Read an Excerpt
NINETEEN-SIXTY-EIGHT was a pivotal year for race relations in America. The previous couple of years had seen tensions mount into riots at various points across the countryWatts in 1965, Detroit in '67. The Civil Rights Act might have become legislation, but words didn't seem to have made much difference in the way blacks were treated across the U.S.
The Black Panthers, feared or revered depending on your viewpoint and color, organized themselves to help the ghetto communities in whatever ways they felt necessary, and 1968 showed them to be strong and fearless. And down in Mexico City, black American athletes gave the raised fist Panther salute while being awarded their medals. Politics had entered sport in a controversial way.
The war in Vietnam raged more strongly than ever, even as peace marchers demonstrated against it. The first flowering of the hippie culture might have died, but its legacy was influencing a generation across the Western hemisphere. Caught between hatred and war and love and peace, the world was becoming a far more complex place in which to live than it had been just a decade before.
Some, though, just got on with their lives, doing what they could, concentrating on work and family, letting much of what was going on in the outside world pass them by. Willard Smith and his wife Caroline were like that. They were hardly blind to what was going onthey couldn't ignore it, since it was all over the newspapers and televisionbut they had other things on their minds in 1968.
Phildadelphia was one of those cities whose inner city seemed like a powder keg waiting to blow at the timeit was volatile and occasionally violent. But in the Winfield neighborhood in the southwest of the city where the Smiths lived, things were calmer. It was made up of middle-class black families who still had to get up for work every day. The row houses were kept neat. These were people who'd managed to make something of themselves, and were proud of it. They didn't want a revolution, just a paycheck.
Willard Smith owned his own company, Arcac, which designed and installed commercial refrigeration equipment. Caroline worked at the Board of Education as an administrator. They had one daughter, Pamela, but now they were expecting another child.
When Caroline gave birth to a healthy boy on September 25, it was a major event in the family. This was the first son, someone to carry on the name. And so he became Willard C. Smith, Jr.
Three years later Pamela and Will would be joined by twins, Harry and Ellen, completing the Smith clan. It was quite a brood to pack into a row house, but the Smiths liked their neighborhood; they had friends there, it was home.
From the beginning, young Will was quite precocious. Unusually, as Caroline Smith remembered, "He could talk before he could walk," and once he'd found his voice there was no shutting him up. Each night his parents would read to him, and the Dr. Seuss books became a firm favorite at bedtime, with their nonsense and clever rhymes. They might even have had a subconscious influence on what he'd end up doing as a teenager, as Will noted many years later.
"If you listen to them a certain way, books like Green Eggs and Ham and Hop On Pop sound a lot like hip-hop."
Certainly Will was adept with language from a very young age. But he also showed an quick sense of humor, something that every member of the Smith family seemed to have.
"I was blessed with a really, really funny family," Will said. "Dinnertime was like a nightly laugh riot."
The humor could be verbal, or any of the antics young boys in particular seemed to find hilarious.
"Will did the gross things kids do, like put straws up his nose," younger sister Ellen remembered.
The Smiths were secure in their world. The parents worked hard every day, always giving their best, and that was the ethic that they strove to pass on to their children. You could have fun, but this was a life where you had to work, to love God and the church.
To Willard Smith, part of loving his kids was discipline. He had a very strong moral sense, and felt his offspring needed firm boundaries, limits on their behavior, and to immediately recognize the difference between right and wrong. And if they went beyond them, they knew what to expect. Caroline might be a softer touch, but with their father there was no chance of getting away unscathed.
"My father was the man with all the answers, the disciplinarian," Will told TV Guide. "He did his shaping by taking little chunks out of your behind."
But even when he was being spanked, Will wasn't about to let his humor vanish into tears.
"Will was punished first because he's older," said Harry. "Then he'd go around a corner and make faces so we'd laughand we'd get punished worse."
Hands might have hit backsides from time to time, and Will Sr. might have been tough on his son, but it was all done with love. And in return Will Jr. gained an incredible amount of respect for his parents.
"There are individual personality traits of celebrities and sports stars and people I admire," he revealed years later as an adult, "but the only people I ever idolized are my parents."
