“I never forget that the cover is not for my recordings, but the recordings of the artists. If I like the cover, I can put it in my portfolio or on my website. The artist has to live with it forever. I never forget that.” – George DuBose
DuBose’s passion for photography and love of music led him down a career path that he couldn’t have ever planned for himself. He started starting out taking photos of his friends and other interesting people hanging around the New York club scene, and even had a chance to shoot Madonna’s first concert when she was fronting a band called “The Breakfast Club” at Uncle Sam’s Blues in Long Island.
“I shot one set and went backstage and introduced myself and tried to give her some encouragement. She was trying to be sexy but was kind of nervous about it. I told her that it’s great, but don’t be nervous about your stage performance. Her manager kicked me out of the dressing room and I never heard from her again,” DuBose said.
Madonna is the only artist that DuBose would still love to make a cover for.
“Other than that, I have already worked with my heroes,” George said.
And he has books to prove it — several books because he never crosses genres in writing. Notably, DuBose planned and shot many of the iconic album covers for the new and growing hip-hop scene that was emerging from New York in the 80s and 90s. George DuBose is the Godfather of hip-hop photography.
It often went like this. DuBose would get a call from the label to make an album cover or take a few press shots of an artist. DuBose would meet with the artist to discuss his or her concept, then take it and run.
“Regardless of who has the concept, it needs to be practical for the technical execution of the photo and it needs to work with the amount of money in the budget,” DuBose said. He often worked on low budget shoots with artists that are yet to breakthrough.
In fact, the little guys is who he worked with his whole career, the up and coming doing their first album covers. Oftentimes, that album would blow up and the artist would go and hire another photographer with a big name for ten or twenty times what they had paid George for his next album.
“I don’t think I ever got to work with a superstar,” he said. (Although, he failed to mention that many of these “little guys” ended up becoming legends… for example, Run-D.M.C. or Notorious B.I.G. But, more on that later.)
The Genius is a good example of one of these crafty low-budget shoots that DuBose would set up. The Genius wanted to be standing on a pedestal giving a sermon or a lecture and he wanted to be wearing something like 20 different gold chains. He wanted to wear more gold than all the other rappers were wearing, DuBose said.
DuBose had the idea to build a gold room. He put up poster board with big sheets of gold foil on it and he got some gold buttons from a coat company to glue to the wall so it would look like gold rivets. The result looks like a vault with solid gold walls. He had gold lettering “Words from the Genius” printed on strips of black paper and glued them to large art books that were set on a desk draped with a gold tablecloth. The best part is, he had a bathrobe that his father had brought back from Syria after World War II, which Genius is wearing in the cover. The bathrobe has little black men hunting cheetahs with dogs, spears and bows and arrows.
“The Genius thought it was the bomb,” DuBose said.
“I took his idea and twisted it around to something that I thought was more practical,” DuBose said.
Big Daddy Kane had an idea for his first cover, “Long Live the Kane.” He wanted to be carried in a litter (a chair supported by two long poles) by four black men in the front and four black men in the back. Dancing slave girls would throw flowers from in front and behind this parade. Kane was talking about having 16 people plus himself on the cover.
“Where was I supposed to shoot this Cecil B. DeMille production?” George asked Kane. “Central Park?”
DuBose took the concept and refined it down to Kane on a throne, with three slave girls feeding him apples and grapes. Everything in the scene is white, purple and gold to keep the flavor of the idea and make everyone happy.
Working with punk and rock artists was different. DuBose did his first album cover with the Ramones for “Subterranean Temple” in 1983. He got the group to meet at the subway station at 57th street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. The D train would come from Coney Island to 57th and stop, stand there for 20 minutes, then go back to Coney Island. DuBose knew that if he could get the group to go to that station, they’d have around 15 minutes while the train was standing to do some shots. It all worked out.
“A lot of times, it was really, really easy to work with the Ramones because there’s no real leader,” DuBose said. “They didn’t want anybody standing in front and they didn’t want any different clothing or makeup — just their jeans and leather jackets.”
Photographing the Ramones was really a simple production and it got to the point where DuBose would think of backgrounds for the photos and the guys would come and lineup four in a row. George would shoot the photos, order a pizza, and move the camera over to another background.
“One time, I got like five different photos in less than an hour and a half,” DuBose said. “That’s one of the reasons the group liked me. I didn’t fuss around with the lighting or anything. I just kind of went for it and they could get five publicity pictures to use for the next year in a very short time.”
“Seriously, I guess I was born to make album covers,” George said. “My first album was the B-52’s and I did that for myself, so I had no art director or anyone pressuring me.”
That first album cover wasn’t planned at all. One day, a buddy from Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine called George up and asked him if he would shoot this band that was to play at Max’s Kansas City that night. The B-52’s opened their set with the Peter Gunn Theme, which George said was the first song he ever learned how to play on the guitar, even before he could tune it.
