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Creation Stories

EXCLUSIVE: Inside The Mecca Of Collaboration That Is DJ Jazzy Jeff's Playlist Retreat

Fast Company got an exclusive invite to join music's most innovative thinkers at Jeff's home for five days—here's what went down.

EXCLUSIVE: Inside The Mecca Of Collaboration That Is DJ Jazzy Jeff's Playlist Retreat

DJ Jazzy Jeff

[Photos: Dexter D. Cohen, courtesy of Playlist Retreat]

The muffled sound of bass-saturated music bumping in the distance is loud enough to hear from the car. Up the long driveway, a food truck parked in the grass produces billows of grill smoke in anticipation of the guests arriving in just a few hours. Two towering white tents stand in an expansive space that could either be classified as a gigantic backyard or a small field. Either way, there’s more than enough room to fit the tents, 12 RV campers, a row of portable showers and toilets—and a children’s play set. The setup has all the trappings of a legendary cookout or even a family reunion, both of which aren’t too far off the mark from what’s actually about to go down: DJ Jazzy Jeff’s second-annual Playlist Retreat.

For the next four days, around 100 DJs, producers, singers, engineers, and songwriters will come to Jeff’s home to swap notes, create music, and engage in industry talks. The idea for The Playlist Retreat hit Jeff a few years ago during Thre3style, Red Bull’s international DJ competition, where he serves as one of the judges.

"You don’t really get a chance to bond with your peers. Every time we do shows or festivals there may be one or two guys that you get a chance to say, 'what’s up' and hang out. But Red Bull Thre3style gave us a week," Jeff says. "In that week, we eat together, everybody swaps music, and you tell horror stories, and that camaraderie was something we don’t get all of the time. So I was like, I want to do a DJ retreat."

The framework for a retreat was in Jeff’s head but he didn’t know if it would be feasible until his wife, Lynette Townes, threw him a surprise party for his 50th birthday at their home.

"I moved out furniture, brought in tables and chairs, brought in lighting, got a production crew, and turned the basement into a nightclub," says Townes, who heads up the The Playlist Retreat’s PR through her company Remix Media Group. "I think [Jeff] seeing me pull that off without him even knowing made him fully understand what it could be from a logistical standpoint as far as whether we had the space and whether we had the right property and the right resources—and also about how I would respond to having a house full of strangers for an extended period of time!"

There were around 40 attendees last year, and this year’s retreat easily doubles that figure with returning vets and a new class of rookies, all of whom Jeff curates with the precision akin to building his record collection that, as one can imagine, is virtually El Dorado for any music aficionado. Those fortunate enough to land on The Playlist Retreat guest list are, to Jeff’s estimation, innovative thinkers—those creatives who treat the boundaries of music as malleable reference points rather than fixed rules.

"We have people here that may have to make records for a record company or they may have to play music on a radio station, and I understand that you have to do what you have to do," Jeff says. "But [The Playlist Retreat is for] the person that when they get a chance to be 100% creative, are they going to deviate from the norm? Are they going to take chances and try new things?"

What Jeff is building is a community for creative freedom bolstered by the retreat’s key tenet: collaboration.

"He started seeing a lot of his peers become bitter and jaded and their spirits getting crushed because changes [in the music industry] have left a lot of them displaced. But at the same time, he’s talking to this new class of music makers and producers and they have an entirely different perspective of things," Townes says. "So he was like, how can we bring both of those worlds together? When we moved into this house, we both talked about what is our purpose—what do we do with all this space? The space has the potential to do so much for so many. On his end, making music is a personal thing so he wants to bring it all in. He wanted to try to bring back the spark in a lot of his peers and also mentor the younger generation—and this turned into the best form for it."


It’s just before 7 p.m. and the house party of the year is in full effect.

Technically, The Playlist Retreat hasn’t started yet. Day one is reserved for meet-and-greets and getting the lay of the land, but Jeff’s house is completely under siege. Producer Tall Black Guy has set up his gear on top of a pool table in the game room. The studio is swarming with the likes of Eric Lau, MXXWLL, and Teeko. The garage is getting last-minute fine-tuning to accommodate keyboard and turntable stations. Every inch of the designated space for The Playlist Retreat is primed with equipment or communal spaces to ensure no one silos him or herself away from the rest of the group.

