Before leaving town for a string of club gigs and four appearances during the annual Winter Music Conference in Miami, Jeff Townes, aka DJ Jazzy Jeff, could be found hunched over the racks at Armand's Records, Philadelphia's Chestnut Street DJ mecca, prowling for treasure. It's his ritual.
“For me, the best way to get ready for a tour is to come down here and check what's out,” says the soft-spoken Townes, who first grabbed attention as Will Smith's wickedly fast slice-and-dice sidekick. Since then, he's set up a busy recording studio and production center, A Touch of Jazz, and he's grown into a genre-crossing party DJ whose blend of hip-hop, soul, jazz and house can be dangerously combustible. His most recent release, Hip-Hop Forever, Vol. 2 (Rapster/BBE, 2004), is a deftly assembled hip-hop fantasia that incorporates old and new with established legends (A Tribe Called Quest) and rising underground figures (J-Live).
“Sometimes, I know exactly what I'm looking for,” Townes says, brandishing a PDA loaded with lists of needed vinyl, everything from obscure jazz-fusion records to some gotta-haves like the new Cee-Lo Green. “And I hate to admit it, but I'm constantly rebuying the same records because I can't find 'em. The great thing about this place is, while I'm looking, I'll have an ear out for whatever's new. These guys find amazing stuff … and they know my vibe.”
Sure enough, as Townes rifles through the bins, pulling titles that he's curious about, Armand's vinyl buyer, Joey Massarueh, cues up lush Brazilian-tinged house and deep, progressive rhythms that sound tailor-made for Townes. When he hears something he likes, the DJ makes a slam-dunk arm motion, a signal that says, “Put that one aside.”
Townes is being creative as he stocks his intentionally economical rig: three bags of vinyl and one CD wallet filled with rarities. “You have to be aware of who's out there when you're spinning,” he says. “I like to keep a set that I build around so that it's somewhat consistent — some people actually want to hear exactly what you played the last time. But you also want to throw in some curves.” Here are a few of the choice curves he found and intended to use on the road:
“Everybody Dance” (Atlantic)
This is one of the few underrated disco classics, from the first Chic album. It's not like playing “Le Chic,” which everybody knows so well. I like having a few of these around because you can put it on when everybody's already having a good time; it trips people for a minute. It's a happy song. At the height of the party, I will usually drop a happy song, especially when I'm playing a house set. You have one of those classics, put it right when things are heading into a climax, and that's a head turner. I'm probably buying this one for the third time.
CLOUDKICKERS FEAT. GABRIELLE WILLIAMS
“Journey” (Electrik Soul)
You want to be the first person to play something that makes people go, “What's that?” For me, it's always the same thing: Go with the gut. Your first reaction is gonna tell you a lot about how it's gonna work. On a lot of what we're hearing [today], I don't have a long, drawn-out conclusion. If the rhythm gets me grooving, then it works. I try to listen as a consumer, and this one really gets me. It's simple and easy; the melody just comes at you right away. I've never changed the way I buy records. It's according to what I like, not what's popular.
“Busted Trees (Carl Craig's Spacetrumental)” (Diaspora in Session)
I like music that puts me in a place. This, it's like trance, but there's lots of percussion going on — love that. You think about your audience when you're working: In the Midwest or something, you go for some of the more accessible things, but you have to be careful about the burn factor. There, something from Chic might totally be the thing. But in Miami, I'll be spinning in front of a lot of DJs, and the people are very educated music listeners there, so something like this might fly. And that break is great — all of those hand drums. It's easy to imagine getting something going with this. I'll take a piece of it, like four bars, let that loop and then drop in something else.
That's another one of these hand-drum things. The percussion, when it pops like that, can be lethal all by itself. There's a New York salsa element to it. Those vocals [from Ico Manzanero of the Larry Harlow Orchestra] are sick. More than just about everything we've heard, this thing just screams from the first minute. And that Quantic remix on the flip side is great, too — perfect breaks.
“In the Bush” (Bear Funk)
That's a vibe. You don't need anything besides that right there. The longer it stays, the deeper it sucks you in. There's a real art to making those — plenty of records that have an amazing feel don't always get you that way. And there's also the psychology that goes into that kind of repetition. Lots of times in clubs, you've got people wanting to lose their minds, but, sometimes, you don't want the superresponse. Sometimes, it's okay for things to just bubble along and be nice and steady, not hit you over the head.
THE FREE DESIGN
“Where Do I Go (Madlib Remix)” (Light in the Attic)
This record is just hot. I like the way Madlib left the sounds of the era [the Free Design was a late-'60s psychedelic pop group from New York]; you really hear his sense of humor in that. It's hard to believe that the originals were never out on CD. But, then, look around here — there are all these white-label pressings of classic hip-hop out there. Hey, I've seen “Summertime” and some of the other singles Will and I did. So I have a love-hate thing going: As an artist, I know I'm not going to be getting paid for those; as a DJ, my job is to keep the party moving, and, sometimes, that means working with music that the major labels don't consider a priority. It's a shame, because this is very important stuff, and if a DJ is doing the job, he or she can show how that stuff relates to whatever's going on right this minute, whether it's something like this or one of my favorite hip-hop groups, the Pharcyde. I wish they would get back together.
“Crab Apple” (Kudu)
I haven't seen this record in a long time. All of those hip-hop and acid-jazz cats like the sort-of-cool soul-jazz sound, and I've got, of course, Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith in my bag. But there were some '70s things that had a bunch more energy to 'em, like this one with Hiram Bullock on guitar just ripping it up. It's not a well-known record, and it's too deep for some people, but it's got a classic sound to it. I can't believe this was here — you won't find this in most record stores. The thing is, with reissues as available as they are, unless you've got something like this Idris Muhammad, now everybody can have your collection. So it comes down to how you use what you've got, how well you can play.
“Follow Me (D'Angelo Remix)” (GAMM)
This is one of those instant-reaction records. You hear that intro; you're like, “Wow, that sounds like D'Angelo.” And then the track kicks in, and it's, “Whoa, what just happened?” That's bananas. I like those remixes because they give you what you're used to, but they put a little spin on it.
Armand's Records; 1108 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19107; tel. (215) 592-7003