DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince ~ Rock the House (1987)

Posted on March 3, 2013

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By the late 1980’s, rap music had expanded outward from its birthplace in New York City, as artists from places like Houston (the Geto Boys), Miami (2 Live Crew), Oakland (MC Hammer and Too Short) and Seattle (Sir Mix-A-Lot) began to stake their own claims, and plant flags for their respective hometowns. In that same time period, Philadelphia had begun to craft a notable team in its own right, through artists like Steady B, Schoolly D, 3XDope, and Cash Money & Marvelous. But among the city’s best and brightest was a duo from West Philadelphia, who’d become not only the most successful rap act in Philly Hip Hop history, but a trailblazing act that’d make significant strides for Hip Hop as a whole. They were known as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.

Years before Will Smith became a superpower in film and television; he was Willard Smith, Jr., a kid from Wynnefield, West Philadelphia, with megawatts of personality, and a love of music. Starting out as a drummer in his family’s jazz band, Will gravitated towards rap after hearing the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1980. Inspired by the New Jersey trio’s classic single, the 12-year-old Will put pen to pad and began writing his own rhymes, and two years later, along with a neighborhood friend named Clarence Holmes, Will Smith attempted to pursue rap professionally, as one-half of a duo called The Fresh Prince (Smith) and Ready Rock C (Holmes). While pursuing a recording deal, the duo was spurned by Philly Hip Hop impresario Dana Goodman, but undaunted, the Fresh Prince continued to chase his dream.

While Will was trying to get on in the game, fellow West Philly native Jeff Townes was developing a rep as the city’s preeminent turntablist. Professionally known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, Townes took to turntablism at the age of 10, and after years of honing his skills, Jeff gained a cult following for his wizardry on the 1s and 2s; drawing large crowds at parties he worked across Philadelphia. Live wires connected at one of these parties in 1985, when the emcee set to work with Jeff failed to show, and Will Smith, an attendee at the party, offered to work alongside Jeff. Their chemistry was undeniable, and after deciding to team up officially, Dana Goodman was once again approached about cutting a record, and signed the duo to his imprint Word Up Records in 1986. That summer, Jeff and Will dropped “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble”, a comical, briskly-selling single that prompted New York label Jive Records to offer them an album deal. They signed with Jive later that year, and in 1987, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, with Ready Rock C in tow, took center stage with their debut album Rock the House.

Rock the House is an engaging affair from end to end, with melodic tracks, spirited lyrical performances, and dazzling turntable work. The chemistry of The Fresh Prince, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and beatbox extraordinaire Ready Rock C, who provides invaluable support on this album, is inspiring, and proves to be integral to this album’s flow and continuity. The album opens with two campy, things-fall-apart joints; backed with familiar samples, and featuring the wit and storytelling skills that became Will Smith’s calling cards as an emcee. The crew’s debut single “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” opens the set, and finds The Fresh Prince spinning humorous tales about his woes with women, over composer Hugo Montenegro’s theme from the 1960’s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. Fresh Prince ratchets up his fabling on the next cut, the comical “Just One Of Those Days”. Over sparse scratches and a sample of the Taco hit “Puttin On The Ritz”, the Prince walks us through a day from hell; where he endures humiliation, injury, and ends up in jail while trying to get to work, only to be reminded it’s his day off. After easing in with a bit of hilarity, Ready Rock C checks in for “Rock The House”, a cut that practically belongs to him. In front of a live crowd, Ready Rock C lives up to his alias the “Human Lindrum”, by masterfully recreating beats, melodies and sound effects with his mouth, at the request of The Fresh Prince, who also backs his play by rhyming and harmonizing. “Taking It To The Top” moves with measured precision; kitted by choice bits of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, and featuring clever wordplay and light boasting from The Fresh Prince, and scratching from DJ Jazzy Jeff that’s so nimble and subtle, it sounds like digital editing instead of sounds from human hands. And Jeff takes center stage on the banger “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff”, a textbook turntablist expedition where Fresh Prince big-ups his DJ, lets Jeff finish his bars with word breaks; and then eggs Jeff on as he manipulates the mixer. One listen to this track and you’ll know exactly why they call Jeff ‘The Magnificent’.

Rock the House ends with a handful of memorable curveballs. “Just Rockin”, one of the album’s best cuts, shakes the speakers and pounds the concrete. Both DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince are in rare form on this track; with Fresh Prince getting his swag on and dropping nimble bars while Jazzy Jeff crossfades brilliantly on the wheels; and Ready Rock C also gets some burn, by supporting the volcanic backdrop with his beatboxing. Philadelphia femcee Ice Cream Tee makes her wax debut on “Guys Ain’t Nothing But Trouble”, an answer record to the crew’s first single, where Tee takes both Jeff and The Fresh Prince to task for their musings about females on “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble”. The instrumental “A Touch Of Jazz”, from which Jazzy Jeff’s production outfit would later take its name, is a sterling odyssey of sound, where Jeff cuts with verve and displays his knowledge of music’s past; splicing samples from Marvin Gaye (“T Plays It Cool”), Bob James (“Westchester Lady”), Donald Byrd [“Change (Makes You Wanna Hustle)”], Bobbi Humphrey (“Harlem River Drive”) and Grover Washington, Jr. (“Mister Magic”) into a stirring quiet storm collage. And the duo does a victory lap around playa haters on “Don’t Even Try It”, and bombs on everyone that fronted on them on their way up, only to sweat them after their record dropped.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were both quite talented; and their partnership was both spectacular and special. DJ Jazzy Jeff was renowned for his turntable abilities, and he lived up to his reputation. Jeff was considered without peer on the turntables; with hands like a machete and an excellent ear for music, general sound effects, and word breaks. And Will Smith – a.k.a. The Fresh Prince – one of the Golden Era’s most underrated lyricists, was the perfect counterpart for Jazzy Jeff. Whether weaving tales laced with wit, throwing rhyme-fighting darts, or switching flow speeds with ease, Fresh Prince had an impressive skill set, though he’s seldom credited for it.

In its time, Rock the House was a resounding success; that was the start of a prosperous career for its creators. The album sold more than 500,000 copies, and led to a run that, from 1987 through 1994, netted DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince 2 Grammy awards, several gold and platinum albums, and millions of dollars in income. This time period would not be without its travails though, as Will Smith would accuse execs at Word Up Records of threatening him with a .44 Magnum when he attempted to renegotiate his contract, and would be sued for libel by Word Up CEO Dana Goodman years later when the accusation was made public. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince would be extricated from their Word Up contract in 1987; and they recorded for Jive Records directly from 1988 through 1994, when they unofficially disbanded. Will Smith would go to the moon later in his career, with multi-platinum solo albums and a mammoth film career; while DJ Jazzy Jeff would help lead Philadelphia’s musical renaissance in the late 1990’s and early millennium, by nurturing unsigned talent through his firm A Touch of Jazz, Inc. Both together and separately, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince have carried the torch for Philadelphia, and served as proud ambassadors for Hip Hop in general. And, through this album, they also rocked the house for a spell. For these reasons, they’ve earned eternal props.

To listen to Rock the House, click here.

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