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Will Smith's career goes Boom! [September 26, 1993]
Plus: M People, Manics, Cypress Hill, and Judgment Night
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to September 26, 1993! This is the week when…
📰 Channel 4 broadcast a 10-minute excerpt of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick withdrew the film in 1973 and took legal action against anyone who screened it, but Channel 4 argued in court that this clip constituted Fair Use. Clockwork Orange was broadcast in full for the first time in 2002.
📺 Also in TV history, ITV reinvent British crime drama with Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane as the troubled criminal psychologist.
🎶 And the Number One song in the UK Top 40 is…
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, ’Boom! Shake The Room!’
Hip-hop is famous for beefs that spill over into violence, such as the one that robbed us of Biggie and Tupac in the mid-90s.
But the chances of catching a bullet from a rival rapper are actually quite slim. Words are a much bigger hazard in rap music, where diss tracks are the norm and a well-written line can ruin a career. Rappers have always lived in fear of catching a double-tap headshot from a verbal sniper, like when Vanilla Ice claimed to be from the street and Ice T replied, “What street? Sesame Street??”
The most destructive diss in rap history was delivered in the Summer of 2000, when snotty upstart Eminem released ‘The Real Slim Shady’. The song attacked everyone from Tom Green to Britney Spears, but the most devastating line was reserved a person Eminem was genuinely mad at. At the start of the second verse, he raps:
“Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell records!"
Well, I do. So fuck him and fuck you too.
At this point, Smith was the world’s most bankable star, with a glittering screen career supplemented by a string of chart hits.
However, after that Eminem verse, everything seemed to crumble. Smith released two more albums (both flops) and only produced one Top 10 single (2005’s quite odd ‘Switch’). Smith made a lot of movies, which resulted in some hits, but even more misses. In the last few years, his biggest headlines have been for ruining YouTube and ruining the Oscars.
The new Willienium hasn’t quite gone according to plan. But where did it all go wrong?
Yo back up now and give a brother room
First of all, we have to ask where did it all go right?
Will Smith is from Philadelphia, born and raised, but unlike the Fresh Prince, he grew up in a stable, middle-class household. In Smith’s memoir, he says that other rappers criticised him because:
"I was not a gangster, and I wasn't selling drugs. I grew up on a nice street in a two-parent household. I went to a Catholic school with mostly white kids until I was 14.
"My mom was college-educated. And for all of his faults, my father always put food on the table and would die before he abandoned his kids."
Smith always wanted to be a rapper and started writing lyrics from an early age. When he was 12, his grandmother found one of his notebooks and was shocked to find that he was using the kind of foul language found on hip-hop records. But rather than yell at him, she wrote her own thoughts in his notebook:
Truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.
This is a crucial piece of Will Smith lore, as it’s the reason he decided to never swear in his records (although he does say “bitch” in a song about getting in a fight with a 90-year-old woman.)
A few years later, while he was still in high school, Smith went to a house party and started jamming with a guy called Jeff Townes, who mixed under the nom de decks DJ Jazzy Jeff. Smith and Townws hit it off, started working together, and released a single called ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble’, which became a minor hit in the local Philly scene.
‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble’ earned them a record deal in 1986. The song was re-recorded, re-released, and this time became an internal hit, even reaching Number 21 in the UK. Sadly, they didn’t appear on Top Of The Pops.
‘Girls’ is a surprisingly dark song that references both physical and sexual assault. Nevertheless, Smith’s energetic charm made it seem like good, wholesome fun, and the duo became the polite face of a genre that was increasingly at the centre of a moral panic. Tipper Gore never had to worry about whether we needed a Parental Advisory sticker on a Fresh Prince record.
1988 was a big, big, big year for hip-hop, with Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, plus landmark records from Ice T, Eric B & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Salt-N-Pepa. The Grammy committee finally acknowledged that hip-hop wasn’t going away, so they grudgingly introduced an award for Best Rap Performance.
And the first-ever rap Grammy went to…
…DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’.
