We have come a long way from both hip hop’s conception and studio recording — obviously, one is much further in the rear view than the other. As one of the culture’s leading voices to this day, living legend DJ Jazzy Jeff has become a beacon for music’s bright future as a whole, from his long-standing connection to New Zealand software giant Serato to his continued push for the globalization of deejaying. The Philadelphia icon has recently begun sharing the Serato Stems platform, a futuristic technology that uses an algorithm to separate a song into its parts. Although Jazzy has been using the tech since it first arrived, the public is just recently beginning to understand and become aware of it.
REVOLT was fortunate enough to catch up with DJ Jazzy Jeff to speak about Serato and his latest strides with its product line. He also opened up about hip hop’s 50th anniversary this year, DJ culture evolving during the pandemic, and much more. Simply put, he remains one of the most magnificent in the game. Read our exclusive conversation below!
First off, it’s definitely an honor to be sitting in front of you right now. So thank you for allowing me to take a few minutes of your day.
When did you first transition into using Serato?
I’ve been using Serato since Serato came out. I joked that the first year of me using it felt like “The Jazzy Jeff Is Doing Witchcraft Tour.” Because I felt like more people came out, especially DJs came out, because it was like, “I need to see what this is. I know this don’t work.” To the point that I had to really alter my sets, that most of the beginning of those sets started off with a DJ routine to show people what you can do. Wow. Because everybody was like, you know… You get the high fives, like, “Oh s**t, that’s crazy. He can do it.” Then everybody kind of settled in. But yeah, it was a little crazy being one of the first people because, you know, I got all of the criticism like, “Ah man, how dare you? You’re supposed to be a purist. What about your record collection?” So that was wild, but I’ve been with them from day one.
Can you explain the idea behind how the Serato tech works?
Well, before the digital era we did everything — the tape and everything had its individual tracks. If you look behind me, that’s a 24-track tape machine that we recorded most of the Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince stuff on. But everything had its own channel. So the only way that you could get a song separated is if you had that tape. That’s what the Stem thing was before. Then it turned into when people started backing their stuff up digitally, they would back those tapes up to a Pro Tools file that gives you the same stems, but it’s on a hard drive now.
It is almost unreal to me. This is the flying car with the Jetsons — you’re telling me that I can play a record and take the bass out, I can take the drums out, I can solo just the vocals, I can make any record an instrumental. That was unheard of.
During an interview, Florida artist Luh Tyler showed an app where he recorded songs completely on his phone. And I know that Serato has its mobile feature for the iPad…
Well, if I’m not mistaken, I think Steve Lacy recorded his whole album on his phone. You know what I look at? How they did it isn’t the most important thing. People love Steve Lacy’s record. So I’m like, hey man, the more tools that we can let the creatives be creative and get music out there… I’ve always said I have never heard a 16-year-old girl say, “I don’t like the mix.” She’d say, “I don’t like the song.” So I just feel like sometimes creators put the wrong emphasis on the wrong things. At the end of the day, no one cared that Steve Lacy did it on his phone. They cared if the music was good.
Tell us about DJ culture evolving during the pandemic — thanks to legends like yourself.
It’s been a change. I sat down and talked to a bunch of really, really big DJs and the general consensus is people fell back in love with DJing again because, I think the interesting thing is, especially the DJs that were streaming, you don’t have a dance floor in front of you. You don’t have someone asking for requests, and this kind of went back to putting the power in your hands. If you had a chance to play whatever music you wanted to play and do whatever kind of DJ set you wanted to do, what would you do? I’m not asking what the club wants. I’m not asking what the patrons of the club wants. I’m asking you if you had a chance to curate your own set, and I think that brought a lot of the love back, but it also was an eye-opener for me because I realized that a lot of grown-ups have zero desire to go to a club, and I don’t think we realized that until the pandemic.
It doesn’t mean that grown-ups don’t want to go out, but I’m like, I think I would really, really enjoy it if all of these concerts came in my living room. It don’t mean that I’m not going to go see Beyoncé live, but if Beyoncé was in my living room, and I had my pajamas on and eating some chicken, I would enjoy that.
