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Check the Technique: The Making of the DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince classic, “He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper”
(Jive / RCA, 1988)
[Taken from Brian Coleman’s 2014 book Check the Technique Volume 2. For more information, visit www.WaxFactsPress.com]
“After all the success of the album and the Grammy, I drove to the McDonald’s drive-thru one day, and the girl was like, ‘What are you doing here?!’ And I was like, ‘Just because I’m successful doesn’t mean I don’t like McDonald’s fries anymore.’ We hadn’t changed, but peoples’ perceptions about us definitely had.”
– DJ Jazzy Jeff
When you think back about hip-hop in the year 1988, a lot of hard, gritty stuff comes to mind. Public Enemy and the S1Ws. Eric B.’s and Rakim’s steely-eyed swagger and thick gold chains. N.W.A.’s gangsta tales and sawed-offs.
But that year also saw the release of Biz Markie’s Goin’ Off; Kid ‘N Play’s 2 Hype; and Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick. The bottom line was: hip-hop wasn’t all hard-rocks and beat downs. The genre was breaking out, and there was room for everyone under its ever-expanding tent.
Into that fray entered the Philly-bred duo of Jazzy Jeff [Jeff Townes] & The Fresh Prince [Willard Smith]. They weren’t brand-new that year, but 1988 was their indisputable introduction to the world at large. They sold a boatload of records, and even won rap’s first Grammy.
They also made a pretty damned incredible album, which had so many top-shelf DJ tracks that it pushed it to become hip-hop’s first double LP.
The first part of this musical equation, DJ Jazzy Jeff, was brought up in West Philadelphia, the youngest of six kids in a musical family. His father, who died before Jeff started DJing in the late ‘70s, was an MC for jazz legend Count Basie, and Jeff says that one of his older brothers played in the legendary Philly soul group The Intruders. “We had tons of old jazz records around the house,” he recalls. “And we’d have bands rehearsing in the basement. I was around all kinds of music as a kid, and I took it all in, like a sponge.”
Aside from a general love of music, he was drawn to DJing at a young age. His first stage moniker was Mixmaster Jeff, but he changed it to “Jazzy” because the old name took too many letters for a t-shirt he wanted to make (one of his old MCs also used to call him Jazzy). He explains his early history: “My grooming on the turntables came as a non-hip-hop DJ, probably around the same time that the early hip-hop guys were doing it in New York. I was DJing before there was hip-hop in Philly. I used to watch the guys at block parties with the huge speakers, and they were controlling hundreds of people. People were happy because of what the DJ was playing. And I used to just sit there on my bike and watch. I wanted to be that guy.”
But there was one small problem. “I never had any equipment of my own,” he says. “I was always in crews and they had the equipment. I used to work routines out in my head, because I couldn’t actually practice at home. I almost think that not having equipment helped me, because DJing became more of a mental thing to me.”
He explains, “For all four years of high school, I almost never ate lunch. I would take the money that my moms gave me for food and I would go downtown and buy records with it. I didn’t have equipment, but I had records.” His vinyl stash continued to grow throughout the late ‘70s, as did his local reputation as a party spinner. As for his approach, he explains: “My style has always been very rhythmic. I also play the drums, so it has to be about rhythm when I DJ. Plus, I always wanted my mom to think that what I was doing sounded cool. I wanted to sound like a musician.”
By the early ‘80s, Jeff and other musical lookouts in Philly could not ignore the heavy rumblings of the new thing coming from New York City, and the Bronx specifically: hip-hop. “When hip-hop hit Philly, it changed all of our DJ styles,” Jeff remembers. “And with me and my brothers and sisters, they were older. So I always felt that hip-hop was mine. It was my voice.” Tapes from artists like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Fantastic Five, Grandmaster Flash and Lightning Lance began to get passed around, from Market Street to Mt. Airy. It was spreading like wildfire.
By the time Jeff had his own turntables, near his high school graduation from Southwest Philly’s John Bartram High in 1982, he was already one of the more established party-rockers in town. And even though Philly was a mere two hours from New York, it might as well have been two continents away. “In Philly at that time, we didn’t know what was really going on in New York, because we never went there. We had to develop our own scene. We were doing what we thought New York was doing. Eventually I saw the difference — in the mid-‘80s Philly was still really into DJs. New York was focusing more on rappers by that point.”
Jeff is quick to mention other early Philly DJ peers who shared flyers with him: Grandmaster Nell (from South Philly); Cosmic Kev (from Mt. Airy); and B-Force. He also reminisces about his own biggest influence, Kid Destroy. Jeff explains, “Kid Destroy was a genius as a DJ and as a producer. He was Mantronix before Mantronix, and he is the one who got me into the production aspect more than anyone else.”
Back in the early 1980s, Jeff’s dreams were modest to say the least. “My biggest goal back then was to be able to one day tell my kids that I was on a record,” he says. “Then I could get a good job at the post office, and everything would be great. As long as I was on a record.” His pre-Fresh Prince work on wax included scratching on local tracks by the Cazal Boys [“Snatching Cazals” from 1985 — Jeff’s work is uncredited] and the Korner Boys [1985’s “The Saga of Roxanne,” with the B-side “Jazzy Jeff Scratch”].
He adds, “No one I knew ever dreamt about being an actual ‘recording artist’ back then. No one.”
As Jeff really started to catch fire as a DJ in early 1985, he met his future rhyme partner in the random way in which these relationships usually begin.
“With the early house party scene in Philly, you knew who all the DJs and MCs were, because there weren’t that many,” Jeff recalls. “And you definitely knew who the good ones were. I saw Will [Smith] in passing at a lot of parties and heard him, and I think he had the same situation with me.”
He continues, “Someone was having a party on his block [in the Wynnefield section of northwest Philly], and I got a last-minute call to DJ the party. I called the guy who MCed for me, Ice-C, and he was nowhere to be found. So I ended up just going to the party by myself. When I got there, me and Will recognized each other. I think he knew me more than I knew him. He asked where Ice was, I said I couldn’t find him, and he asked if he could rock the mic. So he did.”
“It was just weird, we had DJ-and-MC chemistry right away,” he explains. “I remember I dropped out the fourth bar [in an instrumental record] like I always did, to give my MC a chance to say their punch-line, and he jumped right on it. Will had seen Ice-C perform with me before, but he was a lot better of an MC than Ice, even that first time we performed together.”
The two men hung out later that night and a friendship was born. Jeff was three years older than Will and a lot more experienced in the hip-hop game, but the chemistry was what was most important. Before they could start working together as a duo, though, they both had previous entanglements to deal with.
Jeff had been working with Ice-C for a little while and they had done pretty well at parties around town, including gigs at Wagner’s Ballroom in Mt. Airy; the Hotel Philadelphia; and Jeff’s home-base: the 52nd Street YMCA in West Philly. But, Jeff says, “Ice had started to get a big head. The ‘local celebrity’ thing got to him a bit. He wasn’t as available for our shows as he once was, and he’d go to parties by himself and just bask in it. I wasn’t with that.”
Jeff continues, “So I started calling Will up for shows, and there were even two or three shows in 1985 with both Will and Ice as MCs. But it just got to the point where Ice kind of faded out of the picture. And I probably helped him fade out of the picture a little bit, too [laughs]. Basically, I left the guy I was with, Will left his DJ and the other rappers he was with, and we got together.” This, Jeff says, was in the spring of 1985, before the “biggest party season of the year” — which meant gigs performing at high school proms and after-parties.
Jeff recalls one specific early performance staple that became their first calling-card: “One of the routines we would do was ‘Girls Of The World Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.’ Will would rhyme the lyrics over the ‘Moments In Love’ instrumental [by the Art of Noise]. I can still remember watching 500 people in a crowd just stop and stare at Will, hanging on every word of that story.”
