A Rap Star
A Rap Star
It did not take long for Will Smith to prove to his parents that he had made the right decision by choosing rap over college. On March 18, 1987, Smith and Jeffrey Townes released Rock the House. Their first album included their hit single “Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble” and was a huge success. Fans bought 600,000 albums to give it gold status, a music-industry award for albums that have sold more than a half million copies. The duo's second record in 1988—He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper—was even more successful, selling more than 1 million copies to earn platinum status. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince began performing throughout the United States and in foreign countries such as England, the Soviet Union, and Japan with other rap stars, including LL Cool J and Public Enemy. By the time Smith was twenty, he had made $1 million from record sales and concerts.
Success may have come too quickly for Smith. In a 2007 interview, he claimed that his swift ascent to fame and fortune had some drawbacks. “I had a hit single on the radio for 30 days before I graduated from high school. And that's dangerous,” said Smith. “You don't want to have a hit record on the radio when you're in high school.” When the reporter asked Smith why he felt that way, he replied, “It just seemed [too] easy.”17 The problem was that he was unprepared as a teenager to handle the fame and wealth that came his way with such early success. And although Smith made mistakes in how he lived and managed the huge amounts of money he was making, the young rapper thoroughly enjoyed his first few years as a professional entertainer and celebrity.
Rap was an African American musical style that began in segregated, poor sections of big cities. Blacks used rap songs to explain the hardships, troubles, triumphs, and loves they encountered in their daily lives, including racism from whites. Some of the most popular performers, such as Tupac Shakur, were termed gangsta rappers, and their songs glorified criminal activity, sex, and drug use. Many such songs were filled with foul or lewd language, suggested killing cops, and demeaningly referred to women as whores.
One of the reasons why DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince became popular so rapidly was because they were different from most other rap groups. Thanks to the advice that Smith had taken at age twelve from his grandmother, the songs were mostly free of swear words. This allowed them to be played on any radio station, unlike the ranker rap tunes filled with expletives that needed to be deleted. The air play helped their popularity as did the playful, humorous stories the songs told.
A good example of the types of funny songs they created is “Parents Just Don't Understand” from their 1988 album He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper. The song explains several of the conflicts that many teenagers have with their parents, such as shopping for school clothes. Young people want to wear smart and stylish clothes while their parents want to buy items that are cheap and practical. Smith sings about a young man who reacts in shock to clothes his mom selects for him, such as a plaid shirt with a big collar. The character in the song argues for nicer clothes, but in the end he has to settle for what his mom wants. His worst nightmare comes true on the first day of school: “And when I walked into school, it was just as I thought/The kids were cracking up laughing at the clothes Mom bought.” Smith tells of other situations that can cause tension between kids and their parents, and his constant lament throughout the song is “parents just don't understand.”18
The song was a hit because its theme is so universal; any teenager, black or white, could understand the plight of the young man Smith sings about. Millions of people loved the song and album, and even Caroline Smith gave her approval. “This album's good,” she said. “I can stand to listen to it.”19 More importantly,
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince
Will Smith would not have become a famous rapper without Jeffrey Townes, his partner in DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Townes explains how they worked together to make records:
We both respected each other's roles so it was very, very easy making records. The hardest part of making records is always coming up with a concept [but] once we came up with a topic then the rest of the song would come within about fifteen or twenty minutes. We would bounce ideas off of each other, I would pretty much do the music and he would lay the rap over the top of it and then we would kind of tweak it. I would say “can we change it and go in this direction” and he might say “can you break it down right here so that we can accent it.” It was built on a lot of chemistry, and I've never had that chemistry with anybody else because that came through doing a lot of shows and it was just a natural thing.
Jeffrey Townes, Jazzy Jeff in the House. Compact disc. UK: In the House, November 16, 2004.
in 1989 “Parents Just Don't Understand” received a Grammy Award for best rap song. Grammys are awarded by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States and are the most prestigious honors musicians can receive.
The Grammy that Smith received was a historic award because it was the first ever given in the new category of rap music. Despite their phenomenal success, Smith and Townes were criticized by some fellow blacks who did not like their songs.