Hip-hop purists were not thrilled. Smith became a lightning rod for anger, the public face of the attempt to sanitise rap music and sell it to a white audience. But the white audiences were also being dicks to Smith; the Grammy committee chose not to televise the Best Rap Performance award, despite its historical significance.
Smith and Townes ended up boycotting the Grammys that year. “We feel that it’s a slap in the face,” Smith said, foreshadowingly.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince emerged from the debacle in bad shape. Their reputation was in tatters, their next album flopped, and they entered the 90s looking like a corny legacy act.
The Curse of the Grammys had claimed another victim. Only a miracle could save them.
Pump it up prince
“He had this sort of bubble gum style, and rap was really changing at the time. It was becoming gangsta rap. It was conscious rap — there was that New York Style rap that was becoming really popular. A lot of different acts were coming out, and he didn't fit any mold that the general public was interested in anymore. He was very pop, very safe…He thought to himself that his music days as an artist were over. He couldn't sell records, couldn't sell tickets, he couldn't do anything. He had accumulated a lot of debt, and he needed a job.
“He was at the bottom when he got The Fresh Prince — he needed to get this job.”
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air was a huge risk at the time: Will Smith had never acted; Susan and Andy Borowitz had never run a successful show. But also, hip-hop simply wasn’t the omnipresent cultural force it is today. Nobody knew if audiences would watch a whole sitcom about hip-hop culture, especially one with an all-Black cast.
Audiences did watch. The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air became a runaway success, making Will Smith a star. The show also established hip-hop culture as a key part of American identity, while also addressing issues that didn’t often appear on TV, like police racism.
None of that changed Smith’s reputation, who was still mostly viewed as a cheesy sell-out. Smith and Townes won another Grammy for 1991’s ode to barbecue weather, ‘Summertime’, but music increasingly seemed like his second career. He wasn’t just a rapper. He was a star.
Gangsta did for old-school hip-hop in the same way that Grunge buried Hair Metal. But, by the time The Chronic appeared, Smith had become a multimedia brand: America’s biggest TV star, and a surprisingly talented dramatic actor (he’s great in Six Degrees of Separation).
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s final project was the album Code Red, which appeared mere weeks before Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, and Snoop’s Doggystyle. The video for the lead single, ‘Boom! Shake The Room!’, has a slightly more aggressive, urban aesthetic then their previous day-glo efforts.
But if they were going for ‘It Was A Good Day’, they ended up with more of a ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ vibe. Smith’s “wibbly wobbly wonder” pre-chorus flow is hilarious and makes the song feel about as gangsta as Jive Bunny.
‘Boom! Shake The Room!’ is not, technically a good song. It has some truly awful line, like that “the rhyme is a football” bit. But it’s delivered by a young Will Smith, right on the brink of his imperial phase, and his outrageous, megastar charisma simply bulldozes any objections, so it feels like a great song.
This is a trick he’ll pull off again and again in the 90s. Nothing could stop him.
Sometimes I get n-nervous and start to stutter
We all know what Will Smith did next: Independence Day, Bad Boys, Men In Black (the movie), ‘Men In Black’ (the single), ‘Miami’, ‘Gettin Jiggy With It’, Big Willie Style, Willenium.
He also didn’t do certain things. He didn’t go gangsta, he didn’t get involved in politics, he continued to avoid bad language. Smith’s strategy seemed to be to follow the Bill Cosby path of presenting himself as an upstanding role model for the Black community (and making the white community feel unthreatened). He didn’t explicitly condemn hip-hop culture, but he certainly acted like he was the respectable alternative.
That changed in 1998 when he accepted his first solo Grammy for ‘Men In Black’. Onstage, he described the early 90s as “rap’s dark ages”, then said that he hoped we were entering a more civilized era of hip-hop.
(We were. It was called The Bling Era and it sucked.)