Until he joined up with Jeff, Will — who had always called himself The Fresh Prince on the mic, and who graduated Overbrook High School that spring — had been in a local group called the Hypnotic MCs. There were two other MCs in the group besides Will: Lord Supreme and Jamie Fresh. The DJ was Groove Damoast, and they also featured an accomplished beatboxer and occasional rapper named Ready Rock C.
When faced with the choice of going along with his neighborhood crew, or teaming up with one of the hottest DJs in Philly as a solo MC, it’s clear what would have appealed to a young rapper with ambition. Will joined up with Jeff, and Ready Rock came along. “I was definitely cool with Ready Rock coming into the picture,” says Jeff. “He was dope. He wasn’t the main focal point of what we were doing, but it was great to have him in the mix.”
The new trio, with a name that only featured two of them, rocked all the big high school parties of the late spring in Philly. The group also drew some “industry” attention. Philly was far from a hip-hop hotbed when it came to putting out records, but there was some action going on, with labels like Slice and multiple one-off imprints, some which were based around the Sound Makers distribution company. The biggest label in town, when it came to hip-hop in the mid-‘80s, was Pop Art Records. Pop Art still had bigger things ahead of them, but at the time, they had had indie hits with — ironically — several Marley Marl-produced acts out of New York, including Roxanne Shante and Craig G.
Brothers Lawrence and Dana Goodman ran Pop Art and had gotten wind of Jeff and Will. Jeff says, “They heard a recording of us at one of those parties from ‘85, approached us and wanted to put us in the studio. The Goodmans lived in Wynnefield, where Will lived, and they were tapped into the scene. Everybody knew Pop Art, it was really the first Def Jam. And it was the label to be on in Philly.”
After signing a deal for a single — and, as they would find out later, a lot more — they were matched up with local engineer Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo. “I had made a couple records with Lawrence for Pop Art at that point,” Nicolo explains. “We had a working relationship, and the next record at that time was their nephew Steady B, who put out ‘Just Call Us Def’ [in 1985]. When it came to the label in 1985, as far as I could tell, Dana Goodman was more the radio and promotions guy and Lawrence ran the label and did more production.”
Recordings were done at Studio 4, on the outskirts of downtown Philly [“3rd and Callowhill, Northern Liberties, near the water,” says Nicolo], which was owned by Joe and his brother Phil. Nicolo, who was raised a Beatles fan, looked at Jeff and Will — as later A & R reps would also do — through a pop lens rather than a pure hip-hop one. “It was more about making their early songs like pop records. That’s where it started: ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.’ That fit perfectly into the category of people who would say, ‘I’m not into rap music, but I like them.’”
The single for “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which featured a modicum of turntable finesse, a whole lot of Will Smith charm and style, and more than a little bit of Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” storytelling swagger, came out in the fall of 1985. But, interestingly, not on Pop Art. Instead, the label read Word-Up Records [or, in certain pressings, just Word Records, additionally saying it was produced and mixed by “J. & S. Salaam” instead of listing Nicolo or the Goodmans]. It seemed to be the label’s debut release.
This was a bit of a shock to both Jeff and Will. Jeff says, “I found out later that Lawrence Goodman didn’t like ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,’ and that’s why it didn’t come out on Pop Art. Apparently he and Dana got into a big argument and Dana said, ‘OK, I’m gonna start my own label [Word Up] and put it out.’” Joe Nicolo backs up this story from his own recollections about the sub-label’s formation.
It turns out that Dana Goodman’s A & R inclinations were correct — the song was a hit, propelling the group to the top of the Philly hip-hop scene and getting them out-of-town gigs, including frequent jaunts to New York City. The popularity also meant that Dana Goodman wanted more songs to sell, in the form of a full album. And so back they went to Studio 4.
“When we recorded Rock The House, it wasn’t a long process, probably just two or three weeks,” Nicolo recalls. “We’d cut two or three songs a session. Jeff and Will mostly knew what they were doing, but not completely. The first pass through, we’d put down basic music and Will would do his vocals. He was always quick with those, he was a smart kid. Then on the next session we’d go back to those two or three songs, Jeff would add his cuts, Will would ad-lib stuff or re-cut vocals, and it’d be pretty much done at that point. It was a group effort on that album.”
He adds, “Absolutely no disrespect to the Goodmans, because they taught me what real rap was and brought me into the game, but me, Jeff and Will had more to do with that album [from a production standpoint] than Lawrence or Dana did.”
Although not given any production or even co-production credits on the album, Will and Jeff were listed as “Assistant Engineers.” [Nicolo was listed as Engineer, with no production credit]. Nicolo says, “Maybe the Goodmans did that to make Jeff and Will feel like they participated in molding the sound of the record? It’s not much of a credit to boast about, but hey, why not?”
Rock The House, original cover, Word Up Records
The album cover and credits were indeed a disappointment to Jeff and Will. First off, Dana Goodman somehow thought it was a good idea to rip-off Run-DMC’s classic King of Rock cover, which had blown up worldwide just one year before. Secondly, sole production was given to Dana [“D. Goodman”]. Jeff says, “Will and I pretty much produced that first album but we only got credit as writers.”
[Author’s note: The third crew member, Ready Rock C [Clarence Holmes], gets a lone writing credit on the seemingly faked live rap-and-beatbox song ‘Rock the House (Live NY Union Square)’ on the original issue; but for some reason the writing credit disappears on a later Jive version].
In-between recording their debut LP and its release, Jeff managed to shock the hip-hop world by winning his first and only DJ battle, the New Music Seminar’s 1986 “Battle for World Supremacy” (taking out 1985’s champion, DJ Cheese, in the first round), and then promptly retiring from the battle scene. This was only in part because he had more hit records to make. “I didn’t compete in 1987 or after that,” Jeff explains. “I had proved what I wanted to prove to myself in 1986. I was never a battle DJ anyways. In 1987 we were touring the world with a hit record, so I just brought those skills to our live show.” His championship trophy is pictured on the back of Rock the House, with Jeff and Will both proudly showing it off.
Rock The House, original back cover, Word Up Records
Jeff continues, “Winning that Battle was a validation to me, because Philly DJs didn’t get a lot of respect back then. It was a test to see how good I was. Lady B [the legendary Philly radio DJ, who released the pioneering female MC track, “To The Beat Y’all,” in 1979] is the one who got me in, over some resistance. After that, I got respect. And my city did, too. Winning the Battle also got us more shows. ‘Girls’ was blowing up with Will’s vocals, and then I was this DJ people wanted to see.” That double-headed rap monster would go on to define the group for the next decade.
But let’s get back to the vinyl at hand: the group had another hit on its hands with Rock The House, which — although it lacks a release year anywhere on the sleeve or label — was on the market by mid-1986, in Jeff’s estimation. It would also be re-issued on two different UK-based labels by 1987: first by Champion and then by Jive. Thankfully, both editions had new covers.
There are some impressive songs on Rock The House, from DJ workouts like “A Touch of Jazz” and “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff” to Will’s growingly-impressive storytelling style heard on “Just One Of Those Days.” Jeff dislikes only one song [which Nicolo hates as well]: the “Girls” answer record, featuring Ice Cream Tee, “Guys Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.” “That was Dana’s idea,” Jeff says.
“When Rock The House first hit, we didn’t really care about credits or any of that,” Jeff explains. “We were just glad to have an album out. All I ever wanted to do was put out a record with my name on it. And so I doubt we even had time to look at any of the credits. Honestly, people were playing ‘Girls’ when the single came out, I was like, ‘That’s it, I don’t have to do anything else.’” He says he was more upset about it later on.