His maternal grandmother, Helen Bright, was also an important figure in his young life. She was active in her church, the Resurrection Baptist. She was "the woman ... who put together the Easter egg hunt and the plays and the programs for the holidays" and made sure the Smith children were "in all her little plays."
Church on Sunday was a part of growing up, accepted without question.From an early age the idea of God was in Will's mind. But, as with most children, it remained fairly abstract until the family took what was really the vacation of a lifetime, an automobile trip across the United States.
"When I was about seven, we drove cross-country and saw Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore and the Alamo and the Grand Canyon. You see something beautiful, bigger than you, it mellows you, changes your attitude for life."
It was an experience that couldn't help but stay with him, one that truly brought home the idea of something much bigger and grander than himself. Fourteen years later, when some of his friends were coming out to L.A. to visit, Will (then beginning his tenure as star of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" insisted they drive across the continent to understand things in the same way he had.
Although Caroline Smith worked for the Board of Education, she wanted something better than a standard public school education for her own family. While it wasn't the easiest thing to afford with four kids, she insisted on them going to Catholic schools, where the grounding in essential subjects would be much better.
From kindergarten until eighth grade, Will went to Our Lady of Lourdes. He proved to be an adept student, shining in math, science, and English, where his writingparticularly of poetryreceived high praise, which encouraged him to keep doing it.
But there was another side to Will at school. The sense of humor he displayed with his family at mealtimes couldn't help but peek through in the classroom, where the other kids proved to be a wonderful, captive audience.
It made him, as he rapidly discovered and enjoyed, the center of attention.
"It's always been fun for me to tell a story and make people laugh," he explained in Cosmopolitan. "I've always been a show-off, and uncomfortable when people weren't looking at me."
Looking at him was something the others couldn't help,since, by his own admission, Will had a slightly odd appearance.
"When I was little, everybody always told me I looked like Alfred E. Neuman, the weird guy on the cover of Mad Magazine. I always had the square-looking fade hairdo, and I liked it, even though it made my ears stick out. One guy once told me I looked like a car with the doors open."
But being the clown took away from his looks. Having the joke, the story, the right line meant he was going to be accepted for his words and his humor, rather than victimized because he looked odd.
At home, though, he knew exactly where to draw the line, and there wasn't anyoneschoolmate, friend, anyonewho could get him to go past it.
"Even with peer pressure, there wasn't a friend I had who could pressure me to do something I knew would get me in trouble with my father. My father had so much control over me growing upI didn't have too much of an opportunity to do things the wrong way. My father was always in my business. He always knew everything I was doing!"
One thing the whole family was involved with was music. Caroline was a good pianist, and there was a piano in the house. Will, with a strong ear, soon began to pick up bits and pieces, and it wasn't too long before his mother began teaching him the basics. But it was the drums, and rhythm, that really fascinated him. A set in the basement gave him the opportunity to learn, and much to the consternation of everybody else, he started to teach himself.
More than anything else a person can play, the drums require the coordination of all four limbsno easy task, particularly for a young boy. But Will managed it. While he was never in the professional class, he could sit down at a drum kit and not seem like an idiot banging around.
All the kids were encouraged to play, and the family even formed a small ensemble, playing jazz for their own amusement. It was a regular part of family life, as Will noted.
"There were instruments around the house, and I just played a little of everything."
While he showed some talent, he didn't seem to have the motivation to really practice on any one thing. To him, messing around like this was just something the Smiths did; he never saw himself as a musician. When he was ten, Will Sr. bought him his own stereo, and he could begin listening to the funk that was the burgeoning black music scene in 1978.
The Smiths were a very close-knit family. It was all for one and one for all, well-illustrated by something that happened when Will was nine years old.
" ... My older sister (Pamela) must have been about fifteen. Some guys pulled a knife on me and took my money when I was coming home from school. I came in crying and my sister asked me why. I told her and she right away grabbed a baseball bat. We walked around for four hours looking for these guys. She had no concern for her own safety. Somebody had done something to her brother and she was going to do everything in her power to make sure they never did it again."
