The Secret History of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s ‘The Magnificent’
The Secret History of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s ‘The Magnificent’
Source: DJ Jazzy Jeff

The Secret History of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s ‘The Magnificent’

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Source: DJ Jazzy Jeff

With today being the 15th anniversary of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s The Magnificent, we asked legendary scribe Jerry Barrow to get the inside scoop behind Jeff’s first solo studio album.

Kev Brown was working at a JCPenney warehouse in Capitol Heights, Maryland when he missed a call that would change his life. When the MC and producer got home from work there was a message on his answering machine saying that he needed to come to Philadelphia to work with DJ Jazzy Jeff. He ignored it.

“I didn’t think it was real because people be flakin’ out,” he says. “But they called [back]. It was Lyzel Williams, Jill Scott’s boyfriend and manager at the time. That’s how they heard my beats. I’d sent a beat tape to Hidden Beach Records.”

Some time prior, Pete Rock's brother Grap Luva hit Kev up to send beats to the neo-soul label, passing on sending his own.

“I sent them a beat CD that I just made and I wrote on it, ‘Grap told me to send you some joints.’ A few weeks later the Jeff calls started happening.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff Townes, the legendary Philadelphia producer and turntablist who made his name spinning alongside Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith, recording five albums and earning two Grammys along the way, was ready to take on his next challenge—independence.

“I was offered a couple of projects but never really wanted to do it because everybody back then was asking if Will was going to be on it,” says Jeff. “And I wanted Will on it if I wanted him to be on it, not to sell it. That was my first fight with just my independence. I was cool with Pete [Adarkwah] from BBE through Kenny Dope. I used to go record shopping with him. He said I want you to make an album that makes up who you are as a producer. He gave me a budget and I didn’t think about [the fact] that I was locked into making this record [now]. He knew what he was doing. Sometimes you have to push people to get it out. I was basically cornered.”

So Jeff put out the bat signal that he was working on an album and over the next two-and-a-half weeks or so he assembled a team of new and veteran talent to create what would become his debut solo project, The Magnificent, named after a scratch track on he and Will’s debut album, Rock The House.

“Once we got the relationship going it was just like ‘Make music, let me hear it, if I like it I’mma use it for the album,’” says Kev, who went on to produce seven songs on the album and helped to shape its atmospheric, bass laden sound. With his foot in the door at Touch of Jazz, Brown brought in as many of his friends and peers to work as possible.

“‘The Magnificent’ is basically a Low Budget Crew album,” he cracks. “It’s like if Hydra infiltrated The Avengers, but Jeff was with it. We was all young and trying to get it cracking.”

“We called Jeff Professor X,” says Raheem DeVaughn, who sang on three cuts and knew Kev and Cy Young from their time performing at Bar None in Maryland. “He just sits back and brings all these X-Men together for the greater good musically. The Playlist Retreat is just the mutation of what he was doing 15 years ago. Kev was very adamant about getting me up to Philly to meet Jeff. If it wasn’t for Kev, I wouldn’t know Jeff or Kenny Dope.”

The recording process was free but focused with Kev recruiting his people Cy Young, Oddisee and Ken Wood to contribute beats and rhymes.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. A photo from Benihana's when Jeff took Kev Brown out for his birthday. | Photo Courtesy: Kev Brown

“Cy Young would come up on the weekend and we were in the studio chillin’ and Shawn Stockman from Boyz II Men just rolls in with the turtleneck on with the gold chain. But he was mad regular. ‘I’m about to go play basketball and come back later.’ In my brain I was like, ‘Yeah, right. You’re Shawn from Boyz II Men, you’re famous.” So we start working on the song and Stockman walks in the door! He did come back for real like, ‘Y’all wanna work on a song?’ That’s how ‘How I Do’ happened.”

The end result was a Boombaptist’s meditative retreat replete with social commentary and good old fashion boasting over beats. Anthemic cuts like “For Da Love of Da Game” and “My Peoples” became staples of a second renaissance for indie hip-hop labels like BBE, Koch, Def Jux and Rhymesayers.

Justice Allah Cadet, aka J-Live, was working on “All Of The Above,” the follow-up to his debut The Best Part, and had been looped into work with Jeff by his then manager Wes Jackson of Brooklyn Bodega. The plan was to do a song for his album and Jeff’s.

“I went to Philly specifically to work on the joints. It was an amazing experience. A lot of people learned about my music from that album,” J-Live recalls, echoing the sentiments of his peers. “It’s one of my most important guest appearances.”

His two contributions, the autobiographical “A Charmed Life” and the expositional “Break Down,” were both produced by Pat

“P. Smoovah” McLain and allowed J to flex the range of his skills.

“’A Charmed Life’ was supposed to be just an instrumental track Jeff and P Smoovah were gonna put on the album without rhymes. I convinced them to let me write to it. They left me alone in the room with it for a few hours and I wrote the words to fit around different cadences, to follow the high hats and rides. The beat inspired me to tell the story. It just sounded like the perfect backdrop to weave that tapestry to; light, airy, happy, mellow, but deep and soulful and introspective. Like a Bob Ross painting. As it happened P made the beat on the ASR 10 I believe, but didn’t save the file after bouncing. So what you’re hearing is his original two-track fresh out the sampler, no outside mix or anything.”

