Considering his acting career both as the star of the hokey television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
and as a heavily bankable star of Hollywood blockbusters, Will Smith could make a serious claim to being the most famous personality of his generation. You'd be hard pressed to find a living American who hasn't heard of 'the Fresh Prince'; finding someone who didn't like at least one Will Smith product would be an almost equal challenge. In addition to his profitable career as a film star, Smith also had success in the late 90s with a resurgent career as a lighthearted rap artist, releasing cheery albums like Willenium
and Big Willie Style
with marked success. Funny then, that his ex-partner in crime, disc jockey Jeff Townes, was dubbed the more talented one of the two, back when they collaborated as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince in the late 80s. While Jeff had a fan-favourite role as Jazz on his partner's television series, he has spent the majority of his career as a respected producer, but does not even dent the popularity of Smith. But while Smith has had greater success post-Jazzy Jeff, musically his climax occurred almost twenty years ago, with the release of He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper
In the 1980s, rap was still a marginal genre, especially in the mainstream world. Those acts that did manage to appeal to the general public usually relied heavily on melodic hooks and sportive content (at least in the singles). Acts like Run DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys offered good-humoured catchy singles which drew the listeners in; they had respectable success but were still dwarfed by the arena rock and synth pop acts which dominated the decade. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were half inspired by these pioneering groups, half part of the same movement. Their frivolous attitude connected with pop listeners, and even though they were completely unserious and irreverent in every manner, they were the first rap group to be recognised in a 'serious' fashion ' He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper
won the 1988 Grammy award for Best Rap album.
He's the DJ'
is a difficult album to take seriously, but this isn't a negative point or weakness. Not every album needs to be heavy, aggressive, or deep. Sometimes music is best served by being lively and fun, with no deeper meaning necessary. Good then, that He's the DJ'
is about as playful as an album can get. Even corny, in certain cases. With the duo's most famous song, 'Parents Just Don't Understand', the Fresh Prince tells a humorous story about parents' insensitivity to teenage trends and dumb decisions. He describes a horrifically embarrassing trip to shop for back-to-school clothes and an unfair round of corporal punishment after an ill-fated joy ride. The song sums up the duo's best attributes: a funny, enchanting story told over a catchy song.
Another one of their most famous songs, 'A Nightmare on My Street' follows the same formula as 'Parents', only this time it is propelled by a dark, eerie backing which adds to the ominous feel and reflects the camp atmosphere of 80s 'horror' films like Nightmare on Elm Street
, of which 'A Nightmare on My Street' is a parody. Similar funny, lighthearted songs include 'Let's Get Busy Baby' and 'Human Video Game'.
'Time to Chill' is a smooth and dapper song, on which the Fresh Prince raps, 'we've got something def that other rappers lack, we haven't been able to put our fingers on what it is. But it's different and it's def and it appeals to kids, and teens and adults and senior citizens too, and I'm willing to bet that it appeals to you', before pleading 'so if you're not into rap, give us a chance to change your mind and make you dance'. While a laidback song like 'Time to Chill' is an odd one to advertise their dance factor, the lyric is accurate in general.
'Here We Go' is pretty typical rap fare, in that it is standard ego-inflated boasting about how good DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince are and that you should buy their previous album. But unlike boasting from later artists, the song is approached playfully and lightly ('Loyal fans and newfound followers ' what's up y'all, hello, how are you doing out there" You're chilling, I'm winning ' Oh, by the way' the album's out, go get it').
Yet even with this frivolity, there is
an accomplished layer beneath the Fresh Prince's amusing tales; DJ Jazzy Jeff was a pioneer of disc jockeying, and it shows on this album. While his contributions to every song are crucial, he particularly shines on songs where his turntable skills are emphasised, like the fascinating 'He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper', 'DJ on Wheels' and 'Hip Hop Dancer's Theme'. Jazzy Jeff was a very talented artist and on the songs where his work on the turntable is showcased are highlights of the album. The album also features the talented beatboxing of Ready Rock C (like on 'My Buddy') whose vocals skills still amaze me to this day.
But perhaps the most engaging aspect of the album is the relationship between Will and Jeff. Even without knowing the backstory on their long-term friendship, it is obvious listening to this record that these two heavily admire each other and the respect they show each other only makes the album more enjoyable. Especially on the highlight (and title track) 'He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper', the interplay between DJ and Rapper is fascinating to hear. They clearly feed off each other and it is evident throughout the record.
But there are negatives, to be sure. Will Smith's lyrics, while amusing, are not very accomplished, especially on the songs which don't tell a story. Listening to songs like 'Pump Up the Bass', 'House Party Style' and other party-aimed songs they released, the lyrics are just boring. Considering the lyrics are always a focal point of rap albums, it is disappointing. Only on story-telling songs does he really shine, but with repeated listens, when you already know the plot line, they lose their initial allure and hilarity. Still, Jazzy Jeff usually offers more interesting music on these songs which improve their quality over Smith's contribution. The tracklisting also runs a little long, and could have been trimmed of some of the more repetitive house-party type tracks, which are not very innovative or interesting.
Additionally, Will Smith is hardly the most talented rapper and he tends to be excessively formulaic in his delivery. While you could say it is reliable and allows other aspects to shine, like Jazzy's work or his own lyrics, I'm more tempted to say he's just a pretty lame rapper. It can get too predictable after a while, and the album is best not listened to on repeat.
If you're looking for an album to inspire soul-searching or something to challenge your ingrained world views, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper
is evidently not the album for you. But if you're looking for a fun album which reflects the roots of pop-rap and also features some amazing pioneering work from a disc jockey like Jazzy Jeff, then this album will fulfill its purpose quite nicely.