December 4th 2013

I walk into the room and through the shifting haze and lights and voices there runs an electric current, a tingle I recognize immediately: Soular Power. There is creative potency here. Leave it to the magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff to draw this kind of crowd. People who vibrate with passion, purpose, and pleasure.

Manila-based event production company, Heavy Boogie, brings this hard-hitter to URBN as part of the “Vinyl Destination” tour. Along with special guests, DJ Jazzy Jeff & Skillz will be in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur next. This might be the greatest hip hop run Southeast Asia has ever seen.

DJ Shortkut makes a guest appearance, scratching new shapes into sound with his astounding talent on the turntables. It’s an audiovisual set with video graphics that bend and blend in highlight of his deft maneuvers. We get on the good foot and it curls our toes. “There should be more of this!” says my friend Agee, several times.

A roar. Jazzy Jeff steps to the deck and with the unapologetic dexterity of a seasoned veteran, moves thru genres and eras, weaving a new dream out of old parts. He is a tiger on the turntables and his claws rake us smooth. He takes us from New York to California to Super Nintendo, from Old School to New and everything in between.

I scan the sea of uplifted faces absorbing every song. It’s taking everybody back to some sweet spot. Even though we’re not from the same place—this is truly an international gathering—we share a common bond, a heartbeat. Music that goes the distance brings people together. Heads are all a-bob, and that’s just in the back of the room.

In front of the raised DJ booth, a circle has opened up, and the dancers dropping into the middle are making major statements. These are not the passive dancers, the look-at-my-sexy dancers, or the try-to-fit-in dancers that fill most clubs. These are physical artists who occupy their bodies completely to narrate the music. They are translators. They move the beats and spin the breaks, flipping and dipping and popping and stopping. Locked in, bugged out. The crowd shouts as one kid kicks high into the air, doing an impossible somersault and landing in perfect form with a wild grin.

A master at work, Jazzy Jeff hand-crafts a musical formula that helps us out of our minds and into our bodies. This is the real that we can feel. Forget what we carry around in our heads, here is an embodied experience, waves of sound and light that fill us with energy. It’s the ultimate remedy for the anxiety, headache, and exhaustion written into the track of life.

Indeed, this is a Soular Power outlet; we’re plugged into a primal source, getting a positive charge. And Jazzy Jeff, well he’s a Soular Power technician, facilitating the flow. When you’re in the zone yourself it’s easy to take others for the ride—he opens the line and we all step inside.
There are “stars” in our culture—the famous, ultra-successful elite who’ve made it to the top—and the masses idolize them, despairing. Then there are real human beings who shine at what they do because they understand that there is no top; true success comes from enjoying where you are in the moment, while keeping it moving at the same time. These are the ones who dissolve the despair, who work from their heart and spread light just by getting out of bed every day and breathing at regular intervals. They don’t even have to know they’re so bright (and this can be an advantage, because once the head gets ahold of it, the heart sometimes breaks). No, these real stars—and they’re few and far between—they haven’t signed up for an identity-trip. If anything, they’re just wondering why everybody else doesn’t follow their hearts and see what happens.

All this time-travel makes the hours stand still. I don’t notice I haven’t stopped dancing until four in the morning. Jazzy Jeff and Shortkut keep going. Finally I take my happy feet home, eternally grateful for the well-marinated dance floor, and the people who are melting across it.

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DJ Jazzy Jeff // w DJ Shortut // Sofitel, Manila // December 4, 2013 // Vinyl Destination Tour

A lot of people think of DJ Jazzy Jeff as Will Smith‟s smiling sidekick on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Many people don‟t know that he is a legend in his own right. As a DJ and producer, Jazzy Jeff has one of the thickest, most prolific careers on the books.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & Skillz, along with special guest DJ Shortkut, will be taking Manila for a spin tonight as part of the Vinyl Destination tour. I have the privilege of asking this sonic superhero a few questions before he hits the deck.

As a DJ, you are one of the biggest players in the game. And you are still relevant today, even with all this whack music going on! Talk about this Southeast Asian tour. What are you doing out here?

