O.K. so you all know Jazzy Jeff. Sure, it’s the same one. Longstanding partner to Will Smith, producer and co-writer of their multi million selling albums.
‘Boom, Shake The Room’, ‘Summertime’ countless other chart topping releases, movie and TV soundtracks, they all come from the same high profile Jazzy Jeff. But no matter how well you think you know him, there’s a lot more to Jazzy Jeff than you may assume. Obviously he’s a DJ, and one of the world’s finest turntablists at that. He graced Southport Weekender before we did this interview, playing a hip hop soul set in The Funkbase. At the point Marc Rowlands spoke to him, in 2003, Jeff was about to return to the event to play in the Beat Bar, offering us a much truer representation of Jazzy Jeff and the sounds that made up his A Touch Of Jazz project.
A studio in his native Philadelphia, a training ground for up and coming production talents like Vikter Duplaix, James Poyser, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis not to mention artists like Jill Scott, Floetry and Kenny Latimore, a publishing arm and a record label, A Touch Of Jazz is the umbrella under which Jazzy Jeff’s most honest and ardent efforts have emerged. Carrying on the great Philadelphia tradition initiated by Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, A Touch Of Jazz is the epicentre of both the city’s burgeoning soul scene and the wider ‘neo soul’ movement. Marc managed to grab a few moments of his time prior to his second visit, to ask him a few questions about this exciting renaissance.
What was your inspiration in setting A Touch Of Jazz up?
I think the main inspiration was being an artist, and one that wanted to try new and different things. When you sign to a record label, sometimes they just want you to be, what they want you to be. They’re not really interested in creative freedom. Being a hip hop artist who loved r n’ b soul, jazz, gospel and being a DJ that played all kinds of music, I wanted to make different kinds of music. The only way I felt I was going to be able to express myself musically in all the ways I wanted to, was to form a production company and almost hide behind it. It’s funny because I now tell people, what Touch Of Jazz has become, wasn’t initially the main goal. This was going to be my wall. Especially now, a Touch Of Jazz has become more of a contact company. This past year I’ve been travelling the world. I wanted to be an ambassador for good music. I took the idea from Masters At Work, looking at how in the dance genre these guys go in the studio, then go around the world playing the records they’ve made. I thought “this is great, but why can you only do this with dance music? Why not with hip hop and r n’ b soul?”. We’ve been out this year doing live dates at The Jazz Cafe in London, I’ve just come back from a tour of Australia, we’ve just started doing our own parties over here. We’ve gone from being a company that writes and produces songs for people to making our own records and touching people with them personally, creating our own market as a contact company.
A lot of A Touch Of Jazz productions rely on live musicianship. Is there a core, in-house band?
Not as such. We have a group called The Philharmonics which is a lot of musicians that come through A Touch Of Jazz, but we haven’t narrowed it down so much. The beauty of that is that, I have about 10 different bass players that I can call in, depending on the feel of the record. It’s funny, with the live instrumentation , it’s almost like a double cycle. We (the hip hop fraternity) started sampling live music because it captured that magic. Now, it’s almost like we use live music, because we sample. We’re trying to recreate the magic that we sampled in the first place.
It’s been said that A Touch Of Jazz acts almost like a schooling process for some of those involved at the studio. Do you really have the time to involve yourself in education? Do you really take on people who maybe don’t have all the knowledge they require and offer them that opportunity to learn?
I do, and that’s one of my biggest weaknesses. If I see someone who has talent and drive and they really want to learn, I’m all for bringing them in the studio and telling them about my experiences, showing them how to use the equipment and trying to tap into their creativity, teaching them to make music from the heart instead of shooting for a specific target. I really love to do that. It strains your time a lot and it does keep me from doing those things myself, so I try and split it up as much as I can.
Is it your wish that these up and coming talents should stay within the Touch Of Jazz ranks or are you happy for people to serve an apprenticeship there and then go off and do their own thing?
