Filmmakers create movies. Bloggers report the news and shape public opinion. Explorers travel the globe, seeking out new cultures and sharing experiences. DJs and producers craft beats and tracks using an alchemical mix of audio artifacts and imagination. Rappers fashion rhymes and navigate the cadences of vocal delivery characterized as "flow."
Blue Scholars do all these things—and a hell of a lot more—every damn day. First and foremost, DJ/producer Sabzi and MC Geologic are a music group. They do the fundamental things bands have done for decades: Make records and play live shows. But those are just points on a plane, bright stars in Blue Scholars' ever-expanding universe. "It all revolves around using everything at our disposal to be good storytellers," says Sabzi. Chuck D famously likened hip-hop to CNN, but frankly, Blue Scholars make Anderson Cooper and company look lazy by comparison.
Blue Scholars informally call their music "cinema art rap," yet most folks will probably just hear it as smart 21st century pop. The duo is just as likely to take inspiration from the sugar rush of Empire of the Sun's feel-good hit "Walking on a Dream" (check out the "Empire Remix" of "New People") as from a classic Lalo Schifrin soundtrack. The roster of former Seattle Sonics or observations about Fox New commentators may provide the springboard for their next round of poetic musing.
Meanwhile, Blue Scholars are constantly churning out new missives as quickly as the inspiration hits them, disseminated via the Internet. Whether provoked by current events like the passage of Arizona's Immigration Law SB1070 ("Joe Arpaio," credited to Geo's alter-ego Prometheus Brown), or contemplating how the Future went from a sparkling wonderland of flying cars and personal jet packs to a post-apocalyptic wasteland shot in shades of ash and bone ("Paul Valéry"), Blue Scholars react to real events in real time—with music that sounds fresh because it is.
Since 2002, Blue Scholars have been based in the 98118, decreed the most ethnically diverse zip code in America by the 2010 Census. Like the greater Seattle region, that neighborhood embodies the multi-cultural miasma that spawned Blue Scholars, the joining of forces between an Iranian DJ/producer and a Filipino rapper. These are dudes who nourish their bodies with Vietnamese coffee, Ethiopian injera, and steaming bowls of phở. Thanks to music, they have mingled with guests at a party hosted by renown glass artist Dale Cihuly, and conducted workshops at a Colorado juvenile detention center.
"I feel very lucky," admits Sabzi. "So many people are in their own fishbowl, thinking they know what the world is, but never get the opportunity to see anything beyond their immediate environment. We've been fortunate to have had the opportunity to establish real human connections with people we've discovered aren't really any different from us, because music has broken down the superficial barriers that would otherwise keep us apart."
Blue Scholars actively contribute to the global community of artists and freethinkers in myriad ways. Drawing on Jamaican dancehall culture and the increasingly popular medium of artist mix tapes, Sabzi makes the instrumental foundations of all their songs available as individual riddims, to be adopted and adapted by whomever cares to use his beats. Meanwhile, every time they hook up with another artist, be it Seattle rapper Macklemore (Sabzi's reworking of his Emerald City celebration "The Town" extended the shelf life of an already hugely popular joint) or Los Angeles' Bambu, their network expands. New fans find Blue Scholars via new points of entry, and in turn, Blue Scholars discover more fodder for their imaginations.
Towards that end, and meeting more kindred spirits in the real world, Sabzi currently divides his time between New York and Seattle. How has that impacted Blue Scholars' creative process? Not at all. Even as students at the University of Washington, where they first met and began making music together, Sabzi and Geologic were using the Internet as an integral part of their routine. The former would make a beat, upload it to the server, his partner would download it and write rhymes… and then they'd record together. They do the same thing today, just across bigger geographical distances.
Since 2002, the duo has become renowned live show veterans, rocking over 400 shows with the likes of Kanye West, De La Soul, Nas, Common, and supporting such acts on tour Zion-I, Hieroglyphics, and the Coup on tour. They've also played labor organizing conferences and youth-run community center shows, the main stage at Sasquatch! (2006 & ‘08) and Bumbershoot (2006), and in 2007 headlined their own Northwest Hip Hop festival, "The Program," which sold out five nights in a row. Their discography includes the albums Blue Scholars (2004) and Biyani (2007), as well as the EPs The Long March (2005), Joe Metro (2007), BUTTER&GUN$ (2008), and OOF! (2009).
Dj Jazzy Jeff:
"Jazzy Jeff" Townes was born in West Philadelphia in a very musical household and developed a love of music at an early age. Jeff was just 10 years old when he started spinning records at parties using his family's basement as a training ground for his expert mixing. By the time Jeff had made it to John Bartram High his skills as a DJ had progressed to a level that had him doing shows on the block party/ballroom circuit in West Philadelphia. It was through these shows that he quickly built a reputation, which had him spinning all over his hometown. It was not just Jeff's ear for good music that had the party moving but his mastery of scratching techniques. Never a showman, Jeff let his hands do the talking. Jazzy Jeff was technically very sound and rarely made a mistake. The precise percussive elements that Jeff brought to scratching quickly gained him a following. Jeff rolled with many crews and emcees around Philly but it was 1985 when he met Will Smith on the house party circuit. Jeff's regular MC was away so Will stepped on the mic and the chemistry was instant. They shared the same kind of humor and hit it off straight away. By the summer of 1986 Will and Jeff had teamed up to released their first single, "Girl's Ain't Nothin But Trouble" as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" was the first hip-hop song to sample a TV show theme, "I Dream of Jeannie" and it soon began to chart. During this time, Jazzy Jeff entered in the 1986 DMC New Music Seminar. The Philly DJ wasn't known as a battle DJ but his routines were so impressive he walked away with the Championship.