Jeff: It‟s simple. It‟s my job—or what I‟ve realized my job has become—to make people happy through music. When you clear away all of the cobwebs, you realize that you go into a place and you play songs in a particular way that makes people happy, and you leave. If you just broke up with your girl, or if you just had a bad day at your job, or if something didn‟t go right with your team, I need to make you forget everything for two hours and take you away through music.

You are like a therapist.

Jeff: Ya, really. My own, too! Because when you‟re happy, I‟m happy. So I want everyone to be happy! Seeing as how you’ve grown into such a giant, let’s get into your roots a little bit. What are your influences?

Where are you coming from?

Jeff: My family. And just growing up in Philly, when every Saturday morning in the summer somebody is playing music outta their house, and the guy who grew up next door to me was very heavily Motown. He would play The Temptations, he would sing. And then my brothers were into jazz, and my father was into old jazz like Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith, and my younger brothers are into Billy Cobham and George Duke and Chick Corea, and me being the youngest I have absolutely no say-so in the music. I was a sponge; I just took it all in. So coming up in the pre-hip hop era, I just knew the songs that I liked, and then when I got submerged in the hip hop era, especially the whole sampling thing, I just started thinking of the records that I knew from my brothers and sisters and my mom and dad. I had a collection of records before I even had a collection of records. So most of my influences came from me not being able to pick the music.

How important do you feel that this connection between our musical past, our American Jazz/Blues roots, is to where we are going, with the future of our music?

Jeff: I think it‟s VERY important. There was a time period where I started getting really depressed, just because I got in my car one day, and I turned on the radio, and Earth Wind & Fire came on. And I was listening to it, and listening to the arrangement, and listening to the vocals, and the horns, and the orchestration, and I stopped, and I was like, „Wow…who is our Earth Wind & Fire NOW?‟ I was just thinking of the way this music made you feel, and wondering if we‟re absolutely gonna lose that, and you start to kinda get depressed. But then it

was funny, because I started coming across all these groups, you know, Robert Glasper, Hiatus Kaiyote from Australia, and you realize that those groups are out there, they‟re just not being pushed to the forefront like they were back when Earth Wind & Fire was out. So it made me feel a lot better that they‟re there, that they aren‟t going anywhere, that I am not the only one sitting in my car about to cry, that you know it‟s still around.

So do you think soulful music will ever hit the forefront again?

Jeff: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, being blessed to be around for a little while, it‟s cool that I have seen things go into a cycle—you know, see it leave and come back around. You really start to understand that cliché that your older siblings or your mom and dad would tell you. It may not come back around exactly how it was, but it‟s gonna come back around in some shape, or some form. The melodies and harmonies and vocals in music, and just that whole thing, I think it has no choice but to repeat the cycle. Then also—and me and Short were talking about this—playing now I am starting to see a trend with the younger generation. They wanna hear music like they hear it on their iPod. And on their iPod, they got a 3rd Eye Blind song, they got a Biggie song, a 2Pac song, they have a jazz song, they have a Sting song, and a Drake song. It‟s not one particular genre of music. It‟s kinda like, „These are all my favorite songs and they‟re jumbled all up, and when I am on the subway, or on the train, I am listening to them in random, cuz this is how I like my music.‟ You‟re starting to find that the audience is a lot more receptive to you going in different places. They follow you. Whereas there was a time when you were a little scared to make that turn, like, I sure hope they get this. I realize that at a younger age, they are starting to understand and know different types of music—and old music too.

That’s actually very exciting; it opens up a whole new playing field.

Jeff: It is.

Back in the day you created some moves on the turntable that now DJs everywhere are emulating (Jeff laughs. Shortkut just shakes his head, as if to say this goes beyond words). You obviously used the turntable as an instrument, at a time when people thought it wasn’t. So what do you think about the way computers are being used now?

