DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince/Will Smith
Reviewed on this page:
Rock The House - He's The DJ... I'm The Rapper - And In This Corner... - Homebase - Code Red -
Big Willie Style - Willennium - Lost And Found
Philadelphia's contribution to 80s hip hop was DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, who combined clever rhyming, fresh-faced good looks and youthful exuberance on hits like "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "I Think I Can
Beat Mike Tyson." Their early records are about as pure fun as music gets: Jazzy Jeff delighted in showing off his turntable expertise while Fresh Prince whipped up complex story songs.
They ran out of steam in the early 90s, becoming increasingly derivative and dull in the quest for dance hits, and broke up in 1993 while Fresh Prince pursued acting under his birth name, Will Smith. He soon became far more
successful as an actor than he'd been as a rapper, with a hit TV show and lead roles in ever larger blockbusters. He returned to music as a solo artist with the Men In Black soundtrack, and his own album soon followed - the
late 90s stuff was much more successful than the 80s work, but it's much more obvious, both lyrically and musically, generally relying on one unimaginative sample per song while he rants about how much his records sell. But occasionally
his earlier brilliance shows through; you could do better than Will Smith, but you could do a lot worse.
There's a fine Australian fan site with the usual stuff.
DJ Jazzy Jeff, turntables, producer; Fresh Prince (Will Smith), rap vocals. Duo split up, 1993. Fresh Prince reverted to
his birth name, circa 1997.
Rock The House (1987)
Though it's unpolished and often ordinary, this debut contains the seeds of everything that would make the duo's subsequent albums so
great: witty comic narratives ("Just One Of Those Days"), testaments to Jazzy Jeff's turntable prowess (the instrumental "A Touch Of Jazz"),
Ready Rock C doing his human beat box - vocal imitation of a drum kit, most memorably done by the Fat Boys - schtick (the live title cut).
Weak points? At this point most of Jeff's backing tracks are functional but too basic to be interesting ("Taking It To The Top),
there are trivial comments on their overnight success ("Don't Even Try It"), and the closing "Special Announcement" is just a shoutout to all their friends.
It's harder to gloss over the approving references to violence against women in "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble," their first hit;
they do give album space to female rapper Ice Cream Tee's rejoinder "Guys Ain't Nothing But Trouble." If you like their next two records as much as I do, you'll want to hear this, but make sure you start with them.
He's The DJ... I'm The Rapper (1988)
The way I remember it, this was hip hop's first double album, though someone will probably tell me an obscure Bronx group cut one in 1974.
Anyway, the second disc is largely Jazzy Jeff live on the turntables, with Fresh Prince contributing some coherent lyrics and some hit-and-miss freestyling
(on "Live At Union Square, November 1986," he takes time out to mock lesbians and people with AIDS). It's a worthwhile document of a largely lost art - from the first, recorded hip hop relied on either live instruments or drum
programming rather than a DJ - and solidly entertaining; Ready Rock C also turns up on several tunes.
Disc One is even better: DJ Jazzy Jeff is one of the few who could get the primitive TR-808 drum machine to drive a track without dominating it - the same role live drums play on a pop record, but in a different way -
and he mixes in bits and pieces of other records without building a whole tune on one sample: "Here We Go Again" uses a pile of jazz samples; "Brand New Funk" does the same for James Brown.
Meanwhile, the Fresh Prince is already expert at getting across his cleancut smart aleck personality, on story songs like "A Nightmare On My
Street" and the go go-based "Parents Just Don't Understand" - a watershed in terms of hip hop crossing over to the suburbs, whether you're glad that happened or not. And in another first,
"First Out The Limo" is an ode to the duo's bodyguard. I could have rated this higher, but the followup is so much stronger you should really start there.
