A Breath of Fresh Prince : WHY NBC HAS HIGH HOPES ON A RAPPER FROM PHILADELPHIA
Will Smith, a 21-year-old rapper known as the Fresh Prince, just got a job with NBC. His job expectations, as implied by his boss, NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, are threefold:
* To bring the black street world of hip-hop to American TV audiences.
* To star in a sitcom bearing his name that will be the network’s first “hit-the-ground running hit” since “The Golden Girls” five years ago.
* To be a “big, breakout star” along the lines of, oh, say Eddie Murphy.
“Brandon Tartikoff is making me nervous, comparing me to Eddie Murphy and stuff like that,” Smith said after Tartikoff made the comments.
“Hey, hey, slow down a little bit.” He chuckled. “Let me practice first. This has all happened so fast my head’s spinning a little bit.”
Smith sounded exhausted, speaking on a telephone from a hotel room in Washington, D.C., where he was meeting affiliates to promote his new fall show, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
The sitcom is backed by first-time TV producer Quincy Jones. It’s about a funky byproduct of Philadelphia’s gang-infested streets who is sent out West to live with his wealthy upper-crust cousins, whose plush lifestyle has buried their black roots.
Smith quickly points out that the sitcom is not about rapping. It took me a while to make NBC understand-and they understand now- they don’t want rap. They think they want rap performers, but no. What they want is a hip show.
“Rap music-which a lot of white America doesn’t understand-rap music is not just a music. Rap music is a subculture: hip-hop. It’s a style of dress, an attitude, a look, a language. It’s more than just music.
For a middle-class kid from Philadelphia who never acted before, Smith is being asked to shoulder a load that might wobble the knees of Murphy himself. He’s network televisson’s first embodiment of a fresh generation. He’s a prime-time tap into the urban street market, which is pumping rap music, loud new fashions and an Afrocentric political consciousness into mainstream society faster than the booming bass tracks of a def jam.
Warren Littlefield, Tartikoff’s right-man hand at NBC, said the network had been searching for a way to catch the wild rap tiger by the tail for some time.
“We were all looking at Newsweek and Time and seeing these cover stories (about rap music),” he explained. “I was personally watching ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ and just feeling waves of something new and contemporary running through various streams of culture in America. We felt there was a drum beat going on out there, and we looked at our development (schedule) and said, ‘It’s not represented.’ ”
Smith, one-half of D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, endeared himself to kids everywhere in 1988 with the sympathetic rap hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” about a shopping trip he takes with his mother for back-to-school clothes. Although the duo’s record sales have slipped since then, the bubble-gum rappers are still hopping. Their 900-number hotline, which will be used to promote an upcoming album, has set a music industry precedent by grossing a reported $10 million since its debut two years ago.
“I think Will’s a star,” said Jones, a celebrated music producer/composer with 19 Grammys to his credit. “He really makes it pop. He’s got this magical sense of timing that’s unbelievable. Right now he’s not even thinking about it; he’s just doing his own thing. He’s going to be dangerous when he finds out where the cameras are.”
The real-life inspiration for “Fresh Prince” came from co-producer Benny Medina. “It was partially based upon the way I was brought up, a juxtaposition I was thrown into at an early age,” Medina said. “I came from a broken home in Watts, and I was in and out of juvenile detention facilities and foster homes.”
Medina was living at St. Elmo Village, a Los Angeles community home center, when Jack Elliot, a white TV film composer living in Beverly Hills with a wife and three kids, decided to give Medina a chance. “They let me move in with them,” he said. “I fixed up their garage in the back of the house and became part of the family. The deal was I had to keep a job, keep the grades up and be respectful of household rules.”
Medina wound up at Beverly Hills High School with the children of Motown kingpin Barry Gordy and eventually started working for Gordy as a junior executive at Motown. Today, Medina is head of black music at Warner Bros. When he and partner Jeff Pollack recently began developing TV projects, including an animated series that may go to Fox called “Hip-Hop Junior High,” Medina instantly thought back to his childhood.
“One problem I found growing up in a ghetto (is) you have a very limited perspective of what you think the world is. Moving from one extreme to the other gave me a real clear picture of how people get held back on the basis of their situation.
“We adjusted the premise of the sitcom to fit Will. My upbringing didn’t have much comedy in it. Most of the kids I grew up with, if they’re still alive, they’re in Watts right now. Four of the six cats I grew up with are dead. I’m 30.”