Jeff: You know what, I‟m a gadget fanatic. As much as I love the music, and as much as I love the purity of something, I understand that technology will never go away. I think you start to become a little prejudice, because it‟s almost like you want your technology to be at the level that you feel comfortable with. And I am pretty sure, at some point in time, people weren‟t comfortable with what we were doing with turntables. So it‟s the same thing. I can‟t really say anything about what somebody does with a computer. And that‟s a huge fight with me, cuz I consider myself somewhat of a music purist. But I remember having this debate with someone who said that at a music festival, if there are 10,000 people there, 250 of them see the DJ, or see exactly what the DJ is doing. And this turned into the argument that, well, if the majority of the people are only gonna receive it through their ears, does it necessarily matter how you give it to them? Because 95% only want to hear it. They don‟t care how you‟re throwing it out, they don‟t care what kind of equipment you‟re putting it out in. And that made a lot of sense, you know, as much as I wanna be like, (huffing and puffing) „I‟m gonna keep my turntables until I die!‟ How can I criticize 10,000 kids for enjoying the music because it‟s not delivered to them in the way that I think it should be?

Well you’re clearly a team player, a collaborator and connection-forger. Who have been some of your favorite people to work with?

Jeff: Oh man. That‟s like asking who some of your favorite kids are. Um, I don‟t know if I necessarily have a favorite. I think they‟re all different. I’m a little bit different, because I am somebody that can only work with people after I have created somewhat of a vibe with them. And I‟ve been envious of people, especially producers, who can just walk in the room with somebody and instantly do something. That‟s probably the reason why I never tried to offer my production services like a DJ Premier or a Pete Rock or somebody like

that. Because if I am not really vibing with you, it might not happen, so how am I gonna say, „Hey I‟m gonna work with you?‟ It‟s one of those weird if-it-happens-it-happens kind of things; you want it to be organic. But being like that, I ended up forming a group of people that were very like-minded. We would sit in the studio and listen to music—just listen to music—for three or four hours, and get so inspired that everybody would run off into a separate room and just create. And we were able to create some really good records like that. So you know: six in one hand, half a dozen in the other…

Sounds like you went for the most efficient route, going straight for the quality interaction! (Yeah, says Jeff.) That probably leads somewhat into my next question, which is: What is the most surprising, or the most interesting, thing you have learned about yourself on your musical journey?

Jeff: Oooh…! Man. I think I am still learning it. I am on a quest to be very creatively free. I think when people start making music—and it‟s the same thing in DJing—when you start, you have a level of freedom because you don‟t have any expectations. If you attain any level of success, the expectations start to come in, and your brain starts to stifle your creativity. It is a MAJOR journey to try to erase that, or get back from that. I went through it in DJing and in production. There was a period when I got so disenchanted with the music industry, or just the business side of it, that it would stop me from making music. I would go to start creating, and my brain would say, „What are you doing this for? You‟re gonna have to go through all the red tape and all the BS in order to get it out.‟ It would make me shut down, and that was something that I NEVER did before. I never allowed that to come into my psyche when making music. It‟s almost like you‟re stopping yourself before you even do it, and it‟s a very interesting personal journey to get yourself out of it. To me, it‟s really the true identity of what the matrix was—and you see people who can navigate in that world and not fall into that trap, and then you see people who just live there. They have no way out, they are just depressed. And for myself I am just trying to figure out how in the world I can have any level of a creative job, and be depressed? How can you be depressed about DJing? You can play anything you want! What are you depressed for? And how can you be depressed about making music? It‟s part of the creative process, trying to get back to that period of just doing it. Like I have albums that I made to clean my house. Or I can make this just for my kids, or this is how I felt today and I am making it and then I am just gonna play it for me. Everything that you do isn‟t for sale; you don‟t have to sell it. But sometimes you get people around you that think everything needs to be for sale.

It’s maintaining that connection to your own creative power, and it evolves over time.

Jeff: Yeah, you know, it changes. It changes. [Shortkut and I] were talking downstairs about being married and having kids, and how it affects your creativity. I am two different people at two different times. I can catch a vibe and it will immediately take me somewhere—and then my wife will call me up for dinner. And it‟s kinda like, „I can‟t eat right now…‟ But it‟s very hard for non-creative people to understand that I just kicked a rock and it bounced in a way that made a beat, and I gotta go put it down. I always say that all creative people have a bond—that little crazy—that non-creative people don‟t get.

That’s where that group of like-minded people who you work with and vibe with end up being such an important resource.

