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Re-evaluating Will Smith with DJ Jazzy Jeff

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Tue 01 August, 2017

Ahead of Will Smith’s return to the stage in Blackpool, Shaun Ponsonby recalls interviewing DJ Jazzy Jeff, and re-considers The Fresh Prince’s place in rap history.

Back in March, I found myself interviewing DJ Jazzy Jeff for another publication.

At some point, I asked him if Will Smith ever actually intended to give up music once his movie career took off. “No. I mean, listen, I’m supposed to talk to him later on this week about going in the studio and doing some shows. He really, really wants to do it, but he is arguably one of the biggest movie stars in the world… I think it drives him crazy, because he wants to do it, and it is a conflict between him and the movie crowd.”

A matter of weeks after telling me that he was getting together with his old partner to discuss working together, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince announced their reunion.

So far there are just two shows announced; an MTV event in Croatia and, perhaps unexpectedly, the Livewire Festival in Blackpool, alongside The Jacksons and a day dedicated to Pete Waterman’s Hit Factory.

Funnily enough, the duo never toured during their heyday, which makes this a rare opportunity to see them.

Some may be surprised that there are people who consider this reunion such a big deal. Smith’s success in Hollywood definitely eclipsed his music career. Most people wouldn’t be aware that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince won the first Grammy for hip-hop, for example.

A big part of the duo’s appeal was Will’s goofiness. He was sort of cool enough to hang around with, but geeky enough that he would actually hang around with you.

Smith folklore dictates that he once promised his grandmother that he wouldn’t swear in his raps, so in an era where rap was becoming militant like Public Enemy, or gangsta like NWA, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were much more, shall we say, radio-friendly. They were probably the first real “pop” rap act, and Jazzy Jeff’s pioneering work as a turntablist managed to stop them steering too far into Vanilla Ice territory.

Like many people, I came across the duo as a TV viewer rather than a music fan. For my generation, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a defining show, as much as The Simpsons or Friends.

Today it isn’t uncommon for rappers to appear on TV with such regularity. How many rappers have we seen on reality TV, or presenting shows like Pimp My Ride? At the time, though, it was an odd move for a rapper to take part in a TV sitcom, and the purists called Smith a sell-out (boy, would they be shocked today?!)

But why him?

Well, unlike other hip-hop groups, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince engaged fully with the already emerged MTV. Their videos had storylines, and Smith was centre stage, acting comically.

The most famous of these is Parents Just Don’t Understand, a fairly harmless tune where the title pretty much tells you everything you need to know. Much of the imagery of the TV show came from that video. But there was also 1989’s I Can Beat Mike Tyson – the year before the pilot for the sitcom was filmed where Will portrayed an old man, trained for a boxing match, and – in what might be his funniest scene outside of the show – was knocked out by Tyson in the first punch.

It’s the video for I Can Beat Mike Tyson where the character of Will on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air seems to have taken full shape.

Not that his entourage thought anything of the proposal; “I remember we were on tour and he got a call, and was like ‘They want me to come to LA to read for a TV show’,” Jeff told me. “Of course, because this was so new, we just kinda blew it off, like ‘OK’. And he came back the next day and was like ‘Hey, I got a TV show’, and once again, just kinda blew it off, just kinda like ‘Yeah, whatever’. It wasn’t until they shot the pilot and came round with a video tape, and we sat down and watched it, and I was like ‘Oh, shit! This is a real TV show, with real actors and a script?’”

The effect of the show was obvious – it brought attention, not only to hip-hop, but the New Jack Swing scene. Episodes featured references to rappers like Heavy D and cameos from groups such as Bell Biv Devoe. As Jeff told me; “The fact that we were on a TV show opened a lot of eyes and a lot ears to people on what we were doing. All of it had something to do with making it mainstream“.

The duo’s success had started to dwindle slightly by this point, and the TV show gave them a shot in the arm, both creatively and commercially.

If there is one of the duo’s songs that has endured more than any other, it is 1991’s Summertime. When Jazzy Jeff played Liverpool Disco Festival earlier in the year, it was one of the few of his own songs that he dropped, and you still hear it every summer.

The song is based around a sample of Kool & The Gang’s Summer Madness, with Jazzy Jeff creating the track for Smith to add his vocal. “A lot of the times when I’m making sample based music I’ll find something that feels really good, and you programme drums around it to see if it’ll fit, then if it fits you just expand on the idea,” he told me during our interview. “[Summer Madness] was one of my favourite records. So when it was pieced together, it worked.

However, over the years, there has been rumour that Smith had little to do with the song, and that it was in fact legendary MC Rakim, best known for his work with Eric B, especially the classics Eric B Is President and I Know You Got Soul.

When I spoke to him in March, though, Jazzy Jeff denied this, claiming “Will’s delivery on it was very laid back. Will is a very hyper person, and the concept of the song was so chilled and so groovy that we suggested that he bring his vocal tone down and laid back a little bit, which is very similar to Rakim. You have never heard Rakim excited on a record. So it was all about getting Will to drop into ‘This is the kind of music that was made, and this is how you need to deliver it’. And that’s where the correlation came in.”

