All it takes is a good mixtape to put you in the right mood.
Having The Magnificent by DJ Jazzy Jeff sitting on my desk has caused a pavlovian response by everyone in my office: “That’s not the DJ Jazzy Jeff? Is it?” As soon as I satiate their curiosity my coworkers all seem to get a warm smile as if they’ve been transported back to a happier place for a moment. The smile is then followed with “I didn’t know he was still around.”
As one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Jazzy helped launch rap into mainstream radio. Their Grammy-winning track “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was irresistible radio fodder and the Fresh Prince’s charisma helped them take over MTV. The follow up single “Summertime” proved that they weren’t just rhyming about kid stuff and became their first number one single. Their subsequent records failed to generate sales and the Fresh Prince was off to Bel Air with Jeff riding shotgun. Will Smith was able to parlay his ability into a movie career, while Jeff seemingly disappeared. To most it seemed as if one of the most successful DJs/producers had gone awol, destined for one of those Where Are They Now? specials on VH1. Thing is Jeff has been making beats and tracks all along. Using the money he made off of his early success, he started his production company A Touch of Jazz in 1990. A Touch of Jazz went on to become one of the most revered companies in the music industry, producing hit tracks by everyone from Will Smith to Dave Hollister to Jill Scott.
Jazz’s fall wasn’t just from the public eye. Despite his impeccable resume, he’s not the kind of producer spoken about with reverence by the hip-hop community. While people can’t utter Marley Marl or Pete Rock’s names without drooling, you almost never here anyone mention Jeff. Well, it’s time to give DJ Jazzy Jeff the respect he deserves. The UK’s Barely Breaking Even Records has brought us their latest installment of the Beat Generation series, this time starring DJ Jazzy Jeff in his first leading role. Beat Generation is a Christmas present for those who understand that the best hip-hop songs are built from the back to the front. With all due respect to Guru, it’s often the beat more than the voice that propels the tracks we nod our heads to 10 years later.
The Magnificent has Jazzy Jeff coming out the gate with both barrels firing. The title track gets things started with upcoming MCs Pauly Yanz and Baby Blak trading verses over a smooth piano and bass joint that sets the tone for the rest of the album. While A Tribe Called Quest frequently receives all the credit for marrying jazz and rap, Jazzy Jeff is the man who invented the style. Even on his earliest, most playful tracks with the Fresh Prince, it was Jazzy Jeff displayed a proficiency for jazz and soul arrangements that could turn even the silliest cut into a head nodder. Ten years later nothing has changed.
“Shake It Off”, the second cut, is a track we’ve been waiting De La Soul to release for the past five years. Over a bouncing bass line, Chef rhymes about using the dancefloor and music, as opposed to guns and violence, as a way to relieve stress. While the track will not satiate the blood-thirsty appetite of some of today’s hip-hop fans, it’s a welcome trip back to a world where knowledge truly reigned supreme over nearly everybody. J-Live steps up to the mic on “Break It Down” and displays why he is one of the most underrated MCs in the business. Giving a lesson to wanna-be-rappers, J-Live points out that a true MC can rhyme about anything and that, if you can’t, you should stick to admiring those who can from a distance. J-Live reappears towards the end of the album on “A Charmed Life”, a refreshing track on which he rhymes about being blessed because he gets to teach children by day and MC by night. On “Scram” Freddie Foxx serves notice to all hoods that they should stay clear of his path if all they can bring to the table is talk about how hard they are.
Bringing back another blast from the past, Boyz II Men crooner Shawn Stockman proves he’s still got pipes on “How I Do”. Jazzy’s skills are not limited to hip-hop, as the album mixes in the occasional soul and R&B number. “My People” featuring Raheem is a beautiful number reminiscent of some of the best ’70s soul available. Saving the best for last, on “We Live in Philly” he flips the Roy Ayers classic “We Live in Brooklyn,” and with the help of Jill Scott turns it into the ultimate tribute to the City of Brotherly Love.
All of the best producers bring their own unique touch to what they do. You know a Pete Rock or Neptunes track as soon as you hear the first beat. Jazzy Jeff brings a sense of confidence only displayed by those who have mastered their craft. There’s nothing on here that screams “look at me”, instead the songs are held together by a firm backbone created in Jazzy Jeff’s lab. While some DJs try to show off, cutting for the sake of it and coming off like a hip-hop Yngwie Malmsteen. Jeff’s mixing and scratching are tasteful, you know he can take out any sucker MC, but he doesn’t have to prove that on every cut. Displaying the precision of a surgeon, his cuts, scratches, beat juggling and mixing are all on point leaving no excess waste for the listener to have to wade through. Like the best mixtape, The Magnificent glides from songs that are destined to be underground classics, party tracks, songs to get our swerve on to, and the straight head nodders. Any of these 17 tracks could receive major airplay and return Jeff to the top of the hip-hop game. However, I get the feeling he enjoys the niche he’s carved out for himself and is not looking to further his name. Even when he was on regular rotation on MTV, it was the Fresh Prince who was always mugging for the camera while Jeff played the back wall, sunglasses down. This album was just to show everyone that Jazzy is still the best at hip-hop or R&B. Most likely he’ll fade to the back of our memory again, propelling track after track to the top of the charts without us even realizing the role he played.