Far from being just another '90s sitcom, "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" not only dealt with serious themes, it helped take hip-hop culture mainstream. Its enduring appeal also led to the recent Peacock remake "Bel-Air" and an HBO reunion, proving it was much more than your average family show.
"The Fresh Prince" also catapulted Will Smith to heights he never reached as part of his hip-hop duo, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Recent Oscar troubles aside, since starring in the show, Smith has conquered the entertainment industry, becoming one of the biggest leading men in the world and enjoying a successful music career. It seems strange, then, to think of him being completely down and out prior to "The Fresh Prince," but back in the late-'80s that's exactly what happened.
In 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince scored a hit with their single "Parents Just Don't Understand," winning a Grammy and watching their album, "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper," go triple platinum. But a disappointing follow-up album and major troubles with the IRS left Smith in a tough position. His star was fading and he seemingly had no way to re-establish himself. But someone who considers himself to have a, "sickening" work ethic was never going to be down for too long. And once Smith moved to LA and started hanging around the right people, he quickly revived his entertainment career. But before that could happen, he would have to make it through an impromptu audition that would literally change his life.
Quincy Jones Saw Something In Smith
As Smith recalls in a YouTube video, following his IRS issues and losing millions on frivolous spending sprees, he was encouraged by his girlfriend at the time to, "just go stand around at 'The Arsenio Hall Show.'" That unlikely tactic worked. Smith met record executive Benny Medina at the show, who pitched him the idea for "The Fresh Prince" and introduced him to legendary music producer Quincy Jones. Jones was set to produce the series and clearly saw Smith's potential as a non-threatening rapper who could bring hip-hop culture to the masses in a family-friendly form.
That all led to one night when Smith's life would change. In his memoir, "Will," (via Vanity Fair), the actor recalls attending a party at Jones' house before "The Fresh Prince" had been greenlit. The producer had invited the top brass at NBC, including then-network head Brandon Tartikoff and his second-in-command, Warren Littlefield. As Smith remembers it, Jones literally came up with the idea to base "The Fresh Prince" on Smith's background on the spot:
"'Where you from?' Quincy said. 'Philly,' I said with the requisite swag and pride that Philadelphians use to make sure you know that our city is better than yours. 'Ah, man, I love Philly!' […] 'OK, that's it, it's perfect: Your character's from Philly. Will from Philly! Then he goes to Bel-Air!'"
Jones then introduced Smith to Tartikoff before announcing, "Can I have everybody's attention? […] We gon' have a audition. Clear the furniture out the living room!" To Smith's surprise, he was now being asked to audition for the head of NBC in the middle of a party with zero prep time. Unsurprisingly he was taken aback and asked Jones for some time to prepare. But the producer wasn't having it.
Long before he became the kind of star that could turn down "The Matrix," Will Smith had to audition his way to the top. And that's exactly what Quincy Jones wanted him to do for the NBC execs, using a screenplay for a, "failed Morris day pilot." But Smith wasn't ready. As he wrote in his memoir:
"I grabbed Quincy's arm, probably a little harder than was respectful. 'Quincy, no, wait, no, I can't do this now,' I whispered in his ear. Quincy looked at me with an unflinching, tipsy joy. 'Y'all keep settin' up!' he ordered the room. 'I'm gon' talk to Will in the library.'"
It was in the library that Jones convinced Smith to go along with the impromptu audition, explaining that if he didn't take the opportunity now, it might not come again: "Right now, everybody that needs to say yes to this show is sitting out there in that living room waiting for you. And you are about to make a decision that will affect the rest of your life."
With the choice being obvious, Smith agreed to audition with just 10 minutes of prep time. As he remembered it in his YouTube video, "I let it rip and I got to the end and everybody's clapping. Quincy looks at Brandon Tartikoff the head of NBC, 'did you like it?' and Brandon said yeah, yeah I like it."
With Tartikoff's approval, lawyers huddled in a limo to draw up a contract for the show right then and there. Smith signed the basic deal for "The Fresh Prince" that night and three months later found himself shooting the pilot.
Quincy Jones Could See The Future
By clinching his role in "The Fresh Prince," Smith set himself up to go on the biggest roll of his life. Aside from managing to nail an audition having never acted before, using a script for a show that would ultimately fail, and having just 10 minutes of prep time, the remarkable thing about that fortuitous night was Jones himself. The man could seemingly see something in Smith that others perhaps couldn't. Not only did the young rapper have charisma and magnetic energy, he wasn't like many other rappers at the time, and as such was the perfect emissary to send out into wider culture and spread the word of hip-hop.
Smith has often been accused of being "corny" and lacking street credentials by the hip-hop community. But he's never tried to pretend to be something he isn't, which in the case of his meeting with Quincy Jones, turned out to be a huge benefit. In Jones' eyes, Smith's non-threatening appeal was exactly what was needed to make a show like "The Fresh Prince," with its unabashed hip-hop influence, succeed at a time when the US still hadn't fully embraced the subculture. Kids across the country were buying albums, but conservative America was gearing up for a full-scale backlash in the '90s. With Smith leading "The Fresh Prince" to become one of the most popular shows on TV, hip-hop culture gained a lot more mainstream legitimacy. And Jones seemingly recognized that the moment he met the young star. Smith landing the role and signing the contract all in one night is impressive. But Jones' foresight might be the most startling thing about the whole tale.
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