I think I look at my life and think, if I’m the teacher and they’re the student, there’s no way in the world that I think that one day they wouldn’t want to become the teacher themselves. I’ve had about 5 groups of guys at A Touch Of Jazz, people like Vikter Duplaix and James Poyser, that have gone on to achieve tremendous success and that makes me feel really, really good. It’s not a case like I want them to stay here forever, that’s why I often look at A Touch Of Jazz as though it’s a school, until you graduate and go make your own school or business. It’s great, because I think that if I look back in 20 years at all the great people that A Touch Of Jazz has touched, it’ll make me feel a lot better about what I’ve done.
There’s a lot more diverse music coming from A Touch Of Jazz, such as house or jazz, than people might expect to come from you. Do you think people are surprised at that?
I think so, because it’s really hard for people to accept anything from an artist other than what they’re used to getting. It’s hard. It took so long for me to almost de-program everyone from my association with Will and get them acquainted to my affiliation with Jill. I wanted to let people know that both of these associations were both a part of me, I just needed people to give me a bit of space, to understand that I can do more than just one thing. It’s almost like, just because you know how to cook good Italian food, doesn’t mean you don’t know how to cook good soul food. Let me just cook everything I know how to cook and just taste it!
Similarly, on your recent DJ sojourns, including your appearance here at Southport Weekender, you’re playing an eclectic set covering many different tempos and many different styles of music. Are you used to playing such broad sets?
You know, I actually started off playing those kinds of sets. People have been suprised to find me playing house, but I was playing house before it was even called house. I was playing house when it was all just music. It’s only in the past ten years that we’ve really been seperating all the music. I’ve been DJing for so long, that when I started we didn’t have all these categories. I’d play a Confunkshun record, then maybe ‘Rapper’s Delight’ then a four to the floor Philly International record that’s actually a house record before people had invented the term, and I’d play these all in one night. I’ve gone and done gigs in between where I’ve just stuck to one style of records, but now it’s come full circle. I don’t just like one style of music, I like Latin and Brazillian music, funk, disco, hip hop, house, so now I just play music I like, whatever the style.
You still have plenty of opportunity to get the turntablism in there when you’re playing freeestyle?
Absolutely. That’ll never go anywhere. I try to do a little bit of everything. I consider myself a very well rounded DJ. I have the fundamentals of a DJ. I know how to blend, how to mix, I have great play selection, the turntablist skills, the needle dropping, all the cuts, scratches and juggling and if you do everything in the right place, then you’ll make everyone have a good time. If I have a two hour set, I want to please everybody in there for at least half an hour. If I can do that, I’ve done my job.
You’ve worked a lot with vocalist V who appeared on the joint Masters At Work/Touch Of Jazz single ‘In Time’. I heard that his debut album was finished quite some time ago, yet it’s never emerged. What’s going on with him?
We did an album for Elektra a couple of years ago and they weren’t into it. It’s funny, because that album was very much like the Jill Scott one. We were doing that style for so long, just trying to do something a bit different, something a bit more soulful, and soulful doesn’t mean like soul music, it means we were just trying to do something you felt. We still have it in the can, but we just finished the new album and myself, Kenny Dope and Mr V have put together a group who are going to be releasing stuff. The first single is called ‘I Got Rhythm’ and Kenny and I will be letting the crowd at Southport be the very first ones in the U.K. to hear that. It’s really interesting. It’s like a soulful broken beat house record. People have been freaking out to it back home, but that’s just the start of things with V, we have about 3 albums worth of material we are beginning to release from him.
What else have you been working on recently?
We have a young lady named Tanz, who’s a soulful singer, a bit like a young Mary J Blige, who were working with right now, plaus a couple of MCs. We have an incredible poet called Black Ice, who I think is the next Gill Scott Heron, that were working with. We’ve just finished the new Jill Scott album and A Touch Of Jazz has been helping out with the new Boyz II Men album. I’m getting ready to go in the studio and do the next ‘Magnificent’ album, which all the guys down here contribute to and we have an album called ‘Soundtrack To The City’ done that should be out early next year.