The core elements of The Playlist Retreat could be extracted and applied in a more conventional event space, but doing that would strip away quite possibly the most remarkable quality of it: the fact that it’s in Jeff’s home. Traces of Jeff and Townes’ family life remain in plain sight amid the pomp and signage of retreat, with their kids’ Power Wheels parked outside the studio door, walls adorned with family photos, and their two dogs roaming around for a belly rub. That intimacy has the power to strip away any nerves or awkwardness that could inhibit collaboration among strangers.

"You want to make them feel comfortable. You want to make people understand as much as this is a creative retreat, this is still my house," Jeff says. "This is the farthest that you would get away from industry as possible. As hard as it is, it has to be a conscious effort for me to try and keep it at my house for as long as I can."

Having The Playlist Retreat at his home could be the built-in limit for keeping the event close to its roots. After word got around about last year’s retreat, Jeff was approached with relentless advice and offers on how to expand his idea beyond its homespun origins.

"I’m scared of that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be small, it has to be pure," Jeff says. "Anybody who’s known South by Southwest from the beginning, it’s different. You’ve seen those niche parties that are great and then all of a sudden BOOM!—it’s not the same. It’s also cool to not know where I want this to go because I didn’t know what it was last year and it showed itself. We tweaked and added some stuff this year and I’m pretty sure we’re going to learn a lot this year to figure out what we’re going to do going forward."


The sun hasn’t even thought about setting as all the attendees from the far reaches of Jeff’s home gather around the pool. As Jeff takes the mic for his opening remarks, the respectful silence from the crowd is punctuated only by the whir of a drone recording everything just a few feet from attentful heads.

"This is basically a collection of people who put creativity before anything. And being in a music space, that’s not always the case—that’s what makes gatherings like this very special," Jeff says. "I’m really, really excited to see what you guys will get out of this week. The people that were here last year can definitely attest that this was a life-changing thing. I think you put a group of amazing creatives all together and you have no idea what can happen. As you know I’m very much so doing this on the outside of the music industry. So this is about creativity first. So introduce yourselves; eat some good food; have a good time; welcome to The Playlist Retreat!"

Quicker than hands can come together for a round of applause, someone shouts from the back, "Yeah, I got a question about the social media protocol!"

It’s Young Guru, Jay Z’s audio engineer of 16 years, producer, and returning retreat attendee.

Everyone laughs knowing what’s coming next. It’s Jeff’s only rule for The Playlist Retreat, one that anyone who’s been invited to come should know now by heart.

"Thank you! This is what I wanted to say: You can take all the pictures. You can take all the video. You can take all of that. Do not post anything until [the last day of the retreat.] We are media silent," Jeff says. "Listen, I was at the White House the other night. I had the honor of doing the president’s birthday party. They collected everyone’s phone at the door, which I know is some hard shit for y'all here. They collected everybody’s phone at the door and that was the most engaged I’ve ever seen people in a very long time. Put your damn phone down. We really do stress social media blackout. Just get to know the person next to you ‘cause some amazing things can happen from it."


Young Guru

"What she’s doing with not allowing people to use their phones is a great thing in today’s day and age." Before coming to this year’s Playlist Retreat, Young Guru DJ’ed Alicia Keys’s show at the Troubadour in L.A. where she asked enforced a no-phone policy. "It’s sort of that, please for this two hours just be without your phone. Be engaged in what we’re doing. I’m engaging you as an artist, so please engage me as an audience to really get this full experience."

It’s evident that Guru has strong feelings about digital distractions—and why shouldn’t he? What resonates so strongly with Guru about The Playlist Retreat isn’t just the social media blackout, it’s the focus on physical collaboration, i.e. actually being in the same room with someone when creating music.

"There’s an instant vibration that human beings share when they’re in the same room," he says. "When I’m making music sometimes, I can tell how good it is by their movement and by their reaction to certain things. I may be doing something and somebody goes, ‘ooh!’ and that will make me go deeper into whatever it is I’m doing because I just saw that ‘ooh!’ reaction, which is what we all want from music."

