DJ Jazzy Jeff, born Jeffrey Townes, in Philadelphia, Pa., c. 1965, and the Fresh Prince, born Willard Smith in Wynnefield, Pa., c. 1969. Duo formed in 1986, with Jazzy Jeff providing record mix and Fresh Prince providing rap.
Signed with Jive Records and produced first single, "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble," 1986. Released first album, Rock the House, 1987. Disbanded temporarily in 1990 when Fresh Prince signed to network television show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince have done more to bring rap music into the mainstream than any other hip-hop group.
The Philadelphia-based duo, who infuse their work with satire and playfulness--a departure from the hostile tone of some rap acts--in 1988 produced one of the best-selling rap albums of all time, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper. The group also proved outstanding by receiving the first ever Grammy in the rap music category for their quintessential teenage lament, "Parents Just Don't Understand." Because their work is funny and accessible to teens of all races, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince are welcome where other rap groups are rarely invited--to live concerts, teen magazines, and even network television.
Rolling Stone contributor Jeffrey Ressner noted that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince "have distinguished themselves by avoiding rap's traditionally angry tone. ... Rather than tackling themes like urban violence and drug abuse, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince prefer to satirize frothier middle-class subjects like video games, monster movies and going shopping with parents." The music is not entirely sanitized, however--it may be self-mocking one moment and bitterly sarcastic the next, the mood more exasperated than militant. "The music comes from us and it reflects who we are," Jazzy Jeff told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We don't approach the music with the idea of getting a message across. We just sing about our experiences, and the audience finds it funny or can relate to it."
Although they have been heralded as the first middle-class rappers, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince did not exactly grow up in the suburbs. Jeffrey Townes, or Jazzy Jeff, grew up in a working-class neighborhood of South Philadelphia and the Fresh Prince, born Willard Smith, was raised in nearby Wynnefield, Pennsylvania. Both began perfecting their musical craft at an early age. Jazzy Jeff started spinning records at parties when he was only ten, using his family's basement as a training ground for his expert mixing and double scratching. The Fresh Prince, a rapper from age 13, attended Philadelphia's Overbrook High School, where he earned sufficient grades to qualify for a full scholarship to the academically rigorous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).
The two musicians knew of one another while they were still young teens. Their paths crossed from time to time because they each performed in different rap groups. Early in 1986 they got together at a party; the rapport was instantaneous. "I worked with 2,000 crews before I found this maniac," Jazzy Jeff told People. "There was a click when I worked with him that was missing before." Jazzy Jeff, who had released an album in 1985, was already a local celebrity when he took on the Fresh Prince. As a result the duo had little trouble finding a record label. Their first single, "Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble," hit the charts in 1986.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's first album, Rock the House, made a strong showing in 1987, selling some 600,000 copies. Stardom came the following year with the double LP He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, one of the first rap albums to go double platinum. Both albums, but especially the second, offer raps about what the musicians understand best--the day-to-day troubles of modern teens. "Parents Just Don't Understand," for instance, details the nightmares of shopping for school clothes with a mother who is hopelessly out of touch with current styles; the Prince pleads with his mom to "put back the bell-bottom Brady Bunch trousers."
Not surprisingly, the "clean rap" image proved a mixed blessing for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Some other rap artists scorned them for selling out to the white audience and for ignoring legitimate problems of black youths. On the other hand, the musicians found themselves invited to perform live concerts far more often than many of their cohorts because promoters saw less chance for violence at their shows. As a consequence DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince toured extensively, performing throughout the Midwest and in Canada. Jazzy Jeff told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "We like to give the audience a lesson in rap. It's not hard, anyone can do it. It's not about black or white, it's just about having fun."
By 1989 the duo had far more competition in the mainstream market; their release And in This Corner sold just under a million copies. That album contained the hit "I Think I Could Beat Mike Tyson," a piece that pokes fun at an over-active ego. Music videos accompanying "I Think I Could Beat Mike Tyson" and "Parents Just Don't Understand" brought the Fresh Prince to the attention of a new audience--television producers. On the basis of his work in videos, he was invited to take a leading role in a network situation comedy, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
The demands on the Fresh Prince of filming a television show have greatly curtailed the rap duo's musical work. The two still perform and record together, however, and Jazzy Jeff makes frequent guest appearances on the show. The Fresh Prince told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he took the television work in order to continue his quest to educate people about rap. "Rap music--which a lot of white America doesn't understand--rap music is not just a music," he said.
"Rap music is a subculture: hip-hop. It's a style of dress, an attitude, a look, a language. It's more than just music."
Though perhaps not as visible as the Fresh Prince, there is little chance that Jazzy Jeff will return to obscurity. With his wide-ranging knowledge of modern jazz, eerie mixes of fine music and trashy television theme songs, and masterful record scratching, he will remain in demand on the rap circuit. Jazzy Jeff explained his performance philosophy in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We're not from the suburbs, so we don't pretend to know what growing up there is like," he said. "But there are certain experiences or feelings that everyone has in common." He added: "We don't care if the audience is black or white, inner city or suburban, as long as they show up and are having a good time."