Philadelphia, never a stranger to hip-hop's history and evolution even from the early beginning, nevertheless was in for a big surprise in 1987, a surprise which has exceeded its expectations up to the very present. The surprise in question paired "Jazzy" Jeff Townes, a respected veteran in the world DJ competition circuit and renowned creator of the "Transformer" scratch, with Will Smith, an middle-class teenager going by the moniker of "Fresh Prince". At a time when gimmicky raps were still being fine-tuned by whoever could come up with the next great punchline, The Fresh Prince was doing well with humorous rhymes like "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" (with the "I Dream of Jeanie" sample) and "Just One Of Those Days", both released on local Philly label Word-Up Records. The minor success of these singles as well as the debut album "Rock The House" led to the duo's signing to Jive. A lofty budget funded a new album that was recorded in London, and music video channels and pop radio were primed for a major fishing expedition to feed suburban America's need for the latest rap music fad.
Following the more-standard lead release of "Brand New Funk", the bait was in place for "Parents Just Don't Understand". Hip-hoppers noted that images of the shopping mall experience and joy riding a Porsche were not exactly what the average block party attendant was rapping about, though. While still catchy and humorous as before, some sort of "Cosby kid" tactics were now prevalent in the Jive-transformed aritsts. Regardless, a tiny underground Philly market would not sway the effect that this lead single had on mainstream America. The single went platinum and won the first ever Rap Grammy award (which was boycotted by the nominees becuase the category would not be televised), and along with the parody rap "A Nightmare On My Street" drove the major label debut LP to sales of several million copies worldwide.
Disregaring the huge mainstream success, "He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper" quietly set the standard of what aritsts could do 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 pay serious homage to the DJ.
A mere one year later though, the trend of comical rap wes wearing off and The Fresh Prince found himself beating an already-broken drum for most of the next album "And In This Corner...", anchored by the below-average single "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson". By not evolving at the lightning-fast speed of newer hip-hop styles, clean-cut juvenile bathroom humor was quickly being pushed to the side by the hardcore burlesque of N.W.A and the mature social agendas of BDP and Public Enemy.
Strapped financially and 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 instant success (eventually running for six seasons), and easily helped to cover his near death as an MC.
Now artistically rejuvenated as well as an international celebrity, The Fresh Prince returned with a new R&B-laced sound and dancefloor lyrics, which, while unable to retain his original core audience, delighted the mainstream club scene. "Ring My Bell" and "The Things That U Do" were easy pop hits, and the "Homebase" album was a platinum smash. However, in one final sweep to regain the respect of the street audience that was long lost, a resurgent Jazzy Jeff was able to forge the seasonal gem "Summertime", which would be their last respectable hip-hop release.
By '93, Will Smith already had major TV and movie offers on the table, and was clearly not interested in the useful evolution of hip-hop. Already mastering the art of making worldwide pop hits, The Fresh Prince went all out mainstream with "Boom! Shake The Room", which charted all over North and South America, Asia and Europe. However overall, Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince found themselves falling behind again, as glitzy playa-rappers began to pick up the slack in key urban-American markets. Now four years removed from their last recording project, there is wonder as to if these once Philly indies would ever try to get back into things. Will Smith rapping (under his real name) on the "Men In Black" soundtrack is not exactly what we're shooting for, of course.