I like to think of Jazzy Jeff as the hip-hop version of Allen Iverson: a guy whose public perception points in one direction, while amongst his peers, it’s the polar opposite. Whoever coined the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” must’ve had Jeff in mind.
As DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, the duo of Jeffrey Townes and Will Smith released plenty of well-received material in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But the average American knows Jeff for his cameo appearances as Will’s dimwitted pal on the popular ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” I kid you not, less than a month ago, a middle-aged coworker was flipping through my CD booklet. When he saw this album, he began laughing hysterically. “DJ Jazzy Jeff?! That goofy guy from ‘Fresh Prince’?” He walked away reciting the show’s well-known theme song. (Isn’t it weird how EVERYONE seems to know the words to that?!)
This, in addition to the squeaky-clean subject matter of his musical work with Smith, causes Jeff to be lumped into the “pop rap” category, a kinder, gentler way of saying “no artistic credibility.” But ask any true hip-hop head or industry insider about the Philly-bred DJ, and you’ll hear an entirely different story. For starters, he’s considered one of the greatest turntablists of all-time. Even if you’re not particularly fond of the DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince catalog, it’s impossible to dispute the scratching skills demonstrated on those records. Secondly, he’s widely respected for his keen musical ear, finding songs that have style, substance, and the ability to ignite a party. His hard-to-find, critically-acclaimed “Hip Hop Forever” compilation series, a collection of songs he personally feels are the best that hip-hop has to offer, are hungrily sought-after by industry hipsters.
Go ahead and add “The Magnificent” to his sparkling track-record. Released as part of the renowned Beat Generation series (Pete Rock, Jay Dee, etc.), expectations heading into the project were high but Jeff came through. True to its father’s name, this album oozes with jazzy, soulful production that demands continuous playback. While this acts more as a “DJ Jazzy Jeff Presents…” album since most of the production is handled by his production team at A Touch of Jazz studios, overall it’s one of the most well-produced albums of 2002. It’s one of those CDs that you can put in your living room stereo, recline on the couch, close your eyes, and allow yourself to get lost in the musical tapestry. The production is so good, even on songs lacking in lyrical muscle, you won’t feel the need to press fast forward. It’s one of the few albums I can listen to without skipping a single track. The MCs aren’t too shabby either. Jeff invites a mix of in-house MCs and underground luminaries to sink their teeth into this gourmet meal.
The first song “Shake It Off” plays the role of the album’s hypeman, literally asking listeners to forget their daily stresses. The song works because of Chef Word’s simplistic, catchy lyrics over a playful, bouncing Kev Brown beat. While not as mellow as the other songs on the disc, it succeeds in setting up the listener for duration of the album. “For Da Love of Da Game” shines with a breezy bass selection, subtle claps, and a superb chorus consisting of a fresh vocal sample, Valvin Roane crooning, and trademark Jazzy Jeff scratches. Baby Blak and Pauly Yamz share lyrical duties here and do not disappoint, explaining their passion for their craft:
“I feel the bass in my chest, it gives power to songs
Girl ripping when I’m home about the hours I’m gone
I can’t help it, the studio where Paul be at
Tried to walk away from it but it called me back”
Underground fan-favorite J-Live makes an appearance on “Break it Down” and offers an outstanding opening verse over P. Smoovah’s pace-setting, stripped- down beat. But this track is really about the DJs. It’s the turntablist equivalent to “The Symphony,” a collaboration record that features a who’s who list of modern vinyl-pushers. Spinbad, Kwestion, Obi Won, Avee, soul one, Jay Ski, Chief Xcel, Sat One, Dirty Ice, Spin One, DJ Babu, and needle legends QBert and DJ Revolution each take a turn saluting Jeff with brief scratches. Any questions about Jeff’s industry credibility can be erased with one look at this all-star lineup.
“How I Do” stars one-fourth of Philly’s platinum-selling Boyz II Men, Shawn Stockman. He teams up with up-and-coming rapper Cy Young to provide a flawless, rap/R&B hybrid over Kev Brown’s masterful production, incorporating piano keys and sparse guitars. The pairing of Baby Blak and Pauly Yamz returns on “Worldwide”. Their tough-talking, machismo lyrics seem slightly out of place on this album, but both rappers have mellow deliveries that fit perfectly with the subtle production. To their credit, they aren’t your typical thug rappers. Both possess the lyrical depth that ensures their posturing won’t be shallow. Knowledgeable sports fans will love the obscure references to athletes like Chad Lewis, Bernard Hopkins, and Mitch Richmond. The Oddisee- spat, Oddisee-produced “Musik Lounge” is one of the album’s highlights. He accessorizes his infectious beat, a simple drum beat sprinkled with whistles and periodic guitar licks, with three buzz-worthy verses.
