Jazze Pha doesn't have much time when it comes to this music business -- that is, to be interviewed. When he greets me at Tree Sound Studios in Norcross, he prompts, "Do you have your questions ready?" while plucking out a tasty melody from a keyboard. Nearly an hour later, when he finishes talking, he turns and heads to the studio's game room, casually forgetting to show me to the door.
Between that beginning and end, however, Jazze Pha is open and honest, though he can't help but betray a few yawns -- the conversation takes place in the mid-evening, well after most people's workday is done. Much like his music, he balances personal warmth with confidence and cool professionalism.
Some people know Jazze Pha from his many video appearances: He's the short, round guy with the black-rimmed glasses dancing beside P. Diddy on the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Nasty Girl," and drifting through a huge mansion party on Trick Daddy's "In Da Wind." They sometimes mistakenly credit his work to others, such as thinking P. Diddy produced "Nasty Girl."
"Even to some now, I'm that dude in the video," says Jazze Pha, adding that knowledgeable rap fans know who he is by now. Still, just to make it plain, he started having artists say, "This is a Jazze Phizzle produc-shizzle" on his tracks. You can hear Missy Elliott drop the line at the end of Ciara's massive, triple-platinum "1, 2 Step" hit. Still, many continue to associate Ciara with Elliott, since the two appear on each other's records and make public appearances together. Ciara is Jazze Pha's protégé, however, and he executive-produced her double-platinum album, Goodies.
"For some people, it still doesn't click. It's like, 'That's Jazze. He be with all of them cats,'" he says. "But it's cool. People who write checks, they know."
Far from random and anonymous, Jazze Pha's beats unmistakably carry his imprint. They are usually elegant and plush, evoking playalistic sounds of early '80s funk and R&B like Eumir Deodato's work with Kool & the Gang on "Ladies Night" and "Too Hot." While slightly derivative of R. Kelly's "Step in the Name of Love," Jazze Pha's beat for David Banner's "Touchin'" single sways with a grace all its own. The same combination of easy, open drum patterns and finely strummed bass licks can be found on T.I.'s "Let's Get Away" and Ludacris' "Area Codes."
If Jazze Pha has yet to become an influential mastermind on the scale of the Neptunes and Timbaland, or even a hit-maker as remarkably consistent as Scott Storch and Jermaine Dupri, then he's certainly on his way. His rise signifies a new maxim in urban music where the best hip-hop producers are noted for their versatility -- namely, the ability to create hits with both singers and rappers -- as well as their innovation. He dresses the part, shifting from the throwback jerseys in vogue two years ago to the cable-knit shirts and Ralph Lauren sweaters popular today.
Jazze Pha's freshness as a hip-hop personality belies his years of musical experience. Born Phalon Alexander, he's the son of James Alexander, bassist for Memphis soul veterans the Bar-Kays. In addition to scoring two decades worth of its own R&B and funk hits, that group (along with Booker T. and the MGs) created Stax Records' famous Memphis sound, and backed Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding on those singers' classic recordings. Jazze Pha's mother is Deniece Williams, the sweet-sounding singer whose hits -- "Free," "It's Gonna Take a Miracle," and "Let's Hear It for the Boy," among many others -- helped define black music in the early '80s.
"I was really raised by mother," says Jazze Pha. "My pops, he was out there doing his thing, putting it down. They separated, and they weren't together. I saw him when I could. I saw him more when I was older. I think every kid wants to see his dad. But he was out there doing his thing.
"My dad used to bring me here [to Atlanta] for the Jack the Rapper convention every year," he continues. At one convention in the late '80s, he met future urban icons like Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had just begun his legendary stint as an executive at Uptown Records. "When I was a young cat, I was like, 'I'm going to move out there," he says. And he did in 1993.
Besides some teenage gigs building roofs in California, where he and his mother relocated after the divorce, Jazze Pha hasn't had a job outside of the record industry, much less a regular 9-to-5 gig. By the age of 21, he already had a deal with Elektra Records as an R&B singer. A debut album, Rising to the Top, appeared under Phalon in 1990, but it sold poorly.
The label dropped him. "I was crushed in the beginning, like anybody would be," he says. "You know, when you call somebody and say, 'I have a record deal,' that's kinda big. But I got over it quick."
Shortly after, Jazze Pha had an epiphany when he bought a drum machine. On his solo album, he says, he often dictated the arrangements he wanted to his producers, but didn't get any credit for his contributions. "Once I started touching the equipment, I realized, 'Oh, OK. I don't need five people to make a song. I can make the song myself.'" Besides, Rising to the Top's lack of success discouraged him from pursuing another deal as a singer. "I wanted to get paid," he says. "I knew I could do beats." So he decided to remake himself as a producer.
Jazze Pha apprenticed with better-known beat-makers like Erick Sermon, and made tracks for rappers like MC Breed. He says he barely got by at first, "like a starving artist." But then he quickly clarifies himself. "I was getting $1,000, $3,000 or I may get somebody for $5,000 for a track. I was making more than the average person that works at FedEx, or something like that. I wasn't broke. I was hustling."
Memphis rapper Tela's luxurious "Sho Nuff" provided Jazze Pha with his first hit, scaling the lower rungs of the Billboard pop charts. Most rap fans, however, first discovered Jazze Pha when he appeared in the video for Nappy Roots' "Awnaw," a surprise crossover hit in 2002. Between those two breakthroughs, he toiled (lucratively) in anonymity, cranking out beats for Slick Rick ("Street Talkin'"), Dave Hollister and Toni Braxton.
Now, 10 years after "Sho Nuff," Jazze Pha has his own Sho'Nuff camp. In addition to Ciara, who records for Jive, there's Jody Breeze, supergroup Boyz in Da Hood's second breakout member (along with Young Jeezy), who already has a deal in place with Warner Bros.; Detroit rapper Tone Tone; Atlanta R&B quartet Nephu; R&B quartet Cherish; and rapper Big Zack, who has a mix tape on the streets called Major Visibility. Like Jazze Pha himself, the latter three acts are signed via a Sho'Nuff Records deal with Capitol Records.
For the past several months, Capitol Records has promoted Happy Hour, Jazze Pha's upcoming album with Cee-Lo. But Happy Hour may have to wait until after Cee-Lo's Gnarls Barkley project with Grammy-nominated producer Danger Mouse is released in May. With luck, Happy Hour won't go the way of Jazze Pha's proper solo debut, which was originally scheduled to hit the streets two years ago but got put on the back burner in favor of Ciara's project.
"We slowed up on it because we were working on some things, personally and professionally," says Jazze Pha. Without getting too specific, he adds that they've been tinkering with the project, which is billed in pre-release advertisements as "Sixty Minutes of Well-Dressed Drama." Two songs, "Happy Hour" and "Choose Me," leaked this winter, but the album still doesn't have a concrete release date.
Perhaps Jazze Pha is still figuring out what the album's true concept will be. If Ciara evokes teenage glamour, then what will his album, his first shot at headliner stardom since that Phalon album dropped more than 15 years ago, represent? What will its image be?
"A person who has a vision is never satisfied because there's always something else to see," says Jazze Pha. "OK, what's the next visual? OK, Ciara's about to go 5 million worldwide. OK, what's the next visual? Ten million worldwide. OK, what's the next visual? Ten more million worldwide. Movies. TV. More movies, more TV. Money, more money. Relationships, more relationships. Realty, property, everything. Whatever. Anything that brings revenue and creates wealth. Let's live for generations. Let's make our family comfortable, more comfortable than our family has ever been."
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…
That was January of 2007, and they are 21 now, so I'm guessing 14?