In Philadelphia, summer block parties never go out of style and for nearly two decades, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith's "Summertime" has served as the soundtrack of these vibrant, social neighborhood gatherings. Kicking off summer with a recently released album, M3, Jazzy Jeff's first release as an independent artist, Jeff says that the inspiration of "Summertime" came through his experiences growing up in West Philadelphia and attending the block parties that the "old cats" would put on for the neighborhood.
"[As a kid] you couldn't wait for summer to come," Jeff said. "Every Saturday you scoured the neighborhood because someone, somewhere was having a block party. If you had to ride your bike 35 blocks to go to a block party, you would." After riding his bike across town to engulf himself in the bliss of Philly block parties, Jeff remembers how he used to give his bike to a friend while he danced with a girl. "That is 100 percent Philly to me."
Jeff explores the block party phenom and provides pointers on how to devise the perfect summertime fling.
First, understand the history of block parties in Philadelphia
For a 14-year old Jazzy Jeff who grew up around 57th Street and Cedar Avenue, then known as Jeffery Townes, block parties served as a training ground for DJing for a large crowd, allowing him to nurture his emerging talent as a DJ and community figure. "To be able to set up in the middle of the street, and hold down a block party with all of the neighborhood older guys who were mentors, is what really enabled me to cut my teeth," he says. Jeff remembers chatter of, "Who's this young guy rocking the block party?"
The early bird catches the worm
"We would get to The Plateau early. If someone got out there before [us] and set their equipment up before [us], [we] weren't going to be able to play," Jeff said. DJing in public spaces can be competitive, especially in a city like Philadelphia, where block parties are used to build a following. Jeff emphasized that much of a block party's success is related to arriving early enough to scope out the perfect spot to set up equipment and spin the jams.
“A place called The Plateau is where everybody goes”
Jeff recalls The Plateau as the bedrock of Philly's most notable block parties. "Whenever we had a chance to play at The Plateau, which is Fairmount Park, we would go because it's a central location," Jeff says. "People from North Philadelphia, Mount Airy, Germantown, and South Philadelphia would come to the park."
It’s all about the grub
Philly is renowned for its food. It's the fundamental component of any block party. According to Jazzy Jeff, water ice and soft pretzels are integral to block party cuisine. What's a summer party without the food? Un-Philadelphian.
Make good with neighboring businesses
When Jeff would throw block parties, he would partner with nearby businesses for a power supply. For business owners, block parties meant more customers. More customers meant more dollars.
Secure the tracklist
"That's one of the most difficult questions," Jeff says with a hearty laugh. Everything changes with time, and songs that a DJ would play at block parties in the early 1980s may or may not be the same songs that would be played today. Although Jeff was discreet about revealing his essentials, he pointed out his own summer anthem, "Summertime," as a priority track. He's still baffled by the song's success. "You never know [when] you're making a record that will stand the test of time," Jeff said. "The summer after 'Summertime' came out, I thought [the success] was over. But as soon as it got warm, radio stations all over the country started to play 'Summertime.' They played it in South Africa. They played it in December in Australia. We made 'Summertime' for Philadelphia."
Remember your audience
You have to "realize that you're playing for your city," Jeff says. "You're not playing for your neighborhood anymore. You're playing for the city of Philadelphia. You have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people out in this park dancing to the music that you're playing. It makes you feel like you're doing something."
M3 is the most enjoyable process that Jeff has had creating a project
Jeff assembled a team of producers and recorded the music for the album in two weeks, allowing another two weeks for vocals. "When you get talented people in the room, it's not really hard to be creative," Jeff said. He describes M3 as "very organic," noting that he believes music "feels before it sounds." Jeff pointed out that he used live instrumentation throughout the album to support a deep sense of musicality. "I wanted to have real musicians because you can't match the way it feels. I wanted the human aspect of that."
What Jeff hasn’t done, but still wants to do
"I want to go to Alaska and I want to learn how to swim."