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FACES

The Rap of D.J. Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince

July 24, 1988|DENNIS HUNT

This was supposed to be an interview witJ. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, the young Philadelphia rap duo with the hit single "Parents Just Don't Understand," from the best-selling Jive/RCA double album, "He's the D.J., I'm the Rapper."

But they had to fight to get a word in because their talkative manager, Russell Simmons, had tagged along. So did Ready Rock-C, the duo's human beat box.

"Russell's just here because he likes to ride in limos," said the Fresh Prince, pointing to their limousine in front of the West Hollywood restaurant.

Ignoring that crack, Simmons gushed, "These guys are the greatest, the greatest, simply the greatest."

Besides being the duo's foremost cheerleader, Simmons, who also manages Run-D.M.C., is one of the most prominent and respected figures in rap. Outspoken, fast-talking and wise-cracking, he came across as a shrewd, street-wise hustler. When he insisted, "You can't put anything over on me," it was no idle boast.

Fresh Prince, alias Will Smith, is a bright, lanky 19-year-old and a sharp street-corner poet with a terrific sense of humor. He didn't need Simmons' hype. The Fresh Prince is his own best publicist. With an impish gleam in his eye, he said:

"I don't think I can say this with humility, but I'm going to say it anyway. I write very good lyrics. We make great records. I don't think we can make a bad record. If we tried to make a bad record, it would turn out good."

Jazzy Jeff, 23, who handles the duo's instrumentals, is just as bright and personable, though less verbose and not equipped with a colossal ego.

"I'm the modest one of the group," said Jazzy Jeff, whose real name is Jeff Townes.

Jazzy Jeff had been working as a deejay for several years before meeting the Fresh Prince, who started rapping at 13.

"Grow up in any urban area--particularly a black area--and you're exposed to rap," said the Fresh Prince, whose nickname is a modification of an earlier tag, Prince Charming. "You can't escape it. Rap is the urban music. Everybody on the street is a rapper or a deejay or a beat box. Hip-hop is a culture. It's not just a music, it's a way of life. Rapping was natural for me because I've been writing poems and stories since I was a kid. I was good at it, so I kept at it."

Simmons barged in again: "And look what happened. He's turned into a great rapper. They're gonna change the face of rap, you just watch."

Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, both from the Philadelphia area, met in January, 1986, when Fresh Prince did some impromptu rapping at a local party being deejayed by Jeff. Soon after, they formed a unit that includes Fresh Prince's beat box and pal Ready Rock-C. A year later, they had recorded their first album. Their second album, "I'm the D.J., He's the Rapper," is on its way to becoming the year's biggest rap album.

"Rap needed a fresh, young approach," Simmons said. "Just. . . ."

The Fresh Prince burst in: "Russell, who's doing this interview?"

"All right, all right," Simmons said sheepishly. "I'll shut up. I'll just have some more of my fish soup and my drink."

Patting the slight paunch on his smallish frame, Simmons added, "I'm on a diet, you know. I've. . . ."

"Russell!" the Fresh Prince snapped again. Simmons finally shut up.

The duo's big hit single, "Parents Just Don't Understand," is a frivolous tale of an impetuous youngster whose transgressions include joy riding in the family Porsche.

"We wanted to write about something everybody could relate to," the Fresh Prince said. "I wasn't trying to appeal to a white audience or do anything particularly different. I was writing about what I related to, what I thought was interesting. It's from my own experience. My family didn't have a Porsche, but I know about Porsches."

Another of their songs is "Nightmare on My Street," about an amusing encounter with Freddie Krueger, the killer in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films. Like most of their songs, it's just good-natured fun.

This pair doesn't do tough, searing raps about the miseries of ghetto life. Their music is light, not angry. It's rap "Ozzie and Harriet"-style.

"We do rap from a different point of view," Fresh Prince said. "We make it fun. We make it universal. My point of view isn't limited. It's very broad. It's more than the black experience."

Their raps have been dismissed by some hard-core fans as soft and sissified. They are, detractors charge, pandering to the pop audience. "Some people consider us nerds," said Jazzy Jeff.

To Simmons, those were fighting words: "Don't worry about fools like that. What do they know? Jazzy Jeff and Prince are part of a new wave of rap. Any idiot can see that. A lot of people in rap are narrow-minded. Their opinions are stale. If it was up to them, rap music would stay where it is and grow stale."

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