Smith, Will (Contemporary Musicians)
As the rapping half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith achieved almost overnight stardom after the duo's debut album was released by Jive Records in 1987. Platinum-level record sales proved to be only the beginning of the Philadelphia-born artist's phenomenally rewarding multi-media career. Smith managed to parlay his G-rated rap appeal into a starring role in the long-running Fresh Prince of Bel-Air television series and also into box-office success with such films as Independence Day and Men In Black. Even as his screen career was reaching new heights, he returned to recording as a solo rap artist with a multi-platinum 1997 release, Big Willie Style.
Though critics often dismissed his recordings as "cute" and "lightweight," Smith had little trouble connecting with a multi-racial audience from his first hit single "Parents Just Don't Understand" onwards. He made no apologies for avoiding profanity and violent themes in his recordings, preferring to concentrate on romance and ordinary teenage troubles. In reviewing their first three albums, critic Paul Evans wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide that Smith and his partner Jeffrey Townes were "clean-cut and ingratiating ... turning out credible grooves for the pre-teen set." In contrast to the angry, often politically controversial records by NWA, Public Enemy and similar artists, Smith and Townes offered a family-friendly version of hip-hop that appealed to millions in the United States and abroad.
Born September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith grew up in a middle-class household and learned the value of education and discipline in his early years. While still in elementary school, he showed an interest in music and took piano lessons. By age 12, he was listening to early rap recordings and beginning to try out his own rhyming skills. While performing at a house party in 1981, he met Townes and soon formed a performing partnership with him. Smith adopted the performing name "Fresh Prince" after his grade school teachers began calling him "Prince" because of his charming personality and "regal attitude."
Recording in Townes's basement, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince began experimenting with soundtrack samples and drums loops, crafting a fast-paced, distinctive sound. Their debut single "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" was released in 1986 on the small Word-up label, reaching number 81 on the R&B charts. After a dispute with Word-up over royalties, the duo signed with Jive Records, who released their Rock This House album in 1987. A year later, they scored their first big pop radio breakthrough with "Parents Just Don't Understand," a number 12 hit that eventually became a certified-gold single.
Putting aside plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a scholarship, Smith plunged into his rap career full-time, continuing his hitmaking streak with such singles as "A Nightmare On My Street" and a re-recorded version of "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble." 1988 saw the release of He's The D.J., I'm The Rapper, which went on reach the triple-platinum sales level. "Parents Just Don't Understand" went on to earn DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a 1988 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance, the first ever given in this category. Their next album, 1989's ... And In This Corner, surpassed the platinum sales level and yielded the single "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson."
A new opportunity presented itself to Smith when he met Warner Brothers Records executive Benny Medina in December, 1989. Seeking a star for a TV situation comedy concept, Medina interested Smith in the lead role in the series that would eventually be aired by NBC-TV as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire. Broadcast from 1990 through 1996, the series enjoyed high ratings and made Smith into a multi-media celebrity. He received a Golden Globe nomination for best performance by an actor in a television series in 1992, with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire winning an award for best comedy series at the NAACP Image Awards that same year. The series increased in ratings in its later years, but Smith decided to leave the show at the end of its sixth season in favor of new challenges.
Smith continued his partnership with Townes during his days with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, releasing the albums Homebase and Code Red in 1991 and 1993, respectively. The duo scored a particularly big success in 1991 with "Summertime," a number one R&B and number four pop hit that went on to be awarded á Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Further high-charting singles continued, including "Ring My Bell" later on in 1991 and "Boom! Shake The Room" in 1993, the latter a number one hit in Britain. Nevertheless, he decided to put aside his rap career in favor of acting after he began to win motion picture roles. His most notable early film was 1993's Six Degrees Of Separation, which cast him as a gay street hustler opposite Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland and earned him largely favorable reviews.
Smith's winning streak as a screen actor began with Bad Boys, a 1995 action film that received largely negative reviews but became a notable box-office success. His next role was as a fighter pilot in the science fiction thriller Independence Day, a huge hit with both film-goers and the critics that became the highest-grossing film of 1996. A year later, Smith co-starred with Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, a sci-fi excursion with a comedic twist that again set box-office records. 1998's Enemy of the State saw him in a more serious action role, while 1999's Wild, Wild West was a special effects-laden, tongue-in-cheek film vehicle similar in tone to Men In Black.
During this period, Smith refrained from recording. In interviews, he expressed concern over the violence associated with the hip-hop scene. "That was a large part of why I didn't make a record," he said in an interview found on his official website. "It was like I don't even wanna rhyme. I made records in my crib. I thought that if this what the world is going to, then I don't think there's any place for me." In the end, it was the popularity of Men In Black that helped to encourage Smith to launch himself as a solo rap recording artist. The film soundtrack's title number earned him a number one single in both the United States and Britain, and earned him a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1998. Signing with Columbia Records, he released his solo debut Big Willie Style in 1997. The CD was both in keeping with Smith's smooth, broad-appeal style of his earlier days and reflective of a greater maturity and self-reflection. Such tracks as "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" and "Miami" were infectious, playful numbers, while "Just The Two Of Us" found Smith rapping about fatherhood in highly personal terms. Though Townes produced several songs, the album's sonic polish was largely the work of the Trackmasters production team. Big Willie Style went on to sell 8,000,000 copies, proving that Smith had lost none of his touch as a rapper.
By any measure, Smith has enjoyed exceptional success and had a major impact on popular culture in the 1990s. In interviews, his outlook on life and his career seems as positive and confident as his work as a rap artist. As he told Lynn Hirschberg in a Vanity Fair interview, "I look at my neighborhood know personally 15 people who could do exactly what I'm doing right now. But they're scared to take that shot. If they give me the position, I'll shoot my shot. The only thing that can go wrong is, I miss. And if I miss, I'll shoot again."
with DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince
Rock The House, Jive, 1987.
He's The D.J., I'm The Rapper, Jive, 1988.
And In This Comer..., Jive, 1989
Homebase, Jive, 1991.
Code Red, Jive, 1993.
Big Willie Style, Columbia, 1997.
DeCurtis, Anthony and Henke, James, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.
Larkin, Colin, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Ebony, July 1999.
Teen People, August 1999.
Vanity Fair, October 1990.
E!Online, http://www.eonline.com (May 21, 1999).
Wall of Sound, http://wallofsound.go.com (May 21, 1999).
Additional information was provided by Will Smith publicity materials, 1999.