Q&A: DJ Jazzy Jeff On The Enduring Appeal Of "Summertime"
20 summers ago, Jazzy Jeff's opening command in the hip-hop classic "Summertime" kickstarted countless barbecues, picnics and long nighttime drives. Little has changed since. In 1991, as producers K. Fingers and Hula were lifting Kool & the Gang's leisurely dulcet "Summer Madness" for "Summertime," Philadelphia native Will Smith was in Los Angeles, spending his first year away from home to shoot Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He missed his friends and family and nostalgia was kicking in. "I think 'Summertime' might have been the easiest song he's ever written," recalls Jazzy Jeff. "Because all he was doing was writing down his feelings and emotions of those Philly summers."
Two decades later, Jazzy Jeff continues to juggle his multifaceted career as a producer, DJ and mentor, most recently with Toronto soul singer Ayah and Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller. Despite a DJ schedule rivaling Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour, the 46-year-old still oversees his A Touch of Jazz production house and has released a series of mixtapes and albums, including last year's flawless Summertime: The Mixtape with Mick Boogie. He spoke to us about the enduring appeal of "Summertime," why he loves Justin Bieber and how a 900 number made him a very wealthy man.
When you were recording "Summertime," did you have any sense it would turn into this perennial anthem?
Not. Even. Every year, Will and I are waiting for this record to die. Not in a bad way, but just like, you didn't think that this song was going to be like this. We knew it was a great record and thought people might play it every once in a blue moon, but not every summer. It's almost like this song is the launch of peoples' summer.
When did you start to realize its staying power?
Probably about two or three years later. It's funny because it was almost like a Christmas record. You only have a certain timeframe, with summer lasting into September. Then you start getting calls like, "Wow, they're playing 'Summertime' in Australia in December." The next year, people started dropping it at the beginning of summer and by the third year, it's just like, "Yeah. It's not going to be big this year. Somebody's going to come out with something that's going to replace it." But it never happened. I will never take for granted that every year, people absolutely have to play "Summertime." It's amazing.
How do you feel when you hear the song now? Do you immediately get nostalgic?
That's one of the only records we made that makes me feel exactly the same as I did the day it came out. Everything was captured so perfectly. When Will's talking about little kids playing in the water plug, I go immediately back to my childhood to a fire hydrant in West Philly. That's how we grew up, but not realizing that everybody has some version of what summertime meant to them.
The video has a natural, spontaneous vibe. How much did what we see mirror real life?
It's very simple. We told the director Jim Swaffield (R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet," A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario") that we wanted to have a family reunion and we want you to shoot it. Everybody in that video was a part of our family and friends. With a video, you normally have catering, so we just had a barbecue at the Belmont Plateau in Philly and invited all of our friends. It was very organic and I think that came across. I got into so much trouble from people who were like, "Why didn't you invite me?" It wasn't like, "Oh my God, you guys just shot a video." It was, "Wow. You had a barbecue and didn't tell me?" We did it in two days: one to shoot the barbecue, the other just us driving around on a flatbed in Philly.