Don Jazzy: Genius. Enigma. Mavin.
From his beginnings as a serial hit-making producer to his transition into a music mogul with global dreams, Don Jazzy’s journey has come to define the expansion of African music in the last decade. From steering ship at Mo'Hits to his new chapter at Mavin Records, the award-winning industry veteran has had an era-defining career of almost singlehandedly raising an entire generation of Afrobeats superstars. Now the doyen is more keen on passing the torch to the next wave of afropop royalty. This is Don Jazzy: the genius, the enigma, the mavin.
Don Jazzy is a simple man; it’s evident from the moment he walks into the room. “Hey, what’s up?” he greets coolly, half-raising one hand in salutation. Slowly, he saunters across the room and plops on the couch, patiently waiting for the next instruction. He’s casually dressed in a loose-fitting black tee and jeans while sporting a simple pair of black shades which he almost immediately takes off as he settles down and calmly observes his surroundings. “I’ll have a margarita,” he swiftly responds to our offer of a drink. “Classic,” he adds. As I sit across the room, keenly watching him respectfully exchange pleasantries with everyone, it’s difficult to imagine this is the Don Jazzy – the multi-award-winning record producer, audio engineer, singer-songwriter and music executive almost singlehandedly responsible for raising an entire generation of afrobeats superstars. But, as he soon reveals, his unassuming presence shouldn’t be mistaken for meekness; he’s definitely well-aware of his legendary status and lifetime of peerless achievements.
Born Micheal Collins Ajereh, Jazzy grew up in a wholesome household. The first of four kids, he spent his early years shuffling between Ajegunle and Egbeda, two inner-city neighbourhoods in Lagos. “[Ajegunle] was four things,” he explains, “school, church, farm and music.” After-school activities involved a young Jazzy accompanying his father to their backyard farm and helping his mother out at her front yard akara stand later at night. When he wasn’t assisting his parents or attending classes at Awodiora Primary School, Jazzy and his family convened at their Cherubim and Seraphim church, where his mother sang in the choir and his father played the drums. It was there that his inherited knack for music fully manifested.
“In the early days, it was pretty much percussion,” he says, recalling his sonic origins. “ I think I’m the best percussion player in the world, actually. The first time I ever touched the [drums], I could play something. I’d been seeing people play, I watched TV, it’s easy. The drums came easily.” Jazzy continued honing his instrumental skills, expanding his expertise to the piano and bass guitar, all before moving to Egbeda at the age of 11, where he attended Federal Government College, Lagos, Ijanikin. His interest in music piqued even more there. “They used to report me that I would skip classes and the first thing my father would ask is ‘where was he?’ ‘He was in the music hall,’ [my teachers would reply],” he chuckles. “He knew that everything else wasn’t entering. It’s not like it wasn’t entering, but it’s music I wanted to know. When I started failing was SS2 [at] the end, I was failing on purpose. I was in this music group called Ministration Voices.” Eventually, Jazzy did finish secondary school and went on to the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State studying Business Administration. But even that didn’t work out as his mind was clearly focused on something else, so after a year, his uncle took him to London, leading him right back to the church and music.
Settling into the City, Jazzy began playing in the church again: first at the Cherubim and Seraphim parish and then at any other church willing to pay him. Prior to this, he had never really considered the future of being an artist. “I was just thinking in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about a career. It was when I moved to London that it became clear that ‘ogbeni, this is the thing you’re going to use to get Pound Sterling,’ ” he explains. And then he met Jide Chord and Soji Soulek while playing different gigs. “Soulek played saxophone for Jide Chord and I played bass guitar. Soulek said he can sing and he wanted to form a band. He had this keyboard that you could program beats on, he taught me that, so that’s [how] I started programming beats on keyboards,” he continues, recounting the genesis of his foray into music production. For him, however, production wasn’t such foreign territory – it was more of an enhancement of a pre-existing skill than learning a new one. “It’s wild when people say ‘come and teach me how to produce,’ ” he laughs, “I don’t know what you mean by that. Music has always been just there. There’s no instrument in the world, give me 20-30 minutes and I’ll use it to create beats. It’s not that crazy.”