“I thought to myself, boy, if I had enough talent to sing in a rock band I would love to be in this band,” he said. George offered to shoot them for Andy Warhol’s “Interview” magazine, but didn’t get the correct lineup. One of the girls had already gone back to Georgia. DuBose asked the manager to stand in as the second girl. That was fine since nobody knew what the band looked like to begin with. That was the B-52’s first published photo in “Interview” and a Japanese magazine.
“Later, when they returned for more NYC concerts, I was able to get them into my studio again, offering them Piña Coladas and Banana Daiquiris,” George said. He turned one of the best photos from that session into a 16×20” black and white poster. He printed 1000 copies and put the posts up in the street around the venue for their upcoming concert.
“The posters were stolen as fast as I could put them up,” George said. “I didn’t know about wheat paste and was only using masking tape to hang them up.” He began selling the posters for $0.52 each at their gigs.
Two years later, Island Records bought the poster image and it was hand colored for the first album cover.
DuBose originally saw hip-hop as a smaller part of new wave music in the 70s and 80s, which was, at the time, making big waves. So when Prism Records asked DuBose if he would photograph Biz Markie for his debut single “Make Music with Your Mouth, Biz,” he figured the self-proclaimed “human beatbox” was pretty new wave.
Biz showed up wearing a striped jersey and a black baseball cap with gothic lettering. He looked like a football referee. George took the font from the cap to design the packaging for the single. That font has been used over and over by hip hop artists, especially for tattoos.
Needless to say, DuBose found a niche and he never got out.
Mr. Cee, Big Daddy Kane’s DJ, called George one day and asked for a favor. He said he wanted to put a single from this young kid in Brooklyn on a compilation album for a radio station. Mr. Cee needed a picture and this kid had no photos. He asked George if he would come out to Bed-Stuy to take some photos.
“At the time, that was the most dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn,” George said. “And more dangerous than any neighborhood in Manhattan and probably the Bronx.”
“I told him that I would do the job, and I would do it for free because Big Daddy Kane did so much work, but I wasn’t going to do it alone,” George said.
With only one roll of black and white film (he was worried about getting his gear stolen), George headed out to Bed-Stuy with Mr. Cee. They met Christopher Wallace, a 19-year-old pot saleseman, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street, George said. Apparently, Biggie wanted to be photographed with the street signs of “his” corner. Biggie was all decked out not in the usual hip hop garb, but with Oakland Raiders jerseys and hats and whatnot.
After taking 34 shots of The Notorious B.I.G. and his DJ, George was ready to head home. Biggie had another idea. He asked George if he would take a couple shots of his posse.
“I thought to myself, what posse? I don’t see any posse,” George said. Next thing I know, I’m looking around for space to lineup 20 guys, he said. So I lined them up and I had to tell them to stand unusually close together.
“I look in my camera and Biggie all of a sudden has an Uzi pointed directly at the camera,” George said. George calmly told him to point the gun somewhere else, just not at the camera. He then took two shots to finish the roll of film and that was it.
“I don’t know,” George said. “I didn’t talk to him. We didn’t become pals and I don’t think he liked white folk that much at that time. I wouldn’t say he was hostile, but he did not look friendly. There were no smiles in that whole shoot.”
“I wish my Biggie story was better but it’s just the way it was you know what I mean?” George said. “I was right there when he popped out of the box.
Since his start, George DuBose has shot over 300 album covers and worked with a diverse roster of artists from the punk/new wave artists of his early career to breakthrough hip-hop artists on Cold Chillin’ and beyond. He now lives in Germany with his wife and has a small house where he stores his archives – over 5000 vinyl albums, a large poster collection, and all of his negatives and slides.
He may not have always been sure of himself as a young photographer just starting out, but he never missed the mark.
Interview by: Sydney Lindberg
I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great artists and people over the years but few are the sum of his parts like DJ Jazzy Jeff. Not only is he a pioneering DJ, Grammy winner, genre-bending producer, technology advocate and globe trotting party starter, he is a world class individual with an honest enthusiasm and hands on approach to everything he is involved with. With an international brand as strong as his skills and top flight people like Lynette Townes and Nicole Palumbo at the helm of his business, it is no wonder Jeff has remained so relevant for so long, blessing so many with his personal ‘touch of jazz.’ Jeff was cool enough to give me almost two full hours of great conversation for this piece. The following are some of the highlights.
Can you speak to your longevity as you have come to be one of the most consistent DJ’s through so many phases of the artform. 86 – 96 saw a dramatic change, same with the DJ explosion of 96 – 2006, even to today: it went from from simple rubs, backspins, transforming to crabs, flares, Serato, midi pads. It’s literally been such an evolution. How have you always been able to stay ahead of the curve?
What I think, personally, is I’m a fan. First of all, I’m a fan of music. I’m always listening to music and looking for a new kind of music. I’m not one of those people that turn a deaf ear to things. Especially from the DJ side. When your job is to play music for people to have a good time, it’s not really up to you to determine if people should like something or not.