Some fellow rappers criticized DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince for the content of their songs and the style in which they delivered them. Some of their critics disliked their songs because they were too lighthearted and did not showcase the harsher aspects of inner-city life, such as violence, drug use, and foul language. Other people criticized the duo because the themes and lyrics of their songs appealed to whites as well as blacks, which supposedly meant their music was not true rap, which should only be aimed at African Americans.
Ironically, such critiques were aimed at elements of their work that had helped make Smith and Townes popular with a wider audience than many rappers had. Smith was quick to defend his work. He said the humor they put in the songs was an expression of their own personalities:
We were talking about it the other day, and we realized there is no group like Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince. Because what we do is natural, and it runs somewhat, I don't want to say opposite, but somewhat different than the [rap] genre generally dictates. We are silly; we do have fun. Rappers generally don't put that aspect of their personalities in their music.20
Smith also rejected the claim that their music was not really rap because its themes had an appeal beyond African American inner cities. He said once, “We want to bring rap out of the ghetto. We're presenting problems that relate to everybody.”21 Critics also said that the problem with their music was that Smith and Townes had grown up in suburban, middle-class neighborhoods instead of the inner-city areas known as ghettos, where life is much harder. Both rappers said they had spent enough time in inner-city areas to know what life was like and that they had been exposed to all of its dangers, but they simply chose not to deal with drive-by shootings and drug-overdose deaths in their songs. Smith told one newspaper reporter that they had experienced the same things other urban teenagers had. “I mean, I've probably seen more people murdered than anybody in the city,” Smith declared. “I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, all the time.”22
Although such criticism bothered Smith, he and Townes were able to ignore it because they were so popular. They had fans not just in the United States but also overseas. Townes remembers how surprised they both were when they were mobbed by fans trying to enter a radio station in London, England. Townes says, “There was so many people outside the station when we got there that we were like ‘What are all these people doing here?’ We didn't realize that they were there for us, we got rushed into the station and it took about fifteen minutes to get over the shock of people pulling on us and grabbing on us.”23
That kind of popularity made both rappers rich. And Smith gleefully began spending nearly every penny he made.
Money began flowing in quickly from albums, concerts, and even a telephone number people could call to find out what Smith and Townes were doing. This was a popular way to find out about celebrities before Internet access became widespread enough to allow people to surf for such information. Smith and Townes made more than $5 million from the telephone service. At the age of eighteen, Smith had more money than he had ever dreamed possible. Like many entertainers and professional athletes who suddenly become wealthy, Smith began spending his money as quickly as he earned it.
A Protest at the Grammys
In 1989 Will Smith and Jeffrey Townes won the first Grammy for rap music—Best Rap Performance for their song “Parents Just Don't Understand.” The award was historic and a tremendous honor for the young rap duo, but they did not attend the Grammy Awards to accept it. They boycotted the televised ceremony along with rap stars like LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa because they believed the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States was being disrespectful to rappers. Grammy officials for years had refused to recognize rap as a legitimate new music. Even in 1989, when the academy finally recognized rap as a new form of music, it did it in a way that showed officials still disdained rap. There was only one award for rap even though other musical categories got multiple awards. In addition, the academy decided to hand out the award before the televised ceremony began. Smith and other rappers refused to attend the ceremony because they felt the academy was slighting their music. The boycott made officials realize they had made a mistake. It created more rap awards and allowed rappers to appear on television when they received them.
“I bought everything,”24 Smith has said. He bought a half dozen cars and a motorcycle for himself as well as a car for his mom. He also purchased an expensive home, clothes, and jewelry, and he spent lavishly on his friends. Smith even took more than a dozen of them along with him when he toured and on vacation so that they could experience the rich life he was now enjoying. Years later, Smith admits that he made a big mistake in how he handled his money:
I was 18, traveling around the world with more money than I have ever dreamed about. Everything, my entire lifestyle was just out of control. Ten of your friends living in your house playing pool until four in the morning, buying stuff. It's a good thing I didn't do drugs because I can't imagine what my life would be like now. 25
Although Smith did not use drugs and did not drink a lot, he did succumb to another temptation that is hard to resist for famous, rich young men—sex. Smith slept with a lot of young women in his first few years as a rap star. However, he has said this did not happen until his longtime girlfriend cheated on him. Smith had gone steady with the woman since he was fifteen, but when the eighteen-year-old rapper returned to Philadelphia after touring with Townes, he learned she had been seeing another man. Her unfaithfulness angered and saddened Smith, who had not slept with other women because he had wanted their relationship to be monogamous. Even though Smith continued seeing the woman for three more years, the relationship was never the same because he could not trust her.