Soon enough, Jazzy, Soulek and another band member officially became the Soulek Crew, playing gigs around London – weddings, birthdays, you name it – and earning £500-£1000 per gig. When the band eventually split, Jazzy got introduced to JJC who showed him how to make beats on computers. It didn’t take long before he got the hang of it and began making fire beats and working on some big-name projects. He didn’t care too much for it yet though, it was just something to get by. “I was making music for different people but I didn’t really care how it would turn to money until I wanted to make music for D’banj,” he frankly admits. In an unexpected twist of fate, shortly after meeting D’banj, Jazzy fell out with JJC due to miscommunication on some issues and the pair parted ways. Determined to come out on top, he took D’banj’s project very seriously and the pair returned to Nigeria. “The plan was to go to Nigeria and conquer. [D’banj] was convincing me to go to Nigeria, and at this point, we went back and I told him that we were going to make him the youngest living legend because we were young,” he explains. “I was hearing about 2Face and Styl Plus, and more young people were getting into it. We could go and try.” Thus, marking the birth of the Mo’ Hits era.
Upon their return to Nigeria in 2004, Jazzy and D’banj immediately got to work. Within the next two years, he produced D’banj’s solo albums, No Long Thing and RunDown Funk U Up – two era-defining projects that marked a new horizon for afrobeats. Jazzy soon became comfortable working on production in the background, while D’banj served as the frontman for Mo’ Hits, the record label the pair co-owned. “I’ve met people that think that I’m a drug baron. It wasn’t really hard to keep it up because I’m also shy. I can’t remember being on stage and seeing anybody. I just want to stay at the back and make music,” he says. Soon enough, Mo’ Hits expanded and he signed on more artists, many of which the pair were already familiar with. “[The decision] was natural, they were always there. D’Prince, my brother, has always been there. Kayswitch, D’Banj’s brother has always been there. Dr Sid was close to D’Banj,” he explains.
At its peak, the label boasted an impressive roster of artists including Dr Sid, D’banj, Kayswitch, D’Prince, Wande Coal and Ikechukwu. The label soon became a hit-making machine, running the game throughout the noughties – what G-Unit was to New York, Mo’Hits was to Lagos. From songs like D’banj’s debut record “Tongolo” to Wande Coal’s slinky “Taboo,” no one was doing it quite like the super-group. In 2007, the label released its debut (and only) album, Curriculum Vitae, a compilation album packed with an onslaught of posse cuts that dominated the airwaves for years. Curriculum Vitae was both a commercial and critical success and to date, songs from the album still hold cultural relevance. Prior to CV’s release, Mo’ Hits were already a hot commodity but the album only went further to solidify an era where they were the top dogs and Jazzy’s industry takeover was undisputable.
Recency bias might have erased this memory from many minds, but at certain points, Don Jazzy singlehandedly dictated the sonic direction of the music industry; his beats were the templates for production tempo and style. At one point, he sped up the tempo to about 140bpm with soca-like songs such as Dr Sid’s “Pop Champagne” and Wande Coal’s “Close To You,” and the industry followed suit. At another, he slowed it down with songs like Ikechukwu’s “Wind Am Well,” while still maintaining his signature upbeat style. “Because I went to C&S, we didn’t do slow worship songs. My beats are very jumpy. I grew up like ‘I don get alert, God win!’ I think the slowest big song I’ve is “Ololufe”. I like to make people dance. Creativity is born out of your subconscious. I can play the piano but na piano wey go ginger you,” he says, explaining his affinity for uptempo beats.
In 2012, following D’banj’s departure, Mo’Hits announced its dissolution and cited differences in interests as the reason for the breakup. In the same year, Jazzy announced his new record label, Mavin Records, which would be the former’s replacement. The label announced a robust roster of pop acts like Dr Sid, Korede Bello, and pop princess Tiwa Savage as its first set of artists. Switching from a partnership in Mo’Hits to a solo show at Mavin was no easy feat, but Jazzy had to embrace it fully. “[At Mo’Hits], we were surviving, as long as there’s somebody in front. But then, the moment it got to the point that I’ll carry the load, I had to be in front,” he clarifies. Following its launch announcement, Mavins immediately released its debut compilation album, Solar Plexus; a way of letting everyone know a new era was on the horizon. “I knew that people were afraid of something new and I knew it would take time. But the earlier the better,” Jazzy says, explaining the reason for the quick release. “We had the Solar Plexus album, [so] we dropped immediately we launched.”