I’m a super-fan of technology. Just being around and watching how technology has grown, and advancements that have come into fruition over the years with the equipment. Like you said, from 45’s, to 12 inches, to albums, to the digital vinyl, to CD’s; being a gadget fanatic, you stay up with all that kind of technology. A lot of times I am in front of it because I’m looking for the newest thing, and curious what the next five years are going to be like.
I think the fan part is the most important. This is something that I would do. This is something that I do because I love, not because you make any kind of money for it, first of all. I think that kept me around.
You always have to stay a student. I don’t think anybody who does anything well knows everything about it. I think the idea is not to be the teacher, to more so remain the student, because there’s somebody in their bedroom right now, creating something that can change the world. I don’t care how much experience you have, if you keep your eyes and your ears open to what that is, then you can be there also.
Totally. You had a natural progression when you went from lugging around 200 pounds of vinyl spot to spot, to just having a laptop, or even at this point, a tablet or phone.
The funny thing is, I was one of the earlier people to get on the digital vinyl. It was for that reason, touring around the world. I did a tour in Japan, and by the time I came home I had spent about $3,500 dollars in extra baggage fees. It financially didn’t make sense, but you also understand that I have to. There are people that want to hear good music, and I don’t want to cheat them and bring less music because of the airlines. The people who pay to hear you play aren’t going to understand that the reason why you didn’t play the selection that you would normally play is because of the airlines.
It was almost a blessing with the digital vinyl. It allowed me to take all of the music that I really wanted to take wherever I went. What I told people from the beginning is, digital vinyl doesn’t make you a better DJ. It doesn’t make DJ’ing easier. Digital vinyl makes it easier to carry your records around. If you sucked as a DJ before on real vinyl, you suck as a DJ on digital vinyl. The only advantage that digital gave you was the ability to carry your music collection. I was the alien, going around as the music purist, with everybody wanting to see what you’re going to do, and all of a sudden I pull out a laptop. It was like, “What? What is that?” You almost had to do a demonstration to show people that what you can do on this is the same thing that you can do on vinyl before we got everything started.
It was an interesting start, because of the way everybody looked at you for being someone to usher in this new technology, but you look now and everybody in the world is on it.
Of course. Do you ever go back to the traditional stuff? Do you ever spin, say, just a 45 night where you actually bring out some of your old vinyl?
Just being a super duper record collector, there became a time that I stopped. Any collector knows that’s an addiction. I still didn’t stop going in record stores, and every once in a while I would go digging through some stuff, looking for stuff that I could sample or use.
I was scared to jump back into the 45 thing, because I knew that addiction was going to come back. About last October, I did something for Red Bull, where all of the DJ’s were there, and the last night was a 45 night. Z-Trip gave me two copies of a 45, and made me get on. Just touching the record, it was kind of like, that addiction. It’s like, I haven’t smoked in 20 years and you gave me a cigarette, and oh my God. I came home, and mysteriously, two copies of ‘Dance to the Drummer’s Beat’ came in the mail, with no-one telling me who sent them to me. And that started it. I’ve been on a massive record hunt, everywhere I’ve gone around the world, since October.
I kept saying that 2015 was going to be the year that I’m going to come out and do some really cool 45 sets. I haven’t done any yet, the amount of records that I’ve purchased, from October to now, is ridiculous. But it’s coming this year.
Well that’s super exciting. Definitely, I can understand that itch that you have to scratch, excuse the pun. I’ve seen that in other DJ’s, and sometimes they do need to step away, but that innate love is always what seems to bring them back.
It really felt good. Just being in a record store again, spending hours and going through boxes, and then you’re on your knees. People who didn’t collect didn’t understand our scavenger hunt thing, that when you looked into a box and you found something that you were just like, oh my God, I can’t believe that I got this. Especially having the ability to travel around the world, this is a different type of digging for me. You realize that there are records that are very plentiful in certain countries that aren’t plentiful here. Having the ability to go into a record shop in Rome and pull out James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’ 45’s that people would pass out for here, and you’ve seen a box of them there, is amazing to me.
That actually leads me into another question. When you do go overseas, or even city to city, or region to region, do you find yourself… Say, for instance, the ‘Do Over’ you seem to be very at home with, when you go overseas, while you’re over there region to region or country to city or city to city, do you feel like you have to cater to the crowd more?
Never. You’re doing your own thing, and you’re turning people on to what you’re playing.
You know what it is to me? A great DJ is like a great chef. You don’t necessarily cater to the people you’re cooking for, they’re coming to taste what you’re cooking. That was how I grew up. I grew up, the DJ’s had distinct personalities, the DJ’s had distinct styles, they played distinct music. It’s kind of like, if you don’t eat Chinese food, you’re not going to see the world’s greatest chef who cooks Chinese food. It’s a taste thing. You followed your favorite DJ depending on the taste in music that you liked or what he did. I think one of the biggest issues in DJing is that there are so many guys who play the exact same way that it’s kind of like, where’s your personality? That doesn’t mean that I’m going to try to put a round peg in a square hole, and I’m going to go anti crown. I’ll always give the people what they want but you will always get a feel of who I am, wherever I go. It’s amazing to travel around the globe because that Biggie record resonates the same way in Jakarta as it does in Dallas. You realize how universal music is. They want to hear the same thing. They want to party, they want to dance.