They never did find the thieves, but in some ways it didn't matter; this was a family with a great deal of love for each other.
Of course, there were plenty of things about which Will Sr. and Caroline needed to educate their children, and drugs, a problem which had barely existed when they were young, was one of them. But his father gave Will Jr. a graphic lesson about them that made a deep enough impact to last until the present day.
He put his son in the car and drove him through Philadelphia's skid-row area, a place the boy had been warned away from.
"He pointed to the bums sleeping in the doorways and said: 'This is what people look like when they do drugs.'"
It was all Will ever needed to hear.
In 1979, barely twelve years old, Will Smith underwent a life-changing experience. He was listening to the radio one day and a song came on by a band called Sugar Hill Gang. It was called "Rapper's Delight" and it was unlike anything that had entered his suburban Philadelphia world before. It had a beat as huge and funky as the music he loved, but over the top people were talking, rhyming, being funny.
It had never occured to him that you could talk over the top of music, let alone do it this way, with humor. Immediately he was lost to the whole idea.
It was rap, of course, and "Rapper's Delight" was the first record in the style to make any kind of commercial impact; indeed,' it made a huge commercial impact, not only in the black market, but all across the board. To many it seemed like a noveltythe extended version ran some fifteen minutes, unheard-of at the timebut to others it was a clarion call.
Rap, in the days before it became known as hip-hop, was still a young formstreet music, served up at parties and clubs in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and even in Manhattan. It was music that had taken its inspiration both from the "toasters" of Jamaican music (who were, by and large, the first rappers), and those who'd learned it was possible to take existing records, mess around with them on the turntables, and create a sound that was completely new. In New York it had been going on for a few years, slowly developing, with people like Kool Here, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash leading the way by playing the music and starting breakdance "crews." But it had remained quite underground, mostly a ghetto music, until Sylvia Robinson, who ran Sugar Hill Records in New Jersey, heard a bootleg tape of some live rap, and saw its commercial potential.
The Sugar Hill Gang was made up of three rappers, Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee, all trying out outdo and outboast each other as they took turns at the mic. The background took what had been a huge hit for Chic, "Good Times"a song familiar to so many listenersand used it as a bedrock for the words.
The refrain in the lyrics helped popularize the term hip-hop (supposedly created by Bronx rapper Starski the Love-. bug). It wasn't even really representative of what was truly happening in the music, according to Grandmaster Caz.
"It didn't represent what MCing was, what rap and hip-hop was. It didn't represent what it truly was, but mainstream and nationally, it was everyone's first taste of what hip-hop was."
It hadn't even been the first rap record (that credit went to the Fatback Band), but with selling two million copies worldwide, and being played endlessly on urban radio, it might as well have been. For Will Smith in Philadelphia, it was his first taste. And he was immediately smitten.
"I started rapping as soon as I heard that first song. I rapped all day long until I thought my mom was going to lose her mind! Music, after all, has always been in my heart. At first, I did it as a hobby and I enjoyed it and got really good at it. When you enjoy what you do, you're going to get really good at it. And I just concentrated on it."
For Will, it offered the perfect combination. In school, he was good at English, at using words, and he'd been writing poetry. He could crack the class up with his humor, and he loved being the center of attention. Nothing brought all that together like being a rapper. And suddenly, particularly among black youth, rap was the music of choice.
As Jeff Townes, who in a few years would become better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, Will's musical partner, explained,
"When rap came out, there was this buzz: This is something new. We never heard this before, but somebody made this especially for us. This is our music because our parents don't like it, our grandmothers don't like it. But we like it."
In the wake of "Rapper's Delight," hip-hop was everywhere. Overnight a whole string of records started to come out, some good, some bad, and some that took the art form further. In the hands of the Sugar Hill Gang it had beenparty music, and that would remain one strand, but it quickly began to take on more serious overtones. But in all its forms, hip-hop was nothing less than a musical and social revolution for African-Americans. Within a year it was everywhere. All the kids, the teenagers, wanted to be a part of it.