Smith began having sex with a lot of other women, which was easy because they wanted to spend time with a rich rapper. When Smith was on tour in different cities, he claims some parents brought their daughters to his hotel in hopes that he would fall in love with them. Smith became addicted to the sex even though the physical encounters felt meaningless to him and made him feel bad about what he was doing. “It was the emotionally darkest time in my life,” Smith has said. “It was unfulfilling, but like a drug, you keep feeling you need more.”26 Smith admitted years later that he was grateful he did not take drugs because they might have destroyed him or, at the least, kept him from having the success he went on to enjoy in later years.
When his parents realized that money and fame were changing their son, they tried to talk some sense into him. His father asked him why he needed so many automobiles when he could only drive one at a time. The fancy cars he bought also caught the attention of Philadelphia police. Many black men who can afford to drive nice cars are stopped by white policemen who automatically assume they stole the vehicle. Smith says that happened to him about forty times in Philadelphia while he was driving his Corvette. “A young black guy with a nice car is going to get stopped, period. And the cops will tell you that,”27 Smith says. Such stops are racist, and not even celebrities like Smith are immune from them.
The Humor of His Songs
A major reason for the success of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was that people enjoyed listening to their songs because they were so funny. On Rock the House, Will Smith wrote a companion song to his hit “Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble” called “Guys Ain't Nothing but Trouble.” The tune notes the problems girls have when they date boys who turn out to be weird, and it has this funny refrain: “So Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince don't mean to bust your bubble/But guys of the world ain't nuthin but trouble/So homegirls next time a guy tries to give you the play/Just turn your head and cold diss him and walk away.” Fans also liked Smith because he was willing to make fun of himself in his songs. In “Twinkle Twinkle (I'm Not a Star),” Smith denies that he has changed since becoming famous and making lots of money as a rapper. Smith declares that he is still the same goofy guy with big ears—he jokes often about the size of his ears—that he was when he was growing up in West Philadelphia.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Guys Ain't Nothing but Trouble.” www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/d_j_jazzy_jeff_the_fresh_prince/guys_aint_nothing_but_trouble.html.
Smith has never regretted his brief interlude of crazy spending in his early days as a rapper. In a 2007 interview, he said, “Oh, I had a really, really good time. It was the best blown money ever.”28 What Smith did come to regret, however, was that he failed to pay taxes on the fortune he had accumulated.
Many professional athletes and entertainers often forget to pay taxes on their income because they are naive about handling such huge amounts of money. One reason why this happens is because they often believe the people who are paying them or their managers are making state and federal tax payments when they are not. This is what happened to Smith after two years of making and spending millions of dollars.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on February 1, 1990, assessed Smith $2.8 million in back taxes he had not paid. To get the money, the IRS seized many of his possessions and garnished his income, which meant the federal government had the right to take any money he was making to pay for his back taxes. By the time Smith had paid his IRS debt, he was nearly broke. At the age of 20, Smith had made and lost millions of dollars. Smith claimed years later that the IRS debacle was a valuable wake-up call to a young man who was living a dangerous lifestyle: “When you lose all your money you start to focus a little bit. You wake up one day and you can't afford any of the stuff you have. You start re-evaluating your life when all the electricity gets turned off.”29
Smith's financial downfall was made worse by the lack of success of And in This Corner, the third album he and Townes had released. The album was not selling well, which meant that they were not getting big royalty payments. Smith also knew that the apparent downturn in their popularity would affect how much they could make in the future by giving concerts.
It did not take long for Smith to figure out that after all of his early success, he was now in a desperate new situation. “I didn't have any more money,” he admitted back then. “So I needed to do more, ‘I got to do something [he told himself].’”30 Smith boldly decided to pursue an acting career even though he had no training or experience in that field. But Smith had always enjoyed acting out the characters he portrayed in his songs while filming videos that were shown on television. So Smith decided to move to Los Angeles, California, which was home to major movie and television companies. Smith left for California just as confident that he would become a successful actor as he had been when he graduated from high school and decided to pursue a career as a rapper. Once again, Smith would triumph more quickly than anyone thought possible.