How DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith created one of the decade’s catchiest TV theme songs—in just 15 minutes.
If you’ve ever heard the six words “In West Philadelphia, born and raised,” then you certainly know the other 344 words that go with them. The theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has transcended its roots as an NBC sitcom opener to become embedded in the cultural consciousness, both in the U.S. and abroad. (A single version of the theme found its way on the Netherlands’ Top Ten pop charts back in 1992.)
The song was written, of course, by Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, who were already a hip-hop duo with a Grammy under its belt — but it was Fresh Prince that took their careers to the next level. We asked Jazzy Jeff (still a DJ!) and series co-creator Andy Borowitz (that’s right, the same guy who now writes The New Yorker’s satirical Borowitz Report) to reflect on the tune’s enduring popularity.
DJ JAZZY JEFF: I remember being on tour [in 1990] we had a day off. Will said, “Hey, I got to jump a plane to L.A. because they want me to read for a TV show.” Twenty-four hours later, he came back and was like, “Hey, I just got a TV show.”
ANDY BOROWITZ: I was supposed to produce this pilot with Will, and the thing that had gotten the network very excited about Will was his video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” And so, when it was time to come up with a theme song I was like, “We’re basically doing the hip-hop Beverly Hillbillies here. Let’s not run away from that — let’s just go for it.” The whole pilot came together so fast, because it was very late in pilot season and we had very little time to throw the whole thing together. They probably wrote the theme song overnight. It happened very quickly.
JAZZY JEFF: We literally went into the studio and made the theme song in about 15 minutes. One of the things Will used to always say is the hardest part to come up with for a song is the concept, but the concept behind the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was already laid out. I ended up just going in and programming some music, and he wrote something and laid it down. I did rough mix and sent it in, and in about three weeks it was on NBC. In my mind, it was just kind of like, “Oh my God, so that’s how it works? It’s that easy?”
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BOROWITZ: To me, it was a hilarious scene: I was sitting behind my desk writing, and my assistant said, “Will’s ready to run the theme song by you.” And he came in and I just stopped him for a minute and said, “This is like a scene from a movie where the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist auditions his song for the white guy behind the desk who has no hip-hop knowledge whatsoever.” It really was that cliché of a scene. And he just rapped it in front of me, and from that moment it really didn’t change at all. Not that I would’ve felt very comfortable telling the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist what changes I, as a white guy, was going to recommend, but I really did like it.
JAZZY JEFF: You never anticipate that, that level of success. You know, people just know it. I do anywhere from 160 to a 180 DJ dates a year and I can assure you that I play it 98 percent of the time, just out of necessity. One of the biggest thrills with this song I had was Will and I performed at Live Aid and there was a million people on the Parkway in our hometown, in Philadelphia. We did the Fresh Prince theme, and there was a million people singing it. I don’t care where you are in this world. If you drop the theme song in front of 50,000 people on a beach in Singapore at a festival, everybody sings it. It’s everywhere.
BOROWITZ: I don’t think at the time anyone at the time would’ve guessed that it was going to have this kind of [legacy]. Because when you decide to do anything, you never say, “Oh, and 30 years from now people are going to be rapping this at bar mitzvahs.” You just don’t imagine that.
It’s funny, too — almost 30 years later, it’s become like this part of Americana. It’s sort of comfort food. But at the time, the network was really terrified because they had never done anything with a rapper before. They did not realize that Will had this kind of tremendous crossover appeal and they did not really know the distinction between, like, Will Smith and Luke Skyywalker [of 2 Live Crew] or Naughty by Nature. To them it was all terrifying. And the show that we actually replaced on NBC was Alf, so that puts into context where they were at that time. This was the most terrifying renegade thing they had ever seen.
You know, there’s no way to measure this, but is there a hip-hop song that more people around the world know all the words to? Probably not.
JAZZY JEFF: I never thought about it like that. That’s very, very interesting — Andy could very easily be right.