Either way, Dana and even one-time non-believer Lawrence Goodman were pushing the record at retail, and by mid-’87 they were rocking live dates from California to “Top of the Pops” in London. Jeff recalls, “We made no money off the record itself, but we did a lot of shows and we made money that way. Next time around, though, we were going to need to get something more.”
That next time around came in the form of Jive Records, who had first made note of the duo via Jeff’s New Music Seminar victory, but also from the sales they were generating for Rock The House. “When we got involved with them, they had already put out Rock The House on Word Up,” says Ann Carli, who also went by “Tokyo Rose” when writing fanzine reviews or being a radio personality on WBAI in New York.
Carli was in charge of Artist Development at Jive Records in their very small New York office, which was the U.S. beachhead for the London-based label. “At that time, it was just me and [Jive U.S. label head] Barry Weiss, with our offices in a brownstone,” she explains. Carli had actually already reviewedRock The House in a small publication called Hip-Hop Hitlist (as Tokyo Rose) and was present when Jeff won the New Music Seminar Battle the year before.
As a result of the growing buzz on Jeff and the duo overall, Weiss and Carli brought them in for a meeting. Carli recalls, “During the meeting, Barry mentioned that I was Tokyo Rose and they couldn’t believe it. They had memorized the article I had written about them and recited it word-for-word. They told me it was the first review they had ever gotten.”
Carli says, “With Rock The House, ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble’ was already a hit. Since Jive had done Whodini’s ‘Friends’ [from 1984], we already knew that hip-hop could cross-over to pop radio. Plus there were a bunch of other great songs on their record.”
Jive was definitely interested, and entered into a deal with Dana Goodman to license the group’s current and future music, re-releasing Rock The Housewith a new cover in 1987. A 1988 issue of the album also included a “1988 Extended Remix” of “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” instead of the original. Some locations on the Jive reissue sported the Word Up logo, others did not. But Goodman clearly hadn’t given the group up just yet, as he still had them under contract.
Carli says that Jive, for all intents and purposes, insisted that the group — as they did with several of their other hip-hop artists, including Kool Moe Dee and Whodini — record any new material at Battery Studios in London, which they owned. She explains, “At the time, all the other hip-hop groups were making records at Chung King and all the other cheap places they could get in New York, without access to world-class engineers. We had a Fairlight [Computer Music Instrument (CMI), a next-level synthesizer and sampler workstation] and a state-of-the-art studio, so we sent all our artists there and gave them the same tools that the big rock folks had.”
Jeff says, “We knew it was a big thing that Jive wanted us to record the next album in London. But Dana fought against it. Jive wanted to get us away from him, because they really believed that we could make a great record. Thankfully, Dana finally agreed.”
The group’s contract with the Goodmans, unsurprisingly, wasn’t one that was slanted in their favor. As a result, a good amount of contract negotiation needed to be done. Ann Carli says that wanting them to record in London had nothing to do with getting the group away from Dana Goodman, it was strictly about using Battery Studios and their engineers. She also adds, “Jive’s deal with Dana Goodman, once it was finalized, was pretty straightforward.”
According to Jeff, Dana was mostly figuring out if he was going to sell Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s recording contract to Jive directly, or merely have the powerhouse label distribute his next Word Up release by the group. As those negotiations deepened in late 1987, Jeff, Will, Ready Rock and one or two other members of their Philly crew headed over to London to begin recording what would be their breakout album: He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper.
Jeff says that while they were recording in London, they got the news report they wanted: “I can still remember that day, hearing that we had been signed directly to Jive, and us celebrating in the studio. That was November . If Dana hadn’t taken that deal [from Jive], he would have been a part of He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper. But he wasn’t.”
The group could now be more focused, knowing that they were finally signed to a major label, and without their former Philadelphia-based contractual obligations as part of the mix. But there was something else with which to contend: they weren’t alone at Battery. In addition to being far from home, they had just walked into a new production situation.
Battery Studios was located in Northwest London and was owned by Jive Records’ parent company, Zomba. “Jive was smart,” Jeff explains. “They owned the label, the publishing company [Zomba], they had their own producers, their own studio. Even the equipment rental place you would use, Dreamhire. They were like ‘We’ll give you $200,000 to do your record, and you’re going to give it all right back to us’ [laughs].”
Battery was the former Morgan Sound Studios, where ‘60s and ‘70s rock royalty including Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd had recorded. By the 1980s, Zomba owner Clive Calder converted it into a hit-making palace for a new era of pop stars.
For the new record, Jeff and Will were teamed up with two of Battery’s best engineers and in-house producers: keyboardist and producer Pete Q. Harris and engineer Bryan “Chuck” New.
Harris was a keyboardist (and, when needed, trumpeter) with a rock band pedigree and a classical academic background who, by 1983, had landed as an in-house producer at Battery. In addition to his general production duties, he was part of a somewhat nebulous production group called the Willesden Dodgers. The group released instrumental electro EPs and albums on Jive in the early-to-mid-‘80s with titles like Gunsmoke Breakout and 1st Base. They also put out releases under the Jive Rhythm Trax moniker. These were all clearly about the music more than the artists making the songs and were generally unremarkable, at least compared to the original American hip-hop they were ripping off.
Jive Rhythm Trax by the Willesden Dodgers, 1982
“Basically, Clive Calder would go to New York City, bring back a suitcase full of 12-inch records, and ask us to emulate them,” Harris explains. “He wanted something similar, but also wanted music that didn’t infringe on any copyrights. The market for those was DJs in clubs or people doing block parties, where they had people rapping or toasting over instrumentals. It was pretty basic stuff.”
Harris adds, “By the mid-‘80s, I was very experienced using high-end computers, samplers and drum machines including the Fairlight, Synclavier and Linn.” Before working with Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Harris had played important engineering and production roles on Kool Moe Dee albums beginning with 1987’s How Ya Like Me Now (on Jive, of course). Further back, he also played a more limited role on Whodini’s early Jive releases, considering that Larry Smith was the group’s main producer.
Fairlight CMI trade magazine ad
Harris, in fact, says that it’s not a surprise that there are sonic similarities with basslines and programming between Kool Moe Dee [from 1987] and He’s The DJ. “We didn’t change the instrumentation we were using throughout that whole period,” he admits. Basically, any keyboard-generated bassline you hear on He’s The DJ flowed out of Harris’ fingertips. He adds, “The tracks we did for the album, which were recorded in Battery Studio Three, were done almost entirely with a Fairlight, with samples I had put in there from all over the place. Sometimes we would use Linn or [Roland TR-] 808 drums, too.”
“When we were there in London, we basically kept U.S. hours,” Jeff recalls. “We would go into the studio around 4 p.m. every afternoon [11 a.m. Philly-time] and work until about 4 a.m. We would fight to stay up until 6 a.m., eat some Corn Flakes at the hotel, and then go to sleep until 3:30 p.m. I barely saw the sun while I was there. I had turntables and my drum machine set up in my hotel room, and every day I would pick up the drum machine and take it to the studio.”
Regarding his new recording partners — who weren’t requested by Jeff or Will — Jeff says: “When we first started, we said, ‘Who the **** are these guys?’ Like, ‘Here we go again, we’re gonna do all this **** and not get any credit.’ But I think Pete and Chuck knew the delicate nature of what we were going through [adjusting to new studio-mates].”
Harris remembers his and New’s “briefing” before they met Jeff and Will: “We met in Clive’s office and he said, ‘I’ve got these two guys I’m bringing from Philly. They have some great material, and the guy’s a great rapper.’ The most important thing we talked about, internally, was crossover, because that was very hard to get in those days, with rap music. Clive really thought they had crossover potential, because he thought the lyrics were mainstream radio-friendly. But he also said it needed a lot of work to get it there. I do remember that we flagged [their 1985 single] ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble’ as an example of that potential.”
