20 summers ago, Jazzy Jeff’s opening command in the hip-hop classic “Summertime” kickstarted countless barbecues, picnics and long nighttime drives. Little has changed since. In 1991, as producers K. Fingers and Hula were lifting Kool & the Gang’s leisurely dulcet “Summer Madness” for “Summertime,” Philadelphia native Will Smith was in Los Angeles, spending his first year away from home to shoot Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He missed his friends and family and nostalgia was kicking in. “I think ‘Summertime’ might have been the easiest song he’s ever written,” recalls Jazzy Jeff. “Because all he was doing was writing down his feelings and emotions of those Philly summers.”
Two decades later, Jazzy Jeff continues to juggle his multifaceted career as a producer, DJ and mentor, most recently with Toronto soul singer Ayah and Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller. Despite a DJ schedule rivaling Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, the 46-year-old still oversees his A Touch of Jazz production house and has released a series of mixtapes and albums, including last year’s flawless Summertime: The Mixtape with Mick Boogie. He spoke to us about the enduring appeal of “Summertime,” why he loves Justin Bieber and how a 900 number made him a very wealthy man.
When you were recording “Summertime,” did you have any sense it would turn into this perennial anthem?
Not. Even. Every year, Will and I are waiting for this record to die. Not in a bad way, but just like, you didn’t think that this song was going to be like this. We knew it was a great record and thought people might play it every once in a blue moon, but not every summer. It’s almost like this song is the launch of peoples’ summer.
When did you start to realize its staying power?
Probably about two or three years later. It’s funny because it was almost like a Christmas record. You only have a certain timeframe, with summer lasting into September. Then you start getting calls like, “Wow, they’re playing ‘Summertime’ in Australia in December.” The next year, people started dropping it at the beginning of summer and by the third year, it’s just like, “Yeah. It’s not going to be big this year. Somebody’s going to come out with something that’s going to replace it.” But it never happened. I will never take for granted that every year, people absolutely have to play “Summertime.” It’s amazing.
How do you feel when you hear the song now? Do you immediately get nostalgic?
That’s one of the only records we made that makes me feel exactly the same as I did the day it came out. Everything was captured so perfectly. When Will’s talking about little kids playing in the water plug, I go immediately back to my childhood to a fire hydrant in West Philly. That’s how we grew up, but not realizing that everybody has some version of what summertime meant to them.
The video has a natural, spontaneous vibe. How much did what we see mirror real life?
It’s very simple. We told the director Jim Swaffield (R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario”) that we wanted to have a family reunion and we want you to shoot it. Everybody in that video was a part of our family and friends. With a video, you normally have catering, so we just had a barbecue at the Belmont Plateau in Philly and invited all of our friends. It was very organic and I think that came across. I got into so much trouble from people who were like, “Why didn’t you invite me?” It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, you guys just shot a video.” It was, “Wow. You had a barbecue and didn’t tell me?” We did it in two days: one to shoot the barbecue, the other just us driving around on a flatbed in Philly.
As someone who’s not from Philly, I’ve wanted to ask this for 20 years: What was The Plateau and why did everybody go there?
[Laughs] The Belmont Plateau was a section in the park where cars could pull in and park, but it sat so high up that it gave an immaculate view of the city skyline. Every Sunday afternoon in the summer, everybody would park there, turn on the radio and just walk around. It’d be 10-15 thousand people every Sunday. There was a snack hut that would offer electricity to any DJ who would bring their equipment up, so it became a free park party. The cops were like, “If we know we have all these people in one place, all we have to do is make sure this place is cool ’cause everywhere else in the city is quiet.” It was a ritual. You got up Sunday morning, waxed your car, got everything clean, made sure you had your sound system, put on your best summer clothes and drove out to the park and just sat on top of your hood.
There’s been a longstanding rumor that Rakim wrote part or all of “Summertime” for Will. Is there any truth to that?
Not at all. He had absolutely nothing to do with it. When Will did “Summertime,” I remember telling him, “Don’t say your name.” If Vanilla Ice would’ve made “Summertime” and didn’t say his name, you could not dismiss that you like this song. I knew how much Will nailed it, but you had people that didn’t necessarily look at me and Will as hip-hop because we had crossed over and sold so many records on the pop side. So for us to come back and do a record that started off very strong on black radio, we’d always get, “Oh shit. That’s Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince?” If he had said his name in the beginning, there’d be people who would’ve just turned it off or dismissed it. Will was always very hyper and I told him, “Bring it back. Vibe with it.” And when he did that, everyone was like, “Wow. He sounds like Rakim.” From the first day we played the record for people, they thought it was Rakim. When we first released it, everyone was like, “Did you hear that new song that Rakim did?”
