To say the world of music has been completely uprooted in the last 15 years isn’t an exaggeration. Many members of the previous musical generation or two either opt to fight against the shifting landscape, or cluelessly hop onto the next trends in the hopes that it will keep them in younger listeners’ Spotify playlists. And some, like DJ Jazzy Jeff Townes, learn how to adapt and remain true to themselves. As proof of this flexibility, DJ Jazzy Jeff now has released M3, his first album in over a decade, and the final installment of his “Magnificent series.”
Jeff is still going strong years after entering the third phase of his career. He’s best known as one of half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, the ubiquitous duo who made a lot of feel-good and often family friendly hip-hop during its Golden Age. Though Will Smith became the global cultural icon, Jeff was the super-talented DJ who produced most of their records and was an innovator on the turntable. As Smith’s star ascended in Hollywood, Jeff focused on his production work, spearheading the A Touch of Jazz production team, crafting beats for numerous hip-hop, soul, and jazz artists. He also released a pair of compilations during the ’00s, The Magnificent (2002) and The Return of the Magnificent (2006), featuring the talents of artists like Jill Scott, Method Man, and Big Daddy Kane.
During the ’00s, Jeff began touring as a DJ, spinning at parties and events across the globe. He was notable for being one of the first respected DJs to fully embrace Serato, a professional performance tool for turntable practitioners. Jeff is said to be one of the first to fully master the software, maximizing its potential as a tool to enhance a DJ’s performance. In an area steeped in traditionalism, Jeff’s acceptance was a big step towards the software being embraced by other OG DJs.
Jeff spent the better part of a decade occasionally producing, but mostly plying his trade as a DJ on the road and releasing his Summertime mixtape series. With M3 he returns to re-establish himself as a music creator. Unlike the previous two installments, M3 doesn’t feature a whole roster of emcees and singers. Instead, most of the vocal talent is provided by The Trinity, a crew made up of Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Dayne Jordan, and Jeff’s son Amir “Uhmeer” Mitchell-Townes. Much of the remaining vocal and musical support comes from members of PLAYLIST, a collective of artists and producers Jeff formed in recent years. Jeff has worked hard on embracing the Soundcloud/Spotify aesthetic that’s become the prevailing musical reality, and proves successful in creating an enjoyable album with M3.
With most of the raps being handled by Trinity members, M3 features multiple generations of talent. Rhymefest is a hip-hop veteran who made his name in the Chicago hip-hop scene in the ’90s and ’00s. Besides having a couple of Grammys and an Oscar to his name (from his collaborations with Kanye West and Common), he released Blue Collar (2006) through J Records and El Che (2010) through EMI. His song “Jeff ’N Fest” was one of the highlights of Return of Magnificent, and there was at one point talks of a collaborative album between the two. Meanwhile, both Dayne Jordan and Uhmeer are Philly-based up-and-comers. Both are still working to find their own distinctive voices, but they show a good deal of promise.
M3 is generally an upbeat endeavor, with Jeff and crew utilizing buoyant production rooted in hip-hop, soul, jazz, and house music. Some of its best moments come when the songs function as throwback party anthems. “Skater’s Paradise,” which indeed sounds like the type of song you’d hear in a roller-rink, features Rhymefest and Dayne trading lines about their wanderlust and desire to continue their whirlwind travels across the globe. “2 Step,” an energetic, house-inspired track, showcases the vocal talents of Masego, a Virginia native who Jeff has mentored through his career. Rhymefest delivers a brief verse at the end of what, in a just world, would be a summer club banger.
Members of the Trinity do work well in tandem throughout the album. “Where You At?” is M3’s braggadocio track, and the three emcees flow together seamlessly. “Wide Awake” features the trio expounding on their own metaphorical awakenings and learning to get more in-tune with themselves and their surroundings. Airy keyboards mesh together well with a hard-hitting drum track and scratches by Jeff.
There is plenty of time for introspection on M3, as two of the album’s stronger cuts delve into the more personal realm. “Scars” is essentially a Rhymefest solo track, in which he explains how the traumas he’s sustained during his career have helped sustain him. Rhymefest’s disillusionment as he describes both personal betrayals and his ill-fated major label deal is palpable. “Signed a 360, gave ’em all the money,” he raps. “By the record spun it was a full 720.”
Rhymefest and Dayne team-up again on “Stronger Than Me,” their dedication to strong women. Both describe getting over their personal hang-ups and learning to love members of the opposite sex who can challenge them mentally, acknowledging that being intimidated intellectually by one’s partner isn’t a bad thing. It’s a perspective not heard too often that shows respect and lacks condescension.
M3 does spend a good deal of time exploring the soulful and jazzy side of the music Jeff creates. He enlists Aaron Camper, another young collaborator, to sing lead on multiple tracks. “Midnight Escapade” is a soulful quiet storm gem, while “The Way We Cool,” another upbeat dance track, is one of M3’s best songs.
Jeff’s acceptance of different music trends and sounds is a big part of why he remains successful. He has accepted where the music is going, and instead channels it to create the type of sound that he has always been good at creating. Rather than an ending of one part of his career, M3 sounds like the beginning to an exciting new chapter.
Notable Tracks: “2 Step” | “Scars” | “Skater’s Paradise” | “The Way We Cool”