The preservation of history is one of the important responsibilities we have as consumers of music. And while hip-hop is a relatively young culture, being officially born on August 11th, 1973, there remain many key figures responsible for shaping its development. Jaz-O, known by many as "The Originator," stands among them. A marquee player behind the evolution of flow, Jaz's fingerprints are smeared across today's music. Should you be familiar with the "triplet flow," most currently popularized by the likes of Migos and more, you're looking at his handiwork.
Having risen in fame during an era of creative splendor, in which countless New York artists were establishing themselves, Jaz O's wisdom emerges from a place of experience. The man has witnessed the evolution of both artistic trends and industry shake-ups, though none of the latter served to faze him. Perhaps that's what happens when one is driven by a desire to create first and foremost, even after more than three decades in the game.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the legendary musician a few weeks ago. Following a new business deal with his former protege's Roc Nation, we discussed growing up in an era where hip-hop was on the rise, working with Jay-Z during the early nineties, crossing paths with the Notorious B.I.G, the legendary D&D Studios, and of course, the iconic "Hawaiin Sophie" Video. Check out the full transcription below.
HNHH: Hey Jaz, what's up? It’s a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for taking the time.
Not a problem. Not a problem.
How’s your day going so far?
It’s going great. It’s pretty busy, but we’re in New York. That’s what happens.
I’m really interested in the history of hip-hop. Knowing that hip-hop was born in New York City, do you have any recollection of growing up as the movement was starting to rise?
Yeah. My first recollection was in high school. I went to high school for music and art and that was my first exposure to hip-hop, how they did it uptown. It was different. People were rhyming and stuff - you know, the old b-boy movement- in Brooklyn as well but everything was borrowed from the Bronx and uptown Manhattan. A couple of friends and myself basically brought that whole feel to our area in Brooklyn, which was Bed-Stuy, Marcy, because we were exposed to it.
How did you get started rapping and immersing yourself in a more serious hip-hop scene?
A friend of mine told me “You should write a rhyme,” because of Jack and the Juice from the Lightpost having the block parties. People would come out and say a couple of rhymes. You had your local guys that always did it and he was telling me that I should do it. I ignored him for a long time but then, one day, I just wrote something and he loved it. It encouraged me to do it more. I guess I took it seriously after I came back from college, years later. More people were doing it and some other cats from Brooklyn like UTFO. While I was in college they came out with the song “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and I was like “I gotta come home and get busy.” I didn’t want to be in college anyway. That wasn’t my life.
Were you still persuing music while you were in college?
Nope. I was going to be an accountant.
So much would’ve changed.
When did you start developing your signature triplet flow? When did you realize that was really gonna catch on?
Well, I didn’t. The reason I did it was because in one-sixteenth cadence and your average four-fourth time signature beat, if you have more than sixteen syllables in a measure, all of the sudden, you’re stuck with a dilemma to express yourself in a certain way or to get your point across the way you choose. I had to stuff those words, those extra syllables in the sixteen so it would transform those syllables into twenty-fourths, which became a triplet of an eighth. That’s why I called it the triplet style.
It wasn’t so much a style, it was just a necessity. Like they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I did it, it sounded good, and I started to do it a lot more. I didn’t know whether it was gonna catch on or not. I knew that it was something unique and something that nobody was doing in hip-hop, but you head it some places like blues or jazz with the scat and things of that nature. Besides that, we were just having fun with it. We didn’t know it would come to this.
If you look at today, the triplet flow has become a new normal for so many artists. I wonder if they even know the origin of where it came from.
I was curious about your experience with battle rapping. It seems like a lot of New York legends were involved in battle rapping for a bit. Are there any particularly legendary battles that you’d like to share?
There was an MC contest that was held called Broadway International. This was in the mid-eighties. Just-Ice and his partner, I can’t remember his name, were in the contest. Dana Dane was in the contest. He was apart of this group called “The Kangol Crew,” and Slick Rick was actually a member of that group, but Dana himself was in the battle. Just-Ice kind of nudged his partner away because he ran out of rhymes. That was one legendary battle. I won the battle.
What was it like, the battle scene? Was it in the spirit of healthy competition? Did anything ever go too far or was it simply “may the best man win?”
Yeah, it was more like that. This one, in particular, was an MC contestand the prize was five hundred dollars, which was a nice take-home back then.
How do you prepare for something like that?
That’s just it. You gotta be ready. It’s one of those things where you have to already have it in your arsenal. We found out less than a week before the contest and we didn’t know any of the other contestants so, it’s one of those things.
