Jazzy Jeff & The PLAYlist Shatter Music Industry Rules with New Album, Made in Just 7 Days
When February began, the DJ Jazzy Jeff-curated PLAYlist, a collection of more than 30 producers, musicians and singer/songwriters including Eric Roberson, James Poyser, SiR and Daniel Crawford, were yet to record one note. By the middle of the month they had a full 15-song album, titled Chasing Goosebumps, that’s blown fans away since its ceremonious premiere on Facebook Live on February 16.
Jazzy Jeff, the Grammy award-winning DJ and producer who first rose on the scene in the eighties as one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince with Will Smith, and has since worked with the likes of The Roots, Jill Scott, and Musiq Soulchild, presented the PLAYlist with the challenge of writing, recording, mixing and mastering an album from scratch at his Delaware home in just one week. The result is a genre-bending project with a feel that’s most prominently R&B and soul with a touch of hip hop. Jeff, born Jeffrey Townes, says it took every single person involved buying into the process 100 percent to make it.
“I knew from the level of people we had we could pull it off. I knew it was possible to pull off, I didn’t know if we were going to pull it off,” admitted Townes, speaking over the phone less than 24 hours after releasing the album.
At the core of the task was the desire to challenge the limitations of a music industry that Jeff believes can tend to stifle creativity for the sake of business. It’s a dilemma that the artists of the PLAYlist — award winners with countless miles touring the world for their own tours or playing alongside the likes of Pharrell, Justin Timberlake and Raphael Saadiq — know too well.
“Without an A&R’s direction and without someone telling you what to make, let’s get a bunch of creatives in the room,” Townes explained. “I don’t get the feeling from a lot of music that I used to get back in the day. I don’t get the goosebumps, I don’t get the chills. The technology’s better, the outlets are better, how come the music’s not better? Something’s not right. And then you start realizing that I think it’s the gatekeepers that I think are stopping this type of music.”
While this is the first time Jazzy Jeff has ever tried pulling together an album this quickly, it’s not his first time gathering a large group of creatives to collaborate on music without the pressures of the business. In August 2015, Jeff held the first-ever PLAYlist Retreat at his house with dozens of specially chosen DJs, producers and instrumentalists. The following August he decided to add singer/songwriters to the mix.
“It really became a thing of inspiring a lot of collaboration; that you want people to kind of get back to making music together. That’s kind of where this thing kind of sparked from, that with this generation, everybody makes music by themselves. Everybody has their own laptop and you don’t ever get that collaboration of two, three, four people like you did with the music that I grew up with.”
Townes says that while the great music that was shared and created was expected, there was another aspect of the Retreat that took him by surprise.
“It also turned into a very big healing factor. That was the component that I didn’t see coming. Most of the guys that had experience in the music industry were very heartbroken, they were very dejected. Some of them even were like ‘I don’t do that anymore, I quit.’”
“Everybody’s got this story of something that happened that wrecked them to the point that they’re not producing their art like they should, and that drives me crazy. So if I can be somebody that kind of brings people together to try to heal some of that so we can some of that music again, so be it.”
The unintentional benefits of the PLAYlist reminded Jeff of his longtime friend and singer/songwriter Glenn Lewis, who throughout his career has drawn comparisons to Stevie Wonder. Lewis, following early success with his 2002 Epic Records-released World Outside My Window album and hit single “Don’t You Forget It,” had become frustrated with and distant from the music industry, leaving fans wondering why he seemingly disappeared.
“By the time I got into the game, you had all these numbers people and people trying to appease the stockholders, it’s like they just throw things against the wall, and if it sticks, cool, if not, on to the next,” said Lewis on the phone from Canada, where he’s originally from. “I had gotten to the point where I had become turnt off from the game. I stopped watching awards shows, I stopped listening to music, I wasn’t singing as much as I used to. I would sing around the house and I just altogether stopped.”
In 2003, Lewis and Epic released a video for the song “Back For More,” the title track of an album that would never be released. In 2013 he more quietly released the album Moment of Truth on Ruffhouse Records.
“I got emotionally exhausted and it was like, cool, I don’t have to prove myself to anybody,” Lewis reflects. “I was tired of giving and there was always some type of dialogue or some type of excuse as to why a particular thing needed to happen a certain way, or why the timing of it wasn’t right. It just seemed like things were being made to be more complicated with something that’s really simple.”
“People are so quick to say ‘no’ and tell you why something can’t happen, and I don’t even think that they necessarily even know why. Especially people who aren’t creative, they’re always looking for validation from someone else or whatever else is hot and trying to follow that instead of finding something that they believe in.”
