Jazzy Jeff Explains The Death Of DJs In Hip-Hop Groups

DJ Jazzy Jeff has served as a global ambassador of Hip-Hop culture for well over 35 years. Even before the Southwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native won a Grammy Award, he was a DMC champion mixmaster. The creator of Vinyl Destination and The Playlist Retreat has taken his skills (and a few of his talented friends) all over the world.

Jeff recently spoke candidly about the status of the DJ in Hip-Hop. One of the pioneers of the transformer scratch tells The Breakfast Club where and why he feels the Hip-Hop DJ got left behind in the mix.

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In referencing Hip-Hop groups of the 1980s, Charlamagne Tha God asks Jeff, “What happened to the DJ in Rap groups?” at the 7:20 mark. After hesitating, Jazzy begins, “The economy.” He elaborates, “1988 was the biggest year in Hip-Hop. Will and I was talkin’ about that; it might’ve been… 40 or something groups that released in ’87, and 400 or something groups that released in ’88. Like, it was like the explosion. I think after that, people started to realize that Santa Clause wasn’t real in the music industry. [They realized] that the money wasn’t coming the way that you thought it was comin’. There were people that thought, Listen, if I sell a million records, I’ll never be broke. And you start getting all of this success.”

“Once the money started getting tight, no one ever looked at who was [causing the] the money [to be] tight. We started looking at each other—which meant MCs started looking at DJs, like, ‘I’m not really tryin’ to split my money with you.’ I really think it was an economic thing that changed all of that. Every group used to have dancers; there were groups that had human beat-box. It was groups. If you think about it—even in the [greater] music market, how many bands do we have now? Where’s Earth Wind & Fire?” Jeff asks, referring to bigger collectives. “I think from an economic structure, it started to get to the point where people started saying, ‘I need to cut some corners.'” Notably, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince released Rock The House in ’87, and followed with 1988’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper.

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Charlamagne blames the labels for changing budgets and contracts. DJ Envy agrees that the splitting of money can cause tensions. Charlamagne also points out that unlike dancers and some beat-boxers, DJ presences in groups carried into moments on albums. “But you remember when that stopped,” Jeff responds. “It went from bigging up the DJ to ‘the DJ’s here,’ to now the DJ is gone.”

Jeff continues, “I also think that made DJs say, ‘Okay, if I’m not in the group anymore, I might as well go and rock this club,’ and no one paid attention to the shift. There was a point in time that I really thought that Las Vegas was going to turn into Salt n’ Pepa at the Riviera or Kid n’ Play. And what it [became] was DJ AM. So it got to a point where it was like, I can hire you as a group to perform five records, or I can pay AM to play 25 records.” AM, who passed in 2009, was a close friend of Jeff’s and a fellow Philly native. To Jazzy’s point, DJ AM was part of the Rock band Crazy Town during their 1999 breakthrough, but left the group several years later.

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Asked why DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince never succumbed to the trends, Jeff explains, “From the day that Will and I met, Will was like, ‘I’m trying to be the biggest movie star in the world.’ I was like, ‘I’m trying to do music for the movies.’ So that was set in stone.” Jeff has worked extensively on three of Will Smith’s four solo albums as well.

This weekend, Jeff’s partner Will competes for his first Oscar Award in the “Best Actor” and “Best Picture” categories for King Richard.

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#BonusBeat: DJ Jazzy Jeff joins Kendrick Lamar, Big Daddy Kane, Freddie Gibbs, Murs, Skyzoo, and others in recalling their first favorite rapper. This video and many others are available at Ambrosia For Heads‘ video channel.