Before we spoke, I was actually watching your “Hawaiian Sophie” video. It’s definitely a classic. They don’t make videos like that anymore. What was your experience like filming that, and have you watched it recently?
I’ve seen it. I’ve watched it recently. It reminded me of a different time. Rap music was moving more into a novelty phase if you will. The overall vibe on the set was a lot different than how it is now. The best word I could use, it was a lot more innocent. I don’t judge. It’s not tarnished per se, it’s just different. Today, they have the girls mostly naked. We had a couple of girls that were mostly naked, but it was tasteful. They were, for the most part, hula girls. It was just different.
There were people there, the jury and stuff like that. That was a Brooklyn thing, we had to do that. It was a lot more innocent. It was conducted like a business. It was a good vibe. That song wasn’t my first choice to do, it was something EMI wanted to do and they were spending the money so I figured, “if you’re spending the money, you’re gonna do the deed for the most part. You’re gonna do what it takes to make the song happen, to make me popular, as opposed to me fighting with you and you putting out what I want to put out and not going at it wholeheartedly.”
I got to ask, whose idea was it to have Jay-Z parachuting?
It was not mine. I asked him if he minded doing it. He didn’t want to do it and I wouldn’t have knocked him if he didn’t, but he chose to do it. He was a better man than me that day for sure.
It’s a piece of history, that video. People need to know the steps that hip-hop has been through. I think that’s important for younger artists to understand. Speaking of Jay, you’ve played a very pivotal role in his artistic development. When you guys first connected, what were some of the lessons you worked to instill in him, both in and out of the booth?
The raw talent was already there. It was really about some of the logistics of rhyme structure. I was making beats from way back then so I familiarized him with bars. Something that’s a common thing nowadays was something that we sort of educated people on. Brought people into the fold of knowing time signatures, bars and things of that nature. Dealing with music time or real-time in music. That was mostly it. A lot of people may have thought every single thing, but no, he came into the picture with raw talent. I advised him on some things, but he advised me on a couple of things. There were a couple of things I was doing where he was like “You should do that.” The whole triplet style, he was like “You should do that more.” He was more into popularization and marketing and I was more into the craft.
Do you have any particular stories from a memorable studio session you had?
They were all memorable. We could talk about the mix sessions that I got to late and falling asleep on the mixing board, on the console and all of that. That was just the fast life catching up to me. There were memorable stories. Just seeing the people in D&D studios in general. Just seeing all the people who worked in the studio, even if not on a regular basis. What was fascinating was the people that, through myself and Jay, ended up frequenting that studio based on projects we were apart of. We saw everybody from Mary J. Blige to B.I.G. to M.O.P., Primo, a whole bunch of people. Sauce Money, Memphis Bleek, just an array of different talent that, under any other circumstance, would not have frequented that studio.
What is it about D&D that made it such a legendary place? Was there something in particular?
Based on popularity and based on a quality product. You had Primo who was a mainstay, who eventually got his own room up there and eventually took over the whole studio. Then you have myself, who, by the way, was the first artist/producer who sampled and scratched. When I got my deal with EMI, they were looking for a studio, and what we found out about D&D at that time was that they only did rock music and some reggae. When we did the equipment rental, they asked my management, “What is this guy gonna do with a drum machine, sampler, turntable, and a keyword with some sound modules?” and they were like “We don’t know, but he knows what he’s doing.”
I stayed in that studio for twenty-four hours straight. I went in at noon and I left at noon. It was the weirdest feeling I ever had because I didn’t take a break. I was so enthusiastic. I had a brand new deal and I just kept working. Before I knew it, somebody told me “Your session’s over in two hours.” It was a weird feeling leaving the building because when I walked in the sun was shining and when I left it was the same thing after all that time. I didn’t see the shadow hour or the night.
That must have been a rewarding time creatively.
You mentioned crossing paths with The Notorious B.I.G. Would you mind sharing an experience you had with him?
We never collaborated on anything that came out, but, when I got my deal, Jay, Irv Gotti and myself had come back from London. I actually moved like three weeks after coming home. I moved out of Marcy and into a brownstone in Clinton Hills and one of my cousins from Virginia was having some problems so I had him move up with me. We were basketball fiends and at that time, after recording the album, I had a lot of free time on my hands. We would go to the basketball court, shoot around and talk. If somebody was out there, we’d play two-on-two, three-on-three or what have you. I saw Big out there a lot of times and one day he came up and was like “You think I don’t know who you are? I know who you are.”