Everyone saw you do your thing at the Grammy Awards for hip hop’s 50th anniversary. Questlove spoke about how much work it was to put that together. On your part, were there any big changes during planning?
Oh man, there were so many changes, from having the conversations with him a week to two weeks out — I might have got 35 different sketches of what this was going to be because my job was really to add the elements that the band wouldn’t add. So every time they changed, I had to add more elements. DMC needs me to cut this and I only need to do this. And then you watching this change and this change, and without talking to him, you kind of knew who was in and who was out based off of the latest edit that you got. And then when we got on the ground, it was pretty much like 10-to-12-hour rehearsals every day.
Oh, my goodness. Wouldn’t complain because that was the best family reunion that I’ve ever been to. I don’t think we’ve all ever been in the same room together at one time ever. Like, to sit and watch Run-DMC, LL Cool J, [Chuck D], Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Salt-N-Pepa, De La Soul, Scarface… to watch everybody in the room just talking was mind blowing. That is the one thing that I’ll never forget is the behind the scenes. The performance was incredible, but it felt like a wedding. You prepare your entire life for a wedding, and that s**t is over in 15 minutes, and you kind of have this massive let down after it’s over. But I understood a lot of people had very rocky relationships with the Grammys. What was explained is we did not do this for the Grammys. We did this for hip hop. I appreciate the Grammys for giving the platform to show the world what 50 years of hip hop looks like — but that wasn’t for the Grammys. That was for hip hop.
You and Will Smith’s history with the Grammys is definitely in the books, too. One could only imagine what it would’ve been like to see him hit the stage.
What was funny is in talking to people, people don’t understand. Common was doing a play, Ice Cube was doing a movie, Will was doing a movie, and there were people that were just like, “Ah man, you can just jump on a private plane and come.” And I’m like… So you got this movie that’s a $100,000,000 budget that all of these people are getting paid by the day, and you’re going to hold up the entire shooting schedule for something else? I’m like, I need everybody with a job to go to their boss and say, “Hey, I want you to continue to pay me, but I want to put your entire company on hold while I go do work for somebody else.” So I know it’s hard for people to understand, but you had people who had scheduled conflicts, and then you had some people that could not get over that. I don’t really mess with the Grammys’ hurdle, so I commend [Questlove] on the job. I would not want that job at all. I hope that we can do something bigger, which is supposed to be planned later on in the year, that we can fill the stage up and put on a two-hour performance, and really show 50 years of hip hop.
What do you expect in the next 50 years?
Very hard to answer that because I could not see this 50 years. There was no way in 1982 you could have told me that we were going to be celebrating 50 years. You don’t think about that because when we first all got introduced to hip hop, hip hop was the music of a youth, but all of the youth get older. And I’ve always felt that the first generation of anybody and anything gets screwed because you don’t know how to navigate what you’re doing. Fifty years is going to make it easier for the next generation’s 50 years because we are setting up a blueprint. But all of this is new… I don’t know what’s the next 50 years. The only thing that I will say — and I don’t want to sound like the old guys — is I hope the next generation takes care of the culture like we did. Because if they don’t, the culture’s not going to be here.
I felt like an elder for one of the first times because growing up listening to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and all the rest of these guys telling us how important it was to vote and what they went through, I got to admit that there were times that you kind of blew that off because in my lifetime, I was always able to vote. I didn’t know what the trials and tribulations were [that they went through] that made it easy for me. Now you flip the script, I boycotted the Grammys in order to make everybody who won the Grammys in hip hop be able to win it and be celebrated on television. There are people that are kind of like, “Ah, what’s the big deal?” Because as they grew up… they were always able to go to the Grammys. And I was like, “Oh s**t, I became Jesse Jackson”… because you’re fighting for something. And so, instead of trying to criticize the next generation, I just hope that they understand that they need to protect this culture, so that they can pass it on to the third group of 50 years. ‘Cause if they don’t, it won’t be here.