"When you grow up in any urban area, particularly a black area, you can't escape it," Will explained. "Rap is the urban music. Everybody in the street is a rapper, or a DJ, or a beat box. Hip-hop is a culture. It's not just music, it's a way of life."
Even in Winfield, far removed from the ghetto, that was the case. But being smart, articulate, and funny, Will had a head start over many potential rappers. And it didn't take long before he was composing his own raps.
Initially, though, he wanted to be a DJ, the person behind the "wheels of steel" (turntables) who contributed the music to the art, scratching a beat on the discs, and putting together the snatches of other records that made the beat and backbone for something new.
And that was what he did for a while, at the block parties that were an integral part of hip-hop's early development all over the country. It was a free-for-all, a mass competition where people would challenge each other and show their skills.
But there were plenty who were better than him, even as he realized his talents might lie more with his words than cutting up the music and scratching the beat. Once he started rapping in public there was no stopping him.
"My reputation came from beating other rappers in street challenges. I never lost a street battle."
It was a time when every kid who could drop a rhyme was able to dream of being a star, of being known, and Will was no exception. At the same time, he knew he could do almost anything. He was bright, happy, well-adjusted, and he felt secure surrounded by a family with plenty of love.
But something was about to happen that would turn his world upside down.
In 1981, when Will was thirteen, his parents gathered the children together. They had an announcement to makethey were getting divorced.
It was a bombshell. Will Sr. and Caroline had been very careful to hide their own problems from the kids, but the fact was that they couldn't live together as a couple any more. For Will, Harry, and Ellen (Pamela was nineteen, and in college, so a little more removed from the situation) it seemed almost unbelievable. The arrangements had been made. Will and the twins would continue to live with their mother, and they would see their father oftenjust because he wouldn't be living there didn't mean that he wouldn't take a great deal of interest in their upbringing.
One thing that was stressed to the children was that the split had nothing to do with them, or that it would alter any of their parents' feelings for them.
"We never felt like our parents didn't love us," Will said. "No matter how difficult things got or how angry someone may have gotten, no matter what happened in our lives, we always felt that we had somewhere to go. You can't spring off into the world from a flimsy base. You've got to have a solid base to jump from."
And both Will Sr. and Caroline were determined to give their offspring that. They only difference was that they'd be doing it individually, instead of together.
That proved to be exactly the way it happened. Although his father wasn't around every night, Will still saw him frequently, and the weight of paternal discipline didn't prove to be any less. Will Sr. was intent on molding his son to be an upright, moral man.
The following year Will graduated from eighth grade, and Our Lady of Lourdes school. The next step was Over-brook High School. He was going from being a big fish in a small pond to a minnow in an ocean, but he had two things going for himhis ability to be class clown and his growing reputation as a rapper.
He'd even put together a duo with a friend, Clarence "Cate" Holmes, who quickly became known as Ready Rock-C. He was the human beat box, who could get rhythmic sounds out of any part of his bodythe kind of person who was a member of all rap crews at the time before drum machines became commonplace.
Will had been writing and honing his raps, winning street contests, and now he had Ready Rock-C working with him, he felt it was time to move things up a notch. Although he was only fourteen, the big time was beckoning in the distance. The duo contacted Word Up, a local record label that was specializing in rap, run by Dana Goodman, who also happened to be the label's producer.
Goodman listened to what was on offer to see if Will could deliver the goods. He had the qualitywhat was missing was the quantity; there simply wasn't enough material. Goodman advised that they "go home and get more. material" then come back and see him. The door for the future was left open, and that was enough for Will.
He was energized about a possible rap careerGood-man hadn't said no, after allbut he had other responsibilities to consider. And the main one was school.
Will might have shone at Our Lady of Lourdes, but Overbrook High was a completely different place. He was surrounded by kids who didn't know him and who all had to prove themselves. Will decided that the best thing was to carry on where he had left off, and establish his reputation as class clown all over again.
While most class clowns tended to be kids who used humor to cover for a lack of book smarts, Will was the exception.
"I'd cut up in class, but still take in what the teacher was saying."
