DJ Jazzy Jeff: “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper” Was Initially Just About the DJ
As far as rap duos go, few have been as successful and influential as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Hailing from West Philadelphia, DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jeffrey Allen Townes) and The Fresh Prince (Will Smith) would help put Philly on the map with their debut album, Rock the House, in 1987. The release included the hit single "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble," as well as the standout cuts "A Touch of Jazz" and "The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff". Originally released via the Philadelphia-based Word Up Records in 1986, the buzz surrounding Rock the House caught the attention of Jive Records, who signed the pair to a contract, and re-released the album in 1987. The debut eventually would be certified gold, evidence of DJ Jazzy Jeff's & The Fresh Prince's rising popularity and newfound star power.
The following year would be a landmark one for hip-hop, with a number of its most important acts releasing albums that would help define the genre's first golden era, making 1988 one of the most pivotal and eventful years in rap history. Among the albums that made a big impact that year was He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, the follow-up to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's debut and an album that would break new ground for hip-hop, both creatively and commercially. Released March 29, 1988, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper would be the first double album in hip-hop history, powered by the singles "Brand New Funk", "Nightmare on My Street" and "Parents Just Don't Understand," the latter of which would net the group the first ever Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance.
Certified triple-platinum after selling more than three million copies in the U.S., He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper turned DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince into international stars. It remains their best-selling album as a group to date.
It's been thirty years since the duo's seminal release. The Boombox spoke to DJ Jazzy Jeff to get insight into the story behind the album, his favorite memories of recording it and how he feels it stacks up three decades later.
Did the success of your first album, Rock the House, create pressure for you and Will while preparing to make He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper?
Well, you know what, especially back then, it might have been thirty rap groups so it wasn't so much the pressure between them, it was pressure to just make sure that what we were doing was gonna be around, because there were so many people that were looking at you like hip-hop was just a fad and you're not here to stay. So I don't think we had the pressure as much as we felt the responsibility to just make people realize that this is something real. This isn't something make believe, this isn't a fake thing, we're really trying to do it.
What was it like hooking up with Russell Simmons during Def Jam and Rush Management's first peak and how would you describe your relationship?
You know, what's crazy is everybody loved Russell. That was the holy grail—if you could get in front of Russell and show Russell what you could do. And we were doing some dates with Whodini and a couple of other people and Russell came out and it was kind of like Oh, shit, there's Russell. Let's make sure that we put on a good show. And then after we did the show, he came over and was just like, 'Yo, you guys were incredible...I've been trying to get with you guys for about the last 2-3 years.' We had an old manager that was basically blocking the process of us getting with Russell. Once [Russell] said he would love to, we just ended up hooking up and that was it.
You also went on tour with Run DMC, Public Enemy and other popular acts after hooking up with Russ. What did you learn from those other artists and experience that you and Will drew from moving forward?
Whodini basically taught us the rules on the road. When we got out on Run's tour, we were all around the same age, but they had way more experience so for them to kinda be the ones to show us about how to pick up and use flutes for your bus and how to pay your bus driver. It was great because everybody looked out for each other. The crazy thing about those days in hip-hop, you had a group like Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, you had a group like JJ Fad, you had EPMD, Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C.. If that's not five of the most different groups, but everybody had a fan base, everybody would come out and support each other in performing. That was incredible.
I read that most of He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper was recorded in the U.K. Was that a conscious decision or was that due to your touring schedule?
Jive Records headquarters was in London. They were based in London and Battery Studios in London was their studio, before they made Battery Studios in New York. Whodini went over there to record; D-Nice went over there to record; KRS [-One] went over there to record. Everybody that was on Jive basically was sent to London to record. So it wasn't really necessarily us, it was more so they knew that this is what we do and we get the best out of the people that kinda come over here and do it.
Do you feel being overseas impacted the music you and Will were recording on that album?
