Playing new music should not be a revolutionary act for a DJ, but in the age of push-button playlists curated by headphone antlered puppeteers, actually breaking a new artist is like dumping tea in the harbor.
During a stop on “The Do Over,” one of the summer’s hottest touring parties, producer DJ Day (real name Damien Beebe) shared a track from a then little-known producer named Stro Elliott with DJ Jazzy Jeff. Mr. Townes, the legendary Grammy Award winning Philadelphia DJ, record executive and producer, had gained a reputation for his generosity with his music. The analog era turntable maestro took advantage of technological advances and made a habit of sharing his entire hard drive of musical goodies, destroying the notion that a DJ must hoard their “exclusive” music to remain relevant.
“I’ve always felt that as a DJ my music doesn’t make up who I am as a DJ,” Jeff says over the phone in an interview with Nodfactor.com. “If you think that your music is what makes you a great DJ then you’ve never been a great DJ. You should be able to use whatever music you have to show what you can do.”
Stro’s deft manipulation of Soul II Soul’s classic “Back To Life” found its way into Jeff’s set—and into the hands of every DJ he could find–and that dissemination of dope would prove to be the proverbial butterfly wing flap setting things in motion. During his fourth year of rocking Red Bull’s Thre3Style World Championships Jeff was inspired by the extended interaction with his peers.
“They started making all of the DJs stay the entire week. You see your fellow comrades in the airport or you may have a show with them, but there is never 20 of us in the same place for seven days. [With] all of us being in Toronto everyday, we ate together, we swapped music, we had conversations, we told war stories about bad promoters. It was something that I realized was very needed, just being with your peers. It was something that everybody walked away from feeling extra motivated. I got a new batch of music or I got a new outlook on how to play such and such. Every year we looked forward to Red Bull Thre3style and still do, that’s how I got the idea in my head to have a DJ retreat.”
The idea came to fruition thanks to Jeff’s wife Lynette, who organized a surprise 50th Birthday party for him in 2015 while he was playing an NBA gig in London.
“I didn’t realize they basically set up the show in London to get me away from the house,” Jeff says with a laugh. “There were people that were in London at the game who ended up in my house at my surprise party! I was just blown away. But as excited and happy as I was that she threw this, my brain started to realize that I had the personnel to put together something like the retreat. So the day after the party we sat around the kitchen table and I looked at my wife and my manager Nicole and we said we could pull this off. It just so happened one of the CEO’s of Serato was at the party and he was basically like ‘Hey, we would love to come in as a sponsor.’ So we literally sat down at the table with a yellow pad and started writing out what basically became the retreat. It was really crazy for people to be at that table and watch it come to fruition. That doesn’t happen all the time. To look up in your backyard and you have 9 trailers and it’s like ‘How the hell did this shit happen?’”
Capitalizing on his revered position amongst his peers, Jeff set out to use his powers for good. Where most would see the potential for dollars with this endeavor, Jeff only wanted to make sense.
“The benefit is to provide all the services that the DJs, producers and songwriters need who function a little more in the independent space. Bringing in companies like Sound Xchange to talk to people and to show them there are ways you can make money being independent. I wanted to open up a dialogue with the manufacturers because there is stuff that we would love for someone to make. And there’s stuff that we need to tell them you shouldn’t have made, because no one really wants that.”
As with any great party the hardest part is figuring out the guest list. With the goal of creative exchange in mind, it was imperative that the right kinds of people were brought into the mix.
“I know a lot of incredible DJs who are forced to play a lot more commercial [music] than they might like because you have to look at it like it’s your job. But if you had a chance to play anything you wanted to play, I wanted to pick the guys that would play from their heart. If I know your musical taste and you like good shit, I’m gonna put you on the list.”
The first PLAYlist Retreat assembled a dream team of veterans like DJ Scratch, Young Guru, DJ Spinna, Rich Medina and more putting them shoulder-to-shoulder with rising stars like Tall Black Guy and Dayne Jordan. Jeff’s Delaware home was transformed into a greenhouse for hydrosonic cultivation. Good old-fashioned music making complemented seminars on workflow, new product demonstrations and an advanced screening of the documentary on the late DJ AM, who was very close to Jeff.