Jeff says, “When we started recording, me and Will did what we did and Pete Harris had a Synclavier [digital sampling synthesizer] that he would play on the side of the room, with headphones on. I would make the beat and get it how I wanted it, and at some point Pete would turn up a fader and play what he had been working on, to go along with what I had done. He was easing his way in. And in the end, it worked out.”
“Being a DJ in the studio, considering all the technology we had [meaning: keyboards and samplers], was relatively obsolete,” explains Harris. “So, Jeff would scratch more as a post-production thing. I did always have the sense that Jeff was a bit apprehensive about us being anything more than engineers and twiddling knobs.”
Harris had — and has — nothing against Jeff as a musician or a person, he was simply coming from a very different background: one of a hit-making pop producer. DJ cuts on songs, or DJ-based songs, simply weren’t going to sell the album to pop fans. And, remember, crossing over was his only objective.
L to R: Fresh Prince, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Ready Rock C. Photograph by Douglas Rowell. Courtesy of the Adler Hip-Hop Archives / Cornell University Hip-Hop Collection.
One little-known fact about the chronology of the songs recorded for He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper is that almost all of Jeff’s DJ-centric cuts were actually recorded before they arrived in London. These were done with Joe Nicolo at Studio 4 in Philly. The original Jive plan was to put out a ‘Scratch Album,’ as Jeff calls it, before the group’s full vocal-centric debut.
“Initially, Jive wanted to put out my DJ album, because no one had ever done that,” Jeff explains. “That was to capitalize on all the attention I was getting as a DJ in 1986 and 1987. We had that album pretty much done and in the can by the middle of ’87.”
Joe Nicolo backs this up: “We were definitely making a DJ record for Jeff. We recorded it in Philly and me and Jeff flew to Battery in London to mix it there. I remember mixing it on the 4th of July . It was a full album, not an EP. I don’t know where some of those tracks went, but Jive must have them in the archives somewhere. Most of the DJ tracks made it onto He’s The DJ.” But, he notes, not all of them.
Ann Carli explains, “In the early days, Jeff was definitely the star. Will was underrated as an MC and a lyricist, even until He’s The DJ came out. The way the album ended up coming out, with Jeff’s and Will’s sides, it was much more of a partnership.”
“The DJ-only album was a little limited as a full album,” Nicolo admits. “It was kind of like pulling a rabbit out of a hat to make it work. So at the time [that they decided to mix those tracks into He’s The DJ], I wasn’t heartbroken. If that DJ record had come out in 1987 then He’s The DJwouldn’t have been the same. I think in the end it worked out perfectly.”
[Author’s note: For confirmation of the original ‘Scratch Album’ plan, look no further than one of the stickers Jive put on the shrink-wrap of an early pressing of the album: “Two albums for the price of one!,” it proclaims. “New studio album plus bonus scratch album.”]
Jeff says, “Once we got to London, we all decided that we wanted to mix the scratch stuff in with the vocal tracks. Some of the vocal ones were DJ songs before Will started rapping on them anyways. And then someone said, ‘What if we put out a double album? No one in hip-hop has ever done that before.’”[Author’s note: If they had put out Jeff’s ‘Scratch Album,’ it would have preceded the ‘Turntablist’ movement in the mid-‘90s — led by the X-Men and Invisibl Skratch Piklz — by more than a half-decade].
Jeff says that they did indeed have many of the DJ-centric songs done, mixed and mastered before their London excursion, but adds, “We didn’t go over to London with any other songs done. We went and made everything else over there. Aside from the DJ tracks, we recorded and mixed the entire album in one month. We probably recorded for two-and-a-half weeks and mixed for 10 or 12 days. It was pretty quick.” Pete Q. Harris backs this timeline up.
Songs completed during these whirlwind London sessions included the album’s three singles: “Parents Just Don’t Understand”; “Nightmare On My Street”; and “Brand New Funk.” All in all, Harris estimates, “We were involved in about 10 songs from the album [out of 18 songs on the 2-LP]. Definitely not all of them.”
Songs that were already done, like Jeff’s DJ tracks, weren’t touched by Harris or New. Or if they were tweaked, it wasn’t in any significant way. Harris adds, “The material was fundamentally really good when they arrived, and the working dynamic was all very friendly. We were all there with a common goal: to make a huge-selling record.”
Joe Nicolo lists the following songs from the album as being done with him at Studio 4 in Philly (with Dana Goodman in the studio at least at times, although neither Jeff nor Joe say he did any production on them): “Here We Go Again”; “Charlie Mack (1st Out Of The Limo)”; “Parents Just Don’t Understand” [an early version]; “DJ On The Wheels”; “My Buddy”; “Rhythm Trax — House Party Style”; “He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper”; “Hip-Hop Dancer’s Theme”; and “Jazzy’s In The House.”
Nicolo says that “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was in very good shape before they left for London, and Harris mentions that Will had lyrics for the song ready when he arrived [see song comments, below]. Nicolo also states, “Jeff was a major production factor on He’s The DJ, there is no doubt about that.”
“Honestly, Jeff wasn’t the focus of our attention during those sessions,” Harris explains. “We had to make Will’s lyrics shorter, more punchy, and presented so that they would get to the hook a lot quicker. It was more about arranging the music. Taking a fantastic idea or concept and refining it. Jeff and Will already had hits on their own, but the tracks still needed tweaking, especially with their hooks. The basslines they had were, quite honestly, pedestrian. So that’s what we did: we made things more musical, more commercialized.”
Harris continues, “We didn’t create lyrics, but we helped focus the lyrics when we found certain topics or approaches to be amusing. For instance, stealing your dad’s car and getting caught [from ‘Parents’]. We’ve all done dumb, teenage stuff. When we worked with Kool Moe Dee, it wasn’t as much work, because he already had three- or four-minute songs ready when he came to the studio.”
Jeff says that, overall, the London recordings went well, and that they ended up enjoying their work with Pete Q. Harris, who gets production credit on most of the album tracks. Bryan “Chuck” New, who also gets production credit on most songs, didn’t mesh as well with the duo from Philly. “I really did not like that guy, he had no respect for me or Will as producers,” says Jeff. “Pete was a keyboardist and he added some things that really helped certain songs. Chuck was just the engineer.”
Ann Carli, who was not in London during the recordings, says: “Pete definitely added a lot to what the guys were doing. And I think Bryan probably did, too. Those guys created the sound of that record. I wasn’t there, but I don’t think the production credits that Pete and Bryan got were unfair. Although Jeff and Will might.”
The third member of the group who was ever heard on wax — Ready Rock C, who was with Will since the early-‘80s — had a couple features on the album as well, including the Human Beatbox tracks “My Buddy” and “Human Video Game.”
“By the time we got to He’s The DJ, Ready Rock was just the beatboxer,” Jeff explains. “We had that dynamic from before and we kept it all in the mix, but we knew he wasn’t going to be on every record we did. Just like there were some records that I didn’t do cuts on. When we were doing the records on those earlier albums, he never wanted to make beats. He didn’t want to start making beats until later.”
Jeff adds, “Ready Rock was great. Doug E. Fresh was the ultimate beatboxer, Biz Markie and Buffy from the Fat Boys did their thing. Ready was very technical, he was our Michael Winslow [the actor from the “Police Academy” movie franchise who did sound effects]. He could do the video games, he could make it sound like he was beatboxing underwater. He was a great showman, too.”
Ready Rock feels differently about his role in the production and songwriting of the group. He states, “I was in London for the entire time the album [He’s The DJ] was being recorded. Even though un-mentioned[Author’s note: I assume he means un-credited], I co-wrote ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ and contributed many creative factors to the project.”