Granted, as Guru concedes, tight schedules and exorbitant travel costs can make in-person collaboration untenable—and in this respect, technology has become a necessity in mitigating any divide. There exists, however, a happy medium between analog and digital, which The Playlist Retreat is aiming to bridge.

"Everything went super computer—your laptop is your studio. It’s not worse. It’s just not the same," Jeff says. "I love the technology aspect—I hate the fact that it’s made everyone solo, so this is more about the collaboration we had back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. You get a bunch of creative people in the studio and it’s absolutely amazing what comes out. I just want to take it back to two heads are better than one. There’s a level of selfishness that comes with working by yourself that sometimes we have to break people out of."

Step one in breaking out of your creative bubble for one: Go outside.

"Physically, you have to get up, get out of your room, and go to someplace where there’s something different from what you do," Guru says. "What I’ve noticed of my children, of my students, their life is in front of a screen—either a phone screen or in front of a computer screen. Put that away. Go meet with people, vibe with people. What you have to do is say, look you bring what you bring to the table—I’ll bring what I’ll bring to the table. No rules, no restrictions and let’s work together to make something that’s really great. There used to be all these restrictions that we had as elder statesmen of hip-hop: We don’t do this; This is against the rules. Forget your rules—just be completely open to making great music."

Jeff and Guru aren’t just the OGs lamenting the ways of yesteryear with no adequate perspective of today. Their careers have successfully evolved amid the music industry’s turbulence because they maintain an open dialogue with the new school. For artists coming up today, streaming services, social media currency, and digital production tools are the norm. What’s essential for the old school is to swim deftly with the current versus thrashing so hard to stay afloat that you wear yourself out and drown.

"I’ve often said today’s music space is like someone opened a prison gate and none of the prisoners ran out because it’s almost like, ‘I think it’s a trick. I’m not used to having this level of freedom so I think I’m just gonna sit here and wait for someone else to do it,’" Jeff says. "Where [you have] the [20-something] who understands the social dynamics, who understands just throwing stuff out and seeing what happens. What I love [about The Playlist Retreat] is you have the guys that really thought they were coming to be the older, wiser, more experienced guys but I invited the younger guys to show them the way because I know thousands of very talented people that aren’t doing anything and that bothers me. You start looking at a lot of the groups and the acts that you really like that you don’t hear anything from—they didn’t just all of a sudden become untalented. Something is blocking them from showing the world their talent. And a lot of times it’s, ‘I was used to doing it this way and this way doesn’t exist and I just don’t know how to do it in today’s space.’"


He cuts a striking figure among the rest of the attendees partially because of his physical presence, a gangly frame pushing well past the 6’2" mark, but mainly for the saxophone strapped around his narrow chest. Micah Davis, better known as Masego, is a 23-year-old, multi-instrumentalist prodigy pioneering a sound he’s dubbed "TrapHouseJazz," which is precisely what it sounds like. His June EP The Pink Polo blazed across the indie scene with songs like "Girls That Dance" and "Bounce," making him an artist to watch and the undeniable toast of The Playlist Retreat.

"He doesn’t understand how much of an influence he is on me," Guru says. "He’s bugging out like, ‘Guru knows my name!’ and I’m like no, you don’t get it. Pink Polo and Loose Ends [allow me to] see the way I want to combine jazz and trap. Here’s this kid that combines both of those with a fresh perspective on what it means to be young this year. A lot of times people will come with what it felt like to be young for a 42-year-old. I want to know what it feels like to be [in your 20s] in 2016. I get inspiration from people that are like, I’m just going to take my destiny into my own hands and do whatever I want."

"He a lie—he ain’t learned nothing from me."

Masego is in between jam sessions with his fellow attendees and he’s deflecting Guru’s relayed sentiments with affable incredulity. "[Guru] was like, ‘look man—I’m going to tell you like this: three times it changed my life: [J Dilla], 9th Wonder, and you.’ And I was like, ‘don’t talk to me like that.’"