No, not necessarily because, like I said, especially back then, when we went to London, it was really one of those things where we recorded 5 o'clock in the afternoon 'til five o'clock in the morning. So we would record and leave the studio and go back to the hotel in time to get breakfast. We would get breakfast and then go to sleep. So the only day we had off from working in the studio was Sunday; it might've been three or four days that we saw sunlight because we were so locked in.
Back then, it wasn't like let's go out and check out the vibe in the city, it wasn't like that. You sitting there like, man, I don't know how this is gonna change my life,' so you just locked in.
Do you recall who was the one that came up with the title He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper and the story behind it?
We initially started off with Jive asking me to do a DJ album. They were just kinda like, "Hey, we would like to try something different and just do a album just based off of you." This is right after I won the New Music Seminar DJ Battle and the DMC, so it was kinda like they wanted to do something focused on the DJ. I had recorded almost a whole DJ album and then when it was time for us to do the album, somebody made the suggestion, "Yo, why don't we make this the first hip-hop double-album,' and because the DJ portion was entitled He's the DJ, once we put both of the albums together, it was like yo, well let's do an album called He's the DJ, I'm The Rapper.
How would you say the two of you improved on He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper in comparison to Rock The House as far as Will being a rapper and you on the production tip?
[We] got more comfortable, [we] got more confident. It's like oh shit, we can really do this, and everything just starts to change. I got more equipment; I got more savvy at making beats. Will felt like he had something to prove. Hip-hop was so young back then and then having people say I think that this is a fad, you kinda looking at it like someone is questioning the legitimacy of what we're doing so we gotta show and prove so everybody was trying to get better—everybody was trying to step their game up.
Like, you could not be as good as you were on your last album because that means there was no growth. You're digging for new samples, you're looking for new equipment and how can I freak this equipment and how can I make my sound bigger and how can I get my flows tighter. It was so much of that and that is just something that, when I look back, every album, I think I came in the studio with more equipment. As beautiful a time as it was, it was kinda scary to have people question if you were gonna be here next year.
The album opens with the song "Nightmare on My Street," which was inspired by the Nightmare on Elm Street film franchise and was supposed to be accompanied by a music video. Do you recall how the two of you came up with the concept for the video and the making of it?
Well, you know what's crazy? No one's ever seen that video; we got sued for "Nightmare." We put out "Parents Just Don't Understand" and that really blew up and and the next song we were coming out with was "Nightmare," and before "Nightmare" came out, we got sued by New Line Cinema.
Like to this day, I don't know... I had a copy of the video and I had an old girlfriend that taped soap operas over it. Will had a copy of the video and gave it to his dad and his dad lost it, but I don't know anyone who has that video. That video is not online, that video is... like, it may be twenty people in the world that seen that video.
I also read that the song was also considered to appear in the film for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, but ultimately didn't happen. Is this story true or not and if so, was that a disappointment for you and Will?
Nah, so let me tell you what happened. New Line Cinema got the Fat Boys to do a "Nightmare" song and we actually did a "Nightmare" song. Now we didn't know that New Line Cinema got the Fat Boys, but what happened, both of the songs come out at the same time and now you got all these radio stations around the country doing contests, like what "Nightmare" song do you like the best? And what happened is we started beating the Fat Boys in the contest and New Line Cinema was backing the Fat Boys. And before we got into the lawsuit, we were trying to tell them Yo, why don't we put the music in the movie or why don't we kinda say that this is another instead of you suing us. Like, you're actually gonna hurt it, this is helping your movie. And they had to stand behind their principles and they sued us. But what the lawsuit ended up being is we had to pay some money and they offered Will and I three movie roles that it was up to us to take or not. So we kinda looked at it like if we don't have to take 'em, if they offer 'em, we'll just turn 'em down. and it's crazy because the first movie role was House Party. Because if you think of the premise behind it, it was a DJ and a rapper. Like, House Party was made for me and Will, we turned it down. I still have the original script.