They also achieved a number one single in the UK with Boom! Shake The Room, which feels like a response to the ever-growing emergence of gangsta rap.

As fun as the song was, it wasn’t wholly convincing; I love Will, but I don’t believe for one second that anybody has ever “died trying to stop his show”, and it seemed that Jazzy agreed; “The funny thing is that everybody has an idea about what will work. I think what I realised, especially with something like Boom! Shake The Room, is you have no clue. Because I couldn’t see that working at all. I could see people liking it, but when that became one of our biggest international records, it let me know that you have to take your hands off of the wheel and just let whatever’s gonna happen, happen”.

Will went solo not long after this, and this also coincided with his movie career taking off. It is no coincidence that his first solo single was Men In Black, but it’s success is also understandable.

The mid-90s were dark days for hip-hop. As we all know, the rise of the rivalry between the East and West coasts had devastating consequences, with the murder of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. You could argue that hip-hop had gone pretty damn dark, and the people couldn’t take it much longer. Balance was sorely needed.

Enter Will Smith’s solo comeback, with his new album featuring no swearing and a lead single that ties in with his new blockbuster! Yaaaaay!

It may have been a cheesy concept, and it was essentially an advertisement for the movie. The musical equivalent of a Happy Meal toy. Imagine a single from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that is actually directly about the movie and talks specifically about the rivalry between Batman and Superman, with references the film’s the plot and characters.

And yet…it works. In fact, it really works. Like the characters portrayed in the movie, the song is almost cold and unfeeling, so even if it is a glorified advert then some actual effort went into it.

The album from which it is featured was Big Willie Style (in fact, you could probably separate Smith’s rap career into “The Fresh Prince” era and the “Big Willie” era). The album actually spawned a plethora of hits.

You could probably refer to Miami as Summertime II, though lyrically it appears to be a celebration of the multiculturalism of Miami, Florida, making it more than the frothy party jam that it first appears to be.  Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It – based on a sample of Sister Sledge’s He’s The Greatest Dancer – sounds like nonsense, right? But the term “jiggy” came out of the racial slur “jigaboo“, and through the song, Smith attempted to turn an offensive terminology into a racially empowering one.

His next album, Willennium, wasn’t quite so successful. Freakin’ It is probably the closest that Smith has ever come to a diss track, calling out other rappers, bragging about his paycheck for Wild, Wild West (bad move) and responding to accusations about being “Soft” with “Yeah, more like MICRO-soft” (erm…burn…?).

Eminem responded to the line about rappers in The Real Slim Shady (“Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records/Well I do, so fuck him and fuck you too/You think I give a damn about a Grammy?”). This is somewhat ironic as Jazzy Jeff had helped develop Eminem not long before, telling me; “Eminem had out a couple of very small, independent records. But I thought he was one of the greatest lyricists that I had ever heard. I reached out, I said ‘I’d really like to do something’. Not too long after that he blew up…I’m feeling the music, I don’t care how big someone is. If I like what you do, I’m very quick to be like ‘Hey man, let’s do something together’.

There was also Wild, Wild West – a sort of sequel song to Men In Black, for Smith’s then-current movie.  It is no exaggeration to say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie it comes from. A western with a hip-hop theme tune based on a Stevie Wonder sample? Yeah, as a movie tie-in, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as well as Men In Black. It is a much “bigger” song than its predecessor and clearly had more money to throw around (that the film didn’t recoup). But it fully engages with its sheer ridiculousness, so it’s hard to fault it. Frankly it is a much more enjoyable listen than MIB.

As it stands, Smith’s most recent hit was 2005’s Switch. By this point, he was an actor who occasionally rapped more than anything else, but Switch is genuinely a great single and I would argue that it stands up to scrutiny. It shows a slightly more mature Smith, but not one that has forgotten how to have fun. A deserved Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic that has sadly gone a little forgotten.

Despite being released under his own name, Jazzy Jeff was still involved with Smith’s music projects. He told me that he had bad experiences within the industry and didn’t want to be tied down to a contract; “Every record that Will has made, I have some level of involvement… Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince never stopped behind the scenes, it got stopped on a piece of paper.”

Every time Smith gave a performance, Jazzy Jeff was right there, no matter how infrequent those performances might have been.

There are two ways we can react in hard times. The music that we turn to can either comfort us or cheer us up. Consider that glam rock, Motown and disco were at their zenith during recessions and times of great tension.

Perhaps this is why the time is right for Will Smith to return with DJ Jazzy Jeff.  There ain’t nothin’ wrong with having some fun in the face of adversity, and his upcoming performances will no doubt delight Willennials the world over.

Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff play the Livewire Festival in Blackpool on Sunday 27th August.

Original DJ Jazzy Jeff interview published on Getintothis.

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