From that moment, perhaps more visibly than ever, Jazzy fully assumed the role of record executive and talent developer in addition to his production responsibilities. Slowly but surely, Mavin transformed into a breeding ground for afropop royalty. From Tiwa Savage’s world-dominating success to Wande Coal and Reekado Banks’ era-defining afropop efforts, Don Jazzy has been the man behind many formidable strides in the industry. In 2019, Mavin inked a multi-million dollar investment deal with Kupanada Holdings. The label shared that the investment was intended to scale its operations under the Mavin Global brand to meet the rapidly growing international demand for African music. This included growing its roster and strengthening its services across A&R, touring, marketing, distribution, publishing and partnerships.
“Our mission is to grow Mavin Global into the music powerhouse of Africa,” Don Jazzy explained in a press conference back in 2019. “By collaborating with artists, African creatives, local and international partners, we can become a globally recognized household name and the go-to platform for connecting African music with the world.”
It’s now 2021 and Jazzy has fully shifted his focus from studio time to raising the next generation of afropop superstars. Rema, a signee of Jonzing World – Mavin’s imprint record label founded by D’Prince – is one of the label’s latest success stories. Fusing afrobeats inflections, trap melodies and alternative music, the formidable young artiste posed a unique place in the future of afrobeats. Since then, he’s gone on to become the poster child for afropop’s global appeal, putting him in conversations about being one of Nigeria’s biggest exports. Such acclaim is what Jazzy hopes to achieve with the artists in the Mavin Academy, the performance training school his 18-year-old latest signee, Ayra Starr attended until her official signing with the label. “The Academy is pretty much growing under the radar. It’s like a football academy: it’s not everyone that’s in the Academy that will end up playing Premiership. Go and sha work first, they’re earning money as they’re recording so they’re comfortable,” he says explaining its premise.
Many of the Academy’s attendants are Gen Z and while this may be a whole new territory for Jazzy, he’s completely enjoying the experience. “The thing is, now, the artists are more expressive. A lot of things we used to see as taboo, they just say it in a jiffy. That’s where the world has gone too. I don’t stress. Let them express themselves, I actually learn a lot from them,” he says. “Someone made a song and was like ‘I ain’t got no ass or no titties, but I’ll steal your man with my kitty.’ It’s amazing music. I’m learning from them as much as they learn from me.” Currently, there are about 15 artists training in the Academy, so what’s the determining factor for who goes to the major leagues? For Jazzy, it’s grit. “The kind of songs you put out while you were there, how you blend with the artists and the team, and also, the demand for your kind of brand or sound in the market. So you can see them putting their music out on their socials but you wouldn’t know they’re Mavin Academy, just trying to sample people’s opinions,” he explains. “If I come to your page, I need to see your aunty, your uncle, your neighbor bigging you up sef, before I’m convinced to put money. Let me see you working hard enough to convince the next student in Unilag or secondary school or whatever. Once people get signed, they get complacent. Fuck that shit. That’s where the journey begins.”
“For a very long time, I had phobia for making music,” Don Jazzy solemnly admits, explaining his five-year absence from the airwaves. “Maybe the fans kicked it in. Maybe the anger made everyone feel a type of way if they don’t hear ‘It’s Don Jazzy again’ on it. For a while, I got to that point where I felt like people don’t really feel my shit anymore. Move on. I had trained other people who people liked. The music didn’t necessarily have to be by me anymore.” These days, he’s more interested in passing the baton to the next age of talented artists and producers. “I feel like I’ve achieved a lot when it comes to production in the Afrobeats space. Some producers say. ‘Baba how far? Make we just collect this award na.’ At some point, I was like, ‘no be me hold the award na.’ The award isn’t gonna add money to me,” he adds. At the end of the interview, I recall my initial curiosity at his surprisingly unassuming aura. I quickly came to the realization that at his core this will always be Don Jazzy – a boy from Ajegunle who’s done it all: laid the blueprint for afropop as we know it and dominated the music industry. Twice. At this level, there’s no need for any airs or graces. When you’ve achieved such peerless accomplishments, no one can take it away from you. “The industry doesn’t have many people you can learn from, I’m making the rules as I go,” he shrugs. “There’s no blueprint anywhere. Myself [and] my team, we’re growing, making mistakes, it’s okay.”
The full Blackbox Interview with Don Jazzy will be available on Bounce's Youtube on April 1st. Subscribe here.