What do you think are the elements of a perfect Song of the Summer?
More than anything, it has to be the vibe. You have to create a vibe that exudes summer—and I can’t necessarily pinpoint what that is; sometimes it’s chord progression, sometimes it’s a groove—and music takes on the first impression when you hear it. So it might have been the perfect time to release something and that stamp just goes on it. You have to picture listening to it driving in a convertible or with your windows down with the wind blowing in your face. I like Frank Ocean’s “Novacane.” When I heard that, I was like, “Ohhhh shit.” That made me feel like this is something for the summer.
That’s an interesting choice. As someone whose partner is known for wholesome, family-friendly lyrics, what do you think of Odd Future?
I think that’s creative freedom and I love them. 20, 25 years ago, you were fans of groups. As a fan, you rode with somebody no matter what and your favorite groups made records you didn’t like. You didn’t throw them to the side. You rode with them until they made something else you liked. The generation after that, from around 1996 onward, became fans of records. They didn’t care about groups. With the rise of the Internet, we’ve gone back to that original time. I completely get Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber because they developed their fan base. In hip-hop, guys like Odd Future or Mac Miller didn’t even have record deals. They would just post their tracks and albums for free and their fans would start passing them around. And they became so big, they started selling out shows. Mac Miller gets tens of thousands of dollars to perform and you’ve never heard a song on the radio. That’s a fan base and I love that. When you have fans, they won’t just buy your music, they’ll buy into you. Mac Miller doesn’t have to sell a record at all. He sells shows and T-shirts. Artists can make more money giving their music away for free and just selling themselves.
If you started managing a young artist today, would you recommend they release an album for free?
Yes. Absolutely. Put your time and energy into a publicist or someone else who will point the finger at where you are and what your music is. The most amazing movie I saw this year was Justin Bieber’s movie [Never Say Never]. I walked away from that a strict Justin Bieber fan. He put out his first song and went to the radio stations and they weren’t playing it. But he was on Twitter saying, “Hey, I’m coming to Hot 97,” and would get there and the radio station would wonder why there were 100 girls downstairs. His fanbase that he built on his own made the radio station say, “We gotta play it if they’re following him.” You start to realize: An artist having direct interaction with his fans? What do you need a record company for? Young artists look at labels like, you guys are the bank who gives the loans out with the highest interest rate I’ve ever seen in my life and I don’t really need a loan right now.
Is it true that the 900 number you and Will set up made more money than record sales?
Absolutely. The first 900 number was for wrestling, and the same guy used to follow us around and ask us all these questions [for the recording]. This guy used to follow us all around the country on tour and force us to sit in a room and talk for 30 seconds. And you don’t realize how hard it is after giving 4, 5, 6 30-second bites; we didn’t have anything else to say. We never took it seriously. They became a pain and we used to run from him. Until we got that first check. And that had nothing to do with the record company; that went straight to us. All of a sudden, there’s an $800,000 check and we were like, “Wait a minute. That was for us talking to people on the phone?”
When you DJ, do you get different reactions outside of the U.S. than stateside?
I think the appreciation level for music is greater outside than in the U.S. I know some DJs think that us being Americans, we’re the smartest, most knowledgeable people on the planet and end up going to places and playing to crowds like they’re dumb. These are crowds that will tell you who wrote the record, who produced the record and who played on the record. It raises your knowledge of music. I just did Slovenia and the instruction I got from the promoter—and no one ever gives me instructions—but the instructions he gave me were, “The more they don’t know, the more they enjoy it.” And it was one of the best gigs I’ve down.
Having DJed for more than 30 years, has it gotten harder or easier to read crowds and gauge what they want?
It’s tough because my job as a DJ never allows me to stop learning and I think what happens is a lot of very well-known DJs think that they reach a point where it’s over. I’ve gone through two or three generations where your “old-school set” has shifted. I remember in the late 1990s when you’d do a show and your old-school set was “Rapper’s Delight,” “Eric B. is President,” etc. I did a show in D.C. recently and I dropped one of those records and everyone just stood there and looked at me. The entire audience moves up 10 years at some point. You go to clubs now and Ludacris is old school. You have to be aware that at some point in time, there’s going to be a shift. I have a 24-year-old son and I’m playing for kids younger than him.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the last DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince album. You’ve produced for Will since, but any chance of a full reunion?
You know what? We’ve been talking about doing that and going on tour. It’s just very, very hard with the biggest movie star in the world. Trust me, I tell everybody, his heart is 100% in it. But Men in Black III will rule that out very quickly [laughs].
On July 4, Summertime Pt. 2 will be available for free at DJJazzyJeff.com; DJ Jazzy Jeff plays Brooklyn Bowl on July 11.