Having made their mark on the music seminar in just a year of forming Jive/Zomba bought out the initial word up record contract that Will and Jeff had signed. Now on a major label, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's debut album Rock The House was released in 1987. Rock The House contained one of the first hip-hop records dedicated to the DJ, "The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff." On the record Jeff displayed all his skills, he also popularized the "transformer scratch" by being the first to put it in on a record. Jazzy Jeff's own invention the "chirp scratch" was also displayed in which Jeff would make the record sound like a bird. The album also contained "A Touch of Jazz" which was one of the first Jazz/Rap Records released. The duo's sound caught on and Rock The House went Gold.
In 1988 DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince followed up "Rock The House" with "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper." The record was one of the first hip hop double LP's. The first side focused on Fresh Prince's storytelling while the second side focused on Jazzy Jeff's DJ'ing prowess. The second single from the album, "Parent's Just Don't Don't Understand" became a huge hit, creating hip-hop crossover and gaining regular play on MTV. The success of the single propelled He's the DJ to one of the greatest selling rap albums of the time, quickly going double platinum. The record was one of the first to pay serious homage to the DJ and Jeff's scratches were heard worldwide. It inspired many young listeners to pick up the Turntables and emulate what Jeff was doing. Many DJ's to this day cite those early DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince albums as a reason they become a DJ in the first place.
During the success of the duos second album they launched the world's first pop star 900 number. Fans would ring in to get the latest on Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince, and by January 1989 3 million calls had been logged. They phone line actually made them more money than they were getting from their record sales.
In 1989 DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince released their gold selling 3rd album "And in this Corner." The 2nd single from the album, "The Groove" featured a remix with Grover Washington Jr. This was one of the first collaborations between a Jazz artist and a hip-hop group.
Meanwhile Jazzy Jeff continued to advance the DJ art form. He became the first corporately sponsored DJ and he designed the first mixer for scratching the "Gemini 2200" or Jazzy Jeff Signature Series.
In 1990 the Fresh Prince hooked up with Quincy Jones and NBC to star in the sitcom, "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Jeff joined the Fresh Prince on the TV show and played Will's best friend "Jazz" for the shows entire 6 year run. While Jeff's first love was music he excelled in the TV role and quickly became a fan favorite.
As The Fresh Prince of Bel Air began Jeff decided to set up his own production Facility, "A Touch of Jazz," in 1990. A Touch of Jazz was created to tap into and develop the musical talent in Jeff's hometown of Philadelphia. Young producers such as James Poyser and Vikter Duplaix soon joined the fold and began working on various projects. In 1990 Jeff also featured on the Simpson's Sing the Blues album co-writing "Deep, Deep Trouble" with Matt Groening and producing the record.
In 1991 Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince released their 4th album, "Homebase." It featured the now classic, "Summertime" which went to #4 on the Pop charts and in 1993 Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince released their fifth album, "Code Red." It featured the song, "Boom! Shake the Room" which was the 3rd rap single to go to number 1 in the UK. The song went to number 1 all through Europe and Asia. By this time Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince had released 5 albums in 7 years, sold 14 million records together, and won 2 Grammy and 3 American Music Awards.
As Will began to focus on his Television and movie career Jeff continued working on developing A Touch of Jazz. Also, in 1993 Jeff became a spokesman for Starter Gear appearing in the now infamous adds alongside stars such as Rodney Dangerfield and Janet Jackson.
A Touch of Jazz worked on Will Smith's first solo album, "Big Willie Style" in 1997. In 1998 Jazzy Jeff signed a solo deal with Columbia Records. He recorded an album for the label, which featured tracks with artists such as Masta Ace, Eminem and De La Soul. Unfortunately, Sony chose to shelve the hip-hop work, wanting something more "commercial."
This setback didn't stop Jeff from continuing his production work with A Touch of Jazz. In 1998 they worked with artists such as Tatyana Ali and Kenny Lattimore. In 1999 Jazzy Jeff and A Touch of Jazz produced Will Smith's second solo album "Willennium."
In 2000, A Touch of Jazz worked on an album by a soul singer from Philly, named Jill Scott. The entire album was recorded at A Touch of Jazz and Jazzy Jeff served as Executive Producer. "Who is Jill Scott" was released with little fanfare, but strong word of mouth pushed the album to double platinum sales. The album garnered A Touch of Jazz worldwide recognition 10 years after Jazzy Jeff had started the production facility. Soon A Touch of Jazz was working with artists such as Musiq Soulchild, Dave Hollister, City High, Floetry, Lil Kim & Michael Jackson.
