As is often the case with music reviews, music is the key to everything. In the case of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, music was the key to success. After all, they earned the first ever “Best Rap Performance” Grammy in 1988 for the hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand” from the album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, and the video for that song won them an MTV Music Award for “Best Rap Video”. The song and video were subsequently transformed into the NBC series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, introducing DJ Jazzy Jeff (as “Jazz”) & the Fresh Prince (as “Will Smith”) to the globe. Smith later jumped into movies, Jazzy Jeff continued as a producer (his work with Jill Scott was remarkable), and the rest is history. But in the midst of all the comedy and stardom, something very serious happened—hip-hop went worldwide. And, as you listen to The Very Best of this duo, the case can be made that Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince are symbols of the globalization of hip-hop.
In many ways, Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith were the perfect ambassadors for the genre. Aside from being funny, charming, and disarmingly non-threatening, they exemplified portions of the art form that made it almost subconsciously appealing. Hip-hop’s rise was due, in part, to its ability to incorporate and reformat elements from the TV generation into its postmodern collage. By using samples, snippets, breakbeats, and scratches, hip-hop’s discourse was more similar to television and blockbuster movies than any other type of music. As examples, the second and third tracks on The Very Best of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff” and “A Touch of Jazz”, focus attention on DJ Jazzy Jeff and his fabulous skills on the turntables. Like commercials and television programming overall—in which promos, sitcoms, and dramas are liberally interspersed—Jazzy Jeff turns bits and pieces of sound into the quilt of song, even going so far as to sample a portion of his group’s own “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” in “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff”. Such was the hallmark of all the great DJs.
Music writer Jon Pareles of the New York Times pointed out television’s dialectic with hip-hop back in 1990:
In its structure and its content rap is the music of the television age, and the first truly popular music to adapt the fast, fractured rhythms, the bizarre juxtapositions, and the ceaseless self-promotion that are as much a part of television as logos and laugh tracks. Where television shatters chronology and logic, rap shows us how to dance on the shards. (“Rap Moves to Television’s Beat”, Rap on Rap: Straight-up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture, Adam Sexton, Ed. New York, NY: Dell Publishing (1995), p.226).
The first song on the compilation, “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble”, illustrates Pareles’ point, showcasing Will Smith’s humorous tales about his mishaps on the dating scene. The song’s sample of “I Dream of Jeannie” is a slice of television lore that also infuses a marvelous tension between the fantasy of a yes-woman “Jeannie” and Smith’s funny tirade against the ladies. It’s similar to the tension in Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero”, in which Chuck D and Flavor Flav rail against television while their sound mimics the TV. On a smaller scale, the jam “Brand New Funk”, with its snippets of James Brown, also reiterates the postmodern collage of hip-hop. It’s also one of the best DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince songs ever and its absence from a “best of” release would be unthinkable.
The cartoonish “A Nightmare on My Street”, a parody of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, is another good example of the television age’s influence on rap. Built around Smith’s storytelling, the song’s imagery and obvious appropriation of pop culture made a fine showing on the small screen in video form. Actually, it was so faithful to the Freddy franchise that the video became the subject of a preliminary injunction in New Line Cinema v. Bertlesman Music Group, Inc., 693 F. Supp. 1517 (1988). New Line Cinema, in its promotion of its latest Freddy film, feared that the video and single for “A Nightmare on My Street”—if it hit the airwaves near the release of the movie, as planned—would cause confusion as to the source of the song and hurt the sales of its own single crafted by the Fat Boys. The Court agreed.
Another hit, “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson”, employs the same strategy, as it incorporates a pop icon into its narrative. In this case, it was boxer Mike Tyson, and the Fresh Prince’s fantasy (or is that “delusion”?) of defeating the champ in the ring.
But it was the song “Parents Just Don’t Understand” that put the duo firmly on the map. In hindsight, the rise of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince mirrors the rise of hip-hop in general. Watch an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and you’ll find an allegory for hip-hop’s ascendancy from outcast to insider, from unwelcome new kid on the block to favorite neighbor. On The Fresh Prince, the intro and theme song, rapped by Smith and delivered with the flavor of the “Parents Just Don’t Understand” video, told the story. Basically, a kid who’s “born and raised” in west Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (like Will Smith), gets in a fight with a “couple of guys who were up to no good”. His mother, protective of her son’s future, decides to send him to California’s Bel-Air community where his more resourceful aunt and uncle can keep him on the right track.
That Will Smith’s presence on the show symbolizes hip-hop itself is shown by the title of the sitcom, since Smith’s stage name is “the Fresh Prince”. Plus, Will Smith’s “character” is named “Will Smith”, which ultimately means he’s playing himself, and the show’s dialogue continually refers to Jazzy Jeff & the Prince’s music. For instance, there’s the episode where the Uncle Phil character gets into a spat with his mother and father and when Will tries to help him out, he says something like, “You don’t get it, Will. Sometimes parents just don’t understand.”
