There’s no denying the cultural influence and commercial impact of hip-hop these days. From its humble beginnings, a great multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up around this genre, with artists such as Destiny’s Child, R. Kelly, D’Angelo, Jay-Z, Lil Bow Wow, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige constantly occupying top chart positions and shaping the face of pop culture around the world. As ubiquitous as hip-hop is today, you’d hardly believe there was once a time when the music industry swept it under the carpet. How things have changed in a decade! One man who’s determined to keep the path of creativity moving forward in hip-hop and urban music is DJ Jazzy Jeff, a guy who, interestingly enough, was there right from the start.

Known in the mainstream for his role as rapper/actor Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith’s musical sidekick, not to mention being a celebrated scratch DJ and influential hip-hop turntablist in his own right, DJ Jazzy Jeff has spent the last few years developing and nurturing some impressive new talent at his Philadelphia studio complex A Touch Of Jazz. Here, surrounded by a roster of young producers, writers, DJs and artists, he’s been striving to further the creativity-fostering approach of legendary Philly Soul producers Gamble and Huff… with some quite enviable success. His first protégé Jill Scott, a local poet-turned-singer/songwriter whose platinum-selling debut Who Is Jill Scott? Words And Sounds Vol. 1 was entirely written, recorded and produced at A Touch of Jazz, has become a runaway success in the seven months since the album’s release. A sublime R&B-soul crossmatch by an artist who’s been described as “a hip-hop Patti Smith,” the record recently picked up three Soul Train Music Award nominations and three Grammy nominations—for Best R&B Album, Best Female R&B Performance for the buttery smooth single “Gettin’ In The Way,” and the career-establishing Best New Artist.

Jeff is rightfully proud of the studio’s involvement in Jill Scott’s breakthrough. “We did everything here,” he boasts of the record’s fruition, “right down to having an involvement in the cover and the way the project looked. It was reminiscent of the old days when you had your hands in all the facets of making a record. It was very grass roots, and with little thought for the commercial aspect. We didn’t make it with the radio listener in mind, our goal was just to make a really good album that people would love from beginning to end.”

Since the recording of that album, the studio has played host to numerous established and up-and-coming artists including Paula Abdul, Monica, Philadelphia soul funk singer Musiq, Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker and foxy rapper Lil’ Kim, and at the time of our interview was in full swing with a new English duo Floetry. “They’re incredible,” raves Jeff of the female vocalist and street-poet twosome he’s currently developing for his own label. “We’re doing the same thing we did with Jill, keeping it in-house, at least for now. It helps when you have your own situation because you have the freedom to try anything.”

Jeff, whose real name is Jeff Townes, describes A Touch of Jazz as a “creative playground,” set up primarily to be beneficial to the producers, artists and the workplace. “We own these studios, so there’s no hourly rate. The idea is to feel comfortable. We don’t feel that creativity should be on the clock,” he explains. The below-ground facility located just a couple of miles from Philadelphia’s town center boasts three complete 48-track digital and 24-track analog rooms, in addition to a couple of smaller production studios and a busy office. Each studio contains a cross-section of classic and vintage keyboards, modern digital sound modules and samplers, and the very latest in high-end recording gear, as if to offer a constant reminder that some of the greatest music has been made by melding past and present.

“We do a mixture of vintage live music with a lot of modern electronics—modern soul, I call it… We’re really into free creativity,” says Jeff of his broad-minded approach.

“As much as I’m a fan of all the equipment,” he continues, “it’s using it to your advantage and letting it be your tool for getting out your ideas that’s most important. There’s some gear you can get that uses you, but what we want to do is use the gear for what we want, to make the creative process very easy.”

As one of the earliest hip-hop DJ-turned-producers, Jeff acknowledges the influence of Roland on his artistic development. Starting out in the mid-’80s, he was an avid user of now-classic hip-hop machines like the TR-606, -808 and -909 Rhythm Composers and the TB-303 Bassline.

“I still have them all. The -606 was the first drum machine that I ever had, and I still love the sounds on it, though I haven’t actually broken it out in a while. [As for] the -808 and –909, I can get a lot of those sounds from other things now. I still use my D-550 [L/A Synthesizer Module]—there’s a lot of sounds on that I still like. Right now what’s cool is you don’t need as much gear as you did back in the day. My MIDI racks used to be completely full, but now I’m using about three pieces. What I tell people who might be setting up a small production studio is if they have a drum machine and a JV-1080 or -2080 [64-Voice Synthesizer Module], that’s all you need, because you can buy the expansion cards. With the bass card, the keys card and the vintage card you’re basically straight.”

