'Everything Was Vibrant and Colorful': DJ Jazzy Jeff on the Enduring Lessons of '90s Style

Jonathan Evans
Photo credit: Iris Honold/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Iris Honold/Shutterstock

From Esquire

Photo credit: Iris Honold/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Iris Honold/Shutterstock

DJ Jazzy Jeff has a couple of different ways of describing the novel coronavirus that gave both him and his wife COVID-19 (from which they have both, thankfully, recovered). In one telling, it's a lion roaming the streets, still not captured after wreaking havoc. In another, it's a shark lurking somewhere in the shallows.

"This is the mayor of the city in Jaws when he said, 'I'm going to reopen the beaches, even though there's a great white shark in the water,'" the musician says of attempts to, well... actually reopen beaches, as well as towns and cities and malls as the monotony of lockdown drags on. Having quarantined himself in the wake of his diagnosis and a grueling recovery from double pneumonia brought on by the virus, DJ Jazzy Jeff is well aware of the mental and emotional toll of staying in.

Photo credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo - Getty Images

"I am tired of being in the house," he says. "I'm stuck. I cannot play music for people other than online. I have had no interaction with people. I am sick of it. But you know what? I am not sick of it to the point that I'm willing to put myself in jeopardy."

He doesn't want anyone else to put themselves or others in jeopardy, either, which is why on May 9, from noon to midnight, he threw a massive, 12-hour Break the Monotony Block Party on Instagram Live, featuring hour-long DJ sets from himself, DJ Clark Kent, Neil Armstrong, DJ N-Nice, and a host of others. (Performers went live from their own accounts, and you can check out the full setlist here.)

"The whole idea is I'm trying to keep you in the house," he says. "I want you to dance in your kitchen. I want you to grab something to drink and enjoy yourself in your house, because you want to keep practice social distancing."

He's been doing something similar on Facebook and Instagram live by himself since he started getting better—he's still getting his lungs back up to their former strength, taking daily walks in the woods near his home—but this is the most ambitious iteration to date. (One thing that does stay the same, though, is his three o'clock set time.)

To accompany the event and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the TV show that launched DJ Jazzy Jeff (and some guy named Will Smith) to fame, a new, limited-edition capsule collection of merch is dropping at the newly-launched Fresh Prince online store. It leans hard on the '90s style the show captured so perfectly, with bright graphic tees, a little tie-dye, and even a color-blocked windbreaker that feels like it got beamed here directly from 1994. The decision to channel that era was a deliberate one, not just for the sake of nostalgia but also for a little extra optimism in a tough time.

"You know, I think everything was vibrant and colorful," DJ Jazzy Jeff says of the '90s. "It was really about outside and sunshine, and especially growing up in Philly, us going to the park and people barbecuing and somebody pulling off speakers and playing music. You know, I just think that that time, and from a nostalgic point of view, is something that everybody could go back to. If you were around in that time, it don't matter how old or how young you are, you realize how special the '90s was."

On May 9, to coincide with the block party, a portion of the proceeds from merch sales went to No Kid Hungry, which is helping feed children who have lost access to the meals they normally would have received at school due to coronavirus-related closures. The collection is only available until May 18 anyway, so you shouldn't sleep on anything you like.

Of course, if you just want to tune into the DJ sets, crack open a cold one, and maybe fire up the grill, you can do that as well. As for DJ Jazzy Jeff himself, he's looking forward to the end of lockdown like the rest of us, but for now, partying Fresh Prince-style will have to do. "We are going to take this back," he says. "If you missed the '90s, get ready, because we're about to get into the Back to the Future time machine and we're going back in the '90s."

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