Hip-Hop of the 80s was straight up rough, rugged and raw. The rap-rock aggression that was Run-D.M.C. and the hard-hitting gangsta rap of the West Coast left the mainstream media scrambling as they struggled to introduce such an abrasive trend to America’s conservative audiences. Through all the bark and bite, there was one act that came in on a much lighter note. I’m talking of course about DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince.
To the kids of today, Will Smith is the ultra-mega movie star from blockbusters like Suicide Squad and Focus but 30 years ago he was one-half of this dynamic duo and together they created a brand of hip-hop that was much easier for the world of music to digest. It’s hard for me to forget hearing Will Smith on the radio as a kid. I mean, he’s the guy that taught how to ‘get jiggy wit it’ in the late 90’s but even before that he was on the scene during hip-hop’s Golden Age with his partner in crime.
One of their most intriguing qualities was the fact that Will used almost zero profanity throughout and would often rap in a light-hearted, story-telling fashion. Mix that together with Jeff’s phenomenal turntable skills and they were a combo that couldn’t be stopped. This is Hip-Hop of The 80s
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
Will Smith (a.k.a. The Fresh Prince) met Jeff Townes (a.k.a. DJ Jazzy Jeff) one lucky night at a house party their hometown of Philadelphia. They felt an immediate chemistry when Will got on the mic to fill in for Jeff’s missing hypeman and it was pretty much decided afterwards that they would join forces as a lethal MC/DJ combination. Both had been trying to make a name for themselves in their local hip-hop scene but it was their collaborative efforts that would reap the most reward.
Although they were marketed as a duo, they did have a third man working behind the scenes in the form of Will’s friend and beatboxing extraordinaire, Clarence Holmes (a.k.a. Ready Rock C). As a trio, they signed up with Word Up Records after getting their single, Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble, found it’s way into the hands of A&R, Paul Oakenfold, thanks to Will’s signature rap style and the expert level of turntable finesse displayed by DJ Jazzy Jeff.
The song became a hit shortly before The Fresh Prince had even graduated high school, making the choice between college and music an easy one to make. The stage was set and that success put them firmly on the radar of Jive Records as well as Def Jam pioneer, Russel Simmons.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince made their debut in 1987 with the album, Rock The House. It was a moderate success but it did earn them a spot on tour with heavyweights like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy. The following year they released their most successful album, He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper (which to me sounds more like ‘He’s The Batman, I’m The Robyn’ but that’s just me). It would eventually go triple platinum and catapult the group to newer levels of fame.
Lead singles like Parents Just Don’t Understand received massive rotation on TV Channels like MTV, turning them into household names. But seriously, what better way to appeal to a young audience than by telling comical tales about being a teen trying to get around your parents’ strict rules. That song would also earn them the first Grammy Award ever given to a hip-hop/rap act (Best Rap Performance), cementing their status as pioneers of pop rap.
All that aside, there were some within the culture of hip-hop felt that they weren’t the right pick due to the comedic nature of Will’s rhyming, claiming that there were more deserving winners that were a better representation of the genre.
And In This Corner… was the group’s third album and was released in 1989. Although it would eventually go gold, it was considered to be a bit of a flop when compared to the monster they produced a year ago. Their fading popularity and the departure of Ready Rock C led the duo to take a short break from the music, during which time Will signed on to star in the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
With Jeff also jumping on board as a recurring character on the show, the pair remained in the spotlight enough for their musical comeback in 1991, Homebase. Their platinum-selling return to the scene was coupled with the 1992 Grammy Award for the single, Summertime. Their fourth album followed in 1993, entitled, Code Red. Another gold-selling effort that had a slightly harder sound to it as they experimented even further.
Despite being sued by Jive for not producing more work (which they were, apparently, still contractually obligated to create), this was the last album the pair would release.
Where Are They Now?
Although their musical endeavours as a pair had come to an end, both Will and Jeff went on to build thriving careers. DJ Jazzy Jeff would go on to become a prominent figure behind the scenes of R&B and neo-soul, producing many a hit record, cultivating many an artist and starting his own production company in the process called A Touch of Jazz.
Will, however, went a far less modest route. ‘Big Willie’ went on to release a respectable amount of chart-topping albums as a solo performer in the late nineties but he kept one eye firmly on his goal of being the biggest movie star in the world. Despite all this, the two of them remain close friends and continue to work together on various projects.
Their heydey as a dynamic musical duo may have long since passed but there’s no denying their impact back in the day. They showed the world a lighter side of hip-hop and opened doors for many who came after, which is why we have to respect them as Legends of Golden Age.
Are you a fan of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince? Got any more questions you’d like to ask? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.
Ryan C. Voller, Recording Artist – Producer – Lead Contributor for HowToMakeHip-Hop.com