[10 May 2007]
DJ Jazzy Jeff’s Return of the Magnificent, the sequel to 2002’s The Magnificent, is an album with a concept that goes a lil’ somethin’ like this: Jeff is taking a road trip, presumably from his base of operations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to pick up his son in Atlanta, Georgia—you know, “to do the father-son thing”. The album opens to a skit of Jeff talking on his cell phone, explaining his situation to a friend, “The bad thing about it,” he says, “is my car’s in the shop, so I got this rent-a-car. All it got is radio…So you know I’ma hate that.”
After Jeff settles into his ride, he fiddles with the radio and eventually finds the first track on Return of the Magnificent, the appropriately titled “Hip Hop”, featuring Twone Gabz. From there, the album combines a ‘90s-era hip-hop vibe with a couple of R&B tracks, all of which is propelled by DJ Jazzy Jeff’s production and of course his signature cuts and scratches. The road trip story moves along through several skits and a couple of station surfing moments, leading to his arrival in Atlanta. In the end, when his son asks him what he did on his road trip, Jeff answers, “Well, I ate a little bit. I talked on the phone. But, um, most of all, I just listened to the radio. You know what? I heard some really nice stuff on the radio, too. Maybe there’s hope.” Father and son then hop into the car, checking out the tunes. In the background, the album begins anew with the first track, ending where it all began, much like the full circle approach employed by author S.E. Hinton in the classic The Outsiders.
This is one of the few rap albums where the skits don’t end up being a complete waste of space. I’ve actually been playing the skits for people first and then I’ll hit ‘em with Jean Grae on “Supa Jean” or Big Daddy Kane on “The Garden” (both of which are stellar songs, by the way). I still think the skits should have been tracked, instead of attached to the beginnings and endings of songs, but I nevertheless connected with them here. And I say this as a listener who has been a proponent of banning intros, skits, and other interludes from rap albums because the practice has been abused ever since the D.O.C. used “commercial breaks” on his 1989 album, No One Can Do It Better. Return of the Magnificent, however, uses skits in a meaningful way.
Turn on the Radio
First, there’s the overarching theme of Jeff listening to his radio during his road trip. On one level, lack of variety is a common complaint against radio programming, at least in the United States. In my home state of North Carolina, you’re more likely to hear “This is why, this is why, this is why I’m hot” before you’ll hear anything by Brother Ali, Pharoahe Monche, Little Brother (and LB are natives of the state!), or the Roots (and the Roots are “Grammy nominated”, if you’re into that sort of thing). Not that any particular artist or group is better than another, mind you. The argument is simply that listeners deserve the opportunity to hear more of what’s out there.
I’m familiar with Jeff’s driving route from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and—if I couldn’t control my sounds with a CD, or listen to my dream station that plays every style, regardless of genre—I’d be listening to stations that play oldies and country before I’d listen to the hip-hop and R&B stations. I especially dislike the ones that exclusively play “smooth R&B”. I’m afraid of falling asleep at the wheel.
Return of the Magnificent toys with the discomforts of radio fiddling, offering DJ Jazzy Jeff’s personally mixed array of car bangers and ear mashers as an alternative to radio norms, as well as an idea of how Jeff thinks the radio could sound. So, at the end, when Jeff says, “Maybe there’s hope,” his comment is as personal as it is instructive.
Jeff’s contemplation of the future of radio is quite good, actually. The roster of talent on this release alone is impressive: Twone Gabz, Eshon Burgundy, Black Ice, Kel Spencer, ChinahBlac, J Live, Dave Ghetto, C.L. Smooth, Raheem DeVaughn, Jean Grae, Big Daddy Kane, Method Man, Kardinall Offishall, Peedi Peedi, Posdnuos of De La Soul, and Rhymefest. You have to know how psyched I am about Big Daddy Kane’s appearance here, and his track on Magnificent is blazing.
Best of all, we’re getting world-class beats and turntable maneuvers from a hip-hop master. All of the beats are topnotch: the loping old-school vibe of “Jeff-n-Fess” (with Rhymefest); the mid-tempo Eshon Burgundy & Black Ice’s “Run That Back” and its biggie-sized serving of tambourine; the extra-bumping “Supa Jean”; the groove of “The Garden” that’s right in the pocket between soul and underground rap; and the expertly crafted “Hold It Down” (with Method Man), a musical tutorial on how to use a Barry White sample (in this case, “Love’s Theme”) in a creative way. What’s more, there’s the genius of “Brand New Funk 2K7”, with Peedi Peedi taking Will Smith’s place for this remake of the DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince classic, and there’s also a feverish reworking of Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor”. As for the R&B, Raheem DeVaughn’s “My Soul Ain’t for Sale” stacks up groove for groove with anything of recent memory you want to put up against it.
Sure, I’ve got a few production-related nitpicks, but they’re relatively minor. There’s the rather bland sound of Twone Gabz’s opener, “Hip Hop”, and the much-too-straightforward melody in “Come On” (featuring Dave Ghetto) that was borrowed from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By”. “Come On” even hits the high-end touches, like Jeff is playing part of the beat on a set of wineglasses.
In other songs—notably in CL Smooth’s “All I Know”, Kel Spencer’s “The Definition”, and Posdnuos’ “Let Me Hear U Clap”—the piano samples sound like an ice cream truck got into an accident, causing its jingle to go off key. I actually like the piano in “The Definition” in spite of its odd sound, but in “Let Me Hear U Clap” the piano loop is saved only by Posdnuos and his inspired delivery. I just wish the tune contained handclaps.
