WILL SMITH, September 25, 1968-

Philadelphia native Will Smith (aka the Fresh Prince) first found fame as a comical pop-rapper along with partner D.J. Jazzy Jeff (Jeffrey A. Townes). The duo’s crossover success enabled Smith to become the first rap artist to make the transition to television success, a result of his landing the title role in the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran six seasons on NBC. A string of film roles (e.g., Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men In Black, Wild, Wild West) followed, which in turn have propelled Smith back to the top of the charts as a solo act.

D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s debut album, Rock the House (Jive 1026; 1987; #83), attracted considerable attention due to its innovative blend of samples (ranging from James Brown to the I Dream of Jeannie theme) and scratching accented by the charismatic wit of Smith’s humorous anecdotes. The follow-up, He’s the D.J., I’m the Rapper (Jive 1091; 1988; #4)—driven by the hits "Parents Just Don’t Understand" (Jive 1099; 1988; #12) and "A Nightmare On My Street" (Jive 1124; 1988; #15)—achieved unprecedented crossover popularity, ultimately selling more than two-and-a-half million copies. Subsequent LPs—And In This Corner (Jive 1188; 1989; #39; gold record award), Homebase (Jive 1392; 1991; #12; platinum record award; included singles "Summertime" [Jive 1465; 1991; #4] and "Ring My Bell" [Jive 42024; 1991; #20]), and Code Red (Jive; 1993)—while selling well, came across as rather silly and contrived.

Although never officially disbanded, the duo hasn’t recorded since 1993, apparently due to the demands of Smith’s media stardom. His first solo rap recordings—two songs, including the title cut, which topped the Billboard Hot 100—appeared on soundtrack, Men In Black: The Album (Columbia 68169; 1997). The album, Big Willie Styles (Columbia; 1997; #1)—which included the chart-topping single, "Getting’ Jiggy Wit It" (Columbia 78804; 1998)—validated efforts to place his recording career back on the front burner. The film title track, "Wild Wild West" (Overbrook 79157; 1999; #1; featuring Dru Hill and Kool Mo Dee), offered further proof that PG-rated hip-hop possesses considerable sales potential.

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