This profile is part of a series on Black creative and entrepreneur expats — why they left, and what Philly could do better to keep the next generation.
No matter where Cory Townes finds himself, he always represents Philadelphia with a passion.
As a son of internationally renowned DJ, music producer and entertainer DJ Jazzy Jeff (aka Jeffrey Allen Townes), Townes was born and raised in Philadelphia and has fond memories of growing up in Southwest Philly, where he was always outside playing with his friends or playing sports. He was also exposed to the arts by his mother, a teacher who had previously rapped during her teenage and college years.
“I wasn’t a rich kid by any means [and] had experiences doing normal stuff that a Philly kid would do,” Townes told Technical.ly. “In the same breath, I experienced a lot through my father.”
During Townes’ youth, his father found success as a musician working with his longtime partner Will Smith, appearing on the iconic ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and later owning A Touch Of Jazz Studios, a now-defunct Philly music studio that hosted talent such as a then-unknown Jill Scott and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
Early on in his life, Townes’ parents were intentional in teaching him that he could someday make a living by using his creativity.
“I always knew I would do something special and that there was a lot more to the world than [becoming] a mailman or plumber,” he said. “I’m not putting down those professions, but my parents let me know there were opportunities to find myself creatively.”
During his high school years, Townes split his time between being a student at Northeast High School and working with other creative friends like visual artist and entrepreneur Gianni Lee. The two worked at the former Gallery’s original UBIQ sneaker store and bonded over ideas for a clothing line that would eventually become Babylon Cartel and discovering music from other places on their favorite blogs.
It was around this time that Townes visited New York City for the first time. He, Lee and their friend Mark Babylon drove to Harlem in a family member’s minivan to UBIQ’s sister store, Atmos. Each teenager was starry-eyed to see rapper Jadakiss casually walking out of the sneaker store as if it was just another place to be — which solidified Townes’ idea that NYC was the place to be.
They all soon decided to create their own blog in 2009, also named Babylon Cartel, and Townes would focus on the business and marketing aspects while Lee would focus on the creative side.
“[It was how] a lot of people found out about clothes, and different musicians that were leading musicians of the time,” he said. “We then connected to different people doing things in other cities. It was the perfect storm of seeing those kids that were doing the same thing [as us]. We all were discovering who we were as individuals and we wrote the blueprint for ourselves.”
Townes credits his experience in working on Babylon Cartel as a way to develop his skills in managing a WordPress site, understanding CMS and coding. He consistently honed his skills as a writer and wanted to emulate his favorite blogs of the time like 2Dopeboyz. And though he was one of the minds behind a nascent Philly blog, Townes began to focus on his own long-term plans and moving to the place that had long been the apple of his eye: New York City.
By 2012, Townes had graduated from Lincoln University, separated from Babylon Cartel and was set on being an event host. He gained a recurring hosting job at South Street’s Theatre of Living Arts for various hip-hop shows and decided to give up pay for his hosting if he could secure 20-minute interviews with each headlining act. The gamble paid off, and in time he became the first person in the Philadelphia market to interview Kendrick Lamar in addition to other acts ranging from Pusha T to Lil’ B the Based God, he said. Then in 2013, he moved to NYC for a copywriting job with music mogul Steve Stoute’s Translation advertising agency.
Today, Townes has lived in New York City for eight years and found success as a content creator, copywriter and DJ. As someone looking at his hometown from a bird’s eye view and with a high level of media savvy, he believes more media exposure for Philly creative professionals could help retain its creative entrepreneurs. An outsider’s view of Philadelphia can quickly be limited to a city that once threw snowballs at Santa Claus, Sixers legend Allen Iverson and the Eagles.
“There’s so much that doesn’t get mentioned or overlooked,” he said. “People don’t give flowers to the fact that [so many] musical directors and bands are all Philly musicians. Everybody has a drummer from Philly in their band. You have Adam Blackstone working as a musical director for Janet [Jackson] and Beyonce. DJ Aktive has been Janet’s tour DJ. You have people doing all these things that never got the exposure for it. [Exposure] highlights people in the current time and the future.”
Growing up, Townes always had the goal of influencing others from his block of 69th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard so that they could use him and his peers as role models of how to reach new places. He believes that the exposure of the work Philly’s creative professionals do can then set the stage for an infrastructure to better support creative professionals.
“Without exposure, there is nothing for infrastructure to land on,” he said. “My goal for next couple of years is to do more stuff back home, whether it’s events or projects in bringing brands down to Philly. What I’ve realized is companies have seen what Philly does with events like the Roots Picnic and Mad Decent Block Party. It brought people to the city and opened up eyes. I realized that type of stuff happens in other places.”
Maybe a local edition of his “A Good Jawn” DJ sessions, to start?
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. -30-