Chapter 1: Born and Raised
1 Born and Raised
The house on Woodcrest Avenue stood proud.
It was in a row of about forty houses and its concrete facade sat just up a dozen steps or so from the sidewalk.
It’s where his imagination would rumble, then tumble out of his head and into the world in a jumble of personal, private, funny, and silly machinations that only he knew. And often he kept it that way, sometimes telling only Magicker, his imaginary friend.
The street was lined with mature oak trees whose branches reached out and touched the ones across the way like ancient guardians protecting middle-class serenity.
He can remember the smell of the asphalt after a welcome summer rain tried to cool the center of his West Philadelphia world. Forty children would spill out onto Woodcrest most days. Ice cream trucks, snowplows, double Dutch ropes skipping off the sidewalk, chalk drawings faded by the sun, the plume of someone’s sweet cooking wafting on the evening air.
Football games in the street. Yo, out the street here comes a car!
Girls with colorful barrettes in braided hair.
Mommas calling to come home.
The water plug with its glorious geyser.
Hallmarks of an imperfect middle-class oasis in the safest place he had ever known. Even if the AC went out. Or you saw some roaches.
Woodcrest was home. A place to be loved. The touch of Gigi’s paper-thin delicate skin. Her smile on his soul for a thousand years. And a thousand more. A place to desperately escape the concrete of Daddio’s fists. The unbending iron of his terrifying, drunken will. A place to never leave. So he could protect his little brother, Harry. Always. Soothe his sister Pamela’s cries. Forever and more if she wanted.
A place to laugh and dance. Listen to records. Tell jokes. And eat cake on birthdays. And get presents, too.
To rewrite what had not yet happened. So he could always make Caroline smile. The safety of his mother’s love was never out of focus. Or in any imminent danger.
Will would do impressions. Wear silly clothes.
Home was a place to disappear from. Or into. For whatever reason. And he could. If only for a moment.
All he had to do was close his eyes.
“He Who Is Truly Articulate Shuns Profanity”
Willard Carroll Smith Jr.’s bedroom was at the top of the stairs. He had a preternatural ability not to distort the truth but to enact entire realities to escape, to taunt, and to entertain anyone with an ear, willingly or not. To most he was not to be believed.
His juvenile sense of wonderment was a source of both confusion and delight, and it would pour out through fantastic yarns that would almost work if only he could stay in character.
His rousing, throaty laugh could be heard three doors down, they’d say. Caroline, school administrator and mother, and Willard, a retired air force vet, raised him blocks from the city’s center. Caroline was a proud graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and would see to it that her children were as proud of their educations as she was. She quickly secured a position on the Philadelphia School District’s board. Blue-collar Willard Sr., Daddio to friends, started a company called Arcac, which installed commercial refrigeration systems.
Will’s grandmother Gigi, Helen Bright, demanded he revere women and, no matter how much he had moved the crowd the night before, show up on Sunday to morning service at Resurrection Baptist Church.
And, because granny said so, abstain from profanity at all times.
“He who is truly articulate shuns profanity,” she would say. And the boy did listen. What Gigi said was law.
A sister, Pamela, was already four when Willard Carroll arrived in this world on September 25, 1968. She waited in the living room at Woodcrest with Gigi until they brought him home in the bassinet from the hospital, which was six miles away.
It wasn’t quite a sitcom life—at least not like many aired yet back then—but it was pretty nice. Up those weathered concrete steps from the quiet tree-lined street, the three-story middle-class home in Wynnefield was warm and mostly loving, but discipline was paramount.
They piled into the living room on Sundays to watch Ron Jaworski heave bombs to Harold Carmichael as the Eagles played across town at Veterans Stadium, carrying the hopes of cooks, plumbers, and butchers on their bulky shoulder pads only to fumble them away. When the Sixers won the NBA championship in 1983, Will had found a hero in Julius Erving, Dr. J. Will would head to the courts and try, failingly, to hang in the air just as long as the Doctor.
The Smiths were disciplined in action and in finance, spreading their incomes surprisingly far through Caroline’s discount clothing finds for the kids and coupons from the Sunday paper for meat, groceries, and formula.
On his third birthday Willard pulled in quite a haul of toys, including a Fisher-Price See ’n Say, which teaches kids to identify farm animals, and a set of Lincoln Logs. Willard Sr. lay on the living room floor with Will, clad in plaid (a Smith family favorite pants) and a velour sweater, in front of a large floor-mounted stereo, and built little log cabins as the O’Jays oozed from the speakers.
