On DJ Jazzy Jeff‘s 2007 album, The Return of the Magnificent, there’s an excellent interlude at the end of the Twone Gabz-assisted “Go See the Doctor 2K7” where Jeff calls the offices of Will Smith and, to speak with Will, he has to go through a series of receptionists and handlers. While speaking with the first person, after identifying himself as DJ Jazzy Jeff, the voice on the other end of the line says, “Of?” Jeff replies, “DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince before there was Will Smith.” Jeff eventually connects with Will, and the following conversation is a funny skit where even Will’s fictional cousin Carlton gets a namedrop.
It’s all in good fun, but there is truth in jest, and before “Fresh Prince” was the first part of the title of one of the 90’s greatest sitcoms, which also kicked off the last ten years of the 20th century, it was also the stage name of Will Smith – half of the first rap act ever to win a Grammy Award just a year earlier. However, the public’s attention is often fickle, and it was the dawn of a new decade and era. Fast-forward to the time of The Return of the Magnificent’s release, Will Smith was amid a prolific run at the box office as a Hollywood leading man. While he had released music as recently as 2005, it was under the name Will Smith (as had all his music projects since 1997), and, rightfully so, it had taken a backseat to his work on the silver screen. Will has dropped some great music as Will Smith (“Just Cruisin’,” “Just the Two Of Us,” Joyner Lucas’ “Will [Remix]”). Even still, it was his music and position in hip-hop as the Fresh Prince that made history and the trail that he and Jeff blazed created a path that many others have followed and, as a result, are forever indebted to them for. With the upcoming release of Will’s Class of ’88 podcast, dropping October 26, about one of hip-hop’s most significant years, it is only fitting that the Fresh Prince get recognition as one of hip-hop’s most influential figures. Drums, please.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 1986 debut, Rock the House, was initially released on the Philadelphia-based label Word Up Records (and later re-released by Jive Records). The LP’s first track and single, “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” is structured around the theme song to I Dream of Jeannie and, lyrically speaking, finds Will weaving tales about misadventures with the opposite sex. Taken as a whole, it instantly established how he and Jeff were different from their contemporaries with their more fun-spirited and light-hearted approach. Another album standout was “Just One of Those Days.” Like “Girls Ain’t Nothing Trouble,” it showcased Will’s knack for writing and delivering stories. Elsewhere, “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff” follows the tried and true hip-hop tradition of the emcee bigging up the DJ, and the Prince is never at a loss for words about how talented his DJ is on the 1’s and 2’s. “People often ask me every time I emcee / Why do I brag so much about my disc jockey / Well, the reason that I brag and boast the most / Is ’cause my DJ is the most from coast to coast.” Rock the House’s last song, “Don’t Even Try It,” is a fitting response to all who dissed and dismissed them initially and doubters who thought Will and Jeff’s aspirations of success in rap were pipedreams. The best from Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was yet to come, but this initial offering showed they had the potential to live up to the promise that their momentum (and that of all hip-hop ) was starting to generate.
1988 was the year when everything changed! Their second project, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, was a milestone release, seeing as how it was hip-hop’s first double album. Also, right from the jump, the album’s promo single, “Brand New Funk,” proactively showcased the Fresh Prince’s unquestionable skills on the mic for those eager to try and cast the duo with the sophomore jinx or who had written them off as a novelty 12 months prior. The next single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” is the one that elevated Jeff and Will to previously unseen heights. Similar to the Fresh Prince’s earlier work, it demonstrates his storytelling skills. On this go-round, though, Will created a story that had even more mass appeal to his already broad audience. Instead of telling tales about chasing girls and running late for work, he dropped a hilarious verse about the embarrassing experience of shopping for back-to-school clothes with your mom. “My mom started buggin’ with the clothes she chose / I didn’t say nothing at first, I just turned up my nose / She said, ‘What’s wrong? This shirt cost twenty dollars’ / I said, ‘Mom, this shirt is plaid with a butterfly collar.'” And then, in the second verse, he talks about taking his parents’ Porsche for a joyride while they’re on vacation and the following trouble that ensues. In early 1989, “Parents Just Don’t Understand” made history by going on to be the first to win a Grammy for Best Rap Performance. However, due to the Grammy’s refusal to broadcast that award on television, some of the nominees in that category (including DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) chose to boycott the awards ceremony.
“It was great to win, but it still felt like a quiet win,” Will explained in a 2004 interview. “And we wanted to win loudly.”