Jeff was busy overseeing A Touch of Jazz for these years but in late 2001 a small label from the UK, BBE asked Jeff to produce a solo album as part of their beat generation series which focused on producers. Jeff was given full creative control something he couldn't get at Sony and jumped into the project.
His first solo album "The Magnificent" was released in August 2002. The album featured Jeff's trademark scratches and a variety of emcees and artists who were working at A Touch of Jazz. The album contained hip-hop, soul and house tracks that displayed Jeff's versatility as an artist and producer. The album proved a success for the independent label.
With the success of "The Magnificent" promoters started calling and Jeff went out touring to promote the album in 2003. Jeff had come full circle, back spinning records just like in the beginning of his career.
In 2004 Jazzy Jeff released his first official mix CD, "Hip Hop Forever II" for BBE. The album showcased Jeff's trademark mixing skills and many underground and overlooked hip-hop classics. In November 2004 Jeff released another mix CD, "Jazzy Jeff In the House" a house mix for Defected. DJ Jazzy Jeff's philosophy has always been for a DJ to play all kinds of music. On "In the House" he showed he could mix house just as good as he mixes hip-hop or soul music. Jeff also continued touring the world, spinning all throughout Europe, Asia and America.
In 2005 Jeff continued his 20-year collaboration with Will Smith working on Will's fourth solo release "Lost & Found." The album features production and scratches from Jazzy Jeff. Jeff & Will have also been back performing together again at various shows and premieres. Jeff also began working on his second solo album, "The Return of the Magnificent."
Jazzy Jeff continues to represent the DJ throughout his records, mix tapes, and live shows. His love of music shines through on all projects, whether it's with Will Smith, Jill Scott or his own solo records. Over the course of his career Jeff has achieved many accomplishments, but he is a humble man who is still doing it as his 2002 hit said "For Da Love of Da Game." And with that approach he will continue doing what he loves for as long as he wants.
After migrating from Tallahassee, Florida to Brooklyn, New York in the early 90s, Dead Prez linked with Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, who ultimately helped the group ink a deal with Steve Rifkin's burgeoning powerhouse Loud Records. After waiting four long years, they dropped their critically-acclaimed debut, Lets Get Free, in 2000. But soon after, Loud Records folded, and it's stable of artists were swallowed up by its parent company Sony. "We were more like slaves on a plantation, and our plantation burned down," says M1, who earned his revolutionary stripes working in Chi-town with the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement in the mid-90s to free Fred Hampton Jr. "So we end up on this other plantation and we decided to run."
After Sony fumbled the ball, Dead Prez essentially ran back to where they felt their message needed to be heard most- the streets. 2003 and 2004 saw them release successive independent mixtapes/albums- Turn off the Radio Volume 1 and Turn off the Radio Volume 2: Get Free or Die Trying- both of which sold over 100 thousand units and subsequently helped the group attain a new major label deal. But it was the more so the artistic freedom begat by the black market mixtape format, as well as the types of people who consumed this new music that attracted Dead Prez.
"We saw mixtapes as a hood phenomenon," M1 explains. "People would buy mixtapes and bootlegs before they even went to the store. That really happened on the corner of Fulton Street and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. I'd rather be here than in the store, because this is where people are going to buy it."
With solid industry relationships in tow, mountains of respect from their hip-hop peers, and the streets clamoring for new music from the band who was now championing a street gang-influenced red, black, and green (Revolutionary But Gangsta) bandanna movement, the majors came knocking again. This time though, Dead Prez was prepared to get over on the system. "We had the RBG album since Loud," says M1. He claims that because the album was recorded while Loud was still functional, Sony technically owned the album, and would make it hard for Dead Prez to sign elsewhere. "They begged us to come back and put it out over there. We made it easy on ourselves, with an album that was three years old and only getting older."
Now relieved to be once again removed from the majors, M1 has partnered up with famed jazz guitar player and producer Fabrizio Sotti's (Cassandra Wilson) Sotti Records and KOCH Records to release his debut solo LP, Confidential. "We did one or two things and then we realized we had something in common and that musically our ears are in tune," he says, claiming that his relationship with Sotti was fostered on personal grounds and developed slowly over time. "I think he makes a style of music that is kind of commercial but it allows you to paint the picture in a very non-threatening way." Bolstered by guest appearances from Styles P, Q-Tip, K'naan and Cassandra Wilson- as well as his partner since their days at Florida A&M, Stic Man.
M1's intentions are clear, as he envisions Confidential as the next chapter in the book Dead Prez is writing with their career. "There's this real underground thing that happened with hip-hop, and I think we were relegated to that, boxed in and couldn't leave. I think people thought it was almost like a sin for us to do music with Jay-Z. We're all doing the same thing. He's just doing it his way and I'm doing it my way." As to why he's adopted this new approach to the music industry, much of it stems from just a general lack of support within the mainstream music business for the ideas Dead Prez champions. "The idea of revolution will never be popular until revolutionaries are in charge. When you have niggas in charge who want to keep down the revolution, they see me coming. I'm really a target, so it's definitely like, don't play that." With a change in approach, the revolution may just very well be televised after all. "But you didn't hear it from me..."