Bubblegum Rap Pioneers
1987 was a good year for hip hop. Eric B. and Rakim released their seminal album Paid in Full and Public Enemy had just put out Yo! Bum Rush The Show - a presage of bigger and better things to come. The genre was yet to have the market- and label-defined boundaries that characterises it today, and there was still plenty of room for strange and unlikely couplings. And something strange was going down in Philadelphia. "Jazzy" Jeff Townes, was a respected veteran and innovator on the world DJ competition circuit, and Philadelphia hip hop scene. He's often credited with the invention of the "Transformer" scratch. Will Smith was a middle-class teenager going by the moniker "The Fresh Prince". They met at a party in 1986, and secured a record deal with Word-Up Records after Jeff won the Battle of the DJs at the '86 New Music Seminar.
During the late 80s, gimmicky rhymes were still being fine-tuned by whoever could find the cheesier punchline, and The Fresh Prince was doing well with novelty raps like "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" (with the distinctive "I Dream of Jeanie" hook) and "Just One Of Those Days". The minor successes of these singles as well as the debut album "Rock The House" led to the duo's signing to Jive. Musically, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince were operating in fairly familiar territory, with a series of inoffensive, borrowed styles in marked contrast to the threatening gangsta-style of other rap artists.
Major Label Success
With the signing to Jive came lots of cash. Jive flew its new duo to London to record an album, and MTV and pop radio were primed to feed suburban America with the latest musical fad. "Parents Just Don't Understand", the first single from the album went platinum and won the first ever Rap Grammy - an award that was boycotted by nominees as it was not going to be televised at the time. Along with the Freddie Krueger parody rap "A Nightmare On My Street", the major label debut LP sold several million copies worldwide. Disregarding the mainstream success on their second LP, "He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper" in 1988 quietly set the standard of where hip hop could go with a major label budget. On vinyl, the album was released as an impressive 2-record set, in which sides C and D were devoted primarily to Jazzy Jeff's prowess on the wheels of steel. Unprecedented amounts of record space were given to tracks featuring elements such as all-scratching instrumentals, a six-minute battle rhyme, beat boxing, and a live DJ performance. While some of the latter tracks were edited short in order to fit on a single CD and cassette, "He's The DJ..." was indeed one of hip-hop's first double albums, and one of the first to place the DJ as hip hop's guiding element.
From Bel Air to R&B
The hardcore burlesque of NWA and the social agenda of Public Enemy was slowly wearing the novelty of comical rap thin. The next album from Jeff and Will "And In This Corner" was largely an effort in dead equine flagellation. The anchor single "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson" seemed too clean-cut, and too borrowed next to their harder contemporaries. In a musical slump, The Fresh Prince reverted back to Will Smith, making a historical career move by landing the lead sitcom role on Benny Medina and Quincy Jones' "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air". Debuting on network prime time in 1990, it was an overnight success (eventually running for six seasons), and easily helped to cover his near death as an MC. Jeff occasionally made a guest appearance.
Using the new found TV fame as leverage, The Fresh Prince came back with an R&B sound and dancefloor lyrics, and returned to the mainstream club scene. "Ring My Bell" and "The Things That U Do" were simple pop hits, and the "Homebase" album was another platinum seller. In one final attempt at garnering hip hop respect, the lukewarm "Summertime" was released in 1991. With offers at movie stardom, Will Smith had given up on hip hop. "Boom! Shake The Room", which charted globally was good pop, but hardly the sort of thing that kept the key urban US demographic tuning in. Will Smith gave up his "Fresh Prince" moniker entirely when he recorded his next formulaic soundtrack hit, "Men in Black".
Jeff and Will are still good friends and occasional collaborators. Jeff's production group A Touch of Jazz produced 3 tracks on the Men in Black soundtrack, and has worked with artists such as Jill Scott, Kenny Latimore, Dave Hollister, and Lil Kim. Will Smith is only getting bigger and more distant from his hip hop past.