To expound on that just a little bit more, you do play such an eclectic mix of stuff, you’re not strictly hip hop, you’re not strictly soul, you’re not strictly pop, you’re not strictly funk. How difficult is it to mix and blend genres in and out consistently throughout a long set or a long night?
The funny thing is, I don’t think it’s difficult at all. I think it’s easier when you can take people on those journeys. I grew up that DJ’s had personalities. I also grew up when you realized that a great DJ played everything.
When I started, there weren’t house DJ’s, there weren’t hip hop DJ’s, or funk and soul DJ’s, or jazz DJ’s If you were a DJ, when you looked in your crate you had hip hop records, you had funk and soul records, you had breaks, you had some disco, you had some house, so you grew up being someone that knew how to mix in and out of these genres. As time went on, then it became the quote-unquote “Hip Hop DJ” or the “House DJ,” but I don’t know anybody on earth who likes just one type of music. When you can play 5, 6, 10 songs in this genre and then make a turn.
What’s more important to me is how do I put this puzzle together? If I’m playing for 2 hours, I want to seamlessly put this puzzle together that you don’t even realize you’ve heard 6 different genres of music because it was all seamlessly put together? What’s the bridge going from one genre to another? How can I play from a 60 BPM tempo all the way up to a 130 BPM tempo and then go right back to that 60 BPM tempo so seamlessly that you don’t even realize that the tempo went up and then went all the way back down? That’s more important in meshing the genres together, that you do it without these super-giant breaks of explaining to people, “now I’m playing disco!” You want it to be a seamless transition.
That attitude seems to be the pre-Hip Hop house party stuff because that’s what would turn into Hip Hop DJ’ing, before there was Hip Hop? You’re using all of the elements to create something new. It’s actually extremely old-school.
It is. I was DJ’ing before there were Hip Hop records and we played Mass Production and Brass Construction and Con Funk Shun and we played James Brown. We had a section of records that had drum breaks that we would play, and rappers would come up and rap over the drum breaks. It’s very much so the same thing.
This is Philadelphia, it’s not New York?
That actually segues perfect. What was it like to come up in the Philly scene in the late ’70s, early ’80s? How much influence were you getting from New York? I know there was labels like Pop Art in Philly, who were signing New York artists like Shante and other Juice Crew members that would go on to Cold Chillin’. What were you guys doing in Philly, and how was New York influencing you, or was it happening simultaneously?
It was definitely a huge influence because it was the birth place. But what happens is I think, you’re so… “Okay, we want to do it like New York, wow, they’re so cool in New York, this is where it’s going on.” You would get the tapes coming down from New York of T-Connection and Roseland and Fever, and all the rest of this, to hear what’s happening. You weren’t there, so you didn’t actually know.
So what happens is we catch ourselves recreating what we think is going on in New York. You don’t realize that what you’re doing is you’re not re-creating, you’re creating your own. It was definitely influenced by New York, but one of the main distinctions was, Philadelphia was a very heavy DJ city. The DJ came before the rapper in Philadelphia. We thought it was like that in New York. That’s what I have to attribute a lot of my success as a DJ. I thought that the DJ was the king, not realizing that the DJ backed up the rapper. It was a little bit different. When you would go to the parties in Philly, the rapper had 3 or 4 sections that he did his thing, but the remainder of the time the rapper bigged up what the DJ was doing. And that was us setting our own culture.
Well that is what the initial form of MC’ing was, to actually communicate with the crowd and hype for the DJ, who couldn’t do that himself aside from the music.
Speaking of that early Philly stuff, before you and Cash Money and Too Tuff, Code Money and those guys, who did you guys watch? Who was the older initial school that you guys looked up to? The not so household names.
I was a little bit before all the rest of those guys. There were guys a little bit before me like Cosmic Kev and Grandmaster Nell. We all started around the same time, they probably got the Philly success before I did. It was the same thing for somebody like Cash, Cash wasn’t actually from Philly. Cash was from a little suburb outside of Philly. I was on a little bit before Cash got his success. Then guys like Too Tuff and Code Money, they were a little bit younger than we were.
It was guys like Disco Doc, and Disco Red, and E-Man disco in Philly that I looked at. But at that time those guys weren’t mixing. This was pre-cuttin’. They were mixing a little bit, but it was more their play selection. It also had a whole lot to do with their equipment, because you would go– Sometimes these guys would set up in the park, and at that time you’re looking at a mountain of speakers and just this sound that was enormous. You knew you couldn’t afford anything like that, and that’s what made these guys. You didn’t really know what these guys looked like. You knew their name, and you saw these big stacks of speakers on scaffolds, it wasn’t until later when you started adding a mixing element. The early stuff that I was doing, I was mixing 2 records together, and I was mixing for 15 minutes. It was an ounce of cutting or scratching in. That was one of those things, when you first heard that was when the light bulb went off like, “what are they doing? How are they doing it? I need to try that.” It just so happened that myself and Grandmaster Nell and Cosmic Kev and Cash were pretty much around when that era started. We learned as it exploded.
