WILL SMITH

Will Smith Biography
Review The Artist (2)

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The Artist Formerly Known As The Fresh Prince, or just plain Big Willie. None of these snazzy monikers can begin to fully describe Will Smith. A natural in an information crazed age - warm, whimsical, telegenic, charismatic -- Smith has cut a trail across an increasingly complex electronic frontier: LP, CD, MTV, NBC, CD-ROM, and DVD. He's a multimedia phenomenon with a million-dollar smirk. But through his various incarnations - rapper, actor, box-office deity - Will Smith has constantly challenged himself.

So a return to the world of music was almost expected. Consider for a moment, however, when Smith began rapping at the age of twelve, hip-hop was a small part of the Black culture, but over the last twenty years hip- hop has become an international commodity.

Smith was troubled by the escalating violence associated with hip-hop and the tragic deaths of Tupac and Biggie. Frankly he was unsure of his role. "That was a large part of why I didn't make a record," Smith explains. "It was like I don't even wanna rhyme. I made records in my crib. I thought that if this is what the world is going to, then I don't think there's any place in there for me." On his very first solo album, Big Willie Style, Smith boldly takes a seat at the table.

Make room for the staccato delivery that enlivened such old-school gems as "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "Girls of the World...." Big Willie Style is an apt description of his steelo. Unlike his contemporaries, Smith doesn't boast about his European fashion rags or swilling Cristal. Instead, he mocks our own fascination with celebrity. Yet he does it Big Willie Style, with gratitude, humor, and humility. "I wake up everyday and life is just damn good", he explains. "It's just good to be me. I wake up everyday thanking God."

But query Smith on the Big Willie lifestyle, and he has a different definition. "Being a Big Willie is not about what kind of car you drive, it's not really that. Being a Willie is in your attitude. Being a Willie is based on other things, so-called Willies use different measuring tools than I use. For me, the ultimate Willie tool, the Willie measuring stick, the Willie litmus test is intellect. I always appreciated Chuck D, Melle Mel, Rakim, and KRS-One for their intellect. There's thought in their rhymes, a lot of times you see people, these so-called Willies not coming up with anything."

From his very first steps, Smith's life has been a Capra-esque screenplay. A native of West Philadelphia, Will Smith II was born to a working-class household, his father a refrigeration engineer; his mother, a school administrator. As a gradeschooler, Smith began hearing faint rumblings from up north, the Big Apple, more specifically, The Bronx. Eager to duplicate these sounds, he became a student of rhyme. "I bought my first rap record when I was twelve, I guess that was like 1980, when Sugarhill Records and Enjoy Records were all there was," Smith recalls. "If it didn't have either one of those labels, then there was no need to buy it."

Behind the kick drum of an 808 and a sample of TV golden-oldie "I Dream of Jeannie," Smith and turntable wizard DJ Jazzy Jeff spun a new brand of hip-hop, devoid of bombastic politics or exclusionary rhetoric - it was pure adolescent angst ("Girls of the World Ain't Nothing But Trouble"). Smith followed with more playful ribaldry on the pair's inaugural album, 1987's Rock The House, while DJ Jeff introduced a hyper-kinetic form of scratching called "transforming" that few dared to challenge.

Early on, parents championed Smith and Jeff over "Parental Advisory" branded hip-hop, inevitably broadening their appeal, as well as their fan base. Dubbed a soft-core rap act, the preternaturally gifted Will and Jeff made the industry as a whole sit up and take notice. The group's success led the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) to award DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince the first ever "Best Rap Performance" Grammy in 1988 (for "Parents Just Don't Understand"). The pair would go on to win the "Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group" Grammy in 1991 for "Summertime." DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince were ultimately responsible for the multiplatinum releases He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper (1988), And In This Corner (1989), Homebase (1990), and CodeRed (1993).

The infectious entertainment value of Smith's stage persona did not go unnoticed. Hollywood would soon be knocking. After Will Smith met media impresario Quincy Jones, a new television sitcom was born: the enormously successful The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Loosely based on the contours of Will's own personality - wisecracking Philly kid makes good - The Fresh Prince had a highly-rated six-season run. Looking for new challenges, the 25-year-old Smith expanded the range of his acting and entered the world of film.