That was proved by the fact that he kept up his good grades in math and sciences, while becoming virtually top in his year in English. He even played in the high school band for a while. He was, essentially a good kid, but "Iwas just silly all the time. People I went to school with probably remember me as a jackass."
Jackass he might have been, but he was one with a silver tongue. He could turn on the charm, the smile, the gift of the humorous gab and talk his way out of anything.
"I always used to get into silly trouble, but I was always so charming, I could smooth talk my way out of any situation."
He was the kid with the creative excuses, the ones so preposterous and funny that the teachers just had to accept them. It wasn't long before the teachers in the faculty lounge came up with their own name for Will SmithPrince Charming.
His grades were above average, but Will wasn't really applying himself to the work.
"I got the grades mainly to please my parents," he explained. "I didn't think I'd ever use what I learned. But in my rap and as an actor, it's amazing how much of what I did learn comes back to me. It all pays off in the end. I just didn't know it back then."
His father had always told Will that he needed to focus, and it was a lesson he'd taken to heart from an early age. What he was focusing on, though, wasn't schoolwork, but rapping.
The whole rap scene in Philly was developing at a remarkable pace, and Will was becoming quite involved in it. Apart from records, it still revolved around parties, and he was taking part in those, too. With the reputation he'd acquired, he began charging for his services.
"When I was sixteen and everybody else was going to parties and having fun, I said, 'Okay, if I'm going to a party, I might as well get paid for it.'"
It was a natural extension of the work ethic his father had instilled in Will. When he was fifteen, Will Sr. had given him and Harry a project for the summerthey had to tear down and rebuild a brick wall at the house. At first it didn't seem too daunting, but as they got to work, it dragged on forever. The summer vacation passed and theywere nowhere near done. They worked on it after school and on weekends, "one brick at a time," doing everything, even the cement mixing, themselves. When it was finally complete, months later, they could look at their work with pride.
"Dad told me and my brother, 'Now don't you all ever tell me you can't do something.'"
Like most growing teenage boys, Will was interested in girls. There, too, he was precocious. Other boys were bragging about their experience, and Will didn't want to be left behind. But he found, when it came to the real thing, it was a case of running before he could walk.
"It was with my girlfriend in eighth grade ... Anyway, it happened at my house and all, but it took me, like, thirty minutes to figure out how to get the rubber to worksorry, Mom, the prophylactic. I just didn't know how to work it. It was dark, too, and I dropped it and then I had to turn the lights on to find it. Anyway, finally it really didn't ... um ... happen, because I got a little ahead of myself. So to speak."
By the time Will was sixteen, his time seemed to be divided between school and rapping. He'd found a way of putting words across that was funny as well as skillfula way that was just Will.
"I had a pretty new style that everyone was finding interesting. I can make people laugh on a party scene ... . It was a hobby and it just took off."
Things were going along, and Will had hopes of making a record, doing something in rap, but he never imagined it as a real career. Even though others were doing well, it wasn't something he could visualize for himself. After all, you made money by working, and music just didn't seem like work.
"I thought I'd end up with some nice little nine-to-five job someday," he admitted in Cinescape.
But in 1986, something happened that would change all that, a meeting with someone else who'd been making a name for himself in the growing Philadelphia rap scene.
Jeff Townes was a DJ. He'd grown up not too far from Will. Neither of them were "street" kids, by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, being middle-class and suburban, they really countered the stereotypical image of blacks that most white Americans had.
Just like Will, he'd been smitten with rap from the first time he heard it. But for Jeff, it wasn't so much the words as the music that attracted him, the way a DJ could manipulate the sounds that already existed on vinyl to create something different and new. He started DJing when he was ten.
"I used to call myself a bathroom DJ," he said, "because I would tag along to parties with older DJs and finally get my chance to go on when they went to the bathroom!"
It was a small beginning, but one he made effective use of. Whereas most people were cutting up George Clinton and James Brown, and taking their beat by sampling "Funky Drummer," Jeff's heart was elsewhere. His parents always had plenty of jazz albums around the house, and that was not only the music he'd grown up on, but also the music he loved. And Jeff saw no reason why that couldn't be a part of hip-hop. It swung, it could be funky and melodic. He began to use it when he had his turn at the wheels of steel, and it immediately set him apart from all the other DJs plying their trade, earning him his nickname, DJ "Jazzy" Jeff.