In fact, it was the JV-1080 loaded with the Bass & Drums, Keyboards of the ’60s & ‘70s, Concert Piano and the Vintage Synth cards that formed the soundbed for much of the Jill Scott record, according to Jeff. “We have -1080s and -2080s in all of the rooms, because what I’ve found is that the sounds in the Roland gear are very, very authentic. We use a lot of keyboard sounds—pianos, a lot of Rhodes, Wurlitzers, Clavinets—and those sounds are spot on. If I don’t pull out the real Rhodes or a real Clavinet, I can go to a -1080 with the ’60s & ’70s card in and I have 35 different variations that I can use, which is really helpful to me.

“Especially with there being a bunch of producers and songwriters down here, sounds are everything,” he attests. “As we get new cards I’ll put them in the machines, and what will happen is you’ll hear the new sounds and the new songs that have come out because of them. It really opens the door for creativity when you have something that you’re not used to hearing… something that’s a little bit different.”

As someone who started out DJ’ing in clubs with little more than a pair of turntables and a mixer, Jeff admits that he feels far more comfortable using tangible instruments—boxes you can get your hands on and manipulate in real time—than their virtual equivalents. “I trust the boxes a little bit more than software and computers. I just like hardware,” he says. “I’ve always been open to new technology and I really got into computers when they first came out, and the plug-ins and all that stuff, but I had some bad experiences and it made me leery.”

Nevertheless, he’s recently become a convert to hard disk recording via the Roland VS-1680 Digital Studio Workstation, which he sees as the ideal combination of computer technology and the ease-of-use factor associated with hardware. “We have a -1680 in one of the studios which actually replaced the digital tape recorders we had in there previously. One of the producers does all of his tracking in it—he cuts his lead vocal and syncs it straight to the computer and then controls it from the -1680 or from the computer [See page 70 of this magazine for more on using the –1680 with computers –Ed.]. He just lines everything up, does all his background composites and flies them throughout the song where he needs them. He actually does everything on the -1680 without using any of the other machines, even to the point of mixing. Then once everything is done he dumps it all to tape,” describes Jeff.

“And that’s a classic example of using equipment and not letting the equipment use you. It’s very easy for him to do it that way. He has his own setup and he can knock things out very quickly and efficiently. You don’t want to have the equipment take up so much of your time that you’re not being economical. It’s better to use your time to be creative, not be hindered by the technology,” he says. “And now what’s happened is all of the other producers have started getting -1680s [or current -1880s] too!”

With his penchant for hardware and his enviable hip-hop remixing skills, it’s not surprising that Jeff was an early convert to Roland’s VP-9000 VariPhrase Processor. A cutting-edge audio processing tool that allows you to make samples “elastic,” the VP-9000 is particularly well-suited to the type of sample manipulation that comes naturally to DJ/producers like Jeff.

“As a DJ, when I’m cutting records at a party I’m basically remixing on the fly,” begins Jeff, his eyes lighting up at the mention of the
VP-9000. “I’m hearing a chord breakdown on an old jazz record, and while I’m playing a beat in my head I’m hearing that the chord breakdown falls right on a 4/4 time signature, so I grab it and loop it and then play my own bass line on top of it to make it a completely new song,” he continues. Jeff adds that in the studio, as long as you have the time and the patience, you have the opportunity to be a great deal more adventurous.

“Tuning samples, putting in loops and breakbeats, cutting pieces up and moving them around… there’s a lot of manipulation involved to make it all fit. And it’s difficult if you’re mixing together samples from obscure sources, and sometimes impossible, to get it to work. Man, I’ve gone through the days of doing all that! Now with the VP-9000 you can just take anything, in any key, at any speed, and make it fit, and make it sound really good.

“For someone like me who’s been doing this for a long time,” he enthuses, “it does what I’ve been waiting for a machine to do for about 15 years.”

Jeff is somewhat coy about the fact that, not being a diligent manual-reader, it took him a little while to really realize the potential of the VP. But now that he has, he says, there’s definitely no turning back. “I feel like I stumbled on it. I heard about what it could do and I tried it out on loan from a store and I was like ‘Oh this is cool, you can change this, you can do that…’ but it wasn’t until I bumped into Dean Coleman, a DJ who also works for Roland, that I began to realize what I had in my studio. He came down and showed me some stuff, like how it locks to the tempo of your sequencer so that all your samples fit to your sequence. And that was it. Within 10 minutes I was looking for the phone so I could tell everyone!”