In the end, when it came to combining Jeff- and Will-centric tracks into one double-album package, no one involved is upset with the final product. And, considering the success the album had, how could they be? Jeff says, “That was the best way to do it, definitely. When you have records like ‘Parents,’ that become hits, it changes everything, because those become the main focus.” For whatever reason, many of the DJ-only cuts were sequenced towards the end of the record, although Jeff says this wasn’t necessarily on purpose.
“Even despite the hits that featured Will’s vocals, I never got lost in the shuffle,” Jeff says. “That’s where the album title came from. Half of the album is him, and half of it is me.” [Author’s note: It should be pointed out that the two biggest hit singles from the album had DJ-centric songs on their respective B-sides: “Parents” had “Live At Union Square, November 1986”; and “A Nightmare On My Street” had “Rhythm Trax-House Party Style”].
For further proof of the equality of the duo, look no further than the vinyl cover of the album, shot by Doug Rowell with art direction by Ann Carli. Jeff is alone on the front, and Will stands solo on the back. “We wanted to strip the album cover down to who they were,” Carli explains. “Both of them had their own personality, and the album reflected that.”
Although Jeff was the star as they initially went into the studio to recordHe’s The DJ, it was clear that The Fresh Prince had leapt several levels higher before the album was completed. Will’s growth as an MC and an on-stage personality had continued throughout his time with Jeff and Ready Rock in the mid-‘80s. But by 1988, he had very clearly come into his own, as a rapper who now stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other storytelling masters like Slick Rick and Dana Dane.
“Jeff was great but Will was always the star to me,” Harris says. “The ideas, the rhymes, the cerebral conceptualizing of tracks. That stuff seemed to mostly be coming from him.” Jeff says, “I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes guy. Even with Will. I’m the captain of the ship, but he runs the bridge. And I’m cool with that.”
Ann Carli has an important recollection from the “Parents Just Don’t Understand” video shoot, which helps to sum up how far Will had come in the short time in which she had known him: “We were doing the video transfers from the day’s shoot, and me and [director] Scott Kalvert were watching the takes. Up until that point, Will to me had been this loud-mouthed, gangly kid who always had a pimple on the side of his face. He always wore ball-caps, he wasn’t ever bothered with grooming his hair. Basically, he was a kid. But we were looking at the footage as it was synched up with the lyrics of the song, and we both turned to each other and said, ‘This kid is going to be a star. The camera loves him.’ Up until then, we hadn’t realized it. But it was all of a sudden impossible to ignore.”
Regarding the “over-stuffed” status of the album’s musical material, Carli recalls: “There was definitely a discussion at some point as to whether we had too many songs. From the record label point-of-view, having the lyric-driven stuff, like ‘Parents’, was obviously always fine. But we also knew that ‘Parents’ wouldn’t be a big record in the clubs, or in the quote-unquote streets. So the DJ stuff was important for that. Jeff took DJing to another level and we knew what he added to the group’s credibility in the hip-hop world, and to the group’s identity. So when it came to the album overall, we knew there had to be a mix. It had to be grounded on both sides.”
Carli adds, “I really fought for the gatefold cover we did for that record, because it was the first double-album in hip-hop. Jeff and Will came back from London with these incredible songs and I thought the album deserved packaging like that. We had a whole discussion — or argument — about the packaging costs, but it all worked out. It might have only been the first 100,000 or 150,000 copies that had gatefolds because we really had to fight with Jive’s parent company, because the packaging cost that much more. And we also included the lyrics in those gatefolds, because that was equally important.”
Jeff says this sounds right to him, adding that he thinks the gatefolds and lyrics sheets were only for non-U.S. pressings. “I don’t think that was for any domestic [U.S.] versions of the album,” he says. “I have signed a lot of records that had those lyrics sheets in them, and at first I was like, ‘Where did you get that?’ Because it wasn’t anything I had seen. I think that usually happened when I was in London or other places overseas, the kids there had the gatefold version.”
Ann Carli also remembers another item that proved their connection with fans: “They were the first or second hip-hop group — LL Cool J might have been first — to have their own ‘900 number’ [where fans paid a certain charge per minute to call in and hear recorded messages]. That’s actually where they made their first big money, not on their records or touring. I would have to call them when they were out on the road to give us more messages, because the fans couldn’t get enough.”
The group got by on great music, but their excellent videos didn’t hurt. Aside from a sadly shelved, huge-budget video for “A Nightmare On My Street” [see song comments, below], the video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” couldn’t have been a bigger crossover hit for the group. And the live performance seen (and heard) on the third single, “Brand New Funk,” helped with the more serious hip-hop fans, to remind them that this was a group with a history of rocking shows, not just looking good on a sound-stage.
Album ad, 1988
Jeff says, “I think we are both a little bit overlooked when people talk about hip-hop history, and I think a lot of that is because of how successful Will has become as an actor. Like, ‘Ah, those guys never gave a **** about that rap ****.’ But if it wasn’t for rap, nothing else would have happened for either of us.”
He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper hit shelves worldwide in March of 1988, preceded by the worldwide smash song and video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The album went platinum within months and currently sits at triple-platinum status.
Jeff recalls, “I remember we played the album for Russell Simmons when we were on the [Run-DMC] ‘Run’s House’ tour. He said, ‘You guys will have a gold album in a month.’ And we said, ‘Get outta here!’ But it went gold in five weeks. We started two acts before Run-DMC on that tour, and pretty quickly we were on right before them.”
The group also won the first-ever “Best Rap Performance” Grammy, for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” in February of 1989 [Author’s note: Separate hip-hop album and single awards for the Grammys did not begin until 1995]. It was bittersweet, since some members of the hip-hop community — fans and artists alike — felt that a “harder” group, like Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, should have won the inaugural award.
But that assessment lacked a true understanding of what He’s The DJ and what Will and Jeff were all about. Jeff says, “That backlash did bother me, absolutely. There was very little ‘pop’ element in the way that Will and I grew up in Philly. Just because we liked to make music that was fun, and just because our music crossed-over to the suburbs, we got labeled as if we were from the suburbs. And I was like, ‘I wish I could take you all to myneighborhood!’ Also keep in mind: ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble’ was a huge hit at [New York hip-hop clubs] the Latin Quarter and Union Square. They didn’t play crossover junk at those spots.”
Beyond Run-DMC’s hits a couple years earlier and the Beastie Boys’ raucous 1986 debut Licensed To Ill, He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper was an important next step in the evolution of hip-hop becoming an American phenomenon, not just a New York or a so-called urban one. It featured universal themes, funny and witty rhymes, heavy DJ skills and just about everything else you could put onto four album sides.
“I don’t think anyone knew how big that record was going to be,” says Ann Carli. “I think that people today forget all the great musical, DJ songs on there. The Jeff stuff. The storytelling, Will Smith songs are why the album sold millions. Because they were stories that kids everywhere, no matter what their ethnicity, could relate to. But a lot of the DJ records kept the hip-hop audience happy. That album just had everything.”
“It was really about lyrical crossover,” says Pete Q. Harris today. “That was most important. Will’s weren’t your typical brag lyrics that a lot of rappers were doing back then. His stood apart. And visually, they were also very friendly. Will was a video marketing dream, really.”
Joe Nicolo says, “He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper was a record that people couldlisten to. It wasn’t just for the hardcore rap audience, with two hit songs and then the rest of the album sounds the same. It became one of the first rap albums back then on a Rolling Stone list of ‘Albums You Should Hear.’ It walked the line of credibility and pop factor, and that’s not easy to do. It was definitely one of the first rap records to do that.”
“We always pushed the envelope,” Jeff beams. “We just believed we could do anything. ‘Just put us in the studio!’ It wasn’t good enough to just make a record: we had to make a double record. We needed to do more than what other people had done. And I think we did that.”