You’re kind of teaching yourself then.
Yeah. It was almost like the guys that came before us weren’t doing what we were doing. But they were the ones, to me, that gave me the blueprint of how to be a DJ. How to be a DJ doesn’t have anything to do with scratching or cutting. How to be a DJ has a lot to do with your play selection, has a lot to do with your musician-ship. These were guys that would get on the mic and talk to the crowd, it wasn’t like they had their own MC’s. It was almost like how can you control the night with what you say as well as with what you play? I think that is what I got from those guys. When all else fails, I don’t care how much you can cut and scratch and do tricks, if you don’t have the basis of what a DJ is, it doesn’t work.
Transitioning into that, you created a very influential scratch technique called ‘The Transformer,’ right? When you initially did that, was that just something that you did on a whim? Were you trying different things? You were saying you were blending, you were really mixing heavy and then the scratching stuff comes later. When you actually create a scratch then it becomes a staple in the entire culture, perfectly showcased on tracks like ‘Live at Union Square,’ was that something you set out to do, it just happened, you did it, somebody freaked out, what?
It was a little bit of all of that. First of all, I don’t ever look at the invention of something like that. The first person I actually heard do anything remotely similar to that was a DJ from Philly named Spinbad. When you start looking at the evolution of scratches and all the rest of that, Grand Wizard Theodore scratched something to make somebody else scratch it like he did, but add their own flavor. And then someone else takes it, and adds their own flavor, the next thing you know Grandmaster Flash puts the fader movement in it and then you’re just like, “Okay, how can I do it?” It was one of those things that, me taking what I saw someone do that was very basic, and I was like, “I need to add some rhythm in it”, and I started doing it in my basement. A friend of mine who was in the basement at the time was like, “Wow, that sounds like when The Transformers open up.” That’s actually how the name came, he was the one that was like, “That sounds like, from the cartoon.”
I would never do it out in public, because it was so different I didn’t want to freak people out. One night we were doing something, and Lady B was there. She was on the radio, she was the queen of hip hop, and I did it. Everybody freaked out, and the next day she got on the radio and started talking about, “I just saw Jazzy Jeff last night and he did this ‘Transformers’ scratch.”
It literally starts like that. It’s one of those things that you do, and that’s a very good point about the differences in New York and Philadelphia and everywhere else. You couldn’t tell me they weren’t doing stuff like that in New York, then I go to Union Square and I do it and everybody freaks out.
The time that we performed in Union Square, Mr. Magic was the host. Mr. Magic records ‘Live at Union Square,’ and unbeknownst to us we’re back in Philly, and 2 days later he plays the recording on the radio. Then what happened, people freaked out so much they kept requesting the recording. Now the recording is being played like it’s a song. That gets you a million and 1 shows, it basically cements your name in history in New York. We called Mr. Magic and were just like, “Hey, can we get a copy of the tape?” We decided to put the tape on the ‘He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper’ album.
When you look at the circumstances, it’s like, what are the chances of Mr. Magic being the host of this show, and actually taping it and you don’t know it, and playing it on the radio, people liking it, and we’re getting the tape, we put it on a record, the record sells 3 and a half million copies, so everybody knows about. Live at Union Square.
And Magic at the time was literally breaking or making people’s careers with a press of a button. He ‘dumped’ Public Enemy. Obviously that was huge momentum. Another good segue into your first 2 records. I know you had independent records before your stuff with Will, but one thing I just want to touch briefly on is ‘Rock the House’ and ‘He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.’ Songs like ‘Live at Union Square,’ you guys had multiple quote-unquote “DJ tracks” on your early albums. Was that also a conscious decision to say, I’m putting my DJ out in the forefront, my DJ is just as important as the MC?
Now, remember what I said earlier. We’re from Philly. The DJ was always more important than the MC in our mind. It was kind of like Will and I were equals. That’s why I was saying, it was a very different approach than New York. In Philly, it was kind of like you can’t make an album with a DJ and an MC and it not be DJ tracks on it. We didn’t understand that, coming from New York that it’s kind of like, you listen to Eric B. and Rakim and it’s like, “well, where’s the Eric B. track?”
There would be one.