The TV show sample for “Break It Down” had to be replaced at the last minute but you can still find copies of it online—or on J-Live’s hard drive. “I have a white label of it still. And a dub plate with the instrumental around here somewhere.”

MC and producer Ahmir Mohamed, aka Oddisee, has recorded almost a dozen studio albums and nearly as many mixtapes, but the Prince George’s County native and Low Budget Crew member made his first appearance on his self-produced “Musik Lounge.”

“He had his ASR-X with the jacked up sequencer on it,” says Kev. “When you hit play on the ASR-X it would play the whole beat, but when we tried to MIDI it up there would be issues. So we did the whole beat over in the MPC. I just played it over again because it was his pattern.”

Technical issues aside, Oddisee’s effortless delivery over the chop of Quincy Jones’ “Velas” proved to be a very convincing inaugural performance.

“This was the first song of mine to be commercially released. It was the first song I was ever paid for,” Oddisee reveals. “In fact, this one song is the reason my family gave me its blessing to pursue music as a career. With Jeff being recognized by my parents, him putting faith in me comforted them in my career choice.”

“I could have chose to do it with more notable artists but it was like, ‘Yo you’re dope,’” Jeff says of his Magnificent crew. “I don’t give a fuck if nobody knows who you are or not, you’re dope. Once I came up with that, it was very easy to put the record together.”

After a whirlwind two-and-a-half weeks the album was finally done. The Slum Village cut “RU Ready” didn’t make the final cut, along with “Branded” and “The Rebirth” but were released on the EP.

“It wasn’t that these songs weren’t as good as the songs that made it. I loved everything equally. My thing was as long as it gets out I’m happy,” says Jeff.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Source: DJ Jazzy Jeff

Two videos were released from the album for DeVaughn’s “My Peoples” and Eric Roberson’s “Rock Wit U”. The latter was produced by Kev Brown but he was not featured in the video.

“I was cool not being in the video because it was wack [laughs]. I remember being super-salty because we was at the video shoot. We went all the way to New York and wasn’t even in it. But when I saw the video I was like, ‘Whew, glad I wasn’t in that.’ But Jeff shouts me out at the end, ‘Kev, you killed it.’ That’s undeniable and my name is on the credits. Jeff will tell you it was Kev. There was never a conspiracy of ghost beats. It was always clear that Kev Brown was gonna get paid and here’s your credit. There was no discrepancy there. I think the misconception comes from Jeff being on the cover like Michael Keaton in ‘Multiplicity,’ it was all Jeff everything. But when you look at the credits he says, “Kev did this, etc.” But that was the beginning of the era of people not reading the credits. You see Jazzy Jeff’s picture and you assume Jazzy Jeff did it.”

However, when Jeff was on he was really on. For “My Peoples” he excises the same sliver of Spanish guitar from Stan Getz that his friend J Dilla made famous on The Pharcyde’s “Runnin,” but now paired with Raheem’s soulful musings about black America’s tenure under tyranny.

“The great thing about Raheem and I, every song that we made came from a conversation,” says Jeff. “The thing I remember most about the song is the emotion that he put into it. That was one of those goose bumps songs. It sounded like he sang it in the ‘70s. That was the beginning of me knowing who he was and thinking this is legendary.”

“I had this tape that had been floating around called The Healing that was socially conscious, hip-hop soul music,” says Raheem. “You could hear the souls of our ancestors screaming through that project. So those conversations were based on what was going on at the time. There would be all kinds of wild stuff happening on the news and Jeff confirmed that you’re not a true artist if you’re not taking risks in your music.”

Looking back fifteen years later Jeff and his team of new mutants have nothing but great things to say about their experience working on The Magnificent. For many of them it was a fresh start and for Jeff it was starting over.

“I don’t think I realized what happened until after we put it together and I sent it off and it was mastered,” says Jeff. “There is a vulnerability in putting together a project like that. But it was great.”

“It’s like looking back at your high school yearbook,” says Kev. “I remember getting paid and going to the bank and feeling like I robbed it, because they gave me all cash and I had no bank account out there. That was a good time. There was a little money floatin’ around and creativity was going.”

“From a business standpoint I learned a lot too,” Raheem adds. “I seen a lot of cats come through and not turn it into something they should. Being with Jeff can make you really co-dependent and he’s not the type [to be that]. From this point he wants you to take it to the world stage. It’s like going to college. You get your degree and graduate. I took the ball and ran with it. I recorded half of my debut album in Philly.”

The project’s sequel, The Return Of The Magnificent, was released in 2007 with an all new cast of characters which included Jean Grae, Rhymefest, Posdnous, Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie. Raheem and J-Live were the only two from the original crew to return and the completion of the trilogy is a priority for Jeff.

“The idea was to do ‘The Magnificent,’ ‘The Return’ and then ‘The Magnificent 3’ or M3, then go to something else. But I’ve never been able to get to the Magnificent 3. And I hope to get to it because this is the 10th year anniversary of the ‘Return’. I absolutely have to get that album out this year.”

If we can make a humble suggestion, get the original band back together, Jeff. Oddisee, Kev Brown, J-Live and Raheem in the studio together now would be… magnificent.

Jerry Barrow is the founder of NODFACTOR and a veteran journalist with stints at The Source, Scratch Magazine and The Urban Daily. Follow his work (and ours!) on Twitter @JLBarrow.