Another song that could silence skeptics regarding the Fresh Prince’s abilities and (again) masterfully demonstrates Jazzy Jeff’s skills on the turntables is the outstanding title track. Then, “Here We Go Again” is a charismatic song that simultaneously brags about the success of Rock the House and promotes the current album while also showing appreciation for the support he and Jeff had received thus far. It’s a relatively minor thing, but it was potent because it made the duo, especially Will, appear confident and charming instead of cocky and superior. It’s a fine line sometimes, and for him to mostly be on the right side of that line for decades is one of the things that has made him the global icon he is today.
The duo’s third album, And in This Corner…, is better than most remember. Sandwiched between two albums with Grammy Award-winning cuts (“Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime,” respectively) and selling approximately half as much as its predecessor, it made less of an impact. However, the release is still worth noting for Jazz’s groovier production, a welcome step up from when that sound was less present in the past. The fact that Don King and Mike Tyson appeared in the music video for “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” is pretty dope, too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2:50 to 3:15 stretch on “Jeff Waz on the Beat Box ” made a few people break the rewind button on their cassette decks, trying to catch everything the Fresh Prince said.
Homebase, Jeff and Will’s next release, hit shelves in the summer of ’91 and was where the boys became men. Will was still Will, but his rhymes had a sense of maturity, and that, combined with the continuing evolution of Jeff’s sound, made for some of the strongest songs the duo ever did. This growth is first noticeable with the album’s lead single, “Summertime.” It’s the first time it isn’t a light-hearted story. There isn’t anything to say about this song that hasn’t already. It’s a timeless classic and arguably the most popular and best record in the duo’s discography.
Regarding the rest of the album, listeners can feel that shift throughout Homebase’s entirety. For example, Will had always exuded a charming confidence. Still, he was legit going for his right on the album opener, “I’m All That,” letting people know about his return to the rap scene and how he still refused to compromise his integrity. “Coming back at ya, can’t no bad catcher / Catch this fastball I’m throwing at y’all / Wake up and smell the coffee, I’m back now / Thanks for keeping my throne warm for me, pal / The man with the cape, the crown and the scepter / Out for a while, but wisely kept a / Pen and a pad by, so when I had my / Opportunity to rap, man I set my goals and then I shot for / What I do best – funny, to hell with hardcore.”
And the Fresh Prince maintained that pace the whole way through. Homebase’s second single, “Ring My Bell,” shares the same namesake as the Anita Ward record it samples and is a rare example of when “disco [doesn’t] suck.” And his clever storytelling is still there (see “You Saw My Blinker”). However, the deep cut, “Caught in the Middle [Love & Life],” also stands out. It is the best (and perhaps the only, lol) introspective song you can dance to at the same time. Ultimately, Homebase is as colorful and upbeat as the cover art suggests. And while it may not be as historically significant as He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper; it is their best album in terms of beats, rhymes, and style.
1993 saw the release of Code Red, and I applaud Will and Jeff’s attempts to expand their sound five albums deep. One of the album’s big singles, “Boom! Shake the Room,” has a sports arena/anthem-like energy, and I like Will’s “stuttering” at the beginning of the third verse. However, my personal favorite is “I’m Looking for the One (To Be with Me); it’s reminiscent of “Summertime’s” vibe but escapes repetition with the addition of the Zapp-like use of a vocoder. Overall, it was clear that Will had shifted his priorities to acting, so it was good that Will and Jeff went out on a relatively strong note instead of accidentally stretching themselves too thin and ending on a flop.
In a Forbes article from August 2022, during an interview with Cindy Campbell (DJ Kool Herc‘s sister), contributing writer Yolanda Baruch wrote about the party on August 11, 1973, that is acknowledged as the birth of hip-hop, “She charged 25 cents for an entrance fee and made about three hundred dollars [and now] to see where [hip-hop] is today as a billion-dollar industry.” One of the big reasons the genre is in the ten figures is because of the Fresh Prince. While other rap artists certainly preceded him and can be credited with introducing hip-hop to the mainstream, Will’s persona as The Fresh Prince is also pioneering because it showed how someone could integrate hip-hop into it better than anyone before. From some outstanding music rooted in the genre’s authenticity to his character on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (not to mention all of the appearances, interviews, performances, and articles in between), he perfectly demonstrated hip-hop’s presence in everyday life.
Hip-hop turned 50 this year, and anyone can trace back the most recent thirty years of its success to the impact and influence of Fresh Prince. Therefore, the Fresh Prince is a hip-hop king worthy of the culture’s most highly observed status. Respect due. And I’m eager to see what Will Smith has in store for the future.