Yeah, so, once again, we owe a lot of that to thinking you’re doing it the way it needs to be done, and what you’re actually doing is you’re shaping the way things happen. Not knowing. Of course, nowadays, with people documenting and historians talking about those times, it’s a trip to look back, to realize that something we did, something that we think it’s 15, 20 people in this room while I’m doing this, resonates around the world. You didn’t know. I remember listening to some of those old recordings of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and I’ll never forget that Cowboy said in one of his rhymes, “I’m 5 foot 6, 22 waist”. Think about that, 5’6”? That’s little! You have a 22 inch waist? When you heard that, you think this was a grown man. You didn’t realize that all of this stuff, that shaped what we’re doing right now, we were doing when we were 16. And then you think about looking at a 16 year old now, the 1st thing that we want to say as an adult is how much a 16 year old doesn’t know. How much they need to learn. And to realize that at that time when you’re so creatively free, I think you change the world because you don’t know. That’s the reason why you do that, you’re brain isn’t involved in anything at 16. It’s all emotion.
It seems like the other acts that were signed that were coming out, Oh Philly, Schooly D and I mentioned before, Too Tuff and Tuff crew, Steady B and Cool C from Hilltop, those guys seem to have very hard, aggressive styles. People really say Schooly was actually the first quote-unquote “gangster rapper” to really portray that– So I’m just wondering, you guys are in the same environment, was it a conscious decision, was it just you guys coming through? It was so different from your peers at the time, it was more closer to Run DMC or Slick Rick than what Schooly or Ice Dog was doing.
I think more than anything, we all grew up in the same neighborhood. It was definitely not that we grew up in a different place. I think it was just the idea of, listen, you know what? I had friends that had been shot, I had friends that were the man on the basketball team and next thing you know they start selling drugs, and he forfeits his college education, and now he’s driving around in $100,000 cars and he ends up dead. It was definitely the perils of the inner city that you knew. We just decided, let’s not talk about that. I don’t want to talk about my friends getting shot. I don’t want to talk about how hard it is, I don’t want to talk about how tough it is. The one thing that Will and I were, is we were very silly. The irony was, so was Steady B and Cool C, and Schooly D. They were just as silly, and just as fun as we were. They just didn’t talk about that. Will’s whole thing was like, the first rhyme that we did out in public was Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble. It was him talking about, I went over to a girl’s house and her dad came home. Which was just as quote-unquote “hood” as everything else, it was just from a different perspective.
At the same time, anybody can relate to that.
Absolutely. It wasn’t conscious in the beginning, but I think it just got to the point that it was like, we realized where our niche was. When you looked, it was a whole lot of that out there, and it wasn’t a whole lot of what we were doing. We were like, let’s just stay where we are, and let everybody else stay, you know? You would catch us any day, riding through Philadelphia blasting Cool C’s music or Steady’s music, or ‘My Part of Town’ in your car. It wasn’t like, you didn’t like it, or you didn’t rock with it. We just did something different.
I just think it’s so interesting. The two of you were so the epitome of positive hip hop, and even with what happened to Steady and Cool C, you guys were just, it was such a different vibe while being from the same area. I’m sure you guys played shows with those guys. It was just interesting to me when it seemed like that kind of hardcore street, bringing that stuff to the surface, you guys never really touched upon that.
We became successful for what we did, then it was like, okay, we’re not going to start making street records now, what we’ve done, we started the work. Let’s just stay what we’re doing. People used to always say, especially the media, was “you guys grew up in the suburbs.” That was our first taste of realizing that there were people who absolutely didn’t know what they were talking about. I would go home in West Philly, and you see it. It was what you lived. It’s like, this is not what everybody else thinks. We just kept it moving forward.
Another question, rap was still in it’s infancy at the time. A lot of people were thinking it was going to be a fad, or a flash in the pan, kind of like punk. Then Run DMC gets on MTV for the first time. Something else happened that I think gets overlooked for legitimizing hip hop at the time was, you guys won a Grammy. That had never happened before. It was the first time it was ever even thought about. How important, looking back, did you ever think when you were doing those parties in West Philly, or-
You would actually win two. You won two, right?
Yeah. We won actually four, including the stuff that we won for Will’s solo stuff.
The first one in particular, to me, it was… I’m a little younger than you, but still old enough to remember this as it was happening live. I was like, a rapper just won a Grammy! I couldn’t believe it.
You know what was crazy, the year before that, I remember sitting on my mom’s living room floor and I had a drum machine on the floor, and I remember when the family would sit around and watch the Grammy’s. I remember sitting there and looking at all of the people in their seats. Fast forward a year later, I remember looking and seeing the names on the seats at rehearsal. Like, shit, that’s where Michael Jackson is going to sit, are you serious? That’s the actual seat where Michael Jackson is going to sit? Funny, that was actually the American Music Awards that I did that.