When he was a little older, Will would tuck a ten-dollar bill in his pocket and ride his bike to Overbrook Pizza on North Sixty-Third for the best cheesesteaks in town. The grease that turned the bag translucent meant you were in the right place. It wasn’t long before they knew the floppy-eared kid by name. He would bicker with his brother and occasionally talk back to Caroline—a problem quickly solved by the threat of Willard Sr.’s belt—but seemed to stay free of trouble outside of the expected schoolyard skirmish, a constant of a young boy’s life in West Philly.
The outdoor courts at Tustin Rec Center were another refuge for young Will. He would often play pickup ball there, launching feathery rainbow jumpers. It was a spot he would later describe as hallowed grounds where he “got in one little fight and my mom got scared.”
But he wasn’t good. And not tough like his brother, Harry, either. Athletic ability had not so much betrayed him as it had never arrived in the first place.
His father’s grit for manual labor hadn’t been passed down, either. Will would sometimes work at the family’s refrigeration business but didn’t exactly display the aptitude that working-class Philadelphians had developed as a point of pride for generations. On one Saturday while working with his father, the elder Smith tore down a brick wall and told twelve-year-old Will and his nine-year-old brother, Harry, to rebuild it. The boys were aghast at the impossibility of the task, but reluctantly summoned the resolve to clear the rubble and begin brick by agonizingly heavy brick. Another and another until their forearms burned. They would mix cement and carry buckets. Then they began to rebuild. After school. After church. Before dinner. During the rain. It took them a year and a half.
“Now don’t ever tell me there’s something you can’t do,” said Willard Sr. upon the wall’s completion.
Will had a gift for making just about anyone laugh and a seemingly innate longing for the spotlight. It would take very little for him to unholster his charm—the threat of detention or to earn a smile from a cute girl—earning him the nickname “Prince” from his teachers at Overbrook High. His high, round cheekbones seemed to give him a look of perpetual bemusement, flanked by his wide, directional ears, which looked like a car with its doors open, only adding to his comedic persona. He perfected a bougie girl’s accent and the dramatic, over-the-top Oh no you dih-int mannerisms of an around-the-way girl. His exaggerated running man employed every muscle in his body to spasm simultaneously, punctuated by a silly, knowing smirk. He called it dumb dancing. Then he would stumble around drunk as if he’d been sucker-punched outside of a liquor store.
My brother you wanna take this outside?!
A real crowd pleaser was affixing the back of his hand to his forehead and fainting with an exasperated scream, which saw him dramatically flop to the floor in shock after a perceived slight.
It killed every time.
His ability to deftly imitate Muhammad Ali, classmates, Jesse Jackson, teachers, friends, and Billy Dee Williams were go-tos. Sometimes all he had to do was flail his floppy limbs. The daily one-man show that was the origin of his Fresh Prince identity won him waves of adulation from peers.
Sometimes you couldn’t tell alter from ego.
Where Will ended and Prince began.
Or if they did at all.
Adding “Fresh” was his idea.
Young Willard did not know it but he was on a collision course with a twenty-year-old rising DJ who would change his life.
“We Had No Idea How Big It Would Be, Not Even a Little Bit”
Jeff Townes made a name for himself lugging his Pioneer 1200 turntables and crates of records to block parties all over his Philadelphia neighborhood, flexing skills honed in the basement of his parents’ modest home on Fifty-Seventh and Rodman near Cobbs Creek Park.
Soon he was the neighborhood. His distinct style was almost as familiar as the Liberty Bell. Word began to spread of how he could scratch the record behind his back or with his elbow and keep a party going for hours. He would mix Motown with homemade beats. Sugar Hill with Chuck D’s booming baritone. Add quick time scratches to Earth, Wind & Fire.
Townes is credited with inventing chirp scratching, which combines the rapid-fire uses of the crossfader. Unlike his musically inclined older brother, Jeff didn’t (couldn’t) read music so much as feel it.
“Scratching is a percussive instrument,” he told the Philadelphia City Paper in 2002. “All I did was adapt. I have perfect pitch. Literally. I know the sound of sharps and flats. After that, it’s bars and beats, swing or straight, and me in the middle scratch-spinning.”
Townes’s reputation preceded him. Kids would jump on bikes to flock to his shows. Others came by bus or would simply walk. Aunties and uncles would watch from porches or street corners. Sometimes someone would open up a fire hydrant and draw the ire of the cops, who would break up the party.
Townes would soon graduate to local parks or the YMCA. Eventually his rep landed him on the ballroom circuit and he could be seen spinning most weekend nights at the Wynne Ballroom, on Fifty-Fourth and Wynnefield Avenue.
Just five bucks to get in. Ladies free.
