current US rap scene. As far as he’s concerned the rap industry is now just that – a business like any other, that identifies its target audience, markets viciously, sorts out the post-product merchandising opportunities, does the beancounting on tour revenues, and wonders as an afterthought whether they’ve got an ex-drug dealer with a vague vocal co-ordination to hang it all on.
Jeff’s mission with new album The Return of the Magnificent has been to ‘take it back to momma’s basement’. If you listen to any of the tunes, it’s clear that they’re full of the old-school scratching style and jazz breaks that hip hop was built on. It’s no coincidence that Jeff is quick to namecheck Gangstarr’s master producer DJ Premier when talking about other DJs that have become fed up with the US’s demand for gangsterism and decamped to Europe to find an appreciative market.
But he hasn’t come to England just to peddle US hip hop to Brits though. Jeff’s quick to bemoan the fact that people like Dizzee Rascal and Ty who’ve got ‘crazy energy’ aren’t making it over in the US, but says that they always go down well when he plays them stateside.
Looking over my back-of-an-envelope notes and questions it becomes quickly apparent that most of the questions I asked Jeff during our brief chat were ones that were always going to elicit negative responses about the state of US hip-hop. But you can’t help thinking that if they were more people like Jeff out there, trying to make people move to a dancefloor rather than figuring out just how many words they can rhyme with gun, then he would have had much more to be positive about.
The Return of the Magnificent is out now.