And In This Corner... (1989)
Both halves of the duo really rose to the occasion here: the high points are the highest they ever achieved, and there aren't any low points. Fresh Prince's story songs deal with topics that are off the beaten path but easy to
relate to ("Who Stole My Car?," "Everything That Glitters (Ain't Always Gold)"), and neither the plot lines nor the rhymes are predictable ("The Girlie Had A Moustache";
the humorous single "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson" - more than a decade later, he portrayed another boxer in Ali).
Meanwhile, Jeff's turntable cuts are awe-inspiring ("Too Damn Hype"), and even when he falls back on a familiar sample he blends it with other instruments so it's never boring
("The Reverend" samples Sly Stone's "Dance To The Music," used the same year by Queen Latifah). Plus, when Jeff guest raps on "The Men Of Your Dreams," he displays an easy
confidence and sly humor that makes you think he could've been a successful rapper himself if he'd wanted to. Everything comes together on "Then She Bit Me," where Fresh Prince blithely subverts his own
story line, shifting direction and delivery at will (including a devastatingly funny parody of self-important "hard" rappers), while Jeff sets up a haunted house organ groove but soon abandons it in favor of bizarre scratching...
it's easily one of my ten favorite hip hop tracks. Produced by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, Pete Q. Harris and Nigel Green.
Produced by Jeff, and he unfortunately traded turntable play for toothless synth and routine drum programming - a casualty of the new litigious climate - and dropped the TR-808 for the
same equipment every house/dance producer was using ("Trapped On The Dance Floor," with additional raps from El-Sid and Jazz Fresh).
In turn, Fresh Prince mostly avoids telling stories in favor of vapid "c'mon clap your hands" would-be anthems ("Dumb Dancin'").
If this is making you think of MC Hammer, it should: this is as lightweight and trivial as hip hop (or any music, for that matter) gets.
And Smith seems to have forgotten about the misogynist rant "You Saw My Blinker (Bitch)" when he constructed his late 90s squeaky-clean image.
One bright spot is the fine electric piano solo (uncredited) on the trite dance tune "Caught In The Middle (Love & Life)."
Tellingly, the two hits were the songs Jeff didn't produce: "Summertime" and the "Atomic Dog"-sampling
"A Dog Is A Dog," both helmed by Hula & Fingers. "Dog" propounds tired male-female clichés (distaff vocals courtesy of Dawn
Murphy), and both tunes are based on simple samples, but "Summertime" uses sweeping synth to create a soothing, nostalgic mood that matches its
clever, backward-looking lyrics.
Code Red (1993)
Jeff produced just two tracks ("Twinkle Twinkle (I'm Not A Star)" and "I Wanna Rock," a fun, live-sounding blend of Jeff's turntables and standard musical instruments) - everyone from Teddy Riley ("I'm Looking For The One (To Be With Me)") to Pete Rock ("Somethin' Like Dis") to
Dallas Austin ("Scream") took a shot.
Since the production follows commercial norms, it's not dreadful - it's unwise to deny that tunes like "Boom! Shake The Room" pack
a punch - but it's the opposite of essential. "Can't Wait To Be With You" is on the mellow side, with vocals from Christopher Williams
and the guitar hook from Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much." "Ain't No Place Like Home" is another nostalgia piece recalling "Summertime."
This was a floperoo, and Fresh Prince concentrated on his acting career for a while, soon becoming (as Will Smith) one of
Hollywood's most bankable stars.
Big Willie Style (Will Smith: 1997)
Smith came back with the theme song to his blockbuster flick Men In Black, and the tune set the pattern for his post-Jazzy Jeff
career: a simple, easily recognized 80s sample (Patrice Rushen's "Forget-Me-Nots") and easily digested,
amusing couplets. The same holds for the other hits contained here, including "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" (based on "He's
The Greatest Dancer") and "Miami" (The Whispers' "And The Beat Goes On").
"Just The Two Of Us" is a wonderful father-son bonding song; Fuzzy provides Stevie Wonder-style vocals based on
the Grover Washington Jr.-Bill Withers tune; "Chasing Forever" is a love song based on "Ribbon In The Sky."