I think what was more important and what resonated more with the Grammy’s was we were so excited that we were nominated for the Grammy’s. It was the first year they were going to include hip hop. And then we got a report that they weren’t going to televise the hip hop award. It was kind of like, you know what? Let me see if I can get this right. You have 12 classical awards on television. You got 6 or 7 country and western categories. You have 6 jazz categories. There’s 1 hip hop category and you’re saying you’re not going to televise it? Then you start looking, and of course, we’re young. We’re in our early 20’s. You’re looking, kind of like, okay, let me see if I can get this right. Hip hop is the most dominant in sales of music out right now, and you’re not going to televise our category? We were like, if you’re not going to televise it we’re not coming. We were young enough and militant enough, especially at that time because that’s when the Public Enemies were out and we were just starting to get an understanding of who we were, and sticking up for ourselves, to not care about the importance of the Grammy. It was more important that, if you’re going to shit on a culture, we can’t be a part of that. Even though we had made it to the Grammy’s, we knew that there were still people saying this was a fad, and this was going to end. It’s kind of like, this has become my life now. So someone saying that what you do is not significant enough to last, you’ve got a year and that shit is over, so go back to working in fast food. You got upset.
Trevor : [crosstalk 00:39:06] for them to hear it, but it wasn’t enough for them [inaudible 00:39:12] take it seriously.
But you know what? The boycott sent a message that we were united. We got a lot of press from that, to the point that every year since then it’s been there, ironically, every year since then until this year.
Was that something that was just you guys? Or was that also the other rappers who were nominated?
Oh it was everybody. It was us, Salt n Pepa, every rapper that had anything to do with it, nominated, or even just being in LA at that time because we had arrived on a major stage. We all formed a huge boycott, people came, they showed it, they asked questions, we did interviews and we told them why we were mad, and that it wasn’t right, and it worked. Every year around the Grammy’s I’ll get those pictures that people will send out like, this is the year that Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Salt n Pepa and Heavy D and everyone boycotted the Grammy’s. That was an impact, it did something. People remember that.
It was definitely an important time, I think it was also extremely hip hop to do that. Like you said, it was [inaudible 00:40:53] the more militant or more [inaudible 00:40:57] totally different subject but I think some of that’s lacking in today’s stuff. I just wanted to touch on that because I knew that was a really interesting subject.
So you started by saying you’re still such a fan. You’ve had such an incredibly long, successful career, but you’ve also taken it to a point where you’re more than just an artist, you’ve actually become a brand. You do a lot. You’re consistently not just DJ’ing, you’re producing, you’re producing various types of music, you have your T-shirt lines, you have your merchandise, you have a very strong team behind you, you have Touch of Jazz, you have vinyl transition. Could you just speak upon, how come some artists just make it so far and how you’ve elevated it to the point where, now, beyond yourself you’ve elevated it to a brand. Jazzy Jeff, Touch of Jazz is a name that people trust. Could you speak a little bit on that and how important that is?
You want to express to people that this is something I started when I was 17. It goes back to, you know what, I didn’t really know a lot when I was 17. I equate a lot of this like a basketball player. You start playing basketball, and you have natural, raw talent. You’re good, everybody’s like “oh my god, he’s good.” But you don’t know the game. You haven’t learned the game. It wasn’t like, at 17 years old you sat down and studied hooping, and studied the way that they did it. It was just pure, raw, natural talent. But you also become mature, you start growing up in what you’re doing, and you start paying attention. Some people let the fame and the fortune get to the point that you actually think it’s going to be like this forever.
I was just one of those people, that, not only did I spin records, but, everything that I’ve heard someone do on a record, if it was a cool edit, if it was a drag, what instrument, I wanted to know what it was. I took an interest not just in me playing the records, but I took an interest in what was on the records, the sound of the records. Me listening and looking at the labels, and realizing, everything on this label has a distinct sound. You start reading and realizing that everything on this label is recorded in a specific studio. You want to know, what kind of board do they have? Is there one specific engineer that does all of this stuff to make it sound like that? You learn musician’s names, and engineer’s names, and producer’s names because you took a liking to it. I think that’s what started the whole thing. It was kind of like, “Okay, I want to be able to make every record that I play. I want to know how to make every record that I play.” So you start focusing on the production side.
Then you get in, because we were producing all the Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince music before we even knew we were producing it, when someone else was taking credit for it. You learn, this is what a producer is? I’m doing that! Then you want to produce, then it’s like, you can produce for your own group, but can you produce for someone else? You do that, and that works, then you start learning more so of the business side. Once that thirst for knowledge came in it just never went away. I think, for me more than anybody, I hated having to rely on anybody. I didn’t understand. One of the biggest things that used to drive me crazy is you tell me that I’m the one with the talent, I’m putting together some music, putting together what I feel is a masterpiece, and I give it to someone who has never made a record in their life and they say no. I never understood that there was always a gatekeeper. I understand that there’s good music and bad music, but it was always put upon someone that could basically say “no.” They’re not saying no because it’s bad, they’re saying no because they don’t like it. That means that your opinion is what’s going to set the tone for what the world hears or doesn’t hear. I never understood that.
