Part 3 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays
As someone who grew up in the Philadelphia region and then moved across the country to the Seattle, WA area, I’ve had to combat a few stereotypes about Philadelphia natives:
- Yeah…we booed Santa Claus. Kind of a mean thing to do. But maybe he deserved it?
- We do not talk with a Brooklyn accent. We do not talk with a Boston accent.
- We are not generally mean people – we are loyal to those who are loyal to us, and call out people who are fake. Not exactly mean (and something that is hard to explain in the passive aggressive Pacific Northwest)
- Rocky Balboa is not a real person. But we have embraced him like he is.
- Will Smith is not “an actor who tries to rap”. Will Smith rapped long before he started his amazing movie career – and oh yeah, his name is The Fresh Prince
Hip-hop is a very strange musical genre and culture (I am not an expert, nor am I professing to be an expert). What is great and popular one year can be viewed as dated and corny a year later. There are very few timeless hip-hop records in my opinion, and even fewer that I’d feel comfortable playing in front of friends who have a low tolerance for cursing, vulgarity, and generally an archaic view of women. He’s The DJ, I’m the Rapper (celebrating its 25th anniversary), is an album I always come back to as a classic hip-hop release.
As a young kid in the ‘burbs of Philadelphia, hip-hop was very much a part of my life. Though my first cassettes were the latest hair metal bands, I also had a soft spot for whatever Yo! MTV Raps was playing (does anyone else remember when MTV played music?). In the pilot episode of MTV Raps there was a group from Philadelphia featured, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. In 1987-88, they seemed to be everywhere. The hit single was “Parents Just Don’t Understand” but the radio was also playing “Nightmare on My Street” and even the singles from the 1986 debut album Rock The House.
Too often over the last few years I’ve had to laugh as I have heard and / or read various accusations directed towards Will Smith from the hip-hop community about being a legitimate hip hop artist. The Fresh Prince (as he was known when he started out) was involved with a hit rap single before he even graduated high school – it’s how he got his start! It can not be overstated though – the amazing sounds created by DJ Jazzy Jeff with his turntable are essential (he is credited with creating the sound known as “transforming” – transforming was basically clicking the fader on and off while moving a block of sound across the stylus – the transformer scratch epitomized the chopped-up aesthetic of hip hop culture.). Throughout the album, original member Ready Rock C is highlighted with his incredible human beatboxing skills (he would leave the group after 3 albums, and is not featured on later albums Homebase and Code Red)
So what I want to discuss is a PG rated hip-hop record that won the first ever rap Grammy, and featured Will Smith (The Fresh Prince) as the MC. Oh yeah, it’s also one of the best hip-hop albums in history. At 17 tracks, it was the first hip-hop double album ever released – holding true to the old saying “all killer, no filler”
Here’s an in-depth discussion of the tracks:
Nightmare on My Street starts off with music straight out of the original Nightmare on Elm Street movies from the 80’s. The music evokes a nightmare while The Fresh Prince is rapping about a night gone wrong and his run in with Freddy Krueger. The soundscapes provided by Jazzy Jeff are stunning and timeless (this song could be a hit if it was released TODAY). Eerie keyboard sounds throughout. Key lines by The Fresh Prince “When I heard this awful voice comin’ from behind, it said “You turned off David Letterman, now you must die!” / Man, I ain’t even wait to see who it was Broke inside of my drawers and screamed, “So long, ‘cuz!”….the song continues on in its story vein, with the last line being one of my favorite lines in hip-hop history – “I’m your D.J. now, Princey…HA HA HA”
Here We Go Again – Bass line repeats throughout the song, holding it together. Provides a lighter atmosphere after the…um…nightmare provided in the first song. The Fresh Prince is rapping about the new album coming out and raps about the entire album / tour / promotion cycle of being a recording artist. There is a very timely trumpet solo (or sample) at various points in this song. A nice jazzy, funky feel to this song.
Brand New Funk – James Brown music samples and The Fresh Prince rapping like his life depends on it. I’d like to see Eminem rap battle The Fresh Prince, he is absolutely stunning in this song. Really deep bass holds the song together as it breaks down into a classic call to arms “Go Jeff….Rock the beat….Go Jeff…Rock the Beat” Interesting fact, that’s not a James Brown sample saying “G-g-get down”. That’s Ready Rock C doing a nice James Brown impression.