Elsewhere, though, Smith's so smarmy and defensive he's hard to enjoy: the four "Keith B-Real" skits are bizarrely self-promotional even by hip hop standards, and "Don't Say Nothin'" has the same problem.
He's also prone to repeating catchphrases endlessly ("It's All Good," one of three tracks produced by Jeff).
Exec produced by Poke and Tone of Track Masters; guests include Left Eye Lopes (title track), Larry Blackmon and Cameo ("Candy"), and Camp Lo ("Yes Yes Y'All").
In 1997 DJ Jazzy Jeff contributed a turntable exhibition to Nuyorican Soul.
Willennium (Will Smith: 1999)
Smith went all out hauling in well known guests - Eve, Dru Hill, Jill Scott, Lil' Kim,
Biz Markie - and spared no expense when it came to buying samples:
the title track is based on a section of the Clash's "Rock The Casbah"; "Freakin' It" recycles
"Love Hangover," etc.
Another blockbuster theme song, "Wild Wild West" (produced by Rob Fusari) samples Stevie Wonder's "I Wish,"
and I'm sorry, but raiding that classic to create a commercial for a cynical, soulless Hollywood juggernaut is a bit much.
Lyrically it's Smith's most glib, least substantive work to date: "No More" (featuring Breeze) is a pallid attempt at a lost-love anthem,
"Potnas" does the same for friendship, and those are the high points.
"La Fiesta," based on Tito Puente's "Mambo Con Puente," is one of the few tracks with
live musicians, including pianist Isidro Infante and a full horn section.
Jazzy Jeff has a more active role, producing about half the cuts and even getting behind the turntable on "Pump Me Up," though Poke and Tone again contributed most of the hits; Rodney Jerkins contributed "Who Am I," with Tatyana Ali and MC Lyte.
Rarely awful, but there's not a single track here I actually want to hear again.
Born To Reign (Will Smith: 2002)
Apart from the undeniable main riff of the single "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)" and the soulful "Maybe," there's not much here. There are too many defensive assertions of Smith's rap prowess (title track), the samples often seem random (the Gipsy Kings guitar lick underpinning "I Can't Stop").
Toke and Pone are back for two lame cuts ("I Can't Stop"; "1,000 Kisses," based on Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much"); other producers include Mark Sparks (the bouncy, horn-backed "I Gotta Go Home"), Tim and Bob ("Act Like You Know") and Rico Anderson ("How Da Beat Goes").
No notable guests this time, aside from apparent protege Tra-Knox.
The Magnificent (DJ Jazzy Jeff: 2002)
Lost And Found (Will Smith: 2005)
Whoa, Will Smith's on a mission! He sounds more determined and energetic than he's been since he started acting (paralleling LL's The DEFinition).
On the opening Jazzy Jeff-produced "Here He Comes," Smith socks it to his critics
over a clever replay of the "Spiderman" theme, while the gloves come way off on "Mr. Niceguy." "Swagga" is a humbler take on the same theme, as Smith cites songs he wishes he'd written and admits that acting diverted his focus from rapping.
"Scary Story" tells of Smith's early dealings with labels and promoters.
The capper is the blistering "Ms. Holy Roller," a rant against his ex-wife which neatly deflates hypocritical Christians while claiming space for other beliefs.
Guest appearances come from Mary J. Blige ("Tell Me Why"), Snoop Dogg ("Pump Ya Breaks") and the Pussycat Dolls' Nicole Scherzinger (the so-so bounce "If You Can't Dance (Slide)").
The one significant misfire is "Loretta," a cautionary tale about a fan that's an obvious ripoff of Eminem's "Stan."
Most of the production is from The Freshmen and/or O.Banga, and they incorporate full orchestration ("Party Starter"; title track) much the same way Kanye West did, though he got vastly more hype for it.
The Return Of The Magnificent (DJ Jazzy Jeff: 2007)
Guests include Biz Markie, Method Man and Big Daddy Kane among others.