A Conversation with DJs Jazzy Jeff and A-Trak

Last night DJ Phsh represented Philadelphia to the fullest by winning the title of East Coast representative at the Red Bull Thre3style Regional.  The wild, head-to-head DJ battle featured 5 of the East Coast’s finest competitors – DJ PHSH, DJ LAYZEEBOY, DJ Petey C, Trayze, Zeke. Also in the building to judge the competition were legendary DJs: DJ Jazzy Jeff, A-Trak and Z-Trip.

I got the opportunity to sit down and chat with 215 gem, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and turntable phenom, A-Trak about their thoughts on Philadelphia, best/worst DJing experiences, and more.

First up was Jazzy Jeff:

two.one. five magazine: You’re a 215 legend, how did Philadelphia influence you as an artist?

DJ Jazzy Jeff:  Philly’s a pretty tough town, and I think it gives you tough skin and prepares you for any curveballs that are thrown at you. I think when you’re out there and you have any kind of adversity, you just kind of tap into your Philly side and you’re able to tough it out.

I know people who aren’t from here that come here and say it’s pretty tough. It definitely is tough to please a Philly crowd, they expect great things and you have to always be on you’re A-game.

two.one. five magazine: I’m sure it’s benefited you in certain situations. What’s the worst experience you’ve ever had DJing?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Someone booked me to do a Soca party, and they told me that they didn’t want me to play Soca music, they just wanted me to “do me”.  About an hour before I got there, the guy is like “Yo, can you do a Soca set?”

I didn’t know a single Soca record.

I arrive and there are about 3,000 people on the floor, dancing to Soca music. I got up there and started playing, and all I remember is this girl in the front row, and for the entire time I was playing she was just shaking her head like “nope”.  She didn’t say a single word, she just kept shaking her head. I was like ,“Oh my god”, and I just kept playing.

That’s that Philly tough style, you’ve got to keep playing.

two.one. five magazine: That sounds petrifying! On a lighter note, what’s the best experience you’ve ever had DJing?

DJ Jazzy Jeff: Oh man, I have way too many of those.

two.one. five magazine: How about one of the most memorable?

DJ Jazzy Jeff: Every two years I play a festival in Singapore called ZoukOut, and there are about 85,000 people on the beach. So it’s really, really massive. Just imagine looking out at 85,000 people, and telling everyone to put there hands in the air – that will give you the chills.

two.one. five magazine: That’s insane, do you get nervous?

DJ Jazzy Jeff: Nope!

two.one. five magazine: Not even when you were first starting?

DJ Jazzy Jeff: More than nerves I think you get anxiety. I’m never nervous; I think I’m just anxious. You have all of these people in front of you, and you know what you’re going to do before they know, and you’re just so excited for them. It’s really cool.

two.one. five magazine: How do you feel out a crowd when you’re constantly going to different venues?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: It’s hard to explain, it’s so second nature to me now. I think more than anything, my job is to take people on a trip, and sometimes people start to enjoy it two minutes in, ten minutes in or twenty minutes in, but at the end of the day you just want them to enjoy the trip.  I think that’s it. You’re just thinking about how you can take these people along with you for the ride.

I definitely don’t go on what I see. I go on what I feel.

two.one. five magazine: I know you’ve been in competitions like the Red Bull Thre3style before, do you remember what the most stressful part about that is?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: I’ve always had tunnel vision. I’ve come up with what I’m going to do and I can’t worry about what anybody else is going to be doing. Focusing on what other people are doing is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. You just have to do you and see how it comes out. I’ve seen that be very disastrous for people who start listening or paying too much attention to somebody else.

Once you come up, a big plus is your level of commitment to your own style. You can commit to what you want to do and just stick with it. If you believe in it, just do it.  If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody is going to believe in you.

two.one. five magazine: DJ Phsh is from Philly, do you feel any bias towards him because he’s from your hometown?
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Let me tell you something, this is probably my third year doing Red Bull Thre3style judging. I’m very hard and very fair. I’m not the type of judge that wants you to set yourself on fire to impress me, but I pay attention to all of the little stuff. You’ll never pull something over on me. I’m watching, I’m listening and if what I see and what I hear don’t match, then the hairs on the back of neck stand up.

