Will Smith: Big Willie Style!


There are A-list black actors. There are those lucky few who have made a successful crossover from music to acting – or the transition from acting to a musical career. And then there’s Will Smith. His early collaboration with his friend Jeffrey Townes (aka DJ Jazzy Jeff) led naturally to the runaway success of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which was not only built around Smith but reflected his life as a boy who had made the transition from the mean streets of Philadelphia to the man that Forbes magazine named the world’s most bankable star.

Born Willard Carroll Smith Jr. on September the 25th 1968 to Willard Sr. (a refrigeration engineer) and Caroline (a Philadelphia school board administrator), the young Will was raised in a home with his older sister Pamela and younger twins Harry and Ellen, in which education was of prime importance, so what his mother made of his decision to eschew a place at the internationally renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a career as a rapper can only be imagined. To say that she was displeased would undoubtedly be an understatement but, denied the benefit of hindsight, she might be heartened to learn that her son was no fool and his instincts were correct.

By the time that Caroline was trying to interest her hard-headed son in attending America’s most prestigious university Will had already met his chosen collaborator after being asked to fill in as ‘hype man’ for Jeff Townes when he was running the turntables at a house party on a few doors away from the Smith family’s residence. This proved such a success that Townes and Smith, even after Townes’s regular hype man turned up late to the party, decided that they should team up and work together.     

Will then signed up a friend, Clarence Holmes (aka Ready Rock C) to be the team’s beatboxer and it wasn’t long before Philadelphia based Word Up Records had released their first single ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble’, an amusing and good-natured rant that was notably free from the type of aggression and profanity that normally characterises rap. This successfully set the tone for Smith’s music career; perhaps those for whom N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton set the benchmark for rap and hip-hop weren’t impressed, but Will and Jeff’s light-hearted approach proved popular.

This early success attracted attention from Richard Simmons and Jive Records, who could see the value in this new, lighter version of rap propounded by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. The duo’s first album, Rock the House, had been released on the Word Up label in 1986 and was given a new lease of life when released on Jive in 1987 and, in 1989, the track ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ received the first Grammy for Best Rap Performance. Jeff and Will would go on to nail their biggest hit, ‘Summertime’ in 1991, which won another Grammy to seal their success. Smith has always maintained that he and Townes are still close friends, to the extent that DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince are remain a going concern because, “We never split up!”

This success had generated a healthy income which Smith, as a handsome young man about town, had no problem dispending with. In fact, it is alleged that he went on a lengthy spending bender, which was unfortunately bolstered by some money that he should have handed in to the IRS for his taxes. When NBC signed Smith to front a new sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in 1990 he was virtually bankrupt. 

Not for long, however, as this new vehicle quickly proved a hugely popular hit. Constructed as a vehicle for Smith, the concept (explained in the series’s theme tune) was that the main character, having enjoyed a somewhat rambunctious existence on the streets of West Philadelphia, had been encouraged by his over-protective mother to move in with his aunt, uncle and cousins in Bel-Air. The humour in the series was largely generated by the mismatch between the privileged existence of the California branch of the family and the new arrival’s ‘street’ attitude and the show proved such a success that it ran for six seasons between 1990 and 1995.

If Smith had been looking for a springboard to a more permanent acting career, then he had been very lucky to have attracted the attention of NBC, because offers started to arrive in earnest. What is generally accepted as his first major acting role was playing the key part of Paul, a confidence trickster who claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier, in Six Degrees of Separation. This was an inspired piece of casting since, not only did Smith have the acting chops to inject some real bite into the role, his good looks made Paul’s claim seem eminently plausible.  

However, it was 1997 that turned out to be a true annus mirabilis for Smith, with the release of the box office smash Men in Black, the theme of which also effectively launched his career as a solo musical artist. Cleverly using a sample from Patrice Rushen’s 1982 recording, ‘Forget Me Nots’ ‘Men in Black’ successfully gained extensive airplay on radio stations around the world and, in 1998, earned Smith another Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. Co-starring the vastly more experienced Tommy Lee Jones MiB, as it became known, gave Smith the chance to show off his considerable box office appeal. As Agent J, part of the government agency tasked with keeping an eye on Earth’s secret alien population, Smith’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld soon realised that his wife, a fan of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air who had originally championed his casting as Agent J, knew what she was talking about. ‘Men in Black’ and Smith’s second single release ‘Just Cruisin’’ were released on his first solo album, Big Willie Style, along with ‘Gettin’ Jiggy wit It’, thereby helping it to the top of the Billboard Album Chart. It also sold strongly in the UK and in South Africa, where The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had been hugely successful, as apartheid was swept away and a growing appetite for the possibility of black aspiration and achievement took its place.