Jeff: And what you also have to understand, which was a very big lesson, is that the creative partnership doesn‟t last forever. It‟s a certain amount of time, and you have to be comfortable with knowing that. You get with that artist or with that group of DJs, or you get with a group of creative people, and it probably was the right time at the right place; everybody was doing the same thing. And sometimes you kinda want to recreate that—and it‟s not like you never can—but often you can‟t. When we made the Jill Scott record, the biggest question that I‟ve always gotten was, „When are you and Jill gonna get back together and make another album?‟ And it‟s kinda like, that may never happen. Jill is in a different place; I am in a different place; the industry is in a different place; the world is in a different place. All of those were factors that made that record special. It‟s lightning in a bottle, and you just have to be ready. There are a lot of people who, when the lightning strikes, they‟re not ready, and they can only maximize so much. And then there are people who are ready, who can take that ball

and get it rolling for the rest of their career. But I feel like sometimes people quit before the time comes. They are so impatient. You can have everything set up perfect and you‟re complaining that it‟s just not happening. It‟s just a question of being ready with that opportunity happens, and knowing how much you can handle.

What you are saying reminds me of a quote—that most of our suffering comes from trying to make temporary things permanent, and permanent things temporary. (Yep, says Jeff.) It’s a matter of not attaching to the past or future; staying in the moment so you can be that wide receiver (Yep, says Jeff), having your bottle empty, with the lid off. (That‟s it, says Jeff.) Well here is one more philosophical inquiry: What is music? What’s your definition? (This question creates many deep breaths, and much shaking and rubbing of heads.)

Jeff: Hmmm…I think—music, to me, is sounds mixed with emotions and colors. It mixes with emotions to form new emotions.

That’s beautiful! (I inform Jeff that I‟ll be contacting Webster after the interview, to have him update the dictionary. Then I look to Shortkut, wanting his answer too.)

Shortkut: For me it can be therapy; it can be inspiration. Emotions are in there as well. But, oh man—on the broadest note, for me, it‟s just my soul. If there is a sense I couldn‟t do without, it would be hearing. Especially as a DJ, I listen to so many different kinds of music. It‟s just the soundtrack of life, for me.

(I beam at these bright artists, so dedicated to playing the instruments they are.) What do we have to look forward to in the next 50 years? Highlights? Ideas hatching?

Jeff: They say, „When you get older, you return to your infant stage.‟ I am hoping that the journey back to my infant stage will also bring the mentality of no-holds-barred. I think I understand what it is, and I‟m in the trying-to-figure-it-out stage. So I am looking forward! And it‟s funny, because I feel like I am setting myself up. I just recently moved, and there is a guesthouse on the property that I had no idea what to do with. But then something clicked, and I realized I could build a studio there. A place where people can come and stay and just write and make music. It‟s in the country, secluded, with a lot of land, so there are two four-wheelers and a pool and a basketball court. People could stay upstairs and cook their own food, come downstairs work on music, then go outside shoot some hoops, then jump in the pool, then go four-wheeling. Most of the musicians I know want to get away at times, and just get back into their music. So I almost think that the idea of putting this together is my third mind telling me that this is going to be where I end up. Because right now, I have no idea why I am building this. There are times I wake up and think I am crazy, like „What am I doing this for?‟

Oh, because they’re coming. It’s like “Field of Dreams”…

Jeff: Ya, I really think it‟s gonna end up there. It‟s the kind of creative space I need, so I figure somebody else is gonna need it too.

Off the record, we talk more about the creative process and removing blocks to achieving dreams.

“To take your art to any real height, you gotta remove the safety net,” says Jeff. “It‟s a battle you have with yourself every time you go do that creative thing.” And it gets harder as you get older, because success as an adult is often tied to security in a 9-to-5 job. It takes guts to step out from under the shadow of doubt, and raw steaming naked into your creative jumpsuit.

Jeff has a way of rubbing his head, or kicking his feet out in front of him as he talks. You can feel he is really behind his words. He uses his hands a lot too, and his eyebrows. He has a straightforward, honest gaze, and his eyes are always smiling. He seems connected to himself and his work, and finds perpetual amusement in it. “If

people took the chance, you never know who the greats might be. It‟s a head trip. You have to create your own world.”

I came away feeling inspired, so glad this man is alive and producing his vibe at large. Join Jazzy Jeff on the road by tuning into Vinyl Destination!

(Source: Soular Power System)