Hey, that makes you a great judge to have for the competition. Lastly, do you have any advice for the DJs for tonight and moving forward from the competition?
One of the biggest pieces of advice that I have, especially for the DJs from the US, is to not take the rest of the world for granted.  I think that the rest of the world is a lot more musically advanced than the United States, and I’ve seen a lot of guys from the United States take that for granted, and lose. So, watch out for the little, short, tiny guy from Chile who looks unassuming, because he will put his foot in your ass.

two.one. five magazine: That’s a solid piece of advice. Thanks so much, Jazzy Jeff, you seriously rule.

Next up was A-trak.

two.one. five magazine: You’ve been in competitions like this before, as a DJ, what is the most stressful part of competing?

A-Trak: The most stressful part is that you want to make sure you don’t mess up [laughs]. A DJ set is very intricate, there are a lot of cues, you have stay sharp the whole way through, but you also want to put on a good appearance for the crowd.

There is this whole sort of balancing act where you don’t want to look at your records the whole time because you want to engage the crowd, but at the same time, your mind needs to be sharp, you need to be focused and you want to remember everything.

You’re also really depending on equipment that could fail. In the pure, vinyl days it would be skipping, and nowadays your laptop could just go blank or crash. Things happen, and you want to stay tight. That’s probably the most stressful part of preparing for battle, just wanting to make sure that you perform your set correctly.

two.one. five magazine: Has you equipment failed on you?
A-Trak: Everything has happened to me. I was in the world finals in 1998, the DMC World Finals and the cross-fader knob flew off of my mixer. When these things happen you’re just like, “Why?! This is not supposed to happen [laughs].”

Records have skipped on me too. It’s really part of being a DJ, though. DJing is a live thing, you’re performing in front of a live audience and part of performing live is learning to roll with punches. You have to adapt.

two.one. five magazine: Is that the worst thing that’s happened to you on stage?
A-Trak: Definitely [laughs] I’d have to say that’s the worst.

two.one. five magazine: What’s the best experience that you’ve had DJing?
A-Trak: I have been DJing for 16 years. I’ve done a fair share of things; I probably can’t even pick a top three.

two.one. five magazine: Do you have a favorite artist that you’ve worked with, or an artist that has inspired you the most?
A-Trak: I’ve worked closely with Kanye West for many years, he’s definitely one of the guys who has influenced me a lot and helped me grow. I’m currently in a group called Duck Sauce with Armand Van Helden, and you know, that “Barbara Streisand” track that we put out was the biggest hit I’ve ever had.

Even beyond that, my relationship with Armand just as a music partner and friend is one of my favorites too. I really like the guy, he’s my homie.

There have also been a lot of other great collaborations that I’ve been a part of before. I’m just so happy to do what I do, and be able to earn a living with my craft, my passion and not have to do what other people have done before me.  Not only is it cool to live off of music, but to feel like I’m creating a path that’s my own is even more thrilling I think.

two.one. five magazine: I know you’ve been all over the world, has coming to Philadelphia to judge this competition inspired or influenced you in any sort of way?
A-Trak: Jazzy Jeff is probably the single-most influential DJ to me. He’s the dude that’s influenced me the most over my career, especially when you’re talking about longevity and well roundedness. To keep a career going for as long as me is one thing, but as long as Jazzy Jeff is another thing. Jeff is the don for me.  So being in the city that he comes from is inspiring to me.

two.one. five magazine:Do you have any advice for tonight’s DJs for after they move on from this competition?
A-Trak: For tonight, I would say be original. There are a lot of people that are doing the same shit. For moving on from the competition, I would still say be original because there are always going to be people doing the same shit no matter what level you reach. Bring something fresh to the table, and that’s how people will notice you.

Thanks for such an interesting chat, A-trak.