He made his film debut in Where The Day Takes You, a gritty tale of L.A.'s homeless subculture. His next role was unabashed proof that a major new talent had arrived. In an adaptation of the Broadway hit, Six Degrees of Separation, Will morphed into Paul, a gay street hustler, who convinces a family of blue-bloods that he's the son of Sidney Poitier. Reviews of Smith's performance were stellar. More screen action lay ahead. For Bad Boys, a testosterone-fueled jaunt through Miami's backstreets, he buddied up with comedian Martin Lawrence.

Bad Boys convinced audiences Smith could throw a punch as well as he could a punch line. While playing a swaggering detective is one thing, saving the world is quite another. Nothing could prepare Will-lovers for Independence Day, the box-office champion of 1996 and one of the highest grossing films in Hollywood history. Who can forget Captain Steven Hiller's hilarious rejoinder "When we gonna kick ET's ass!"? Ironically, ET creator Steven Spielberg was producing another aliens-run-amuck adventure and Smith was his first pick. Released in summer '97, Men In Black would again give Smith the highest-grossing film of the year.

The best-selling Men In Black soundtrack put Will Smith back on the map as a recording artist: his raucous rappin' single of the title track was an international global smash while Will's rock video for the tune walked off with the MTV Video Music Award for Best Video From A Motion Picture. In the months ahead, Will begins lensing Enemy of the State, an action-thriller slated for a summer '98 release.

While the big screen served as a dramatic and lucrative playground, nothing compares to music, his first love. For him, hip-hop's allure is ever inviting. If the #1 global success of "Men In Black" was the appetizer, Big Willie Style is the full-course dinner. "This is the first time I've been able to make a record without any financial constraints. Whatever video I saw in my head; whatever producers I wanted to work with. I had everything at my disposal and this was my opportunity with no excuses."

Indeed Big Willie Style spares no effort or expense. Cameo frontman Larry Blackmon was brought into juice up his 80's classic, "Candy." The only thing missing in the studio session was him having the cup in," chuckles Smith. And it doesn't stop there, Big Willie Style rolls out a bevy of super producers including Poke and Tone, better known as the Trackmasters, in fine form on tracks like "Gettin' Jiggy With It," and "Miami" with its walloping beats and funk-inspired bass lines.

For those who thought Smith had forsaken his life-long collaborator, DJ Jazzy Jeff, perish the thought. "Don't Say Nothin'" and "It's All Good" return to the magic of those simpler earlier days. "We recorded it in Jeff's house," Will says. "We're not going in the studio, we're doing this in the crib." Peep some of his nimble free-style work on "Yes, Yes Y'all": "I rip rhymes for the flow of it/you know the show of it/not the Benz 600 four-door of it/I'ma rhyme regardless of earnin' long as my heart keeps yearnin'/I got's to keep burnin'." However, never far from earshot is Will's trademark sense of humor. Witness the character skits with Keith B. Real, voiced by Jamie Foxx. Real is "the brother who soon as he sees somebody successful has beef with it...you know a 'player hater.'"

Bringing it down a notch, Smith has penned a loving tribute to his son performed to a sample of Bill Withers' "Just The Two Of Us." "It's about capturing a piece of who I am. In ten years, I just want him to have something he could listen to....a snapshot of what was going in his father's mind." Smith also talks about Jada Pinkett, the woman in his life, on "Forever": "She makes me feel good, makes me feel that forever is a possibility," Smith gushes. This Big Willie is secure in revealing a tender side. "A lot of people don't even believe that."

Faith, family, friendships and the need for a challenge are the forces that continue to drive this fresh-faced wild-styled kid from Philly. He has confounded naysayers throughout his career. Big Willie Style finds the international superstar humble, but still at the top of his game. "Music is the most difficult creative form," says Will Smith. "Music is like a baby, you gotta nurture it, every second of your life has to be dedicated to the music. It's really a huge undertaking."