Songs of Summer: DJ Jazzy Jeff On 'Summertime' & Why Will Smith Misses Rapping

“Drums, please!” From that iconic segue, DJ Jazzy Jeff and copartner The Fresh Prince (a.k.a. Will Smith) crafted one of warm weather’s most lasting theme songs "Summertime," which snagged a Grammy for Best Rap Single in 1992. We sat down with Jeff to discuss the ins and outs of "Summertime" and how it became one of the essential hits of the season.
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“Drums, please!”

From that iconic segue, DJ Jazzy Jeff and copartner The Fresh Prince (a.k.a. Will Smith) crafted one of warm weather’s most lasting theme songs "Summertime," which snagged a Grammy for Best Rap Single in 1992. Smith, as we all know, went on to make movies, but DJ Jazzy Jeff, perhaps best remembered as Jazz from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, remained a disciple of music. It was his idea to retrofit Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” after all.

Since then, Jeff has used the skills he’s nurtured since he was a kid to woo the ears of Philly and beyond. Throughout his solo career, he’s released a handful of records in which he’s worked with hip-hop greats like Big Daddy Kane, CL Smooth, and Method Man. As a producer and deft-record scratcher, he’s fostered the talents of Jill Scott and Musiq and has contributed to records from The Roots and Talib Kweli.

When he's not making beats or honing talent, Jeff works on his biweekly web series, Vinyl Destination, which documents his travels around the world and the ragtag adventures that come with them.

We sat down with Jeff to discuss the ins and outs of "Summertime" and how it became one of the essential hits of the season.

Does it ever get old to hear people bring up "Summertime"? It's still one of people's go-to summer jams.

No, it doesn’t get old. I think it’s interesting because it feels very special to have a song that surpasses time. So, every year I think that no one’s going to be paying attention to it and it comes back. Every year. Which makes me feel blessed and very happy. But, never in a million years did I expect this to be one of those songs that every time it gets warm, it comes back up.

Where would you rank the success "Summertime" achieved in terms of career highlights? Above winning your first Grammy for "Parents Just Don't Understand"?

You would definitely have to rank it, if not at the top then one of the definite top, just because of the fact that it keeps going and going. Last summer we celebrated the 20th anniversary. And it’s not often that 20 years later, you have that song that comes on, and everyone kind of winks at you. Every April or May, I tell myself, this is the year that someone else is going to come out with another summertime song, or they’re just not going to play it.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @djjazzyjeff215

"Summertime" was just one of a number of singles off of your album Homebase. Did you have any idea that that song in particular would become so beloved?

It was very organic. We did the song and we were dropping the record at the beginning of the summer. So we dropped the record, the song happened to be about the summertime and everybody played it. It played at every barbecue, at every block party, on all of the cars on the street cruising.

It was the first year of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will was in L.A. Sometimes L.A. doesn’t really have a summer because it’s 70 degrees at Christmas. And he remembered the feeling (from Philadelphia) around April, when you get that first 70-degree weather and everybody comes out that hibernated during winter. You see that girl who didn’t look like this when she left in the winter time. Or, you didn’t realize that this guy got a new car. Those were all of the nuances of weather changing attached to growing up, and he was missing that.

Jazzy Jeff and Will chillin.'

Jazzy Jeff and Will chillin.'

Off the top of my head I can think of about five versions of the song, including the '98 remix. Do you prefer one above the rest?

The original. The original was a classic. Everyone wanted to remix it, and that’s why we did all those remixes. But when you listen to the radio, they’re always playing the original.

How different is it to have worked with The Fresh Prince back when hip-hop was still taking baby steps, circa 1991, and now when it's a certified industry powerhouse?

The technological aspect is the biggest difference.

Will and I would work out our ideas and have to go to a studio to work them out with an engineer, which would take time. Record everything, and, really, just make it happen.

The biggest difference now is that I can program something, send it in an email, they can put their vocals on it, send it back to me, and then I can mix it—all within an hour. Will and I were thinking about this not too long ago. Like, what if we had the resources everyone has now, when we were making records? We probably would have made 30 albums.

Was the music video for "Summertime" shot primarily in Philly?

The whole video was shot in Philly. And what we told the director is that we wanted to have a cookout and invite all our family and friends. There were very few things that were scripted in that video. We knew everyone in that video. They were either one of our friends or one of our family members.

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That backyard BBQ has got to be one of the best ones in music video history. What's the main ingredient needed for a DJ Jazzy Jeff-approved summer party?

You definitely have to have the music, the food, and the people. People who appreciate the warm weather. No disrespect to people in places that have warm weather all year round, but a lot of times, people who live on the East Coast or places where there’s winter, have a bigger appreciation for the summer.

One of the things that makes the music video so memorable is seeing you and Will cruising around Philly while sitting on patio furniture. Whose idea was it to do that?

I think it was the director’s idea. We made some people mad. That part was shot on a Friday afternoon and everyone was getting off of work. So, we were backing up traffic. As much as it was a classic, and we were from Philly and there’s a lot of hometown pride, there were people that really didn’t like that. We got a couple of middle fingers pointed our way.

Do you think Will misses those moments of being a rapper and touring?

I’m sure he does. That’s why every chance he gets, and we have an opportunity to get together, we do it. I’m in the process of twisting his arm and doing one more tour.