Jeff adds, in summation: “We brought fun and we definitely brought a lot of diversity. There were hits, and there was a lot of skill, too. To me, it was just a very well-balanced hip-hop record. It wasn’t ever just one thing. We didn’t try to cross over, that was never in our minds. It just happened. It was a once-in-a-lifetime album.”
Nightmare On My Street
ANN CARLI: That song was up-front in the sequence of the album, leading the charge, because we were pretty sure that it was going to be a huge hit. We really tried to do a tie-in with New Line Cinema [the movie company who owned the “Nightmare On Elm Street” franchise], but that didn’t go as planned. Me and Barry Weiss talked to New Line before the album came out, because we wanted to collaborate. But New Line just thought that the Fat Boys made more sense for them. [Author’s note: The Fat Boys did the theme to 1988’s “Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master,” called “Are You Ready For Freddy?” The song played over the end credits and was on the soundtrack, plus was released as a single on Tin Pan Apple Records]. It could have been a huge thing if they had just worked with us. But New Line even sued us. Ironically, Whodini [a Jive artist] did a song for the next “Nightmare On Elm Street” movie, so I worked with them on that. Bob Shaye from New Line testified as part of the suit, it was ridiculous. He was talking about Freddy Krueger like he was his son. Really weird stuff. I had to testify in court and everything. We wanted to make sure that it was viewed as a parody. We changed the monster in the video, we did a lot of things and got a lot of legal opinions before we shot it. It was an expensive video for us at the time. We took all the precautions we could, and they still sued us. They suck for that. I mean, who remembers the Fat Boys record? I might have a copy of that video somewhere in storage. It was an 18-hour video shoot, and part of the set caught fire at one point. That video would have sold so manymore records for Jeff and Will if it had ever been released.
DJ JAZZY JEFF: If we didn’t get an injunction against the video for that song, I strongly believe that we would have sold 10 million copies of the album. That song was bigger and better than “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and it would have built even more off the hype from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie that year. The single still went through the roof, even without a video. The video was an acted-out thing. We were in a movie theater, we went home, and then Freddy came. I remember the Freddy monster in our video had turntable needles as fingers. It was a glove they had made. It was one of those videos that when you watched it you were like, “Oh my God, we’re about to be bigger than Michael Jackson!” It was right after the “Parents” single, so it would have been perfectly timed. The video didn’t even have any clips from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie.
PETE Q. HARRIS: That song was similar to “Parents Just Don’t Understand” in regard to what we did as producers and writers. We took the clap sound on there from Cameo’s “Word Up!” [from 1986]. We used that sound all the time, on almost every record that came out of Battery. It’s a fantastic clap sound. Unfortunately for Cameo, you can’t copyright a sound like that. If the sound of “Nightmare” is similar to other songs that came out of that studio, it’s because they were all done with a Fairlight and used sampled [TR-] 808 sounds. We replayed the “Nightmare on Elm Street” theme, we didn’t think twice about using samples or re-playing things back then. That’s what hip-hop was, we didn’t ever think about getting sued. I think I used a Roland D-550 keyboard to replay the theme. And there’s a piano on there, too. With the skit type of elements, that was a bit more complicated, but not drastically so. Jeff did the Freddy voice, we just stuck it into a harmonizer and de-tuned it. Which is what they did for Freddy Krueger in the film anyways.
JEFF: That song itself was great. I put that Freddy Krueger piano line in there [from the original theme to the “Nightmare On Elm Street” movie], I made sure we put that violin screech in there, too, because that’s how it went in the movie. Pete Harris played that bassline. The album was out and we put the single out. Our lawyer was an entertainment lawyer and he listened to the album and told Jive — and this was before anybody knew anything about what could happen in such a situation — we had some “sample issues” that he thought should be addressed. And Jive basically kind of dismissed him. Then we had our song out, and stations began having “Nightmare” contests on the radio. Which song was the best, ours or the Fat Boys’? And we were killing the Fat Boys record. When we got the first injunction, our lawyers kept trying to explain to New Line that they could just endorse our record, too, because it was helping their movie. They didn’t agree. We had to go into court and tried to play it like we were just kids making music. We had to pay New Line some money, we had to pull the single off the shelves. Luckily we didn’t have to pull the album off the shelves. But we couldn’t show the video we had made. With the video, there might have been four copies of the final version made. I had one of them, and my girlfriend at the time erased it and taped soap operas over it! No one I know has a copy. That song was very big when it came to our live show. I had a pitch-shifter effect for vocals. Will would do the whole song and when we would get to the end, Charlie Mack, our security guy, would dress up like Freddy Krueger, with the sweater and the glove and the hat. He’d come up on the side of the stage, walk up to my DJ riser and he would pretend to kill me. I’d fall behind the riser and you’d hear me screaming. Then I’d turn the pitch-shifter to the Freddy voice and I’d say, “Ha, ha, I’ve got you now, Jeff!” And people would lose it. I did that distorted Freddy voice on the song, too. New Line sent people to our concerts to get film of us doing it. They said, “Not only are you taking the music, you’re also taking the likeness.” They pulled out all the stops and there wasn’t much we could do. One very interesting thing is that as part of the settlement from New Line, they wanted me and Will to do a movie. They offered us three scripts. The first one was “House Party.” As you’ll recall, that movie was based on a DJ and a rapper. They kind of made the movie for us, and we turned it down. I forget the other two movies, but we turned those down, too. I don’t regret not doing “House Party,” even as great as that movie was.
Here We Go Again
JEFF: I brought in that keyboard sample [Bob James’ “Westchester Lady”] on the chorus. I made sure to get that hard snare in there, even if the mood of that song was lighter. I was all about drums, making them stand out. The mix on there was good, but the mastering sapped all of the bottom out of that one, and a bunch of others on the album. Pete added those fake horns on the chorus. I didn’t mind stuff like that, it was cool for the most part. It was interesting having samples and live playing combined. No one was doing that. I added my own bassline that was completely different than the one in the sample. That was new, no one had really done that either.
HARRIS: That was a great Bob James sample. I played a trumpet sample on that song, from Hugh Masekela, I believe. I worked with Hugh many times, but I don’t think I ever told him about that sample [laughs].
Brand New Funk
JEFF: That was a later single, it had the regular and the live version on it.[Author’s note: The single was released as a radio-only promo single and also, separately, as a commercial single, with an updated version of their 1985 song “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” on the A-side]. That was hands-down the best record we had when we performed live in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I made that record up in my hotel room in London, I chopped it up and figured out what I wanted to do with it. Then we just recorded it in the studio. Pete Q. Harris played the bassline on that one, after most of it was done. That’s Ready Rock saying “Get down!” on there, that’s not a James Brown sample. James Brown’s people never tried to get money from us on that one. Musically, that track is all me, the London guys didn’t really do anything [essential] on there. The only way we were able to get Jive to release “Brand New Funk” as a single was because we asked them to shoot a live [concert] video. They came to the Nassau Coliseum [in Long Island] and shot it, and we had the b-roll from that. The song, the album version, was done already. We actually recorded the live version at a soundcheck, it wasn’t during the real show that night. Because we couldn’t risk messing up, in case we had to do it over. We went on early in the day. It was a live recording, just not with a real crowd. We had to make sure the needle wouldn’t jump when I was cutting, that type of thing. It would have messed the video up. Then we played the recording back that night, to get the actual crowd reaction, and I did the extra cuts over the top of it.
HARRIS: Jeff is all over that track. I think there’s a Donald Byrd sample, and Pleasure, too. Jeff brought the samples in and we stuck them in the Fairlight. I think that song was mostly samples. It was different from what Bryan [“Chuck” New] and I were doing, and you can hear it. On that song there aren’t a lot of our musical ideas, it’s mostly Jeff. It’s a really great track: a great groove and a great idea.