Jazzy Jeff, who Lewis praises for continuing to be there for him as a friend throughout his trials, invited Lewis to the PLAYlist Retreat last August. There Jeff split everybody up into 18 groups of four and gave each group a flash drive with instrumentals. In 24 hours each group had to pick one instrumental and sample, replay or remix it in some way, and write and record a completely new song from it. He tasked the artists with a similar challenge in the inaugural Retreat.
“What happens is you don’t have a enough time for your brain to get in the way, you’re going on natural instinct,” said Townes, who last year also began the tradition of inviting many of the same musicians from the Retreats to his house for jam sessions in late January to February, in honor of his birthday. “That happened at the first Retreat and it was absolutely mind-blowing at the second Retreat. So when I knew the sessions were coming, it was getting to a point where, you know what, let’s step up the challenge.”
Last September Jeff concocted the master plan to create a whole album from scratch in one week and one of the first people he reached out to was Lewis, asking him to be the featured vocalist for the entire project. Jeff says that he didn’t want it to be a Glenn Lewis solo album, but hoped the process would ease him into the desire to make a solo return.
“It sounded like fun because everybody there is brilliant, they’re world class artists, producers, songwriters,” Lewis remembers from when he first heard the idea. “It wasn’t until we got into it that I was like ‘yo,’ it was overwhelming. The earliest I went to sleep out of all the days I was there was three o’clock in the morning. All the other days I was going to bed at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and popping up at 10:30 or 11 in the morning.”
Day in and day out there were musicians workshopping ideas into full songs and a team of writers forming lyrics for Lewis to record several songs per day. A lot of the process was shown to the public via Facebook Live for the doubters who might hear the final project and not believe that it was all done in seven days.
“I remember being told that, ‘You make this record, it’s going to take eight months before it comes out,’ and that never made sense to me because I just made this body of work [song] up in 15 minutes,” said Townes. “I am so much not against people giving me opinions and advice, but I’ve always felt like the people that always try to tell you how to make records have never made records in their life. They’re not the creatives. And I’ve always felt like if you get out of the way and let the creative person be free and make what they want to make, you’ll be shocked at what you get.”
Jeff says that Chasing Goosebumps gave many of the artists a license to freely push boundaries, which isn’t usually the case throughout the industry.
“Some of the musicians were almost moved to tears because they were like, ‘I have not been able to make or even play this kind of music in so long, that I almost forgot to really let myself go’.”
Lyrically, the time crunch of creating the album in such a short amount of time makes Chasing Goosebumps an unfiltered reflection of the times.
“The objective was to take a look at the world around you and not only tell me what you see right now, but tell me what you would like to see,” said Townes. “So of course with everything going on there was a ton of material to write about.”
“Mr. Grump” is a tongue-in-cheek, yet critical message to the current President of the United States. “Superman,” with a bright sound that manifests a feeling of upliftment and lyrics like, “Understand that your mind might be the strongest yet/ We have invented many things, what would this world be/ Without the work of people who look just like you and me,” sounds like it could be the soundtrack to Black History Month. Lewis claims “Superman” as one of his favorites on the album because the writing and production reminds him of something his idol Stevie Wonder might create if he made an album today.
“Everybody did it together,” said Townes, adding that there were even more songs recorded that didn’t make the cut with the 15 songs that made the album. “Somebody would write a first verse and it would be amazing and they would kind of get stuck and then somebody else would come in. You could not do that unless you set your ego 100 percent at the door and you understand that the project is the most important thing.”
Jeff premiered the album through an hour-long Facebook Live stream with hundreds of images shot during the making of the album covering the screen as more than 100,000 people took it all in for the first time simultaneously.
“Once the stream was over, I basically went in my room and closed my computer and collapsed from joy, anguish, pressure, but everybody involved had been joking that we don’t think we’ve ever cried this much in a week just out of satisfaction,” said Townes.
“I crashed when I got home, but that week I was alive, alive in a way that I hadn’t been in forever,” said Lewis. “I’ve never experienced anything like that and it is easily the highlight of my career.”
Jeff hopes that the album inspires other artists to create in a similar fashion and maybe even follow the album-in-a-week model to a T. This is the first and last time you’ll see him do it though.
“Trust me, I’ll never do it again,” Townes insists. “I’ll never try to do it in a week again. It was a great challenge to see if we could. I’m happy to know that we did. Not only did we do it, but we did it, to me, with flying colors, but I think we don’t wanna issue that kind of challenge again.”
Julian JSWISS Caldwell
Julian JSWISS Caldwell is best known as fast rising, highly-regarded hip hop artist and skilled emcee JSWISS. His acclaimed No Music project is available now.