Until the Oscars slap of Chris Rock that sent him into a PR exile earlier this year, for decades Will Smith had been one of the most bankable big-screen action stars on the planet. Expert at playing buff, butt-kicking heroes (and antiheroes), Smith made the tricky transition from sitcom staple to major movie star after first making his mark as part of the pop rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince in the mid-1980s.
But in a sit-down with David Letterman for the new season of his Netflix series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Smith admitted that he always hated the squishy reputation he had on the mic. “That was really our major distinguishing quality at the time,” Smith said when Letterman noted that part of the Philly-bred duo’s appeal was the humor in such hits as the Grammy-winning “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.”
“It was comedy, it was punchlines, it was fun. We stood out in a really good way. We sort of had our own lane,” Smith said in the interview that was taped before the incident at this March’s Academy Awards where the Oscar-winning King Richard star stormed the stage and slapped Rock in the face after the comedian cracked a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith‘s hair.
The star’s easy charm is on full display in the interview, in which he jokes about wanting to snatch Letterman’s stylish shoes, ribs the host about his description of scratching as “manipulating” the needle on the record and laughs off an off-camera request to adjust his askew shirt.
And though Smith said he never faced any pressure to quit music over the duo’s tepid reputation in an era that saw the rise of both conscious and gangsta rap from the likes of Public Enemy and N.W.A, he said, “Not pressure as much as it was always that I was soft. I hated that, being called soft.” Part of the reason for that reputation was what Smith said was a conscious choice to avoid cursing in his music, a result of some sage advice from his gran when he was 12-years-old.
“Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use words like these to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are. Love, Gigi,” she wrote after finding one of his rap lyric notebooks that had some four-letter rhymes in it, which, admittedly, weren’t even filled with very good or nimble curses. “That was the reason I never cursed in any of my records.”
The rap duo released 5 albums between 1987 and 1993, beginning with their debut, Rock the House through their fifth and final effort, Code Red.
Smith also opened up in the interview about the effect of a harrowing vision he had while taking the mind-altering hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca in which he saw “all of my money flying away, and my house flying away and my career is going away. And I’m, like, trying to grab at my money and my career and my whole life is getting destroyed.”
He said the trip changed his feelings about fame and success. And I’m, like, trying to grab at my money and my career and my whole life is getting destroyed. “When I came out of it, I realized that anything that happens in my life, I can handle it,” he said. “I can handle any person I lose, I can handle anything that goes wrong in my life, I can handle anything in my marriage. I can handle anything that this life has to offer me.”
Delayed by two years due to the pandemic, the six-episode season of My Guest dropped on Netflix on Friday (May 20) and also features interviews with Cardi B, Kevin Durant, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ryan Reynolds and Billie Eilish.