As incredible as this album is, it’s not exactly perfect. “Rock With You” is a forgettable, factory-line R&B track from Erro. Baby Blak delivers three above- average verses over a pleasant Kev Brown soundscape on “Travelz”, but listeners will be distracted by the horrendous, annoying reggae chorus. Fortunately, these back-to-back letdowns aren’t enough to ruin the consistency of album as a whole.
After the slight hiccup, the album picks up right where it left off with “Scram”, a bonafide banger. Sporting a bass guitar-heavy, rubber-band beat from Kev Brown, DJ Jazzy Jeff cutting, and a charismatic Bumpy Knuckles behind the mic, this is a can’t-miss hit. My favorite track of the album is “My Peoples,” a stirring, socially-conscious R&B track. Laced with beautiful production from Mr. Townes himself that’s highlighted by a well-executed echoing effect for the background vocals, Raheim’s soulful crooning is the essence of style and substance:
“One button away from World War III
Being called a minority
And being pulled, always being pulled over
And subject to brutality
Why is every street like a living hell?
Probably ’cause they all just want us to fail
Three strikes and surely back to jail
Like the slave ships when they sail
They don’t know
My peoples was made to endure…”
“Know Ur Hood” is a superior offering from Pauly Yamz and Chef Word. Unlike your typical street narrative, the two emcees directly address hood residents, asking them to open their eyes to the unspoken rules and less-explicit dangers of their habitats. Flo Brown of Floetry appears on “Love Savior” and unveils the best verses of the album. Raheim provides background accompaniment to the moody strings/snare drum production from Jazzy Jeff and Kenwood. Kenwood also provides the backing for “Mystery Man”, where Philly native and one-time Dr. Dre protÃ©gÃ© Last Emperor brings the lyrical ammunition. Next comes the Kev Brown-produced, introspective track “We Are”, yet another successful fusion of rap (Cy Young) and R&B (Raheim).
J-Live returns for “A Charmed Life”, an autobiographical jewel. ‘Live proves once again that he’s one of the best storytellers in the business. On the downside, the beat is a little too sparse, one of the few opportunities to criticize the production. On “We Live in Philly”, Jill Scott reminisces about growing up in Philadelphia in a lengthy spoken-word piece. A testament to the depth of its Philly theme, the song delivers more obscure, sports-related name- dropping, in this case Sixers hometown favorites Bo Kimble and Pooh Richardson: two mediocre players who haven’t participated in a NBA game in about a decade. It’s the kind of imagery that only Philly natives could relate to. Admittedly not a spoken-word fan myself, I found this track forgettable, though not terrible by any stretch of the imagination and vibe-wise perfect for this album. Also of interest, fellow Philadelphian and Roots drummer ?uestlove provides the percussion for this track. The album closes on a strong note with the Valvin Roane-sung “In Time”. It’s an uptempo, retro joint that’s got a ’70s funk sound while injected with good ol’ Motown soul crooning that works surprisingly well. A quick glance at the credits reveals that the magic touch is provided by none other than house music pioneers Louie Vega and Kenny Gonzalez, better known as Masters At Work.
With more guest artists than the total song count, it’s quite amazing “The Magnificent” isn’t a mish-mashed, trail-mix compilation album. Its cohesiveness comes from the incredible, refreshingly organic production that incorporates unforced usage of drums, strings, and keys. Unlike many hip-hop albums today that try to accommodate every potential listener and unsuccessfully cram 11 contrasting production styles into 13-track albums, “The Magnificent” sticks to one unified, soulful sound from beginning to end. Jeff and his team make it seem so easy. From the lyrical perspective, Jeff enlisted MCs/singers he knew would match his production style. As a result, he not only created a near-perfect album for himself, but was able to create a buzz for talented MCs in his stable. Cy Young, Baby Blak, Pauly Yamz, and Oddisee all proved to be promising lyricists and held their own among proven vets like J- Live and Freddie Foxxx.
Really, Blak says all that needs to be said about Jeff and “The Magnificent” on the opening track:
“The underdog made his mark, inflated on ’em
You said it couldn’t be done, straight hated on him
It’s all ‘hood, Jeff is easily good
Never claimed to be the best but he easily could”