Week 143: “A Touch of Jazz” by DJ Jazzy Jeff

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1987 was a big year for hip hop.

Looking at a list of hip hop releases from that year, it becomes obvious that this was a genre struggling with the fact that it was breaking into the mainstream, but not sure whether doing so would harm its authenticity as an artform.

Rap was heading into a lot of directions all at once; Public Enemy pushed the political side, NWA was building the foundations of 90s gangsta rap, and the Beastie Boys were…well, white. A comment in the liner notes of Kool Moe Dee’s 1987 album “How Ya Like Me Now” hints at how apprehensive many experienced rappers were of hip hop’s sudden appeal: “The Beastie Boys: We rappers have worked very hard to get rap to the level it’s at. Don’t mess it up.”

One of my favourite hip hop songs of 1987 is “A Touch Of Jazz” by DJ Jazzy Jeff. When I first heard it, I hadn’t even considered the fact that you could make a hip hop song without someone rapping, and it really made me listen to the way he blended samples to make something new. It was the beginning of my love affair with sample-based music, and the soundtrack to many a solo dance session in my room.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. His choice of samples. Jeff earned his nickname by sampling outside of the standard roll of funk breaks that DJs were sampling in the 80s. The jazzy, spacey vibe he accomplishes sets him apart, and makes his songs interesting enough to stand alone as instrumentals.

2. The sample at 0:51. It comes out of nowhere and totally changes the direction of the song.

3. You can tell it’s mixed live. This is one guy with two turntables. Sometimes the cuts are just a bit off the beat, something that wouldn’t happen nowadays, as everything would be done to a click track and edited with computer software. But the fact that he’s not metronome-perfect reminds you that it’s a human manipulating various records on the fly. That’s real DJ-ing.

Recommended listening activity:

Developing a secret handshake with a friend.

Buy it here.