The following year saw the inclusion of MCs like Rhymefest and singers like Eric Roberson making connections with the likes of DJ Babu. The build-a-beat workshops yielded some of the most eclectic music they’d ever heard.
“We do a creative challenge every year at the retreat. We put teams of people together and give them a jump drive of music and we tell them that you guys have to collaborate on a song together. I don’t care if you sample it, replay or whatever but you have to get together. Because what I realized is that this generation is so not used to collaborating. They live in their computer only and all the music we love came from a collaborative process.”
Around the same time Jeff had begun work on the third and final installment of his “The Magnificent” album series, which turns 15 this year. After consulting with his friend Eric Lau and Kaidi “Agent K” Tatham Jeff got a new list of collaborators to begin working at more focused sessions. But things didn’t go as Jeff planned. After 19 ½ hours of uninterrupted recording Jeff and his team found themselves with a good problem.
“I emptied my brain creatively. That was the first time I’d ever done that. Everybody was like ‘What the hell was that?’ It completely destroyed my idea for the album. We made so much incredible stuff that I said let me put the breaks on. The idea to make the record is still there but there are two different energies [now].”
For 2017 Jeff decided to blend the focus of the sessions with the educational nature of the retreats and set out to record a full album in just seven days.
“The first few years when we did those challenges, we could have put those [songs] out as an album. And that was just 24 hours. And if what we did in 24 hours was dope, what if we did a proper project in 7 days?”
Jeff pitched the idea to Glenn Lewis after a show in Toronto, asking the “Don’t You Forget It” singer to be the vocal anchor of the project with many of the past retreat personnel coming in to write lyrics and play music.
“I knew that Glenn’s spirit was broken because of some of his bad experiences in the music industry. And I wanted him to come to the retreat to be around some people who care about you as an artist and he benefitted so much from it. The way N’Dea Davenport was the lead singer of the Brand New Heavies, I want Glenn to be the lead vocalist of this PLAYlist project.”
Jeff put on his Nick Fury patch and assembled his Avengers again, a caterer was called and Jeff’s “Vinyl Destination” producer Chris suggested they live stream the entire process on Facebook. For one week the group of 37 singers, DJs, rappers, producers and engineers sought to distill all of their hope and angst into one unfiltered, one-of-a kind collection of music.
“The concept of the album was to take a look at the world and tell me not only what you see, but what you would like to see. That’s where the social issues come in, the love. I don’t want to just talk about how crazy things are, but how I would love for them to be. It wasn’t genre specific. This is not to sell, not for radio. Eric said that what we’re actually doing for this project is “chasing goosebumps.” We want to make music that gives you goosebumps. That was the only criteria. It could be hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz, afro-beat, if it feels good let’s go. Not just sound good. We had a bunch of songs that sounded incredible, they just didn’t give you goose bumps.”
Taking a page out of the Motown playbook, everything was recorded as a band. An idea was rehearsed for 15 minutes or so and then recorded in one shot. Impromptu setups sprung up around the house. Laptops with mics were balanced on ottomans. While they were all on the same team, the slightest sense of competition was introduced with one common goal: make the cut that would make the cut.
“We put the songs we felt were strongest on a blackboard in the studio and it was everybody’s job to knock a song off of that board.
“#8 is a song we did called ‘Black Magic’ that’s not on the project because somebody replaced it with something better. We recorded so much great stuff I would be blasphemous if I didn’t let all of this stuff go at some time.”
“The studio manager Kelo (Saunders) was talking about some people experiencing the retreat for the first time and he asked “When was the last time you had your first time?” and I said wow that would make a great song. And Carvin (Haggins) wrote it down and immediately started writing it and within 2-hours they were cutting the vocals. So many songs come up like that. I hate overthinking stuff. You can think yourself in AND out of an amazing song.”
One of the biggest challenges was not burning out Glenn’s voice with the marathon sessions. So Jeff had Aaron Camper, Maimouna Youssef and Muhsina shoulder the load on background vocals.