Medina met Smith in December at “The Arsenio Hall Show,” which was celebrating Jones’ acclaimed comeback album “Back on the Block,” when Smith asked Medina for directions to a Lakers game. Soon after, Pollack began hearing second-hand raves about Smith after the rapper’s performance on Disney’s 35th anniversary TV special for NBC. Director John Landis cast Smith in the special based on his energetic performance in the music video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
“Disney wanted to do a musical number,” Landis said, Rand they gave me a list of the same old boring names and said, ‘Choose one.’ I said, ‘Gee, the Disney song catalogue is so marvelous, let’s get somebody fresh.’ I suggested Fresh Prince and D.J. Jazzy Jeff, and Disney basically said, ‘Who? What?’
“But you should have heard them. They rapped ‘Supercalifragilistic.’ ” Landis broke into a brief rap-'Let’s take an umdiddly break...’ -and started laughing. “I was raving about them.”
Medina and Pollack contacted Smith, who joined the project immediately. “It was real,” Smith said. “That’s what everyone’s missing on TV. You’ve probably seen that Tide commercial where the kid stands up on the washing machine and starts rapping, ‘Mom my clothes are dirty/Gotta get some Tide/Go get some.’ America needs to see that there are intelligent, articulate black people, and what better place to see them than on television?”
The producers took their idea to -uincy Jones, who they knew was in meetings with NBC to develop TV projects. “I’m not a big fan of TV at all,” said Jones, who is also working on a syndicated talk show with Jesse Jackson. “But blacks have been repressed on TV for so long. When I was young, there was nothing on the radio for blacks. It was like black people didn’t exist.
“Now there’s such a vibrant new culture, in all its different hues, that has never been dealt with before. Everyone always thought of blacks in a sharecropper situation. A white person isolated in Iowa sees blacks on the TV set and thinks that’s what black people are like, and they’re always wrong. I want to change that.”
“Quincy understands rap music,” Smith said. “You know, he was pretty much there for the past 30 years of music. His input is valuable, because he understands, where someone else, you know, his age, wouldn’t. Whereas I can’t communicate what I’m trying to say to an executive, or someone I can’t explain what hip is to- they think hip is rap music-Quincy can. He’s a good mediator.”
“Fresh Prince” was in line with NBC’s fall goal of more youth-oriented programming. But by this time it was mid-March-late to get a new fall show going-and there was no script, no cast and no Fresh Prince. Their future star was in Indiana on a concert tour.
NBC wanted to see Smith “now” to find out if he could act. So Smith traveled 17 hours straight by bus and plane to make it to Los Angeles. A screen test was arranged at Jones’ home on his 57th birthday, the same night he received a lifetime achievement award from “Soul Train.”
“I went straight home from the show,” Jones said. “It was about 10 p.m., and 20 NBC cars were lined up at my house. They all wanted to see Fresh Prince.”
Smith emerged from an upstairs bedroom where he was studying a scene from an old sitcom pilot that was developed for singer Morris Day. NBC’s Littlefield described the scene: “You gotta know, if you’re a network programmer and it’s late in the pilot season game and you’re looking for a hit show, my heart starts to pound at this point. Will says, ‘OK, so I’m just going to, like, read this scene, huh? Now, who are the guys from the network?’
“Then he did a couple of little scenes from this failed sitcom script, and he just hit it. If he’s a ball player, he hit a home run. We stood up, hugged him. I kissed Quincy and said, ‘Thank you. Let’s go to work.’ ”
NBC brought in veteran writers Andy and Susan Borowitz to write the pilot (he was co-creator, executive producer and head writer of “Day by Day” and she was producer and writer for “Family Ties”). Smith was given the freedom to adapt his dialogue to suit his hip-hop lingo. Tartikoff even got in on the act, writing two jokes for the pilot.
Littlefield said the pilot tested at record-breaking levels with kids and teens, better than “The Cosby Show” did. NBC ordered 12 episodes to premiere in September on Monday nights.
“I think it’s rare in television or in film to find an actor and a character who leaps out at you,” Littlefield said. “As broadcasters we’ve been saying to ourselves for years, “Where’s the next Eddie Murphy?” What we found with Will is someone unique and distinctive unto himself. We took a contemporary musical artist and crafted a character who is a perfect fit. In no way is this an effort to put a rap show on the air. This is an effort to put Will Smith on the air. That’s who we’re banking on.”