The one seductive R&B cut, “Touch Me With Ur Handz” (I thought the “With Ur Handz” part was implied), showcases a cooing, bedroom-voiced ChinahBlac. “It’s more than penetration”, she nearly whispers, “more than a quick sensation”. Unfortunately, the drumbeat is too heavy for the message and the mood. I think she and Jeff should have let her pull a Janet—by toning down the percussion but keeping the keys and the strings, something like “Would You Mind” from Janet’s All for You (2001) set.
One last thing I noticed—my copy contains “clean versions” of the songs, and I have to say the editing didn’t bother me a bit. In fact, I liked it better! Some words, maybe the n-word or the b-word, could have been obscured more often by Jeff’s scratches rather than being blanked out, but I won’t be a squeaky wheel about it.
“Where’s DJ Jazzy Jeff At?”
Aside from promoting diversity in broadcasting, the skits also raise the issue of Jeff’s celebrity status, or lack thereof. In one skit, which I’ll call the “Big Mac Skit”, Jeff takes a break from his drive to stop at McDonald’s. At the drive-thru window, the cashier asks him if he’s Jazzy Jeff. When Jeff indicates that he is indeed Jazzy Jeff, she replies, “No, you not! For real, are you Jazzy Jeff?” Annoyed, Jeff says, “Yeah!” The cashier replies, “Where Will Smith at?”
It’s a funny exchange, but later we realize its effect on Jeff. In what I’m calling “The Cell Phone Skit”, appearing at the end of “Supa Jean”, Jeff complains about his conversation with the McDonald’s cashier during an incoming cell phone call from a friend. Jeff, growing irate, says, “And then she gon’ ask me, ‘Where Will Smith at?’ Like I’m supposed to know where he at all the time. I mean, y’know, it cracks me up when people ask me “Where Will Smith at?’ I ain’t his butler.”
As supremely talented as Jeff is, there’s some truth to the idea that he’s been relegated to living in Will Smith’s gargantuan shadow. In some circles, he’s known as “the guy who gets thrown out of the house” on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s as if he dwells in a strange Twilight Zone-ish state of celebrity—famous enough for someone to say, “Aren’t you DJ Jazzy Jeff?” but not famous enough for him to use his celebrity status to skate by a speeding ticket, as he tries to do (quite unsuccessfully) in what I like to call “The Police Skit” at the end of “Hold It Down”.
Then there’s the “Will Smith Skit” (my title, not Jeff’s), at the end of the “Go See the Doctor” remake. Jeff, frustrated by questions regarding Will Smith’s whereabouts, decides to call Mr. Smith’s office to satisfy a burning question. First, though, he has to wade through Will’s bureaucracy of call blockers (“Good afternoon, Will Smith’s office”) who don’t recognize “Jeff”, “Jeff Townes”, or “DJ Jazzy Jeff”. At last, Jeff reaches his homeboy Will and poses his question:
Jeff: I’m just curious, like, do people ever say, “Hey, Will, where’s Jazzy Jeff at?”
Will: Uuuuuuuuummmmmm….uhn-uh. I mean…Nah.
Will: I mean, like…lemme see…Unh-uh.
Will: Yeah, like…like, pretty much, like…Nah.
Jeff: Cool…Um…all right. Well, uh, I’ma-I’ma—
Will: I mean, sometimes, they’ll say, “Yo, yo, where’s Carlton?”
And it goes on. For me, the conversation is bittersweet, the “sweet” part being the humor (I laughed so hard my stomach hurt) while the “bitter” part is how real the scenario sounds. By the end of the dialogue, Jeff sounds like he’s been punched in the gut. It’s cool that Will and Jeff can poke fun at the way Will’s celebrity has eclipsed Jeff, and most other hip-hoppers for that matter. That dude has been launched into the Hollywood stratosphere, and I have no doubt Jeff really does get questions like, “Where Will Smith at?”
But what’s up with that? I mean, sure, Will Smith is a movie star and all, but I think he played himself on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air better than any character he’s played in his movies. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve only been able to tolerate Will in Bad Boys, the scene in Bad Boys II where Will and Martin Lawrence infiltrate the Klan, and I, Robot. The rest, I could do without, which probably explains why I’m a music guy, not a movie guy.
But when I listened to the “Will Smith Skit” on this album, I was thinking, “How do you work for Will Smith and not immediately recognize DJ Jazzy Jeff?” You should get fired for that! Jeff shouldn’t have to remind anybody about his contributions to “the Fresh Prince” or to hip-hop in general. That’s what music writers are for. But do I really have to mention the hits like “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, “Nightmare on My Street”, “Brand New Funk”, and “Summertime”? Do I have to point out that Jeff is an incredible DJ who influenced hip-hop and generations of turntablists? Should I tell you that Jeff is credited with popularizing the “transformer scratch” and inventing the “chirp scratch”? Or that he executive produced Jill Scott’s debut, Who Is Jill Scott?, through his A Touch of Jazz production facility?
Nah, I don’t have to do that. Hip-hop heads know all about Jeff Townes. So, Jeff, for what it’s worth, hip-hoppers don’t have to ask anybody where you are. We’ve got the DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince singles, The Magnificent, your two volumes of the Hip Hop Forever mixes, and now The Return of the Magnificent. When we want to know where you are, all we have to do is press “play”.