Fast Company

Innovation: The Digital Prophecy Of DJ Jazzy Jeff

I really cherish my talks with DJ Jazzy Jeff. As a "prophet" of the music business whom I have tons of respect for, I have spent several hours over the last few years with my friend and business colleague Jeff Townes aka "DJ Jazzy Jeff" discussing the fate of the record business. Me, a digital entertainment geek and he both student and key influencer of global pop culture who happens to DJ weekly in Tokyo, London, Prague, Toronto to Decatur in any given month. This of course supports his intense "drug habit" called Sneaker Collecting which has been well documented.Most know Jeff from his role as equal partner in the hip hop group DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, or for some of you "new jacks" as the guy who Uncle Phill is always throwing out of the door on the hit comedy series, "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." I have gotten to know him as a wise "industry sage" who is often found holding court about the ins-outs of the entertainment business in his kitchen making his famous waffles.

As a globetrotter Jazzy Jeff has first hand knowledge of what is happening around the world with the music business, evolving distribution shifts and consumers who love quality music. Around 7 years ago Jeff came home from a month long run of Asia and called me to say, "It's over for the record business" after walking by a street vendor who had rows and rows of MP3 discs for sale of any artist you could imagine. Jeff said of this experience, "When I saw my Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince entire collection for $5, I knew it was over."

Jeff has since been on a terror over the last 5 years building his brand around DJing, Podcasting and the release of underground Hip Hop's most talked about album series The Magnificent. As a result of his commitment to understanding the digital space his revenues from being a DJ have seen a dramatic increase now that he practically gives his music away for free and focuses on "super-serving" his customer with an "experience" vs just selling plastic discs. (Sounds very Long Tail right?) He is the first to say, "Music should be free, the experience is what you should be paying for." Clearly brands like Scion, Heineken, and Anheuser Busch have recognized the aura of DJ Jazzy Jeff as they have all at one point partnered with him on tours.

Those of us lucky enough to be in DJ Jazzy Jeff's sphere of influence in 1998 were treated to a CD that he personally delivered to us (Jeff pressed up 3000 cd's for his closest friends); something he called "a little something to clean the house to." This was commonplace in the late 90's as his homemade CD's by unsigned artists his production company A Touch of Jazz were producing in his Philadelphia studio were "must haves" for those of us who subscribed to being on top of "good music." Some of the artists that we got to hear before anyone else included such talent as Musiq Soulchild, Floetry, Eric Roberson, and Raheem Devaughn all of whom today drive the last hope we have for good soul music.

In 98' Jeff was working with a talented spoken word artist named Jill Scott and "blessed us" with a CD we passed around that had everyone on my 26th floor of 550 Madison Avenue, Columbia Records office saying, "James, who is this Jill Scott chick you keep playing?" As a a devout Jazzy Jeff/ATOJ evangelist, I played the metal out of that CD, and as an executive at Columbia, I passed it along to everyone I worked with including the guy who emptied my office trash. One of the people I handed it to was an A&R guy at Columbia in hopes we would consider signing her to a record deal. He passed on her (In the words of Red Foxx, "big dummy") and handed it to Hidden Beach founder Steve Mckeever and the rest is history for Jill's career. Jill's album titled "Who Is Jill Scott" was released in 2000 and she was nominated for a Grammy. The power of a viral brand; The power of giving away your music for free. Ol' Jeff Townes has always been ahead of his time. Jeff this week's article in Businessweek, "The Big Record Labels' Not-So-Big Future" is for our talks over cheese steaks and Gremlins in Philly. We called this one buddy, it's all coming back full circle!

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8 Comments

  • Lewis Perkins

    James, a great blog entry and certainly makes the point that too often we ignore the visionaries. Trending is a little bit business acumen and a lot of intuition, but usually rooted in the truth. Thanks for reminding us of this.
    P.S. Great meeting you at VV’s tonight….

  • Eburks

    Through our formulaic and mechanical treatment of the creation of music we have created a "throw away" culture. Carbon copy artists sound just like one another, albums are sampled, re-sampled and then re-mixed. Why wouldn't consumers be burning and buying pirated copies of artist's cds as fast as they crank out their two dollar tunes? I'm not too old, but I do remember a time when you bought an artist's cd because you wanted to support their career. It was some sort of fiscal pat on the back to pony up that $12.99, a way of saying "Hey, you're doing something worthwhile." But today when artists brag that they made their album in only 3 weeks, I'm not at all surprised that consumers put just as much work and heart into getting an artist's cd as the artist put into making it. If we want a culture of conscious music consumption, we need conscious artists that inspire it in their fans.

  • Diana McClure

    It's all about lifestyle...and Jazzy sounds like he's "livin'" - travel, chillin' with friends, making & spreading "good" music...which is really all on the internet. The fall of the mainstream music industry and televison will hopefully bring back diversity and innovation on public airwaves and in turn stop turning out cookie cutter human beings.

  • jen farris

    Man James. I sure love Jazzy Jeff! I had the pleasure to witness his genius at ATOJ office some years back and had the incredible experience of hanging out in his studio with him for hours! A memory that will be etched in my head for a lifetime! He is amazing!!!

    Many props to you for the feature! I wish the people would go back to the days of listening to brilliant DJs like JJ and the esteemed retailer (that KNOWS varieties of music) rather than relying so heavily on positions on BET 106 & Park's chart to determine the fate of records.

    Thank God for DJs like Jazzy Jeff that keep great music alive.

  • Mykel

    Man...very well put...I'm so glad you have this platform...maybe now the labels will wake up and start looking at alternate ways to keep their pockets on FAT....it's doable but they will have to get rid of a lot of the current exec's they have...a lot of them are incapable of thinking outside of the "BOX"....

  • James Poyser

    Indeed, Jeff is a prophet. I've learned quite a bit from him, working with him in the studio, watching him practice his craft on the "ones and twos", yapping with him in his kitchen, over a plate of fried fish or chicken (and of course waffles...."sup wit all dat fried food, yo?"). He certainly has a vision and has definitely worked with that vision in mind. Thanks for sticking to yo guns big bro, you've given us a lot of good music. Can't wait to hear whats next.

  • Omer Saar

    Let's take a second to really appreciate Jazzy Jeff and his contribution to music over the last 20 years. He is one of the few who stay true to what they believe is good music and do not compromise their standards. Instead, Jeff finds innovative ways to do what he does best...give us good music.