Meanwhile, Will fronted a crew called the Hypnotic MCs, who would traverse downtown Philly looking to make a few bucks rhyming at local house parties. Heck, usually he would do it for free. The adrenaline rush and attention far exceeded the meager dollar amount. One night in August of 1985 he got a hot lead about a block party needing a host.
It paid thirty-five dollars.
Bet, he thought.
Will and Ready Rock C, his childhood best pal who had gained a rep as one of the best up-and-coming beatboxers in Philly, headed over.
Smith’s early zest for performance was born out of a desperation to please, derived from a constant need to impress his simultaneously loving and fearsome father. But his method was not born of charity or service but a lean on laughter developed out of the need to keep restless crowds on their toes. The jovial Fresh Prince persona was born.
“I just thought if I could lighten the mood I could keep everybody safe,” Smith told GQ in October 2021. If he could keep them laughing, maybe he and his mother and his siblings would be spared the beatdowns that could come from anywhere—neighborhood thugs, school bullies, his father.
It was a dark undercurrent to his comedic facade, one Smith would keep hidden for years. He wanted people to dance, smile, and leave exhilarated by what they had seen when they walked out of the sweaty basement party hotboxes he used to hone his skills.
And it was a great way to meet girls. He would twist humorous rhymes and deliver primal, comedic energy as if it were fired from a T-shirt cannon.
The reaction from being onstage, clutching a microphone, knowing people were there to see him, was intoxicating. It had meant to be secondary to the safety his affable personality afforded him. But before long he couldn’t get enough. Will would perform anywhere people would have him, often just for gas money.
On a good stretch he could scrape together enough cash—and combine it with the money he made at his summer job at the ice factory—for a trip to the Gallery Mall for a nascent Fresh Prince–worthy wardrobe: sweat suits from Le Coq Sportif, Ellesse, or Sergio Tacchini, capped off by a pair of Filas or Barkleys.
Fellow hip-hop artist Townes had caught wind of Smith’s exuberant style and unbridled ambition, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1985 that their paths crossed in full. Townes had booked a small gig up the block from Will’s house but found himself in a predicament when his MC failed to show.
Smith, who was in attendance, seized the moment.
“He asked if he could get on the mike,” said Townes in a 2020 interview. “I said come on up and the chemistry was instant.”
Afterward, he told him he had another party the following night.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” asked Townes.
“Nothing,” replied Will with a shrug.
The invitation turned into a string of seven or eight consecutive nights of house parties, dank bars, and neighborhood get-togethers. They each knew they had found what they were looking for in a musical collaborator. Said Jeff to the Philadelphia City Paper in 2002, “How did he know I was about to bring this record? How did I know his punch line was on the fourth bar and to drop out? Plus, we were the biggest jackasses each other knew.”
They were friends who could finish each other’s sentences and had interlocking senses of humor that fit like jigsaw pieces. They were musical collaborators with tireless work efforts and lofty goals.
“It was perfect,” said Smith. “It was just so natural.”
Soon DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince had developed a reputation for throwing packed, raucous, high-energy shows all over Philadelphia. For live shows they added beatboxer Ready Rock C, Smith’s friend from the neighborhood. The size of their crowds and venues grew with their reputations. So did the fees they commanded.
The Fresh Prince, just like Willard on Woodcrest, eschewed profanity, misogyny, and felonious hood tales. It was maybe a touch out of step with the mainstream hip-hop vibe of the era (Schoolly D and DJ Code Money ran a harder game in Philly at the time), but parents came out in droves to chaperone children to concerts and drive his record sales.
Their first single, 1985’s “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” was a lighthearted, bouncy ode to a healthy distrust for girls. The music video saw a comically frustrated Prince on the run from a jealous boyfriend and walking home in the freezing cold in his underwear after a date had gone awry. Released on Philadelphia-based Word-Up Records, it quickly garnered radio play and won approval from teens and parents alike; the latter apparently could understand the value of music both palatable to kids but not in need of an explicit-lyrics advisory.
Smith was four months shy of his eighteenth birthday and still thirty days from graduation. He dreamed of worldwide tours and the adulation of millions but still had to go to class as cars with boomin’ systems drove by Overbrook blasting his teenage anthem. After school he’d screech off in his brand-new cherry red, twenty-thousand-dollar Camaro IROC-Z to Jeff’s, then grab some cheesesteaks and get ready for the night’s gig.
Its popularity put them on the radar of Def Jam’s Russell Simmons and sent them on tour all over the country and even to London.
While in the United Kingdom they decided to make their first record, Rock the House. It took two weeks to write, record, and mix the album. Jeff came up with the beats and arrangements and worked in the scratches. Will wrote the lyrics based on how the beats and bass lines resonated with him.