“My job on this project would be considered herding cattle. Everybody had creative freedom as long as it stayed under the umbrella of what I was hoping for. I only grabbed you if you went a little too far outside the realm. This project is all of us, so I wanted it to sound like all of us. And you got a little bit of everybody.
Jeff was intentionally hands-off. Freedom was the order of the day and he in no way wanted to replicate the often tyrannical handling of label A&Rs.
“This was literally a challenge to us [the artists]. Let’s go in the studio and make some shit that we’re happy to make. There was no one in there telling us what we can make or whether it would fit in the club.”
One early morning before breakfast Jeff was in the kitchen speaking to his colleagues and offered some powerfully motivating words that were captured for an interlude called “Die Empty.” Jeff was not aware that he was being filmed but stands by the conviction to “leave it all on the field” musically.
“Lord Finesse is a very good friend of mine who has so much incredible music. It was hard for the older generation to buy into what Kaytranada did, making a beat and throwing it up on Soundcloud. Because you’re sitting there waiting for someone to pay you for that beat and the industry has changed. It’s more important for you to get your name out for people to know what you do and how you do it than to wait for someone to pay you for something in an industry that doesn’t necessarily promote that anymore.
So what are you going to do with all of this incredible music if no one pays you for it? If Picasso saw a really dope sunset he painted it. He didn’t say I’m not going to paint this sunset if nobody pays me. I gotta get it out of me. All of the stuff that we do is a gift. You’re cheating the creator of not giving your gift because you’re waiting for financial compensation. I do understand you should get paid for your work but I’m just somebody that firmly believes that the music I have made in my lifetime, I will never put all of this stuff out if I’m waiting for someone to pay me to put it out.”
Glenn recorded his last vocals on a Saturday afternoon and Jeff Bradshaw was called in to lay down horn sections. After sequencing the project with Eric Roberson, the two-minute warning was sounded to get the project mixed and mastered in time to make it to streaming services. On February 17th The PLAYlist’s “Chasing Goosebumps,” was served to the world fresh out of the kitchen.
“I am overwhelmed because once again this was an exercise,” Jeff says of the response. “We had close to 5 to 6 million viewers on the live stream, which blew us away. We played some stuff and these guys were moved to tears because they haven’t been able to make music like this in so long. As a producer or musician you should have the right at times to play whatever you want. It trips me out to see a disgruntled DJ, disgruntled singer. Because at the end of the day we are the ones blessed with the job where we should be happy.”
Jeff wants to keep recording projects with The PLAYlist, bringing in personal favorites like Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah to knock out new music in the time it takes to embroider one Grammy dress for Beyonce. But there is one person on Jeff’s (and our) wish list, his longtime friend and recording partner Will Smith, the artist formerly known as The Fresh Prince. The last album they released together was 1993’s “Code Red” on Jive Records.
“I’m hoping that I can do that but I only want to do it the way that I just did this record. And that is the hard part. I don’t want to make an album with Will that’s going to sell a gazillion copies or be #1 on the charts. I want to make the album of Will expressing himself creatively and lyrically and see what happens. He absolutely wants to [make music]. I just don’t know if the people around him absolutely want him to do it. And this is no discredit, but when you’re arguably one of the biggest movie stars in the world you have people around you who look at things from a financial point of view. The way you make money off of music is you get it out to as many people as you can and you hope they’ll come and see you perform. But even if you make the time to make the music, when are you going to make the time to perform it?”
The two did perform together last year for the Suicide Squad movie premiere and even with no rehearsal the duo that gave us hits like “Brand New Funk” and “Summertime” never missed a beat. But that may have to be enough for now because the last thing Jeff wants to do is compromise artistically.
“I am making music that represents who I am right now. I want to express my art and if you like it, cool. If not I appreciate you giving it a listen. Some artists get confused when they try to bend and adapt to what’s going on. That’s what record companies do and you can’t blame them. The music business has nothing to do with music. It’s all business. [But] I miss the music that I grew up on.”
Follow DJ Jazzy Jeff on Twitter @djJazzyJeff215
Follow The PLAYlist on Instagram @PlayListRetreat
and cop “Chasing Goosebumps” HERE.