What does Jeff specifically like about the VP?
“Being able to take anything that you’ve ever wanted to sample and putting it into any key that you want and fitting it to any tempo that you want. Being able to change the key in the middle of the sample, which is absolutely phenomenal to me. If you have a beat that you really like, you can break it up so you grab the kick off of this beat or grab the snare off of that beat, route it to separate outputs and program it yourself so you can turn a button and it will break the segments of the beat up on different keys. If you’re doing stuff like that on a computer-based program, you have to wait for it to draw the wavelength and make the calculations, but to have a box that you can just go straight out and do it is amazing.”

With two sides to his musical personality—the hip-hop side where he’s always searching through used and rare vinyl for new samples to use, and the R&B/soul side where he’s striving to create new sounds and manipulate them to come up with something fresh—Jeff admits that it’s virtually unheard of to find a piece of equipment that fully satisfies both approaches. But with the VP-9000, he suspects he’s at last reached gear nirvana.

“From a hip-hop perspective, there were so many records that I wanted to use or do beats with that just didn’t fit with this record or that bassline, or weren’t in the right key, or I wished I could have moved parts around… it’s like, with the VP-9000 you can make anything fit. You can put two very different samples in the machine and tune them so that they’re all in the same key and in the same pitch. That’s incredible,” he grins. “A lot of times in the studio we’ll create our own stuff and sample it, particularly experimenting with vocal lines. We’ve been doing some very different things with vocals, and with live keyboard lines too, or with me scratching and manipulating what I’ve done after the event. Because my stuff is so rhythmic, I can record scratches and then make them fit to any beat. It could be a record that’s 150 BPM, which may be a little bit too fast for me to scratch at, but if I scratch at 92 BPM and do something really nice, then I can put it at 150 BPM and it’ll fit perfectly and still sound crystal clear.

“It’s endless what you can do with this machine. It opens up your creative freedom to try new things, and it’s like when I talked about letting the equipment work for you. Now you know what it can do, be creative with it! It’s like when they did that dance record with Cher [“Believe,” produced by Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling] and they used that auto-tune/vocoder effect on her vocal—that revolutionized dance music. I really don’t believe you should use every piece of gear the way it’s supposed to be used; treat it as a tool, do things they don’t tell you about in the manual.”

Jeff admits he feels torn between telling everyone about how great the VP-9000 is and keeping his thoughts to himself, for fear that someone will make a killer record with it before he does. “It’s the most incredible piece of gear that I’ve ever seen, and I’m convinced somebody’s going to use it and it’ll be revolutionary. Somebody’s going to do a record that is going to be one of the biggest records of the hip-hop/R&B genre and people aren’t going to understand how in the hell they did it. And I’m just saying, you know what, I’m going to have to beat everybody to the punch!”

That said, Jeff couldn’t help but spill the beans to a handful of his closest friends, including Nuyorican Soul producer and one half of the Masters At Work production team Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, and hip-hop producers Peanut Butter Wolf and DJ Spinna. “Some of your close people, you’ll pull their coattail and say, ‘You really need to get this piece of equipment, you will not regret it’,” laughs Jeff.

If the producer formerly known as DJ Jazzy Jeff sounds like a happy man right now, it’s with good reason. Finding an audio processor he’s been waiting for all his life is certainly cause for celebration, but more than that, he’s carving a very impressive niche for himself in the combined worlds of hip-hop, R&B and soul production—and in the last year people have really begun to stand up and take notice. Is Jeff planning to rest on his laurels? Not likely. The critical and commercial success of the Jill Scott record is only the beginning, he claims, and he has plenty more where that came from.

“We’re concentrating hard on the Floetry record right now, and that’s going through my own label which is also something I’m in the process of solidifying. We also have various outside projects in progress—an incredible singer who’s signed to Universal named Calvin Richardson, a young lady Alicia James who’s signed to Ruff Nation, we’re working with Faith Evans, and we’re recording some tracks for Monica, for her new record. It’s pretty busy around here.”

And though Jeff’s own solo album was put on the back burner last year, he’s now considering an even grander scheme for the project. “We’re in the planning stages of doing a very big album project, basically consisting of every one of the producers and the acts that we have at A Touch Of Jazz,” he reveals. “Not a compilation, more like a big group consisting of DJs, an entire band, and singers. And we’re in the process of opening up a new studio and production house here in Philadelphia—a really big world-class studio with 10 smaller rooms and three really big mix rooms. Hopefully that’ll be done by mid-summer.”

So does this mean you’ll be looking for more Roland gear then, Jeff?

“I already have a shopping list!”