How Tech & Transparency Brought a Hip-Hop Legend Back to the Music Biz

“No artist should fall down the same holes I did.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff has seen it all, done it all, from Fresh Prince of Bel Air to forward-thinking Playlist Retreats with drone-assisted promo videos. The seasoned vet has endured ups, downs and tectonic industry shifts. His legacy remains intact, his finances cared for. Indeed, the hip-hop icon doubles as a walking encyclopedia. No wonder he’s still going strong after 40 years.

Success, as always, didn’t come easy. Lessons forge the legends we know and love. Jeff kept eyes and ears open from the start. He signed his first record deal alongside Will Smith and quickly grew puzzled by the industry’s inner workings. Every encounter yielded mental notes. After watching peers abandon ship for the wrong reasons, leaving music behind, his desire to share knowledge has only intensified.

DJ Jazzy Jeff
Photo by Steve Dykes

When our call connects, Jeff’s voice matches the East Coast’s budding spring. Home will do that to you after a month on the road. Unsurprisingly, spousal reunions, Atlanta binges and freshly-prepped fried chicken top nine-hour flights. All things considered, Jeff leads a comfortable life, something he attained by looking ahead. Perhaps nothing exemplifies his foresight better than a single conversation held nearly 30 years ago. During the making of the third DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince album, And in This Corner, a studio engineer offered a selfless idea to the DJ: instead of using the label’s budget to pay for recording time, use it to build his own.

“He told me, ‘Take $100,000 and buy yourself a mixing board and a tape machine and record yourself,’” Jeff remembers. “Say you pay someone $100 a week to cut your grass, and a lawnmower is $500. If I buy that, I’ll pay myself back in five weeks. It might be a little more labor, but in the long run, I’m saving myself money.”

That same board—decades later—played a part in M3’s formation. Jeff’s first project in six years walks tightropes with ease, balancing everyday musings, music business woes and sounds that range from vintage sepia (“The Beginning”) to black-and-white grunge (“Scars”) to colorful dance jams (“The Way We Cool”). The May release is one of 2018’s finest, and it almost never came out.

dj jazzy jeff
Photo by Cristopher Schafer

For years, he hunted for a solution that treated music like any other occupation. Creativity never left him. However, hopes for a commercial release drowned in the music industry’s opaque black box. Without data transparency and trustworthy distribution, the effort wasn’t worth it. Resultantly, he turned to live sets, enjoying the standard simplicity of promptly earning one’s keep after supplying a quality service. Then DJ Jazzy Jeff met Stem.

“Stem gave a talk about YouTube monetization,” he says. “It was eye-opening. I thanked them after, then one of them said, ‘And we do online music distribution also,’ and I froze in my tracks. Like, ‘Excuse me?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah! We do online distribution, you can do all the writer splits, too.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, this it it!’ To be able to release M3 on my own is very emotional for me. Not only have I achieved something I’ve always wanted to, but it’s sad because I know so many artists I came up with who tapped out before we got here.”

Indeed, too many premature career endings litter music’s history books. Fortunately, creators like DJ Jazzy Jeff are doing their part to spare up-and-comers the same mistakes. Continue reading for more insights from a tried and tested veteran. Listen to M3, streaming everywhere.

dj jazzy jeff

DJ Jazzy Jeff On… Working From Feeling

I’ve reached a point where I know how to make angry if I’m angry. I don’t think Picasso painted every picture to get paid. Sometimes he just saw something so beautiful he had to paint. That kept me going even as the business stifled me.

When I was about six years old, my brothers taught me how to take vinyl in and out of a record cover without leaving fingerprints on it. He told me if I treated everything with care, I could use it. At six, it wasn’t hip-hop. I was listening to Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Those songs would give me this feeling in my gut, and I’ve been on a quest to capture those emotions. I didn’t know then it was a chord structure that you could play to feel melancholy. It’s not classical training. I don’t have theory. Just feeling. I can listen to every record I heard at age six and feel the same way.

It’s almost like equating it to a chef who makes a dish that makes you feel so good because it tastes so good. It’s special when you figure out the ingredients, the cooking time, so that you can serve that same dish to other people and watch the same reaction. Then it’s not an accident anymore. I know how I want every song to feel before I know how I want it to sound. So to get all the music done, then bring the vocalists in to paint the picture on top of it, that was the first time I really approached a project like that.

Empathizing With New Artists

An artist can sell 1.5, 2 million albums and have a plaque on the wall. They can be on the road and have everyone know their name. But they incurred debt to do it, and they owe money when they expect a check. Then the record company says, “It’s okay, we’ll bail you out. We’ll give you another check for another record.” Now, you’re making music out of desperation. Your first album was for creation.

The second is made to get yourself out of debt. Those albums sound very different. What is a record company going to offer you that you can’t offer yourself? The biggest thing is money. That’s where you go back to the record deal being a bank loan with a high interest rate. We have companies like Stem, now, that understand the traditional way doesn’t always make sense. I think we’ve gone through it enough to make sure the 15-year-old kid doesn’t have to.

When someone offers you a contract and there’s a dollar amount attached, the rest becomes irrelevant for artists pressed for money. Like how people buy cars by looking at the price, not the interest rate. It’s heartbreaking when you realize the business you fought so hard to break into doesn’t treat you the way you felt you should be. It’s a shame to watch people tap out and quit. Now, we live in an era where 360 deals are common, taking a piece of everything. If DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince came along today, the record company would have owned a piece of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Men In Black, and Playlist Retreat. If you have something out now that’s heating up, and people know who you are, communicate with your fans. Get them into you.

Creating For Self First, Public Second

I’m an extremely logical person. For instance, from the time Will and I put out our first record, the industry never made sense to me. All of my friends get paid a check. They get a salary or X dollars an hour. You might not like how much you make, but at least it’s clear. What always kept me going, though, is that we will never, ever, ever live in a world without music. I taught myself to make music without commercial purpose. I have albums I made just to clean my house. Reaching a point where I could detach music from the money I made ensured that I’d always make it.

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