DJ Jazzy Jeff: ‘My Job Is to Make People Happy’

DJ Jazzy Jeff

Special guest judge Jazzy Jeff poses for a portrait at the Red Bull Thre3style Regional Finals at Voyeur in Philadelphia on Feb. 7, 2013. 

Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content 

On the eve of judging Red Bull's Thre3style competition, the legendary DJ talks skills & culture.

Red Bull Thre3style kicks off its 2015 USA Championships in Phoenix on Thursday night (April 2-4). Returning again as a judge is DJ Jazzy Jeff, joining a panel that includes DJ Z-Trip and 2012 Red Bull Thre3style world champion Four Color Zack. Chosen from a field of 12 finalists at The Pressroom on Saturday, the winner will then compete in the Thre3style World Finals in Tokyo in September.

Averaging close to 160 shows a year between the U.S. and overseas, DJ Jazzy Jeff found time to star in Red Bull’s first-ever DJ performance film. The short visual — a partnership between Red Bull and DJ audio software specialist Serato — features Jeff performing a rendition of Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper.”

Before spinning into judge mode, Jeff chatted with Billboard about the Thre3style championships and the resurgent DJ culture.

ExplainThre3style for the uninitiated.
Red Bull is trying to groom very, very good DJs for the future. And a great DJ plays multiple styles of music. So part of the criteria is you have to play at least three genres music in your DJ set: rock, hip-hop, funk/soul, Latin … you have to encompass three styles. Your mixing has to be on par. You just can’t slam records together. It all has to be cohesive and make sense. You also have to interact: pay attention to the crowd and bring the crowd in with your performance. It’s about picking the right records and how long to play those records. Sometimes someone can play a record a little too long or too short.

What makes a great DJ?
I equate it to basketball. We all have a hoop in the backyard where we to go to hit jump shots. But it’s very different when you’re playing with some of the best players in the world. The same with being a DJ. It requires a lot. How is your musical taste? How well can you read a room? Being a good DJ isn’t making sure everything is good when the party is great. It’s how do you recover the party when it’s not. How do you recover from a bad DJ playing before you who has lost all of the energy in the room? Can you play the right songs to bring people back into having a good time? It’s a bunch of nuances. It’s almost like you have to have a playbook: whatever situation comes up, you have to be able to go into that playbook and figure a way out.

What’s your take on the current DJ resurgence?
It’s bigger than it’s ever been. Will [Smith] came with me a year ago when I did a New  Year’s Eve show in Dubai. He’s looking at 17,000 people on the beach with this massive sound system and all these lights. He looks at me and says, “We never had this kind of set-up for our tours.” Now it’s kind of like wow, I’m playing on systems and at festivals that I never got a chance to play when we were selling millions of records. It’s so much bigger. I remember when rappers used to throw DJs on the backburner. They got to a point where it’s like, “I don’t necessarily need a DJ. I can let somebody push the instant replay machine.” Now a lot of rappers and celebrities are DJing. It’s become the cool thing.

Where are you headed after Phoenix?
Pretty much every April and May, I tour Europe and the Middle East for a month. Then I do a bunch of festivals all summer. In the fall I go back to the U.K., and between Thanksgiving and Christmas I’m in Asia, Australia and New Zealand. That’s been my schedule for the past 12 years. I’ve got myself set up in a very beautiful place: My job is to go around the world and make people happy by playing music.