Long before Phalon “Jazze Pha” Alexander was producing hit records and contributing to multi-platinum albums, he was spending time around legendary musicians. His musical roots date back to the 1960s. Jazze Pha's father is James Alexander, one of the founding members of the legendary funk and soul group, The Bar-Kays. And his mother is respected singer Denise Williams (not to be confused with Grammy Award-winning singer, Deniece "Niecy" Williams).
Born in Memphis, Jazze Pha moved to California during his adolescent years to stay with his mom. He later returned to the Bluff City during his teen years and got a chance to tour the world with his father and The Bar-Kays.
The prosperity that his parents enjoyed would trickle down to him. He signed a record deal with Elektra Records and released his debut album, Rising to the Top, in 1990. Shortly after, he would transition into producing. This would prove to be a wise decision. Among the hit list of artists he's crafted tracks for include T.I., Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, Usher, as well as Young Jeezy, and Ciara — who were both signed to his label, Sho'nuff Records, during their breaking points.
He’s currently creating "Star & B" with his group, Thee Unknowns. Their latest single,”Come and See Me” features Future. They're also prepping the release of the upcoming single, "Help Me" featuring Akon.
Jazze Pha was one of the people I spoke with for my Memphis Flyer cover story on The Bar-Kays. During the interview, he took time out to talk to me about being the son of a legendary musician, being exposed to various musical genres at a young age, whether or not he thinks he’s underrated, and more.
Follow Jazze Pha on Twitter: @Jazzepha
What inspired your desire to create music?
I think it was a combination of mom and dad, because they were both in music. Just being around it all my life, you know? When I was five years old, I moved to California. I moved back to Memphis when I was in high school. So I was very cultured. My mom sang background for a lot of different people like Barbra Streisand [and] Natalie Cole. When they moved around, she had to move around too. She took me along with her. I ended up going to 13, 14 different schools. I knew so much about so many different types of music from pop to rock, and I just knew that it was in me. And then being on tour with my dad in the summertime, that was always great.
What age did you start trying your hand at music?
I was rapping early. I was always singing in the choir. And then I was a breakdancer. I was into hip-hop. I’d say about a couple years after “Rapper’s Delight,” [came out], I started making my own raps. And then I got my first deal in 1990 with Elektra. I was singing and rapping back then. Then I wasn’t Jazze Pha. I was Phalon.
What made you transition to producing?
My record deal didn’t work out. The CEO passed away, and then they changed everything. Whoever didn’t sell gold records or better was dropped off the label. So I came back to Memphis without a deal. This was when I was 19. So I really got into producing, because all of the people that I thought were helping me produce weren’t coming to the studio anymore.
A friend of mine named Mike, who was an engineer, started helping me move around in the studio, touch on the equipment, and the keyboards and stuff like that. That’s how I started producing. From there it just took off.
How influential was your father on your music career?
He had a great effect on me. Not only was he my dad, but I really was a fan of [the Bar-kays’] music, and a lot of the people that were around them. I loved people like Cameo [and] Luther [Vandross]. I was crazy about The Time and Prince...I got a chance to get familiar with all of them through my father. I met them all. I met the Jacksons when they came to tour. We met everybody. My daddy was one of the kings of the south.
When you think of The Bar-Kays, what comes to mind?
I just think of great lineage. A great foundation that they built for young folks as a reference to go back and see what the real music sounds like and go back and see what a real performance looks like, and what real imaging is. They were their own individuals. They weren’t like anybody else.
[Jazze Pha produced The Bar-Kays’ single, “Grown Folks,” which reached Top 10 on Billboard’s Adult R&B chart. He’s currently working with the group on their upcoming single, “Soap Opera Love”]
Why do you think they’re still able to produce quality music after so many years?
It’s all about keeping your finger on the pulse. If you put your finger on the pulse of a body, and there’s no pulse, there’s no life in that body. They’ve always been able to find youngsters that revitalize them. They tell Larry [Dodson] and daddy what’s cool and what’s not cool. And then you still have a couple of the [older members] around, but you’ve got to put the young thing in there so you can keep the heart beating.
You’re named after one of the Bar-Kays’ founding members, Phalon Jones, who lost his life in a plane crash along with four other of the group's original members. (The crash also claimed the lives of soul legend Otis Redding, his road manager, and the plane's pilot.) How do you feel to know your father named you after one of his closest friends and bandmates?
I feel honored to have his name. Just the fact that he was [both] my mom’s and dad’s best friend, it just speaks volumes on what he meant to them.
You've produced for and worked with some of the music industry's most popular artists. You've also played an instrumental role in cultivating the careers of artists like Young Jeezy and Ciara. Did you ever see yourself making it to this status with your career?
I had a hunch. I was aiming for it—aiming higher really. I’m still accomplishing new things all the time…working with a lot of new people and a lot of new talent. I worked with a lot of people in the beginnings like The-Dream, who’s worth millions as a writer now and an artist. Ester Dean, who went on to write all kind of big hits with people like Nikki Minaj, Davi Guetta, Katy Perry, you name it. I worked with a lot of different people to help get their careers moving in the right direction. The feeling is always new. It’s always a new excitement.
Do you ever feel underrated?
You kind of do but at the same time, when the gatekeepers know what you do, you always can get a check, because they know what you consist of. They know your potential. Like a publishing company or something like that would give me a deal, just because they know what I bring with me. It’s not even about what you got. It’s about what you bring with you. Somebody like Puff Daddy, you want him to come to your party because he’s going to bring so many other people. It’s about what you’re bringing to the table.