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December 1, 2011

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DJ Jazzy Jeff proves to be a true hip-hop innovator

IN pop culture, every once in a while there is a fissure moment that draws a line down the middle like the Huangpu River through Shanghai.

My favorite is during the 1960 concert film "Jazz on a Summer's Day," when a bunch of cackling jazz musicians back up Chuck Berry, the new kid on the block, and the only rock 'n' roll performer in the lineup for the Newport Jazz Festival that the film covers. The jazz drummer intentionally tries to slip Berry up, adding flourishes to what should be a straight ahead rock beat. Chuck prevails though, and sticks to his rhythm, as he would for the rest of his career.

Twenty-eight years later, another switch in rhythm was being marked, but this time by a series of concerts. The setting was the 1988 Run's House tour, headlined by rap group Run-DMC in support of what would be their final classic album, "Tougher than Leather." The dinosaur pulse drum machines of Run-DMC were met by the rapid fire squealing of horn blasts by their first opener, Public Enemy, and the cartoony bounce of their other opening act, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.

The shift being marked here was the end of monolithic rap music. Up to Run-DMC, a rap music fan was distinction enough for anyone to understand. That would not be the same for fans of Public Enemy or Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, whose music is jaggedly antithetical to each other's. Within a few months, both groups would break into the mainstream, but on completely separate terms: Public Enemy by releasing the brilliant album "It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," and Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince by their vivid and fun singles and accompanying music videos.

In a single from their debut album "Rock the House," Jazzy Jeff famously samples the theme from the classic TV show "I Dream of Jeannie." Many people don't get past the novelty of that move. But when you examine the music, it impressively bobs and weaves to the beat, never becoming static. It daringly uses long horn passages that foreshadow the work of producer Pete Rock (who came to Shanghai a few months ago).

Because despite his association with The Fresh Prince, Jeff has maintained a parallel presence as a true hip-hop innovator: your favorite DJ's favorite DJ. He's a DMC world champion DJ; he's credited with pioneering the transform scratch, an innovative and difficult DJ technique; he's worked with The Roots; his DJ sets are top shelf.

DJ Jazzy Jeff will perform tomorrow at Zeal (22 Zhongshan Rd E2) at 10pm. Tickets are 200 yuan (US$31.40) at the door.


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