Music producer, rap musician
The phenomenal success of Atlanta-area hip-hop artists in the early 2000s has been nurtured in no small part by the production skills of Jazze Pha (pronounced Jazzy Fay), who contributed to several dozen albums a year during the middle of that decade. Pha brought a disciplined work ethic to his studio activities. "I just do stuff every day," he explained to Andria Lisle of the Memphis Flyer, pointing to the frenzied work pace of the late rapper Tupac Shakur. "He did three or four songs every day. That's why his music still feeds his family. That should be a lesson to everybody on the creative tip. We should be as prolific as possible." With a production style rooted in the classic soul music of his native Memphis, Pha crafted relaxed, absorbing Southern rap and R&B tracks that increased pop and urban sales and hit the airplay charts again and again.
Jazze Pha's birth name was Phalon Alexander. He grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Pha's father, James Alexander, was the bassist of the Bar-Kays, one of the most influential groups of the Memphis soul scene in the 1960s. He may well have been named after Phalon Jones, who, along with most of the other Bar-Kays, was killed in a 1967 plane crash. It has been reported that disco-era vocalist Deniece Williams is Pha's mother. But published biographies of Williams give only sons named Ken and Kevin from her first marriage, which took place around the time Pha would have been born. Pha himself has been vague on the subject, and others have claimed that his mother was a different Deniece Williams. His date of birth is also uncertain. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 1999 that he was 25, but that would have made him a very young 16 when he recorded his debut album in 1990.
Worked as Roofer
The Memphis environment influenced Pha's music. He grew up with "the old-school stuff," he told Lisle. "Al Green, Beale Street, going to church, all those things have influenced me." He named Green's I'm Still in Love with You as his favorite album. Pha told Michelle Manning of the Situation website that if he came home from school with good grades he would be rewarded with special babysitters when his parents were on the road—members of the Parliament-Funkadelic funk musical collective. With that kind of childhood environment, it wasn't a surprise that Pha began to plan on a musical career. Before he broke in at a national level, though, he did a stint as a roofer in California. "It was hard labor, hard labor," he told Manning.
Pha (he received the nickname in high school) and his brother Derek started out by recording parodies of popular 1980s rap songs while they were in high school. He got off to a promising start with the 1990 album Rising to the Top, released on the major Elektra label. Ron Wynn of the All Music Guide described the album as having a "'positive' lyric thrust with an up-to-date setting and lyrics," and characterized it as "a merger of West Coast hip-hop and a Southern-funk vocal approach." That merger was unusual in 1990, and three singles from the album ("Dance Floor of Life," "Ready or Not," and the title track) placed in the middle reaches of Billboard magazine's R&B singles chart. Pha had begun using the additional nickname "Jazze" by this time, as demonstrated by the title of track seven, "Jazze's Thing."
Pha demonstrated the range of his talent by writing much of the material on the album and producing some tracks. But it was several years before he returned to the music business. He moved to Atlanta, whose hip-hop scene was growing rapidly in the mid-1990s with the success of groups like OutKast. "Whatever you're trying to do, you have to take it to the 10th power to be successful," he explained to Lisle. "That's why I came to ATL. It's the Hollywood of the South. I wanted to pursue my dream. I would've gone anywhere to do it." Pha surfaced as a producer on an album called Futuristic Ghetto Sicknezz by the group Funkahawlikz, on which his father also did production work. The album made little impact, but it was a foot in the door for the ambitious Pha, who honed his skills with production, drum, and keyboard programming contributions over the next few years to albums by MC Brainz, Tela, MC Breed, DFC, and Ras Kass.
Associated with Noontime Studio
By 1999 producers such as Dallas Austin (discoverer of teen pop star Monica) and Jermaine Dupri had made Atlanta into a music center that was rivaling the traditional studio concentrations in New York and Los Angeles, and Pha was one of a host of aspiring producers coming to the surface. He became part of a group that worked at the Noontime studio in downtown Atlanta, which hummed with activity well beyond midnight, and produced comeback tracks by two durable streetoriented rappers, Too $hort ("Good Life," on the album Can't Stay Away) and Slick Rick ("Street Talkin'," on The Art of Storytelling). The national success of these albums raised Pha's profile, and production slots and guest appearances on albums by hip-hop's big names began to come his way. A Pha solo release was projected after Noontime joined with the Atlantic label in a production deal, but the album fell through.