Masego has obviously heard Guru’s praises before, and despite his breezy attitude, it’s evident he comprehends the magnitude of being at the retreat surrounded by legends. There’s no trace of cockiness in his demeanor, though—only cautious excitement and understandably so. It can be intimidating to have the people you look up to looking right back at you. Masego is the quintessential student/teacher in The Playlist Retreat’s new class because of his fearless innovation, exemplified by the title of his EP The Pink Polo cribbed from Kanye West’s song "Touch the Sky."

"‘When they thought the pink polo would hurt the rock’—that line to me means when they thought that my change, my different wasn’t going to work, was weird. Where I’m from, playing saxophone over trap beats is frowned upon. There was no encouragement in my area so I just started traveling and doing shows," Masego says. "I feel like The Pink Polo is my way to say this is how I like my music to sound and an audience that likes it as well found it."


Aloe Blacc

Over the course of the retreat, time has a way of melting into an indiscernible haze of creative fulfillment and outright exhaustion. Scratch sessions by the pool bleed into vinyl shopping in the basement. Panels featuring special guests like industry titans Shep Gordon and Bob Power give way to a pickup game of basketball outside. There’s just enough structure in the day-to-day activities to make sure all the attendees have the most well-rounded experience, but there’s ample time baked in for bonding and networking. If there was any hesitation among retreat attendees who didn’t know each other before coming to Jeff’s home, it dissipated before it could be noted.

"We dubbed him Professor X," Guru says of Jeff. "Where it’s like you have all these mutants that have great power but how do you take that power and make it something that’s beneficial to the world? I use that X-Men analogy because there are so many different personalities. Professor X is dealing with children, he’s also dealing with Wolverine. He’s dealing with certain mutants that are more powerful than him. Jean Grey is more powerful than Professor X, but he’s the one who’s showing her how to channel her power. That’s what Jeff is to us—only he can do this in a certain way. I’ve heard so many people say, Jeff, 'you should do this to make it the biggest and the best!' That’s not his goal."

Jeff’s goal is to keep The Playlist Retreat as far removed from the machine of the music industry as possible. It’s not that he doesn’t respect it, he’s just all too aware of what it can do to an artist’s creativity.

"Jeff has always been an advocate for artist freedom, artist empowerment, artist creative control. So he’s been on a hunt to figure out a way in the music climate to bring that back to the artist," Lynette Townes says. "Jeff has had some really rough business deals in the length of his career, but it hasn’t crushed his spirit and it hasn’t ruined his hope and faith that things could be better. He’s been on a quest to figure out how he could be one of the driving forces behind artist empowerment."

The Playlist Retreat is only in its second year, but the shockwaves from last year are still resonating with the inaugural class because of that empowerment. Those five days where imaginations and collaboration are allowed to roam free have the ability to shake artists loose from regimented thinking, in turn sparking something of a movement that exists in the days between this year’s retreat and next year’s.

"The Playlist Retreat has completely redefined how I make music and that’s no exaggeration," says DJ, producer, and mixtape pioneer J. Period. "The process that I thought would take to make an album, I learned quickly was not actually the process by which and how it should be made. It’s been a matter of getting in the room with talented people and just vibing out and seeing what comes of it and then figuring out how to fit those pieces of the puzzle together. My mind was expanded as far as how music could be made and should be made and I’ve tried to take that idea into every session I’ve done since then. It’s changed in terms of the way we make music in terms by getting people together and trying to recreate this atmosphere in Los Angeles in Chicago in Atlanta. That’s something that, again, can’t be overstated. It’s transformative for the people that come here."

"In the industry space you are never 100% in control," Jeff says. "It’s not even the fact that you have to be 100% in control, you’re never even an equal partner. Two things that people have a problem with is how am I going to get paid? And are you going to take my creative freedom? [As] a creative person, I would love to be able to make a living off of my art, but I don’t really want someone to crush my art. I am absolutely in love with the space that we’re in now, that it’s like, let me give [my music] to the public and let them tell me whether they like it or not. I have nightmares about the amount of music that the world has never heard because some person stopped it. A lot of [The Playlist Retreat] is to show people that you have your own space and that you have your own outlet."

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