“At night we would go to the studio and put it together,” said Jeff. “We were making it up on the spot.”
The unexpected success of the record was as refreshing as the seat-of-your-pants production sessions.
“We had no idea how big it would be, not even a little bit,” Jeff told VladTV in 2020. “If my friends heard it and liked it that’s cool.”
By 1987, life was as sweet as it could possibly be for DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. They were the toast of hip-hop. Their album I’m The Rapper, He’s the DJ spawned the smash hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which topped out at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 list and earned Smith the first-ever hip-hop Grammy.
A month before he even graduated from high school, Will Smith had a hit single in constant rotation on the radio.
The possibilities were endless. Until they weren’t.
“Basically, It Went Double Plastic”
Mainstream hip-hop was in its infancy and abided by clearly demarcated lines that separated specific genres—gangsta, conscious, and pop—never meant to be cross-pollinated.
As hip-hop’s novelty began to give way to a legitimate art form, finicky listeners’ tastes jumped from one hot thing to the next. There was a demand for authenticity, hood tales, and grit, which boosted the street cred—real or imagined—of both the artist and listener.
Bubblegum rappers were tossed into the ash bin of irrelevance. Too safe. Too catchy. Too everything. Too nothing. And that’s how the G-rated persona created by Will Smith, this goofy one-note MC, again found himself on the outside looking in.
Public Enemy were hard-driving revolutionaries whose thundering music railed against police brutality, systemic inequality, and the prison industrial complex, themes that perfectly dovetailed with the ambitions and philosophy of fellow Long Island native Spike Lee. The three contemporaries—one duo, one director—played off against each other to build their credibility and aesthetics in music videos and photo spreads.
Around the same time, Rakim, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane ushered in an era of cutting-edge lyricism, with songs tied heavily to authenticity, survival, and an almost romanticized street savvy. Artists cultivated tough exteriors with razor-sharp, unbending stories of hopelessness while never straying too far from the original, South Bronx hip-hop ethos—move the crowd. These MCs rarely showed emotion and never smiled.
Then a tsunami of gangsta rap barreled in from the West Coast in all-black gear, Chuck Taylors, and Raiders hats. Striking imagery—AK-47s and sawed-off shotguns—with lyrics to match would give birth to the PARENTAL ADVISORY sticker for explicit lyrics.
Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad ’cause I’m brown
There were stories of violence, poverty, and retribution against police officers. Listeners with East Coast, suburban sensibilities could almost scarcely comprehend the shocking lyrics and the velocity with which it was served up.
Bubblegum rap was simply not going to do it.
But Smith held firm. He doubled down on his third effort. More fun. More silly. More everything that made He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper a smash.
The result, his third studio album, And in This Corner…, flopped. His and Jazzy Jeff’s almost epic lack of focus did not help. They had dashed off to the Bahamas to record, Smith’s first visit to the legendary Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where Mick Jagger and David Bowie had laid down some of their most iconic hits.
Smith had booked three weeks to complete the album but instead took a vacation while burning through “$10,000 a day on rum punch and chicken fingers” for twenty of his closest friends. After two weeks they had yet to record a single song and were $300,000 in the hole.
Upon returning to Philly they had three weeks to put together a listless, tired, directionless album of the kind of music people had become tired of. Its lone memorable song was “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson,” a comically infused ditty where a delusional Smith attempts exactly what the title suggests. The video starred Tyson and a then-unknown Chris Rock and the song reached a tepid 58 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Basically, it went double plastic,” Smith recalled of And in This Corner… in a 2018 video on his YouTube channel.
To promote the album the record company put together a hastily prepared, poorly attended promotional tour that cost more money than it earned. Making matters worse, his relationship with Ready Rock C, the unofficial third member of the group, was falling apart in real time. The lyrics remained G-rated, but beatboxing, the Prince had determined, was no longer in style.
They clashed incessantly and nearly came to blows, until C was no longer even invited on stage at all. By the time they returned to Philly their longtime friendship was over. Jazzy Jeff, defeated and broke, retreated to the safest place he knew—his mother’s basement.
(In 2002, Ready Rock sued Smith over claims he is owed $5 million in royalties for the Grammy-winning “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” “It’s a song that I didn’t perform on, but I did co-write it,” he told the Boston Globe. “I’ve seen a number of performers who made it to stardom, but still took care of their genuine hometown friends. It hurts me to find that Will isn’t that type of person.” The case was settled without any admission of wrongdoing by Smith.)
For Smith his rap dream was all but over, but fame was still the mission. He had one option left.