Will Smith, then, becomes the personification of “good” hip-hop, taken in by upper class blacks and whites and recognized for what he has to offer, often in spite of his quips and quirks. His constant teasing of his rich uncle Phil’s weight makes more sense when viewed as hip-hop’s counter-critique of middle and upper class black Americans who were highly skeptical of rap’s entrance through the metaphorical door. “You’ve gotten too comfortable,” hip-hop would say. “You got too big and forgot about the struggle.” And that’s exactly what Will says. In response, the show went to great lengths to give Uncle Phil some street credibility, from accentuating his Black Power days to highlighting his skills in the pool hall.
Carlton, Will’s cousin, is a preppie, studious boy who, throughout the show’s tenure, idolizes Tom Jones. A symbol of R&B and easy rock, Carlton has etiquette and breeding. People accepted Carlton because he knew how to act. At times, Will was told to be like Carlton and, in the first season of the show, Carlton says to Will, “People may not think we’re twins, but I’ll bet they’ll think we’re brothers,” to which Will replies, “You know, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about anybody mistaking you for a brother.” But the attempt to blend in wasn’t lost on the Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s music, as we see on “The Groove (Jazzy’s Groove)”. Featuring Grover Washington, Jr., the song weds hip-hop to an “acceptable” style of music, with Smith’s lyrics acting almost like a preacher at a marriage ceremony, “Do you, hip-hop, take jazz to be your lawfully wedded genre, for hit songs or low record sales?” There were also times when Carlton, like the musical genres he represented, would become jealous of Will, especially when Will got attention, and he would resist attempts to make room for his rappin’ cousin.
Meanwhile, Smith’s instrumental half, DJ Jazzy Jeff, appeared on the Bel-Air sitcom as Smith’s running buddy. Known simply as “Jazz”, Jeff’s performance wasn’t nearly as life-resembling as Smith’s, but it was no less important. Jeff, hailing from the poorer and more street savvy side of the tracks, represented the “other side of hip-hop”. Jeff was “bad” hip-hop. Where Will Smith got through the door with songs like “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, Jeff kept getting thrown face-first out of the house.
There are even times on the show when Smith himself gives Jazz the old heave-ho, which we hear on the monster hit “Summertime” when Smith raps:
Just a little something to break the monotony
of all that hardcore dance that has gotten to be
a little bit out of control, it’s cool to dance
but what about a groove that soothes and moves romance?
The romance theme is echoed in tunes like “Ring My Bell” and “The Things That U Do”. Compared to being “nothing but trouble”, a woman’s company sounds like paradise in these songs.
Of course, you can’t be too “clean cut” before somebody says you’re too “soft”. After awhile, you might feel compelled to respond. A glimpse of that response, called “You Saw My Blinker”, appeared on the Homebase album with “Summertime”. Notably absent this compilation, “You Saw My Blinker” was a funny take on road rage that found Smith actually using the word “b*tch”. From there, enter “Boom! Shake the Room”, a much harder sound than Smith endorsed on “Summertime”. His voice has more edge to it and the style is more aggressive, like the line, “Many have died tryin’ to stop my show”. He can’t be serious. Yet, as his lyrics explain, he’s doing it on purpose: “Like Dr. Jeckyl, man, and this is my Hyde side / I am the driver, and y’all on a rap ride”. A similar vibe appears in the single “Im Looking For The One (To Be With Me)”, produced by Teddy Riley and Markell Riley. The aggression is there, plus the peculiar shout out to rap’s constituents, in particular the “streets” and the “homies on the blocks”:
A little somethin’ for the radio (ho!)
A little somethin’ for the video (ho!)
A little somethin’ for the Jeeps (right, right)
A little somethin’ for the streets (hey, hey)
A little somethin’ for the homies on the blocks
A little somethin’ for the honeys in the flocks
All of this recalls the internal debates in hip-hop, mostly among fans, about which artist is “hard” or “real” versus those that were “too commercial”. Smith’s harder sound toyed with that debate to great effect. Playing a bad ass cop in the movie Bad Boys didn’t hurt either.
The final song, “I Wanna Rock”, combines everything the duo has to offer into one tune. There’s Jazzy Jeff’s deft (and “def”) turntablisms and musical fusion, wherein Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two” is mixed with LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” written by Rick James. All of it comes together through Smith’s wit and lyricism.
While it might have been nice to have a set that includes a couple of Will Smith’s solo joints, the way the 1998 Greatest Hits compilation included “Men in Black” and “Just Cruisin’”. Yet, although Greatest Hits is a more satisfying collection than The Very Best of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, The Very Best keeps it simple and shows us why the music of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince contributed so much flavor to hip-hop and popular culture. Experienced hip-hop heads will enjoy The Very Best of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, if they don’t already own the albums, and newer heads can experience a slice of hip-hop history.