At the same time, the price of home recording equipment, primarily portable four-track recorders, began to plummet. Jeff bought one, and set up a small studio in his parents' basement, where he could experiment and perfect the ideas he had.
When he appeared on a local rap radio show in Philly, he created something of a sensation. He used what he'd learned in the basement to transform material beyond all recognition, with all manner of new techniques. Suddenly Jazzy Jeff was a big deal around town.
He put his own crew together, and kept playing all over Philadelphia, making some money, and making a name forhimself. There were dreams of making it big, but for that he needed the right rapper, and Jeff hadn't managed to find him. Yet.
Early in 1986, Jeff and his crew had agreed to play a party, which was on Will's block.
"I was the best DJ in Philadelphia," Jeff told Disney Adventures, "and I had heard of Will, but I already had someone I worked with. But when I played that party on Will's block, naturally he was there. He asked if he could rap for a while and I said yes. He started rapping and I started cutting, and it was like natural chemistry. He flowed with what I did and I flowed exactly with what he did and we knew it. We just clicked the whole night long. The chemistry between us was so good. I went home and dreamed about him. I got his number and we got together."
They began to work in Jeff's basement, putting tracks together. Things were going, well, but it didn't really take off until a few weeks later.
"I bought this canned fart spray and sprayed it at a party," Jeff recalled. "We just cracked up. When I found Will was down with the same humor, that was when we really clicked."
They began writing and recording in earnest. But there was a fly in the musicial ointmentschool. Prince Charming had been getting reasonable grades, and getting by, but then one of Will's teachers told Caroline that he "was testing at a college level but just barely passing."
Caroline gave her son an ultimatum, which Will Sr. backed up. It was time for him to get serious about school. Rap might be fine for his free weekends, but he needed to focus on academics. And if he didn't, he'd pay the price. Which did happen one day. Will Sr. had told his oldest son he'd need help with a job one morning. It was going to be tricky, and he wanted Will bright and fresh at 6 A.M. to begin. Will had been working at a party and arrived home just fifteen minutes before he was supposed to be up.
Inevitably the worst happened. The job was at a deli, working with electricity in a flooded basement. Will, whowas supposed to hold the flashlight so his father could see what he was doing, began to doze. The beam wavered, the light fell into the water, and suddenly there was a high scream.
"My father sounded like Patti LaBelle."
When Will managed to find the flashlight and get it working again, he saw his father, hair standing on end, fingertips smoking, and decidedly unhappy. Will Sr. brought his arm back and punched his son on the chest so hard that he was able to feel it, he said, every day for the next ten years.
It was a good object lesson in prioritiesand his dad's punch. He agreed to get serious about school.
He did, and by the time he sat his SAT exams, he performed extremely well. He applied to colleges around the country, and was immediately accepted at Milwaukee School of Engineering. There was even talk of him going to Massachussets Institute of Technology (the prestigious MIT).
"I was talking to the guys from MIT, and there was some kind of two-year pre-engineering prep course that they were interested in having me apply for."
But he never did. Focus as he might on improving his test scores, Will's heart was in the music he was making in his spare time. He and Jeff had recruited Will's partner, Ready Rock-C, to help fill out their crew. The writing developed quickly. Jeff would provide the music, and Will the raps.
"We'd sit down and talk about things first," Will explained. "The songs come from our own experience."
And that experience had little to do with ghetto life and hardship. Instead they found themselves addressing the universal issues of growing up. Video games and monster movies, girls. It was black music, yes, but there was also plenty in there that white kids could relate to.
While Jeff already had his nickname, somehow a rapper called Prince Charming didn't sound too good. Consideringit, Will decided to keep the Prince and add something from hip-hop languageFresh.
"At the time the word Fresh was the word. It was street talk for cool, the best."
And so DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were born.
It didn't take long for them to put together a tape of material and take it down to Dana Goodman at Word Up, the producer who'd encouraged Will to come back when he had more material.