READY ROCK C: The only bump in the road recording the album was probably when Jeff accidentally erased a James Brown sample on “Brand New Funk.” So I had to re-do it using my voice, saying “Get Down!” to emulate that original sample.
JOE NICOLO: I think I remember earlier versions of that song from our work at Studio 4. I believe that it was just re-done in London.
CARLI: I guess I would say that’s my favorite song, because that’s the one I was always excited for when they did it live. It is definitely the heartbeat of the album. I’m not sure when that one came out as a single, it might have been early. A lot of times we’d put out the “street” record first, then the “radio” record after that. I’m almost positive that we put that one out first, as a promo for the clubs. A “Jeff” record. I agree that “Brand New Funk” is almost the antithesis of “Parents.” And the guys wanted that. There was no question that we all wanted to maintain their street credibility, although at some point it became apparent that stuff like “Parents” was going to overtake the other material. [She pulls up video on YouTube as we are speaking]. I definitely didn’t have very much money for this video. The whole thing was how Will was coming off harder in that video. We were doing it to show another side, kind of like how we put “Live At Union Square” on the B-side of the “Parents” single. That was a conscious thing. I haven’t watched this video in so long, I love it! I think Scott Kalvert [who also directed the videos for “Parents” and “Nightmare”] must have done this, he was kind of our “in-house” guy for a while.
Time To Chill
JEFF: I loved that George Benson “Breezin’” sample, and I was glad I could make it work as a hip-hop track. I will admit that that one had less substance than other songs on the album, you could say that one was “filler.” We had a bunch of those, it was a long album!
Charlie Mack (1st Out Of The Limo)
JEFF: Charlie [Alston] is definitely a very big physical presence; he’s 6 feet, 7 inches, 290 pounds. But very light on his feet — he could have been one of our dancers. Charlie was a figure in Philly, people knew him. We would joke that Will and Charlie would go to a club and people would be like, “Charlie! Come in!” and try to make Will pay [laughs]. Everybody knew him, and that song took him to a whole other stratosphere. He could be the menacing guy that you didn’t want to **** with, but he was also the fun-loving guy who was at every event. We’d take Charlie on the road, too, and he’s in videos. He’s in the “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” video. Everybody knew him: Run-DMC, Public Enemy. So we wanted to give him a song.
As We Go
JEFF: That was about five-and-a-half minutes long, I guess we did have some longer songs on the album. But it was like, “Get the idea out, however long it takes.” And back then you didn’t worry about how long a song was, as long as it was entertaining. Timing of songs only came in once you started paying attention to radio, and singles. I love the Headhunters sample [“God Make Me Funky”] on there. Believe it or not, we didn’t clear that, or any other samples on the record. Our lawyer told Jive that there were “sample issues.” And I don’t bring it up that much, but the album was a really big turning point in the sampling game. We got sued a lot for that record. Anytime you start to generate a lot of money and you’re out touring, that’s when it goes from flying under the radar to being in full view. That’s what happened with us and with hip-hop culture back then. It definitely messed us up, because a lot of it was just us being naïve. We didn’t know the rules, hip-hop was created out of meager means. And at that time it was, “What can you find, and how can you flip it?” Before us, I’m not sure that anyone had ever really gotten sued. It didn’t really change until Hammer [with Rick James’ “Super Freak”], because he actually sold more copies than Rick James did. Then the original artists would get mad.
Parents Just Don’t Understand
JEFF: That was the first single off the album. To me, “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” [from Rock The House] and “Parents” were pretty much the same record. Definitely the same subject matter, in a lot of ways. We didn’t like having that as our first single, at least at first. Pete Q. Harris said, “This is a smash hit,” as soon as we did it. We, of course, wanted a DJ record or something that was a little more “hip-hop” as our first single. But Pete knew, and we went with it. After that song was completely done, Pete played the [Jeff hums bassline to the song] part. He added some spice more than produced anything on there. We thought it was a great record, we didn’t hate it. But we just didn’t want it to be our first single. We didn’t think it would get as big as it did, definitely not. I think the biggest reason for the song’s success was just how relatable it was. It was relatable outside of hip-hop. And the video definitely helped, of course. But everything just kind of lined up. Everybody has that transition from a kid to an adult, and it sucks. It was a timing thing, too — if that song had come out two years earlier or two years later, who knows if it would have been anywhere near as successful. With the lyrics, they didn’t take Will long at all. He used to always say that coming up with a concept is always the hardest thing. Once he had a concept, he could come up with lyrics in 15 minutes. And that’s literally how long it took him to come up with those. A lot of those stories were from Will’s real experiences. The video director was Scott Kalvert. Different guys gave different treatments, but his was the coolest. The main thing I remember about shooting the video was just how long it took. It was like 18 hours, in a sound stage in New York. When we were touring for theHe’s The DJ album at first, every night I noticed the cheers for us getting louder when they announced us. We were on the road, so we had no idea how the record was doing on the radio. I remember one night we tried something. Will did the first verse and then did the first line of the second verse, but told the crowd to finish it. And I thought, “Oh no, this could be the biggest disaster in the world!” But Will did it and 20,000 people finished the verse. So we did that for the rest of the tour. When the song got to be so popular, the toughest thing was that the record company wanted another one of those.
JOE “THE BUTCHER” NICOLO: That was definitely a track we did in Philly that they re-cut in London. The final has the same beat and Jeff’s musical ideas, they just re-did the song, with their “Jive sound,” pasteurized for your protection [laughs]. That song was really just “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble, Part Two.” The beat structure on the final was similar, they just added the keyboards. “Girls” was such a hit in Philly and it made a splash everywhere. So it seemed that “Parents” was a logical next step. And they had gotten even better at what they were doing, so it was destined to be even bigger. I think we all knew it was going to be big.
HARRIS: The first day we were in the studio together, they played me an early version of “Parents.” It was about nine minutes long and had so many verses. Over a period of a week we worked on that song, along with others. One of the main things for us, as producers, was to focus Will’s rapacious rhyme output. He was always writing. We had to fit it all into a three- or four-minute song. That was our biggest achievement in many ways, because many of the other elements were already there in the songs they brought us. Jeff brought a lot of beats to the studio. There’s a weird bass sound in the song, and I can’t even remember where we took it from. There’s that drum-fill sound all throughout the song, that was off another record that I brought in. I can’t remember where that one came from, either. I played most of the elements of that track, including the snares, on the Fairlight. There wasn’t that much back-and-forth, musically. We put music together when Will and Jeff weren’t even there, on occasion. I don’t even think that on the original version they had a proper bassline. The one I put on there was really just a doodle that fit with the pitch of the brass samples we were using. We definitely knew that song would be a hit, because we had recently done Samantha Fox’s “Touch Me” [from 1986, Harris co-produced the “Extended Version” of the single]. We knew what a hit was, especially a pop hit. And those lyrics on “Parents” are so funny and so accessible to so many people. We felt that it only needed a good bassline. It sounded very commercial to us.