Smith also challenged rappers to “do me a favor/write one verse without a curse”, so he probably wasn’t thrilled when Eminem burst onto the scene, especially when Eminem parodied Smith’s ode to parenthood, ‘Just The Two Of Us’, in the deranged murder ballad, ‘97 Bonny & Clyde’.
At the 1999 VMAs, Smith found himself in direct contention against Eminem for that year’s Best Video. When ‘Miami’ beat ‘What’s My Name’, a visibly emotional Smith said:
"To all my fans out there, I never killed nobody in none of my records. I never used no profanity on none of my records, and still, I managed to get up here. Peace."
That is probably the moment when Smith’s hip-hop career really ended, when he admitted that his product had always been a Kidz Bop version of rap. By the time the new Willenium dawned, it was already over. Eminem didn’t really kill Will Smith. He just delivered the eulogy.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 2 ↑] M People, ‘Moving On Up’
‘Moving On Up’ was so overplayed in the 90s that the mere sound of it makes me feel like I’m being waterboarded by the CIA. That opening keyboard riffs brings back so many memories of bars, nightclubs, birthday parties, supermarkets, long drives with the radio tuned to a local station, insurance ads, corporate training videos, et cetera, et cetera.
But, after not hearing it for at least a decade… it’s actually good? The production is quite bland, but the hook is hooky and Heather’s voice is, as always, magnificent.
I’m still not quite ready to enjoy Elegant Slumming just yet, but I might be able to make peace with it in another decade or two.
[Number 13 ↑] Stakka Bo, ‘Here We Go’
Honestly though this was a Stereo MCs song for ages. In fairness, it’s not entirely unlike ‘Step It Up’.
[Number 15, new] Manic Street Preachers, ‘Roses In The Hospital’
‘Roses In The Hospital’ is a terrific song, but this radio edit is horrible. James changes “WE DON’T WANT YOUR FUCKING LOVE” to “ROSES IN THE HOSP-IT-AL” which (a) doesn’t make sense, (b) doesn’t scan, and (c) sounds rubbish.
What would have been a better single choice from Gold Against The Soul? I always thought ‘Sleepflower’, but I’m wondering if ‘Yourself’ could have been a surprise hit. The extreme self-loathing lyrics would have paired well with ‘Creep’.
[Number 19, new] Cypress Hill, ‘When The Shit Goes Down’
Now here’s how you do a radio edit. The Hill seem to have planned ahead for this one, which is impressive for people who were that stoned.
[Number 34, new] Cocteau Twins, ‘Evangeline’
Cocteau Twins are back! What’s more, people can now hear what Elizabeth Fraser for the first time, which includes heartbreaking lines like “What impression am I making?/I see me as other people see me”.
Look out for a review of Four Calendar Cafe in a couple of weeks!
Album of the Week
Various Artists, Judgment Night (Music from the motion picture)
We’ve already had a successful rap/metal collaboration in the past with the success of Public Enemy and Anthrax’s ‘Bring The Noise’, but here comes an entire album of the stuff.
As Boo Yah Tribe yell on ‘Another Body Murdered’ (with Faith No More on backing vocals), “Bang your head to this!”
I won’t go into too much detail about this album, seeing as my friendhas already covered them at length. Check out his series of posts for some great analysis of this and the equally influential soundtrack for The Crow:
But a couple of thoughts I’d add are:
It’s cool that soundtracks became this playground for experiments in the 90s. I wish they’d bring that back. Nobody’s done a ridiculously overstuffed, experimental soundtrack since Kendrick’s Black Panther OST.
The whole album is really fun.
Judgment Night is a terrible film, which somehow makes the album even more fun.
None of these people are responsible for Limp Bizkit.
The Slayer/Ice T track would have been better without Ice T.
The critics’ choice here is probably Living Colour collabing with Run DMC, or maybe Cypress Hill and Pearl Jam.
Come on though. The most enjoyable song is clearly Mudhoney and Sir Mix-A-Lot. “I wanna put you in the mud, honey!”
Finally, share if you like this and subscribe if you haven’t already! See you next week!