Will Smith is one of those people that it’s hard to imagine life without. History shows there was a time before he was a ubiquitous summer-blockbuster star actor, before the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song was at least partly embedded in the head of every third person born after 1982, before “Welcome to Earth” or Jerry Seinfeld indignantly insisting he’s still jiggy with it. But there’s no telling, really.
Last week the 48-year-old Smith announced plans to reunite with legendary Philadelphia producer DJ Jazzy Jeff and restore his Fresh Prince moniker for touring — two dates have already been announced — which makes it high time to look back on the iconic duo’s actual contributions to rap culture, which are more complex than simply a classic album or string of hit songs.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince first and foremost expanded the imagination of hip-hop, its parameters. TV is inextricable from their five-album legacy; the duo’s very first single “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” sampled and looped the I Dream of Jeannie theme. They arguably did more to give hip-hop a primetime audience than any of their peers, and it’s true, none of their album hits enjoys the worldwide adoration of “Yo Home to Bel-Air,” despite barely anyone (including this author) knowing the official title of the iconic TV theme.
What even fewer people may remember is how deftly and ably the producer played straight-man foil to Smith’s Alvin Chipmunk-esque scheming comic. Smith was the born star but Jeff was hardly deadweight; his own slapstick turns in the videos divulged more personality than say, the visual contributions of Andrew Ridgeley or John Oates — after The Fresh Prince was already on the air, it wasn’t Smith but Jazz whose bottom half walks away from the split-camera gimmick at the start of the “Summertime” video, to cite one Looney Tunes-esque visual gag. And as a producer, Jeff arguably left a greater footprint than Smith on strictly musical terms — at least until Smith’s monster comeback smash Big Willie Style in 1997 and its string of impossible-to-avoid hits (especially the Spring Break funk of “Miami” and the disco-lemonade bliss of “Getting Jiggy Wit It”).
With 30 years having transpired since the duo released their new album, and with at least a partial reunion now imminent, let’s look at the duo’s discography to determine their highs (and occasional lows).
Rock the House (1987)
Even the duo’s simplest record — doesn’t get simpler than rocking the house, and the hyper-literal album cover somehow manages to condense that even further — felt high-concept and eager to engage with non-rap media: “Just One of Those Days” punctuated each verse with an interpolation from “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and, yup, the first thing on the record you hear is that I Dream of Jeannie theme. True to his name, Jeff was very interested in putting breakbeats under classy piano and sax on “A Touch of Jazz,” which would prove an influential strain of hip-hop for DJ Premier, A Tribe Called Quest and others only a couple years later.
Classic Moment: The inclusion of sequel/retort “Guys Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” in the album’s second hal was a nice surprise that temporarily deflated Smith’s unstoppable ego, with special guest Ice Cream Tee dropping some early feminist rhymes: “Females aren’t possessions, we are humans,” “All you do is worry what’s up a girl’s skirt.”
Hasn’t Aged Well: On the other hand, “Don’t Even Try It,” despite its appealingly lumpy beat, set the stage for the trope of rappers complaining about gold diggers.
He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper (1988)
It’s almost too fitting that the duo’s sophomore album won the first Grammy for best hip-hop performance; Jazz and Will pioneered a long tradition of like-it-or-not softball rap and He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, with its crossover-ready explanatory title, slowed down and minimized the beats so no one could miss every detail of the Fresh Prince’s tall tales. It’s nearly too minimal, though: “Human Video Game” is almost perversely sparse when one’s expecting Donkey Kong samples. By far, this was the album that most shortchanges Jazzy Jeff, centering words and concepts over replayable music, and it’s a shame because it’s their longest — rap’s first double album on vinyl, even.
Classic Moment: “Brand New Funk” is blessedly up-tempo and heavy on musical delights (which nod to James Brown), two things the album could’ve used more of.
Hasn’t Aged Well: The hits, to be honest. The Ferris Bueller-esque breakthrough hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is still a novel and entertaining character sketch, though the Fresh Prince really should’ve noticed that his salacious passenger was freakin’ 12, and it’s almost as disturbing in 2017 to hear parents hitting their kids played for laughs. And “A Nightmare on My Street” was such a lazy rip from an existing horror franchise that New Line Cinema took legal action.
…And in This Corner (1989)
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s best album, smack dab in the middle of their tenure, is the only one where they successfully and consistently indulged Will Smith’s runaway yarns and Jeff’s most groove-packed beat constructions at the same time. Pretty soon after, Smith’s exuberant characters ended up solely on TV and in theaters.
Classic moment: “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” is just as blatant as the duo’s Nightmare on Elm Street fanfic but they actually took in the full cinematic scope, enlisting Don King and the title champ for the video, and even playing Statler and Waldorf-esque old men and neighborhood paperboys in the song’s intro and asides. And finally, Smith’s concepts were original enough for other people to swipe them instead of vice versa: “Who Stole My Car?” predicted Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott.
Hasn’t aged well: What’s with these guys’ need to lead with a horror story? The Twilight Zone-cum-pathological-lie opener “Then She Bit Me” is funnier and more engaging than “A Nightmare on My Street” but still full of pointless name-drops and dated on arrival. And you can imagine how cringeworthy the transphobic “The Girlie Had a Moustache” plays today.
The duo’s fourth album was finally where Smith realized rap wasn’t just about him. Perhaps because he was now the star of a successful sitcom he had an outlet for humorous storylines, or maybe he was simply too busy for a runaway imagination, but letting his producer carry a DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince album with music proved to be just what they needed.
Classic moment: The low-riding proto-G-funk of “Summertime” delivered the group’s biggest hit, and it was no more complicated than its hook: “Summer, summer, summertime / Just sit back and unwind.”
Hasn’t aged well: By now it was clear that Smith’s verbal gifts were more suited to screen time than audio-only wits, and the gulf was all too clear on tracks like “Ring My Bell,” where his unimaginative lover-man verses do a disservice to the sinuous, synth-disco environments Jazzy Jeff and a cadre of hook-singing women performed as support. Lucky, by Big Willie Style he’d master the art of staying out of his luxurious samples’ way.
Code Red (1993)
The duo’s largely forgotten swan song was still certified Gold, such was Smith’s star power in the ‘90s. But it’s the most anonymous record they ever made, taking lightweight cues from such of-the-moment floor-fillers as “Whoomp! There It Is” on songs like “Boom! Shake the Room,” and watered-down, De La Soul-style ponderings on “Twinkle Twinkle (I’m Not a Star).”
Classic moment: Despite the abundance of hip-house beats, bouncing bass lines, and fractured funk on the premises, it’s a stretch to truly refer to engaging moments like “Can’t Wait to Be With You” as “classic.” But as a transitional groove record, it’s easy to hear Smith’s hunger for hits on a melodic semi-joy like “I’m Looking for the One (To Be With Me),” which would eventually lead to a monster hook like 1998 smash “Just the Two of Us.”
Hasn’t aged well: The hit rapper and TV star is fairly unconvincing trying to convince us he’s a “regular guy” on “Twinkle Twinkle” just because he goes to see Jurassic Park and gets accosted for an autograph by a woman whose date is none too pleased.