Time to Chill – This is one of those songs that seemed to be required with any hip-hop release in the 80’s – the slow jam. I really enjoy the music to this one as its very positive and uplifting. The lyrics are not the strongest on the album, but the music makes up for it
Charlie Mack – An entire song dedicated to a member of The Fresh Prince’s crew, Charlie Mack (the song title isn’t just a clever name). One of the more edgy songs on the album lyric wise, as the refrain continually states Charlie is just “Too damn hype..”. Great scratches by Jazzy Jeff with battle ready verses by The Fresh Prince. Another highlight for me.
As We Go – The bass on this song is stunning, really designed to get you out of your seat and dancing. Song breaks down into a back and forth between The Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff scratching to his call outs. Ready Rock C joins in with his beatboxing. Classic.
Parents Just Don’t Understand – Until their hit “Summertime” this is the song that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were primarily known for. Strange to think about in 2012, but it was mildly controversial when it was released as it seemed to promote an anti parents stance. Everything about this song is perfect – the lyrics, the beat, the scratches, the rapping, the video. Key lyrics – “Oh-kay, here’s the situation / My parents went away on a week’s vacation and / They left the keys to the brand new Porsche / Would they mind? / Umm, well, of course not”
Pump Up the Bass – Very much a jam type song with The Fresh Prince rapping until he shouts “Yo Jeff…What…PUMP UP THE BASS”….a song that can be considered a “deep album cut” and totally necessary for the flow of the record
Let’s Get Busy Baby – The song starts out with The Fresh Prince observing a friend using a lame pick up line to pick up a girl (“Yo baby…you want some fries with that shake”). The song is The Fresh Prince rapping about his (far superior) pick up lines. They don’t really make rap songs like this anymore. Another “deep album cut”
Live at Union Square November 1986 – The title alone should tell you how long Will Smith – I mean, The Fresh Prince – has been involved in the hip-hop scene. It serves as an introduction to the very experimental 2nd half of the record. Features Jazzy transforming throughout the song, killer beat.
DJ on the Wheels – Another spotlight song for DJ Jazzy Jeff. The song features his scratches and transforming. It is mostly instrumental except for well-timed manipulated voices saying “D.J. on the Wheels” and “DJ Jazzy Jeff”
My Buddy – Ready Rock C takes the spotlight here – the entire beat is based upon his beatboxing skills. It turns into a duet between Ready Rock C and The Fresh Prince. Again, if you doubt that Will Smith has the street credibility as a rapper, you need to listen to this. Key lyric: “He’s Ready Rock C, and I’m the Fresh Prince / In the rap industry we’re ranked at first /Ain’t a better combination in the whole universe / So if you wanna battle your future looks muddy / That you just can’t beat, my buddy”
Rhythm Trax – The Fresh Prince starts the song announcing DJ Jazzy Jeff as if he is announcing from a boxing ring. The music provides a very dark atmosphere with The Fresh Prince rapping faster than I’ve ever heard him before or since. A highlight is when Jazzy answers The Fresh Prince’s questions through scratching. Absolutely stunning.
He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper – An album title track that often gets overlooked. Starts off featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff’s soundscapes. Amazing beat. The Fresh Prince kicks in with some killer verses – “My rhymes have been written not to be bitten / But as it seems, some suckers / keep forgetting the rules about rappin, but that’s alright / Cause in the next five minutes I’m a have them all uptight / Stronger than a dinosaur, better known than Santa / Man the battles I battle, I usually win em / In less than a minute, but it all depends / On how long it takes you rappers to realise / That trying to defend yourself is ridiculous / Didn’t you get my message its out of the question / Cause you’re toys boys, I’m the Real McCoy”
Hip Hop Dancers Theme – An instrumental featuring scratching and transforming – DJ Jazzy Jeff is the star of the show. Perfection
Jazzy’s in the House – Could almost serve as an epilogue to “Hip Hop Dancers Theme” as it is another instrumental featuring the skills of DJ Jazzy Jeff. This isn’t a filler song – it is essential.
Human Video Game – A song that features the skills of Ready Rock C. Lighthearted way to finish the album, with well-timed beatbox breakdowns and a nice laid back rapping style from The Fresh Prince. A great way to end the record.
They certainly had other hits with later records, and Will Smith went on to be the biggest movie star on the planet. I love DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince because of their Philadelphia roots, but also because of the somewhat non offensive lyrics, amazing music, and timeless qualities. I enjoy certain aspects of Will Smith’s solo musical career, but always prefer when he teams up with DJ Jazzy Jeff – its like Philadelphia’s version of Lennon / McCartney. And that’s no joke. If you don’t own this album and consider yourself a music fan (not just a hip-hop fan) – you owe it to yourself to hunt it down and indulge in Philadelphia’s finest.
Stay tuned next week as I discuss the 1996 self titled debut by Fountains of Wayne