When DJ Jazzy Jeff came down with what he believed to be the coronavirus in March, it was so early in the outbreak’s timeline that he couldn’t even get a test to confirm his self-diagnosis. After going through the gauntlet of recovering from pneumonia in both of his lungs, the Grammy Award-winning producer is finally feeling like himself again two months later.
Jeff’s focus has now switched to providing quality quarantine entertainment through his weekly Saturday 3 pm ET DJ sets, which have been appointment viewing material for millions of fans.
As everyone continues to get adjusted to the new normal, the Fresh Prince star started to think of innovative ways to take his virtual DJ sets to the next level. Enter the Break the Monotony Block Party, a virtual festival filled with your favorite DJs spinning classic tunes from the comfort of their homes for 12 hours straight.
“I picked up the phone and called a bunch of my really good DJ friends to see if they wanted to be involved,” he says after locking down sets from DJ D-Nice, Just Blaze, and DJ Clark Kent to name a few. “It’s the festival based off how we have to live right now.”
In conjunction with May 9’s Block Party, Will Smith and his partner-in-crime are teaming up to release a nostalgic Bel-Air Athletics merchandise collection celebrating 30 years of The Fresh Prince over on the store’s website. “There’s no way in my life that I could’ve ever called this,” the Philly native states of the show’s lasting cultural impact. “It is mind-boggling to really sit back and realize that it’s been 30 years, but to some people, this is brand new.”
Billboard caught up with DJ Jazzy Jeff to hear more about his recovery, reuniting with The Fresh Prince cast for the first time last month, accumulating over 700 pairs of sneakers in his closet, and more.
First off, how are you feeling since coming down with what you believed to be COVID-19 in March?
I’m great and blessed to have come through it. If I was to get sick, I’m happy I got sick early. I’ve had a chance to recover and practice social distancing. It’s become a really big thing, for me, to tell people how important this is. I’m still a bit weirded out by this because there’s so much unknown. Like, I don’t know if I can get it twice, or how long the antibodies last. I’m unsure of a whole lot of stuff, so I would rather sit until I have a better understanding of what’s going on.
I used an analogy talking to a friend that it’s like there was a lion that has been released to the world and is killing people and causing all kinds of mayhem, to the point that the government was like, “Go inside until we capture the lion.” Two months later, it’s like, “Okay, you guys can come outside now.” Now I’m like, “Did you guys catch him? I haven’t heard that you guys caught him.” Don’t tell me to come back outside when the lion is still wreaking havoc. You still haven’t fixed the issue. I want this to be over with, but this is going to be here for a while.
I see what you’re saying. And now that the country wants to open up, it seems that it’s based on political pressure or economic reasons, rather than it actually being safer outside.
The thing is, the people who are opening up the country, they’re not going outside to see if the lion is out there. Like you ask anyone if it’s okay, everyone avoids that question. If you believe it that strongly, then you go outside.
How did the idea of the Break the Monotony Block Party come together? It’s almost like a virtual festival with DJs.
Once I started feeling better, I played a set because I felt the importance to express [myself] to people. I didn’t really tell people I was sick until I was coming out of it, and to see the reports of me being on my death bed, it was kind of like, first of all, “Let me go on to address all these rumors.” I played a set on a Saturday, and I decided I would every Saturday at 3:00 pm to help people stay inside and practice social distancing. I want you to dance in your kitchen.
I’ve been getting total numbers of over one million people that sit and listen. So then the idea came up, why not do a virtual block party? This is the 30th anniversary of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Will and I are coming out with a merchandise line to commemorate that.
We saw you reunited with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast on Will Smith’s Snapchat show last month. What was that like?
That was so great because we don’t get the chance to do that like we used to. It was a beautiful thing to get a level of understanding of what we did. Sometimes I’ll go through it with Will, but this was the first time for all of us to talk about what the show meant. Tatyana has two kids! How does Ashley [Banks] have two kids? When you think about it, you’re kind of like, “Yo, this is crazy!”
What do you think of all the Instagram Live battles we’ve seen between producers and artists? We saw you checked into Teddy Riley and Babyface.
This is us figuring it out. It wasn’t Teddy Riley’s manager, it wasn’t Babyface’s manager, this was Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. This is us figuring this out on the fly. Now, you have direct access to your favorite entertainer doing what he loves from the comfort of his home. We all wanted to be behind the scenes, and I think it’s beautiful. We are probably looking at 50 percent of our new norm. I think this is how things are going to be from here on out.
When you say “our new norm,” how long are you talking?
I DJed on Saturday and 1.5 million people watched my set. What club or festival can I go to that 1.5 million people will hear me? It’s pretty safe to say that I’ll end up at a club or festival, but I’m never going to stop what I’m doing right now. There’s a new normal that people are understanding. Universal and AMC Theaters released Trolls World Tour and it was the biggest release into people’s homes and that’s the future. We’re going to see simultaneous releases. I don’t think the theater will ever go away, but I think we’ll treat the movie theater as a special occasion.
With you never getting a coronavirus test, were you trying hard to get one, and doctors wouldn’t give it to you since it happened so early in the outbreak?
I got sick really early and they wouldn’t test me. I went in and they weren’t thinking that I had coronavirus. They were more looking form the perspective that I had pneumonia after I had a flu test. They came back from the chest x-ray and said I had pneumonia in both my lungs, which I was afraid of more than anything. It wasn’t until the middle of my illness that my wife said, “Pneumonia is one of the main symptoms of coronavirus.” That’s when I put together that I did a show in Idaho and there was a massive outbreak there. My appetite was gone and I couldn’t taste anything.
Do you feel people are taking this seriously enough?
No, they’re not. It’s very hard for people to take something serious that they can’t see. We hit a patch of great weather and people kind of thought this was over. This doesn’t mean it’s over. The thing that scares me is that I feel like we’re going to undo all of the good work that we did. I’m afraid that opening things up to soon is going to come back to hurt us.
We saw you post your epic sneaker collection earlier this year. You joked about how you used to have an addiction to kicks.
Me being a sneakerhead actually started on The Fresh Prince. Nike had a music division, but once we got on The Fresh Prince, when I tell you the difference between the movie and music division, the amount of stuff they started sending us when we got the show was mind-boggling. I would get a fresh pair of Jordan’s, wear one and put the second pair in my basement. I thought I would bust them out on a special occasion. I blinked and four years went by, and I had 70 pairs of unopened sneakers that people couldn’t get anymore. Once I started traveling around the world as a DJ, I had the ultimate cheat code. I looked up and I have 7 or 800 pairs and I had to give it up.
It’s crazy that just over 30 years ago, you and Will were the first to ever win best rap performance at the Grammys for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” What do you remember from that time?
One of the things being that we boycotted that. The Grammys did not want to recognize hip-hop as a category. It was beautiful, but just to get to the point we kind of had to take a stand. We didn’t realize what we were doing when we did it. We just kind of felt like this wasn’t right and we have to stick up for what is.
Do you feel validated in that sense?
I don’t know if it was so much validation, but we felt hip-hop was what we did and we wanted to stick up for it. But to look at the things that have changed since then, you kind of do feel validated.