Very entertaining piece Shea, and you’re correct in a way that perhaps you didn’t realize. I grew up in Philly and was a highly-engaged fan of the city’s embryonic hip-hop scene in the mid-1980s. Back then we traded DJ Jazzy Jeff cassettes—recordings of his live performances at local high schools and such, they were a hot commodity. Some of the live shows featured a young Fresh Prince rapping, hyping the crowd, etc. His voice soared above the music, and his style was distinctive.
“Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” was the du0’s first commercially-available recording, it was released as a 12-inch single on a tiny local label called Word Records in 1986. The track featured a prominent sample of the catchy “I Dream of Jeannie” TV show theme song, and Fresh Prince’s vocal performance was fresh and funny. It was an instant hit among rap fans in Philly, and soon in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast.
At the time of the record’s release, there was another 12-inch that was red hot in the hip-hop world: the Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick masterpiece “The Show” b/w “La Di-Da-Di.” Some consider it perhaps the finest 12-inch single in hip-hop history. In many ways the Jeff & Prince single was a direct descendent of the Doug & Rick single. Both were based on a TV show song (Doug had used the animated “Inspector Gadget” theme), and both featured quirky, articulate, funny rappers, telling silly, cartoonish stories—working against the grain of the macho rap protagonists who had come prior.
But here’s the thing, and here’s why you’re right. Slick Rick became a hip-hop hero by rapping about Bally’s shoes, Johnson’s baby powder and Polo cologne. He told stories, he was vain, he was vulnerable, he had an effeminate tone and a British accent, and the streets loved it.
And then here comes Fresh Prince with his wholesome teenage misadventures—a romantic date gone wrong, silly relationship drama that culminates in John Hughes-esque embarrassment. And the streets loved it. It was played endlessly on popular hip-hop radio shows like Lady B on Power 99. You could walk into the hardest ‘hood in Philly and see heads nodding to Will Smith’s goofy story and that happy, light-ass beat.
Thanks to Slick Rick, and then Fresh Prince, that style was HARD. In 1986 it wasn’t viewed as wimpy pop rap, it was received as real hip-hop. The idea of pop rap had not yet occurred to us. For all intents and purposes, despite his PG-friendly demeanor, Fresh Prince was gangsta on his own accord.
Of course Schoolly D was also from Philly—his seminal “P.S.K.” 12-inch was released around the same time as Doug & Rick. That record really taught us how gangsta rap could be, it opened our minds to a streetwise style and sound that would influence N.W.A and many others. But that’s a story for another day…
Keep up the great werk.