I can tell you, from 1988-89, I have been envisioning the time that you could put out whatever you want to put out, and let the public hear it. It always seemed to be this thing of, I have to make this music and I have to give it to you, you have to like it, and then you decide to put it out. You send it to a radio station and let the radio station play it, and see if people like it. That was way too much to get my music to my fans. I wanted a direct line, how can I get it directly to them and let them decide? It wasn’t until recently that we had that ability to cut out the middlemen who used to make the decision if you can hear something or not. I used to always wonder how much great music out there have we never heard because somebody said it wasn’t good enough, and you might have broken someone’s spirit? That idea is what kept me, it was like, “Okay, how much control can I get?” All right, I have a production company. I bought a studio. I was the odd guy in Philadelphia because no one had ever had a studio that was open to the public. They couldn’t understand, ‘how are you going to make money?’ I’m just saying, you know what, if I make good records, I know how I would make records in the studio for Jive, and I would have to pay Jive the studio time. So why not own the studio, and let me make the records, and the person who likes the record, and buys the record can pay an even cheaper rate to me because the production company owns the studio? This wasn’t me setting out trying to be a visionary, this, to me, just made common sense. When that worked, it was kind of like, ‘why can’t we have a production company and a publishing company?’ When people would say it’s a conflict of interest, I’m like, if we’re working enough, the production is going to feed the publishing company. These were all common sense things to me, that just cut the outside world out. Then it’s like, now we can make our own music, and if people like it we have our own publishing company, and that just turns into how can we get it out? It escalates.
It goes from you making T-shirts, and you realizing that you’re making the T-shirts and you’re giving ’em to somebody else, somebody is giving you a cut and they’re selling your T-shirts. It’s like, why can’t I find out where they get the T-shirts printed up and go and make a deal with those guys? All of that just started from, how can I have more control?
I don’t mind. I’m not so much of a control freak, it was just so much of the business side of it never made sense to me. I was like, I really think that I can do this in a much simpler way. That was the reason. It’s still the quest like, from Vinyl Destination. It’s like listen, we own all of the cameras, I’ve got a great guy who has a great eye, we basically produce and shoot a television show. We shoot all of our own videos, all around the world. It’s like, what makes you think that we can’t shoot a movie?
I think you have to have that kind of mentality. Let me tell you something, Steven Spielberg had to try for the first time once, in order for him to realize that he did it. I’m kind of like, do your own research, try to figure it out, and then take a crack at it. The worst thing that can happen is you could be in the same position you are in now.
I think that also hearkens back to the whole, the evolution of technology, and if you’re on board with that or not. You’re easily ready to adapt, so when this new stuff comes, social media and stuff, you’re on there. You’re ready to go.
A lot of people are afraid of new technology and new things. It’s like I said, it’s just interesting because I have conversations with a lot of my old friends and just realize how they are so not in tune to a lot of the stuff that’s going on.
I got my mom a microwave back in the day. A year later, I went to her house, and the paper was still in the microwave. She was just like, I’m not going to use it. I was up there for Thanksgiving, and I went back for leftovers and I put some turkey, some gravy, greens and all the rest of this stuff on my plate, put a paper towel over it, I pulled the paper out of the microwave, and she was like, “don’t do that.” I pushed the button that said 2 minutes. 2 minutes later I pulled it out and she saw steam coming from my plate, and she was like, “wait a minute!” So I understand that sometimes we don’t want to accept new technology or new ideas for the way things are. I tell that story all of the time, because that is what turned my mom on to, if I really want to heat my coffee up, I can do it in 30 seconds. But what you got to do, you got to open your mind up. You got to open your mind up to the possibilities.
I guess you just have to be able to accept that they can be assets instead of something to be intimidated by.
I said earlier, you’re extremely prolific, you’re constantly doing something, whether it’s touring, out on the road, producing for a bunch of different people all at the same time, you’re doing stuff like Vinyl Destination, with the videos, and the social media– You mentioned earlier about reliving your love for Vinyl and maybe trying to come out and do some throwback 45 physical type nights, what’s next on your agenda? What haven’t you done that, like you said, why can’t I do this myself, what’s the next thing in this coming year that we can look forward to seeing you conquer next?
The funny thing is, I think I’m doing it. I think it’s just tweaking some of this stuff. Vinyl Destination wasn’t created to follow Jazzy Jeff around the world, and to show the good and the bad of the touring DJ. Vinyl Destination was created to show anybody of any kind of art form traveling around the world, and what they go through. This is the year that we’re going to expand that, it’s not just going to be me. There are going to be episodes with other DJ’s, as well as musicians and other people just to show the life of traveling around and sharing your art with people is great and it’s fantastic, and it’s grueling and it’s stressful, and you miss your family, and you hate the food, and you get the best food you’ve ever had in your life, and you have the best shows that will change your life and you have the shows that you just want to hate and forget. You want to give all of that and give an accurate perspective of it. So I think, more so, it’s time to show the world both sides. Show an accurate account, not scripted. Not, let’s make believe. I believe there’s enough real in the world that it doesn’t have to be scripted at all.
It’s not going to be MTV style reality TV. It’s just real, documentary style.
Interviewed by: Trevor KARMA Gendron
Photos: Provided by the artist and David Corio