Not all of Smith’s movie roles were as successful as MiB (he would reprise his outing as Agent J in MiB2 in 2002 and in MiB3 in 2012); 1999’s Wild Wild West, another Sonnenfeld creation, would prove to be a turkey, although it would give him a chance to produce another successful theme tune, not to mention act alongside self-confessed Shakespeare addict Kenneth Branagh.

Smith’s personal life was, like his professional existence, not entirely straightforward, his first marriage to Sheree Zampino lasting from 1992 until 1995. Despite having a son together (Trey would later appear in the music video for his father’s take on the Bill Withers classic ‘Just the Two of Us’) the couple’s marriage soon hit the rocks. In 1997 he married fellow actor, Jada Pinkett, with whom he went on to have two more children, Jaden (born in 1998) and Willow (2000). Willow soon gained her first movie role by playing her real father’s screen daughter in I Am Legend, a 2007 remake of the Richard Matheson novel of the same name. Any doubts that The Fresh Prince might lack the gravitas to pull off the spectacularly bleak role of Dr. Robert Neville, one of only a few survivors of an ill-conceived medical vaccine that wiped out most of humanity and left any survivors as vampiric mutants, were soon put to rest. I Am Legend proved to be a wise career move, with critics agreeing that Smith’s performance was “mesmerising”, with many commenting on his “graceful and effortless” acting style. Whether Willow’s participation helped him to invest the part with additional emotion can only be guessed at, but I Am Legend did brisk business at the box office, eventually making more than $585 million. Given that it cost $150 million to make, this represented a tidy profit.

In the meantime, Smith the musical performer continued to release albums, 1999’s Willennium building on the success of Big Willie Style and featuring his old mate, Jeff Townes. However, after he found increasing success as a leading actor, his reputation as a rapper who could still cut the mustard did begin to dip somewhat: 2002’s Born to Reign and 2005’s Lost and Found failed to reap the sales or critical success of their predecessors, although the latter did manage to achieve Number Six on the US Billboard Top 200 Albums and also charted in the UK.

The spectre of sci-fi fantasy has played a major part in Smith’s career and, in 2017 he landed the role of LAPD Officer Daryl Ward in Bright, which was described as an urban fantasy crime film. Although it was regularly streamed via Netflix the critics were less than impressed and it looked as though Smith would have to do some work to recapture the reputation that he had gained with I Am Legend.  

With his music career seemingly on hold, Smith must be hoping that he has another success in the can in the shape of Guy Ritchie’s live action version of the Disney favourite, Aladdin. Taking on the larger than life role of the Genie, voiced to great effect in the 1992 animated original by the late Robin Williams, Will was no doubt cast for his phenomenal energy and general likeability. Shooting wrapped at the end of January and the movie is slated for release in 2019.

Smith’s schedule is looking less hectic than it used to, which is probably due to a combination of a seemingly happy marriage, a feeling that he has more than adequately proved himself and that he’s getting older – not to mention all that cash in the bank.

Choosing your projects carefully and not spreading yourself too thin? Maybe that’s what Big Willie Style really means.   

Big Willie Quotes!

“In my mind, I've always been an A-list Hollywood superstar. Y'all just didn't know yet.”

“There's so much negative imagery of black fatherhood. I've got tons of friends that are doing the right thing by their kids, and doing the right thing as a father - and how come that's not as newsworthy?”

“I know how to learn anything I want to learn. I absolutely know that I could learn how to fly the space shuttle because someone else knows how to fly it, and they put it in a book. Give me the book, and I do not need somebody to stand up in front of the class.”

“My school was 90 percent white, but 90 percent of the kids I played with were black. So I got the best of both worlds. I think that is where my comedy developed.”

“I've viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. And where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic.”

“If it was something that I really committed myself to, I don't think there's anything that could stop me becoming President of the United States.”

“It's quite highly possible that I have peaked. I mean, I just can't imagine what else I could do beyond this. It's really a bittersweet kind of feeling.”

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