I was a street legend with the lyrics and we had done a couple of mixtapes but mixtapes, back then, were actually cassette tapes with emcees rhyming over beats. My tapes got around. I had some tapes with me rhyming for like forty-five minutes straight in Virginia, down to the Carolinas. Luke Skywalker had some of my stuff. You got to remember, this was before social media, this was before the internet. It was word of mouth. Anyway, Big knew who I was and we talked briefly. We didn’t talk a lot or none of that. He was probably doing his one-two in the park. We were just shooting around. It was just funny because I would see him after the Bad Boy deal, years later, and he’d be like “I see you,” and I’d just laugh and he’d laugh. It’ be the same thing every time, “I see you.”
Was there ever a notable shift in the culture in New York? When all of these different artists were coming out, yourself, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, Wu-Tang Clan, what was it like occupying the space with so many different artists?
It was nice. It was nice because contrary to what a lot of people thought, there was a lot of camaraderie. There wasn’t any, “Okay, these cats are over here and I’m over here. Fuck those guys.” It really wasn’t that. Most of the time, there was a lot of admiration. The same thing that they criticized us about with the movement, with the “Dirty South,” with Atlanta and Alabama, people started saying “They work together and collaborate.”
I’m like "Y’all people weren’t even apart of it. You can’t speculate on any of that.” I told people “I was there. It was much comradery. It was much love.” That’s society. Certain people don’t like each other, but in general, for the majority of that era, there was an abundance of artists who had mutual respect.
Do you feel that started to change in the late ’90s when there was a second coming of New York talent, or was it the same kind of thing?
Yeah, but it didn’t have anything to do with new talent. It was a new agenda. That agenda was to take some of the consciousness out of hip-hop and turn all the songs into an elongated commercial ad. If you notice the structure of the music or the structure of hip-hop songs have changed. Now, you got much more repetition than in the beginning. In the beginning of hip-hop recordings, you had a song that didn’t even have a hook. Now, every song not only has a hook, but it’s much more repetitive. There's almost as much chorus or hook as there is in the verse. The chorus or hook of a song is more dominant.
Did you find it had an impact on the production that you were doing at the time? Was it hard to adjust to the changes?
Nah. Not at all. An advantage that I have is that I have a structure and what I do is produce in a certain way. If I don’t like it, I’ll turn the drum machine off. I still use a drum machine. If I do like it, I make a decision: Do I actually want this for myself? Every song or beat I make has a structure where it has a certain verse. I always make the verse sequences and the chorus sequences. I make a chorus sequence with a fill, be it a drum-fill or a sample, and sometimes it’s the same thing for a verse-fill depending on how I feel. There’s always a general structure that varies based on feeling because music has a feel, and if you aren't feeling, then you aren’t making music.
Without revisiting old wounds, can you tell me about your reunion with Jay-Z during the 4:44 tour?
Someone set up the reunion, if you want to call it that. I was in town. Obviously, he was in town. I got some credentials to have all-access and we met up. It felt like we hadn’t seen each other in six-months as opposed to twenty-years. It was good. For the record, it was never really a beef or anything like that. That word is way too serious to equate the situation, in any form or fashion. It wasn’t a beef. It’s just one of those things. He’s doing what he does. I’m doing what I do. It was very heartfelt on my part. I missed him. I hadn’t seen him in a very long time. I think he felt the same way. We joked around a bit. He introduced me to some other people and we drank some water. He went on stage and did his thing. What really touched me is that, while on stage, he took time to thank me and I really appreciate that. It was great.
Thanks for sharing.
So, tell me about your new deal that you just signed. Congratulations by the way!
How did that come about? What are you looking to build going forward?
I’m looking to build my brand, which is Jaz-O, but most definitely Kings County Media Group, and to express myself and put out some good music. Usually, the first thing that everybody says is “money, money, money,” but that’s not how I came into this thing. When I came into the whole thing of doing music, it was an outlet, an expression creatively. That was the whole point. I’m not saying that money’s not involved. This is big business. Money is involved, but, what has to be known is, that’s not my primary agenda. This is a way for me to express myself on an expanded platform as opposed to throwing some stuff out totally independent and promoting it on social media hoping somebody hears it. Money is good. Let’s not talk badly about money at all.
Thank you so much for your time and everything you’ve contributed to hip-hop. It’s been a pleasure hearing your stories and I wish you the best of luck in all of your future endeavors.