One track that hip-hop heads enjoy is "Live At Union Square," which is basically audio of a performance you and Will Smith performed in 1986. What are your memories of that night?
Being terrified. Every time we would come into New York, man, it was just like ah shit, they're about to wild out. And what I remember from Union Square and Latin Quarters, they loved DJs. It was like they would fight the whole night and you would do a DJ routine and everyone would just stop. And that was probably the second or third time we did Union Square so I had kinda knew what to expect, so we kinda set it up. Like that show starts with me doing a DJ routine and then we brought out Ready Rock C and he did the beatbox and then Will came out and we did the songs, but we had won everybody with the routine.
And what I didn't know at the time, Mr. Magic was recording it, I didn't know he was recording the show. So later on that week, after the show, Mr. Magic played it on New York radio and people started calling in requesting it, so it was almost requested like a song. So he kept playing it and playing it and we ended up calling Mr. Magic asking him for a copy of the tape and that's how we put it on the album.
The biggest hit from He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper was "Parents Just Don't Understand." It also was the first rap song to win a Grammy, but you famously boycotted the awards show. Do you remember your initial reaction to hearing the presentation of that award wouldn't be televised?
You felt slighted. You gotta keep in mind, this is something that everybody was like, man, this shit is not gonna be around, this is a fad. When we finally get to the point of the biggest award show in the world is gonna add us in as a category and then you find out we're not gonna televise it...and it's just kinda like, wait a minute. How is that supposed to make you feel? You're sitting there like you basically slapped us in the face.
And then at that time, hip-hop might be the number one or number two money generating music in the world and it's not important enough to show it on TV, you wanna put it on the daytime program? And we all sat down. That wasn't just me and Will, that was Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, everybody sat down and realized that it wasn't right and was like you know what, we need to take a stand, we need to say we're not gonna show up, because they wanted us to present an award. So its kind of like now you wanna parade us like show ponies and have us present something and we were like no, it's too important. So we decided we're not gonna go, we're just all gonna hang out together.
Looking back, what would you say is your favorite song from He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper that means the most to you and why?
"Live At Union Square" was definitely something that stood out just because of the meaning behind it and how it happened. That was a cassette pressing on the album—there were no master tapes or clear recordings—he recorded that on a cassette. We took it off cassette and put it on an album and I think that gave people an insight into what a hip-hop show was like.
You gotta keep in mind, back then, it was New York, it was Philly. It was a little bit Baltimore, it was some west coast, but hip-hop hadn't gotten to Richmond, Virginia like that yet. They didn't have hip-hop DJs and people weren't rapping in Richmond. The hip-hop culture had to be born and it had to kinda seep through...so to put a show like that on an album that sold over three million copies kinda opened the door for people to understand this is what I'm expecting. This is a hip-hop DJ, this is what he does.
Where would you say He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper ranks in you and Will's discography?
Nothing is ever gonna be like the first, but I think He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper was the purest album we've ever done, because there wasn't any record company politics, there wasn't an expectation, no one was like, 'Oh my god, you guys are gonna blow up.' We felt like we went in the studio and was just as creative as we could be and put it together and put it out and everything changed after that.
We didn't want "Parents Just Don't Understand" to come out as the first single, but [the label] did, because they were like, 'We believe this is a very big record,' which proved that they were right. But what happened after that is every record that they wanted us to do, they wanted to sound like "Parents Just Don't Understand." We just set out to make something that we thought people were gonna like and now you're just trying to pigeonhole us. So I think He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper is the purest form of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince that there ever was.
How does it feel to look back 30 years later and have this album be considered a classic and be celebrated in the way that it has?
To be thirty years and look back and realize that people are saying something you did is a classic, it's nothing but a blessing. You don't take anything for granted, nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed, so you're almost speechless when you think about that. You're looking and it's just, wow, all the accomplishments you made.
And then you think about it, we were making music in a hotel room in London, just me and Will. We were just piecing it together and realized that in doing that, you made something that will probably be around for the rest of your life.