For the past three summers, Jeffrey Allen Townes -- a.k.a. DJ Jazzy Jeff -- has been inviting a select group of music industry insiders and up-and-comers to his Delaware estate to connect and recharge off the grid at the Playlist Retreat. The actor and hip-hop pioneer wants to foster community in the music industry by serving others with tools he wishes he'd had in his early career. "I try to take it back for people to remember why they started in the first place," Jeff tells Billboard.
Likened to an adult summer camp, Jeff believes home is where the heart is. "When you invite somebody to your house, there's a level of respect and comfort they have knowing they are coming to a safe space." A village is set up on Jeff's Delaware property where 75+ attendees make a home for four days. Guests are strategically matched with roommates inside of a circle of 22 modern trailers (each named after a classic J Dilla song) that look like a mini Coachella VIP area from the sky.
Programing is curated through a data pool collected from attendees ahead of the retreat. "We look at the people who are coming and find out the technologies and things they may be interested in seeing, and we invite those manufactures and those companies to participate," Jeff explains. Brands like Serato, Roland, Akai, Rane, Denon, Ableton, M-Audio, Splice, Headrush and Dubset are partners for the Playlist Retreat as brought in by Jeff's long-time manager Nicole Palumbo.
"From the start, it was important for us to invite brands that the artists wanted to connect with directly. Jeff and I realized that not every artist had the ability to make a call and speak directly to a product developer or engineer to give feedback or request changes to a product to make workflow more efficient," says Palumbo.
When Jeff conceptualized the immersive Playlist Retreat, he called on friend Anthony Demby to bring the vision to life. As the founder of creative agency Humbleriot, a former record executive and one-time music manager to Childish Gambino, people often refer to Demby as a go-to secret weapon for brands and artists alike. The Morehouse graduate who became known in college as the music "plug" started at Tower Records, coordinating listening stations for physical copies of singles and albums, Demby quickly found himself at Relativity Records and LaFace around the time that Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R." was released.
Deeply rooted in music, Anthony moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles and saw himself move up the ranks in the music industry working with MCA, Mercury and Def Jam. In 1999 Demby worked for Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment where he first connected with Jazzy Jeff. The two always stayed in touch and when Demby moved to New York to expand further in the industry after a short stint at Arista Records and transition into music management, he and Jeff stayed close. As a manager representing emerging artists, Anthony often found himself looking for authentic ways to work with brands to create meaningful cultural content. "I'd always work on brand deals for artists and the languages were just not the same," Anthony tells Billboard. "Partnerships were more transactional with no real ROI." Anthony soon shifted out of management and created cultural partnerships through his agency shop Humbleriot where he works on "merging my purpose with my passion, my purpose being impact and transformation."
The first Playlist Retreat in 2015 was simple: bring like-minded people together to create and share music with people like Questlove, Young Guru, Taku, Tall Black Guy, Ms. Nix and J.Period. Three years later, the Playlist Retreat has evolved into a fully immersive experience in three segments: collaboration, motivation and inspiration – which Demby brought in seasoned producer Melody Rabe for – to fine-tune and finesse the highly curated retreat programming. Packed with panels, collaborative jam sessions, personal training exercises and -- the pièce de résistance -- the create-a-song-with-strangers in-24-hours challenge, attendees may need to decompress post-retreat.
2018's theme "coloring outside the lines" seems fitting. "I want to take people out of their comfort zone," Jeff says. "There's a lot of emotional content that happens here – collaborating is very healthy."
This year, Jeff's eight-acre estate was home to everyone from Queens rapper Pharoahe Monch to R&B singer/songwriter Xavier Omar, civil rights activist DeRay McKesson, Women's March co-producer and former vice president of OkayPlayer Ginny Suss and DJ/producer Jubilee -- even Ma Dukes (J Dilla's mother) made a cameo. "This was exactly what I needed when I needed it," explains Omar. "When you get to see the gifts that God has put in other people and how well they work, and how your gifts work with theirs, it gives you a new sense of passion, a new sense of wonder – a revival of the love that you have for your craft."
"So many times we're the ones that are entertaining people and making them feel good when they don't – but there are very few times when people ask entertainers how they feel," says Jeff. Panel topics spanned from self care in the music industry with pop culture writer Rembert Browne to the future of A&R-ing with Spotify-turned-YouTube curator Tuma Basa and RCA/Keep Cool label executive Tunji Balogun. "Playlist was filled to the brim with great energy and super talented people," Balogun comments. "My experience was particularly meaningful because I got to reconnect with a cross section of people that I've met throughout my musical journey from young fan to artist to industry person."
"Music drives pop culture, so there's a responsibility to align with creators of this music to make sure their intentions are sound and their thinking and creating from the right place," says Demby. "We all have superpowers that we can share with others."
As a core tenant of Jeff's practice, he uses gratitude as the foundation of the Playlist Retreat brand, reflecting his daily routine: "I try not to focus on glass half empty. I don't care how good or how bad I feel, I get up every day, walk outside with my dog, look at the sky and give thanks."