The rising sound of the early 2000s in Atlanta was the hard-edged, hard-driving crunk style, pioneered by local acts like Lil' Jon & the East Side Boyz. Pha appeared as a guest vocalist on several Lil' Jon tracks, but his own style was more influenced by his Memphis roots. "I do a little bit of [crunk]," he told Manning. "I think my music is a little bit of rhythm and blues. My music is a little bit more laid back or in my dance records, kind of universal. I don't put a 'crunk' name on there, that's Lil' Jon, that's his thing." On slower tracks such as Ciara's "Thug Style," the classic soul influence in Pha's music was especially noticeable. In 2000 Pha added to his busy schedule by taking on a Saturday-night DJ slot on radio station WHAT-FM, "Hot 107.9."
Produced Studdard Album
The teenaged Ciara was one of several Pha discoveries between 2002 and 2004, when his presence in the Atlanta production scene exploded. His work helped launch the career of American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, whose soulful style matched Pha's sound. "We had a personal relationship before we started working together," Pha told Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "From the start we recognized we were just some Southern boys who love this music. We talk about something like the Falcons as much as we talk about a song." Pha was signed to a 50-song deal by the hot Cash Money label, becoming only its second in-house producer, and he landed tracks on albums by well-established artists such as Nelly ("Na-Nana-Na") and Twista ("Badunkadunk"). He helped shepherd the maturation of child rapper Lil' Bow Wow into Bow Wow by producing the track "Let's Get Down" in 2003.
For the Record …
Recorded album Rising to the Top as Phalon, 1990; began working as producer on album by group Funkahawlikz, which also included production work by his father, James Alexander, 1995; moved to Atlanta, GA; growing reputation as background vocalist, late 1990s; produced tracks for Too $hort and Jim Crow, 1999; produced tracks for Ludacris, Ruben Studdard, and others, 2001–03; produced tracks for Fantasia, introduced vocalist Ciara, 2004; production credits on more than 40 albums, 2005; with Cee-Lo Green, released Happy Hour, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—Sho' Nuff Recordings, 237 Peters St. SW, Atlanta, GA 30313. Website—Jazze Pha Official Website: http://www.jazzephaandceelo.com.
By 2005 Pha seemed to be everywhere at once. Several new Jazze Phaproduced tracks appeared every month, and many of them were heard around the country and the world. Ciara's Goodies album, with several Pha tracks including "1, 2 Step," was a major pop smash of the summer of that year. Pha launched his own label, Sho' Nuff, and signed a distribution deal with the giant Capitol conglomerate. In February of 2006 Pha returned to the charts in the role of artist as he and Cee-Lo released the album Happy Hour. The title track, a genial barroom ode naming a variety of alcoholic beverages, climbed the charts in the spring of that year. The album featured a guest appearance by R&B veteran Keith Sweat. As of early 2006 the crowded docket of one of the hardest-working people in hip-hop music included Ciara's sophomore release, as well as his acting debut, playing a DJ in the film Jelly Beans.
(With Cee-Lo Green) Happy Hour, Capitol, 2006.
Selected tracks as producer
Slick Rick, The Art of Storytelling, "Street Talkin'," 1999.
Too $hort, Can't Stay Away, "Good Life," 1999.
Ludacris, Word of Mouf, "Area Codes" (featuring Nate Dogg), "Keep It on the Hush," 2001.
Aaliyah, I Care 4 U, "Don't Worry," 2002.
Ruben Studdard, Soulful, multiple tracks, 2003.
Too $hort, Married to the Game, "Choosin'" (featuring Jagged Edge), 2003.
Angie Stone, Stone Love, "I Wanna Thank Ya" (featuring Snoop Dogg), 2004.
Ciara, Goodies, "1, 2 Step," "Thug Style," "Hotline," 2004.
Nelly, Sweat, "Na-Nana-Na," 2004.
Twista, Kamikaze, "Still Feels So Good," "Badunkadunk," 2004.
Slim Thug, Already Platinum, "Everybody Loves a Pimp," "Incredible Feelin'," 2005.
Trina, Glamorest Life, "It's Your B-Day," 2005.
David Banner, Certified, "F∗∗∗ing," "Take Your," 2005.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 27, 1999, p. L1; October 9, 2003, p. P7.
Billboard, July 8, 2000; October 21, 2000; August 24, 2002, p. 34; May 31, 2003; July 12, 2003, p. 36; April 30, 2005.
Ebony, June 2005, p. 28.
"Jazze Pha," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 6, 2006).
"Jazze Pha, Cee-Lo Talk 'Happy Hour,'" allhiphop.com, http://www.allhiphop.com/hiphopnews/?ID=5103 (March 6, 2006).
"Local Beat," Memphis Flyer, http://www.memphisflyer.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A4508 (March 6, 2006).
"The Situation Interviews: Jazze Pha," The Situation, http://www.thesituation.co.uk (March 6, 2006).
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