CARLI: That video changed Will’s career, and it changed my career, too. It was shot by Scott Kalvert, who went on to do “The Basketball Diaries.” It might have been his second or third video. He had done one of Kool Moe Dee’s videos for us, either “Wild, Wild West” or “How Ya Like Me Now.” We didn’t send the song out to a bunch of directors and ask for treatments, because we knew Scott would be great for it. We contacted him when we knew that was going to be a single, so we could work on it collaboratively. He basically followed the idea of the song. I’m actually tagged up on the walls, as “Tokyo Rose,” if you look close. That was a one-day shoot, probably 18 hours. It was fun doing all the artwork on the walls for it. We got there early to do that, there was a great artist named Greg Harrison, he was the production designer. He was the guy that came up with the look on the walls. He designed things for the “Nightmare On My Street” video set, too. There were a lot of influences to the look of the walls. We were in New York, so there were a lot of comic fanzines, Keith Haring, lots of pop graffiti. Some of the characters were Greg’s, characters he used in his own work. After the video, we had to repaint the walls immediately. We shot it somewhere in Midtown or Queens. Everybody painted on the wall: me, Jeff, Will, the whole crew. Vanessa Williams — not that Vanessa Williams — plays the girl in the video. She’s an actress, I think she was on “90210” for a while. I remember the guys being mad at me because she wasn’t the “video kind of girl” that they were looking for. But I was looking for an actress [laughs], and she was really good. JL [James Lassiter, the group’s road and personal manager at the time] is in it, he plays the cop. Greg Harrison designed all the furniture as well. We had some interesting times trying to get the drawers to open up, using special effects. There’s a bit of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” with that. After Scott and I were watching the takes and had realized how impressive Will had become on film, I called two people the next day. The first was Clive Calder, and I told him, “The Fresh Prince is going to be a big movie star and I think we should make a movie with him right away. He’s going to be bigger than Eddie Murphy.” Clive, who I love to death, laughed and said, “Ann, do you know how to make a movie?” And I said, “No, but two years ago I didn’t know how to make music videos either!” Clive thought it was a good idea but he said Jive was still building the record company, so he couldn’t get into movies at that time. Then I called Russell Simmons and told him the same thing. Russell laughed at me, and said, “Well, he may be Malcolm Jamal-Warner but he ain’t no Eddie Murphy.”
Pump Up The Bass
JEFF: That was one of the tracks that would have ended up on my DJ album. That was the real Philly style for sure. The sample of [James Brown’s] “Funky Drummer” on there sounds dusty because my copy was just old. That was real static, before people were actually doing static on records on purpose [laughs]. With routines like that — which is really what that track is, a routine — I didn’t always retain stuff. I didn’t remember what I had done on the fly. So I would try and record everything, because otherwise it’d be gone. I’d go back later and listen and see what worked best, and then I’d build on it.
HARRIS: I definitely worked on that song, somehow. I remember that.
Let’s Get Busy Baby
JEFF: I guess that was filler, even though I think it was still a cool record. But keep in mind, we were also making records that would be good to perform live, and that was one of them.
Live At Union Square (November 1986)
JEFF: That was the B-side of the “Parents Just Don’t Understand” single. I think that was Jive giving in a bit, saying, “We’ve got to give them some of what they want.” That routine, and the song, wouldn’t have been as great if it wasn’t for Will narrating and explaining what was going on. He was one of the first rappers to talk about the DJ and explain what was going on with a record or routine. We had been holding on to that for a while, we had a tape of the whole performance. Originally that was from a night at [New York’s] Union Square that Mr. Magic was hosting, and Magic taped it. A couple days later he played the tape on his radio show [on WBLS] and people would call in and request it like it was a single. It became a big song, and it helped us get more shows, and gave me more of a rep as a DJ. Honestly, I don’t even think I considered putting that on my DJ album, because the album was more of a studio thing. Plus “Union Square” wasn’t just a DJ thing, because Will and Ready Rock were on there. We were in the studio trying to figure out what songs would go on the He’s The DJ album. And somebody suggested that we put the “Union Square” tape on. Not the whole thing, there’s a lot more that people haven’t heard, because we probably went for 30 minutes during that whole show. I am cutting Whistle’s “I’m Buggin’” right where the album version went out, then Ready Rock C did a whole beatbox thing. I still have the original tape. We called Mr. Magic and he sent us the cassette, then we edited it down.
D.J. On The Wheels
JEFF: We did that one at Studio 4 in Philly. Joe The Butcher was just the engineer. A lot of that type of stuff was a drum machine and then I would fly samples in after writing it somewhere else. That wasn’t a routine, it was done in the studio, with a drum machine, turntables and a mixer. My drum machine of choice back then was a [Emu] SP-1200. I also used a [Roland TR-] 909 on Rock The House.
JEFF: I’m not on that one, we all kind of produced it. That was just one of those routines that we would do live, and we transferred it to a record. There wasn’t anything too complicated about recording beatboxing in the studio, it was pretty easy.
READY ROCK: That song is dear to me because it was based on my friendship with Will.
Rhythm Trax — House Party Style
JEFF: That was the B-side of the “Nightmare On My Street” single. We did it again [laughs], putting a DJ record on the back of a pop single, like we had done with “Parents.” Philly was definitely an electro town! I was probably one of the first to play it, but “It’s Time” [Author’s note: Jeff most likely means “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” by Hashim] was a staple in Philly. Shannon, Cybotron “Clear.” We played those and I’d do rhythm scratches over top. Stuff you hear on that track is the real house party routines I would do. My brother used to play that Mandré record on the intro [“Solar Flight,” from 1977] all the time.
He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper
JEFF: There was never talk of having less of a DJ angle on the album, even after we got into stuff like “Parents” and “Nightmare” [neither of which have a significant DJ presence on them]. Because that’s just who we were. A DJ and a rapper. Partners. There was no separation, it was all together. And that’s what made it successful. That song is a throwback to groups like the Cold Crush Brothers. That was both of us. One of Will’s biggest influences was Grandmaster Caz [a member of the Cold Crush Brothers]. I love that track. I have recordings from not too long ago, from me and Will doing a show, and at soundcheck, I start cutting breakbeats and he goes into “He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper.” I told him that if we went somewhere and did that today, people would think it was new, because no one does that style anymore. We can just pick right back up and do it anytime.
JOE NICOLO: That album version is exactly how we did it in Philly, there wasn’t any re-recording in London. We wanted to have a freestyle vocal track on Jeff’s DJ record. That became the song “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.” We cut that song in the “B Room” at Studio 4, which eventually became Jeff’s “A Touch Of Jazz” room [in the ‘90s]. What impressed me on that song was the way Will could come up with lyrics off the top of his head, like he did there. I produced that track and when the record came out there was no production credit for me, not even an engineering credit. Just, “Thanks to Joe The Butcher for helping us make a great album.” I was pretty upset. I called Ann Carli and I knew they were building up their guys [Pete Harris and Bryan “Chuck” New]. She said she was sorry and she’d fix it on the next pressing, but it’s still not fixed. I don’t want to sound like sour grapes. I mean, I’ve got plenty of credits. But at the time, I was pissed.
Hip Hop Dancer’s Theme
JEFF: That was the intro to our live show. The dancers would come out, then Will would introduce me. That song was the beat for all of that.
Jazzy’s In The House
JEFF: That was another DJ song that we did in Philly.
Human Video Game
READY ROCK: That was a cool song, because it gave me a chance to show my creativity and versatility.
JEFF: That one was just Will and Ready Rock, it was a routine that they would do on stage. It was interesting to take some of the routines that were so successful live and make them into records. It was almost like working backwards. I don’t think those guys actually met in a video arcade, that was just for the song. They grew up around the corner from each other.
HARRIS: With Ready Rock, things weren’t always great in the studio. Me and Bryan had a very British, Monty Python-esque sense of humor, and that didn’t go over very well with those guys. I remember Bryan was very rude to Ready Rock, he didn’t get the whole Human Beatbox thing. It’s more of a block party, live thing and we didn’t really get it, being from London. It wasn’t difficult to record Ready Rock, you would just stick him on a dynamic mic and let him do his thing. Compress the **** out of it, EQ it and it sounded good. Ready Rock was a really good beatboxer, and a real nice guy.
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