The result was instantaneous. In his senior year of high school, Will Smith had a recording contract. A few weeks later, the first single by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince hit the streets. It was called "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble."
It took off as a teen anthem, not just in Philly, but all over the country. Boys could understand the way girls were viewed, and girlseven if they didn't agree with itcould see the point. This wasn't the hard sound of Public Enemy, preaching a new political gospel. This was pop music, pure and simple. It was made by teens and aimed at teensthe people who were the biggest record-buying market. And from the beginning, that was the market with which it resonated.
Not that there wasn't a backlash. A few journalists, in the forefront of politcial correctness, called the song sexist.
"That's a ridiculous, idiotic opinion," Will responded. "The rap is a personal story, told with a sense of humor, rather than a statement of general attitude."
And even some members of the hip-hop community criticized them for making a record that was so lightweight, when they should have been making music that was more black or more vital. They couldn't win.
Or could they?
Virtually before they knew what was happening, the duo had a hit single. And not only in America, but also England, where it rocketed into the charts. With one disc they'd gone from being nobodies to international stars, selling 100,000 copies of "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" along theway. It wasn't a bad debut, and even more remarkable considering Will was still only a senior in high school.
The sudden success forced him to look at what was going on in his life. He'd been rapping for years, and never giving it a great deal of thought as a way to make real money. Now that door was open for him.
On the other hand, his parents wanted him to go on to college, to get a real education that would set him up for the rest of his life.
Should he follow his heart, or take the path his parents wanted? It was a hard decision. People were clamoring for Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince to make an album and to appear live. There was talk of major tours.
With one hit single under their belt, and plenty more songs on tape, Will and Jeff felt they were ready to take the next step and make an entire album.
There were offers coming in from other record companies, and some big numbers were bandied around. And it was apparent to the duo that they'd need to move to a larger label if they were going to have the kind of impact they felt was possible. Word Up simply didn't have the ability to do what was needed to market a record and make them into the stars they hoped they could be.
Naturally, Dana Goodman didn't want to let them go, and when Will and Jeff finally signed with Jive records, who'd had plenty of success during the 1980s with bands such as Whodini, he wasn't too happy.
The relationship with Jive was a lot calmer. Early in 1987 DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released their first album, Rock the House. Its title track was penned by "extra special associate member" Ready Rock-C, who was still being billed as "the human beat box."
It was a strong record that took up where "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" left off. It didn't pretend to be hard or savvy. It was nothing more than a pair of suburban black teens relating their experiences in a way that everybody their ageregardless of race, creed, or colorcould understand. Inevitably there were the boasts that characterizedall hip-hop, claiming to be the best ever, but that was par for the course. Musically it continued the light groove they'd already begun to mine, building from Jeff's collection of jazz records.
"I really love jazz," he explained to Rolling Stone. "It freaks people out when they ask me who I listen to and I name six artists that basically a lot of people haven't heard of."
But that, along with Will's humorous, everyday teenage raps, was what set them apart. When everybody else was trying to be as funky as possible, digging through the James Brown songbook for a beat, and the old Parliament/Funkadelic catalogue for a bassline, Jeff had a fresh field to plunder. By its very nature, the music swung, and it was, in every sense of the word, fresh.
With better distribution and promotion, Rock the House found an even larger audience than the first single, selling some 600,000 copies. It was a remarkable debut for a pair of teens, one of whom was still a high school senior, and it earned them their first gold record (a gold record equates to sales of 500,000 copies).
At that point, Will knew what he had to do. He sat down with his mother, and told her he wanted to become a rapper, to put the idea of college on hold.
Then he had to face his father, "who was also none too thrilled with the course of events. Still, my father basically said, 'Okay. Take a year. If it works, God bless you. If it doesn't, you'll go to college.'"
Even though the decision had been made, Caroline Smith held out hope.
"My mother told all the schools I got into to hold the dorm room, just hoping I'd change my mind. I didn't."
Will was seventeen years old, with a major hit single and a gold album. As far as he was concerned, the sky was the limit.
Copyright © 1999 by Chris Nickson.