• Old 'Stache

It’s the Prince’s ‘Throne’; They’re Just Watching It

written by: on December 28, 2011

Hip-hop used to be simple. You had a DJ, and you had a rapper. In the late 1980s, Will Smith and Jeff Townes perfected this formula. Armed with nothing but a turntable, a microphone and unmatched charisma, the duo known to the world as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince took hip-hop’s simplest elements and changed the world—well, changed the course of rap, at least.

Before Rob Van Winkle announced to the world that it was cool for white dudes to shave lines into their eyebrows and MC Hammer made millions from donning parachute pants and rattails (and blew the millions he made from them), Townes and Smith crafted a niche in popular music that opened up suburban America’s ears and allowed rap into the homes of middle America. Their second LP, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, was pop-rap at its finest. It also paved the way for possibly the greatest sitcom in the history of television.

These days it seems like it’s not all too uncommon for a musical act to become popular without that much talent (LMFAO, anyone?). But in a day when options were limited (before you could browse YouTube and make anyone a star), to break through a specific genre, an act had to master its own craft. The fact is, if Smith weren’t a phenomenal rapper and if Townes weren’t incredible on the ones and twos, no one would know of DJ Jazzy Jeff or of the Fresh Prince. Lucky for the world—and NBC—they were.

All the evidence needed is on display within the album’s lead single, “Brand New Funk.” As Townes masters the cuts, samples and breaks, Smith takes control of the microphone in a way few had ever done, or done since. As he feverishly recounts the events of a house party (not featuring Kid-N-Play), he masters a rhyme scheme and flow that was ridiculously advanced for ’88. But the playfulness he exudes made it safe for an extended audience other than the ones that had just caught them on tour with the likes of Run DMC and Public Enemy. This playfulness hit its peak with the second single, the legendary “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

“Parents Just Don’t Understand” stormed into the consciousness of America. There wasn’t a person alive who couldn’t identify with the generation gap Smith was putting on display. As cheesy as it is, this record universally united people through rap.

Most people weren’t getting profiled by the cops like N.W.A., but everyone could identify with parental disagreement. It took the first Grammy for “Best Rap Performance” and took away the stigma that rap couldn’t be for everyone.

They followed up that playfulness with pure silliness on their third single, “Nightmare on My Street,” the unofficial soundtrack featuring everyone’s favorite nightmare haunt, Freddy. This track solidified Smith’s storytelling and branded him a performer, not just a rapper.

Beyond the singles, though, is where He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper‘s hides. “Time to Chill” is a laid-back canvas on which Smith paints potent lyricism. Lines such as, “It’s soothing, somewhat hypnotic, rhythmic anesthetic/It’s practically a narcotic,” aren’t exactly as cookie-cutter as they may appear on the surface. A look beyond the fact that the album is mostly profanity-free will find that Smith can spit, lethally. Never is this more on display than on the title track.

“He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper” opens with a minute-or-so-long intro that allows Townes to take the spotlight for a bit, cutting and scratching up a storm. But close to the minute mark, something magical happens. For the next two-and-a-half minutes, Smith goes in without the aid of a chorus and stakes claim to the microphone with a battle rap which technical aspects and fury would make the hardest MC proceed with caution.

The personal tales of his crew are also fun. He lets everyone know why his bodyguard hops out of the limo first on “Charlie Mack (1st Out of the Limo)” and slays a seemingly endless line of rappers in battle after battle with beat boxer extraordinaire Ready Rock C on “My Buddy.” Ready also comes back to channel his inner Atari as he crafts the soundtrack to “Human Video Game” with his mouth. Townes gets his shine on a slew of DJ-only cuts, a shine he doesn’t take lightly. Smith even displays his romantic side on “Let’s Get Busy Baby.”

It’s not The Chronic or Illmatic, but He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper remains a landmark achievement. It opened up the door to the Grammys and the suburbs without sacrificing the purity of the culture. Subject matter didn’t make hip-hop, adept rhymes and a beat did. Townes and Smith did that better than most. Yes, this album gave the world The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the world is forever grateful. But, it also gave the world a classic snapshot of rap in the ’80s and one of the best albums the genre will ever see.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince – He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper tracklist:

  1. “Nightmare on My Street”
  2. “Here We Go Again”
  3. “Brand New Funk”
  4. “Time to Chill”
  5. “Charlie Mack (1st Out of the Limo)”
  6. “As We Go”
  7. “Parents Just Don’t Understand”
  8. “Pump Up the Bass”
  9. “Let’s Get Busy Baby”
  10. “Live at Union Square (November 1986)”
  11. “D.J. on the Wheels”
  12. “My Buddy”
  13. “Rhyme Trax”
  14. “He’s the D.J., I’m the Rapper”
  15. “Hip-Hop Dancer’s Theme”
  16. “Jazzy’s in the House”
  17. “Human Video Game”