It’s been 22 years since Will Smith (then known as the Fresh Prince) and DJ Jazzy Jeff released their fifth and ostensibly final album, Code Red. But unlike other pioneering groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Fugees, the group’s end was not predicated on infighting or ego. Smith’s acting bug became a full-on fever and Jazzy Jeff became an in-demand DJ who still performs more than 150 shows a year.
The childhood friends have remained close, and their reunion, revealed by Smith in an interview with Apple Music earlier this week, was hiding in plain sight for years: Jeff regularly DJs the wrap parties for Smith’s movies, with the rapper inevitably hopping on the mic to perform a medley of the duo’s greatest hits.
But this week, Smith announced the duo’s reunion with plans for a new album and the first world tour of their career. The rapper told Zane Lowe he has recorded 20 to 30 songs — which may or may not appear on the album — but the duo are taking their time in recording new material. “Timelines are a thing of record companies,” Jeff tells Rolling Stone. With Smith releasing his first verse in more than a decade last week, the prolific DJ spoke to Rolling Stone on the past, present and future of the pop-rap pioneers.
Where are you in the recording process?
Will’s been recording. We had a really good conversation because he wants to get back in recording. One of the things that we talk about is going from all of these stupid, giant, million-dollar studios to now having the ability to record something in a hotel room. We laugh about the amount of material we would have put out if we had had those resources [in the Eighties and Nineties]. I want to just start recording to get him back into this space that there are no rules anymore! Every time we do an impromptu show, he’s like, “Man, we can go out and we should go out.” And I’m like, “I’m already out. I’m waiting for you!”
Do you have a recording timetable yet?
Not yet. I know just with the schedules, it will be in sections. It could be any time like, I’m home for two weeks and we’re going to get together and do something. That could really start off with me sending him something and him recording it and then us getting together. But the only way that I will [record the finished track] is if we are in the studio together. That’s how it’s always been. I’m not worried about me at all. I think the beauty of it is that he started it, and he’s ready to go.
“The beauty of it is that he started [recording], and he’s ready to go.”
Was it always in the back of your mind while touring all these years that you guys would release another album?
Let me put it like this: You don’t retire from an art. This has always been inside of him and he’s always wanted to do this. He has never stopped rapping. It’s just that being the biggest movie star on the planet, you don’t have enough time. There has never been a time that he didn’t jump on my microphone when we’re together, because that is in his blood. You think you’re going to be around a basketball court with Michael Jordan and he is not going to shoot? That’ll never happen! I’m just happy that he’s at the point where he’s like, “You know what? I really want to do this.” And the whole idea is he realizes he wants to have fun. I can tell the level of enjoyment he has from doing it.
So he performs and says, “This feels good. We should record.” When did that go from general discussion to you both seriously considering an album?
Every time we would get together, he would talk about, “Yeah, I’m thinking about it. I got a concept for a record.” The last time we got together seriously was in the spring when he started Suicide Squad and I went up [to see him] and we talked for four hours. I just finished the Dayne Jordan project and I played it for him from beginning to end and he was just like, “Wow.” And I just went on to tell him like, “Listen, I did this all by myself. This wasn’t through a record label; we just went in and did it.” And all of that is foreign because you almost felt like someone has to co-sign you to make music. If you got the talent, we got the studio and the resources and you don’t need a record label. That’s what this generation does that we’ve never done.
Did Will think that the two of you would have to go label-hunting?
No, no. It’s not that he thought that. It’s just he’s never done it any other way. Before I did Dayne Jordan, neither had I. So I’m sitting back like, “I own a studio and I can make music.” I got a videographer on the road and we started shooting videos, so we shot a video in Dubai. Who shoots a video in Dubai besides Jay Z and Kanye? This is exactly what you would do on a Sony and now you have the resources to do it by yourself. All I did was share that information with him, like, “Dude, you know what we can do now without any boundaries?”
He mentioned having 20 to 30 songs recorded. How many of those were with you versus his solo stuff?
We haven’t even gone to the studio yet. He’s done all of this while he was doing Suicide Squad. So we haven’t gotten in to do the stuff that we are going to do, which is next level. One of the conversations that we had was just talking about jumping. You gotta jump. If Jaden goes into the studio and he hears something hot, he records it and puts it out in 24 hours. And from the perspectives of Will and myself, you’re like, “What?” I said, “You know what? Just drop it.” And he kept saying, “What does ‘drop it’ look like?”
Will did a verse off of [Kanye West’s] “Clique” when it first came out. He rapped it for me and it was huge. And I looked at him and said, “Why didn’t you put that out?” And he just looked at me. I’m like, “Wait, you wrote an incredible verse off of a really popular song. That is what they do! Just drop it!” But he just sat on it.
In the Zane Lowe interview, he talked about being scared to record new music. Do you think it was fear?
I don’t think it was a fear thing. He was really trying to grasp the concept of just putting it out. You got something that is hot and great and that is it. I told him to just put it on SoundCloud and you could see the wheels turning like, “Oh shit, I can really do that?” That is a very hard concept. It’s like they opened the gates to the prison and nobody ran. Everybody just stood there because you are used to be incarcerated that you’re like, “I’m not going to run. What if something happens?”
Is it true this will be your first world tour together?
Yeah, it’s funny. When we were doing the Run-D.M.C. tour, we’d go to New York and Mobile, Alabama and do a lot of that stuff. When we got to the point of being bigger, it was during the Fresh Prince [of Bel-Air] years, so we couldn’t really tour like that. We didn’t have six months to just go all over the world.
Has anything been solidified for the tour?
I don’t know. What I tell people is, “If Will says, ‘Listen, we’re going on tour,’ we’re going on tour.” That’s my partner. Anytime he needs me, I’m there. If it’s like, “Yo, we’re out,” we’re out. Let me know so I can make some arrangements and we’re gone.
“Will did a verse off of ‘Clique’ when it first came out. He rapped it for me and it was huge. But he just sat on it.”
Rappers and producers are finding success at older ages now more than ever before. Do you think the climate is right for a new album after more than 20 years?
The timing is perfect and it was just something that clicked. I think a lot of it is just the understanding of the space. You’ve got to look at it like, us, Dr. Dre, LL Cool J all came up together, and now everybody’s in a different professional space, but your fanbase is still there. We are the first generation that’s growing older with hip-hop. So think about it: We didn’t know how to handle that. You try to figure out: Is hip-hop the music of the youth? And it’s like, yeah, it’s the music of the youth . . . when you’re young!
We didn’t have the media outlets that cater to a more adult demographic because we are the first. So now, you got Boom [classic hip-hop radio] stations and Sirius XM’s BackSpin and everybody loves that. Now you got a station that plays Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” and “Raw,” but they’ll also play him if he makes something new. The outlet is finally catching up to the music. I keep saying, “Seriously, did you think Rakim lost it?” Rakim just didn’t put out music because where would his music be played? There comes a time, and this is weird to say with us being hip-hop lovers, that you outgrow Hot 97.
Is it a chicken-and-egg scenario between recording the new album and booking a tour? Wouldn’t one influence the other?
It’s not like we don’t have material to do. When we go out and perform now, we don’t do new material. Now, as you get to the point that you can add new stuff on, ah man, this is great. I just think it’s the perfect time. Now there are no boundaries.