There were plenty of rapper/DJ duos before DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Most notably, T La Rock & Jazzy Jay released the influential 1984 single "It's Yours," Def Jam's first release as a rap label run by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. There was Mantronix, consisting of MC Tee and producer Kurtis Mantronik, who had their first hit with "Fresh Is the Word" a year later. Well before that, '70s hip-hop pioneer Kool Herc was a DJ known for getting the party started with rhymer Coke La Rock.
But the Philadelphia duo of Jeffrey Townes and Will Smith went beyond their predecessors in several important ways, and set up a prototype of the rapper/DJ — or, as music-making techniques changed, rapper/producer — combination that would explode in the years following their success.
By the time Jeff and Will (and their third member, beatboxer Ready Rock C) released their first single in 1986, duos were a thing in pop music: Soft Cell, Erasure, Eurythmics. The prominence of musical pairs would continue to grow over the next few years, largely because of technology.
As a 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer article headlined "Pop’s New Dynamic Duos" pointed out, "The electronic age has yielded not only a new kind of music, via synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, digital audio computers, hardware and software, but it has also spawned a new kind of group: duos in which one [person] sings and the other pushes buttons."
This division of labor — one person on music and one on lyrics — worked perfectly in hip-hop, a genre that came out of parties where a DJ spun records and someone on a mic hyped up the crowd. But when it came to DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, unlike some of their predecessors, it was clear they were a team: Not only were they co-billed, but the DJ's name came first.
That's largely because Jeff was the virtuoso. While Will had the movie-star chemistry and funny stories, Jeff was the music obsessive and the innovative record-spinner who implemented new techniques — most notably, the robotic-sounding "transformer" scratch, which Will takes credit for naming in his 2021 memoir.
And Jeff was the one who proved his hip-hop bona fides by defeating all comers and being crowned the best DJ in the land at the 1986 New Music Seminar. It's a scene that rightfully opens up the very first episode of Smith's new podcast, a good indication of exactly how important that battle was to Will, Jeff and the entire hip-hop world at the time. (You can listen to Jeff's winning routines here).
Putting Jeff's name first in the pairing made sense in a number of ways: not only was he unimpeachably credentialed and respected, but the order itself was also a nod to the DJ's primacy in the origins of hip-hop, and in the group's home city of Philly. Whether all of those ideas were consciously considered in how they named themselves or not, they were all there in how the duo was considered.
The equality of members was emphasized from the very beginning in their music, too. Sure, their first single was the wacky, I Dream of Jeannie theme-quoting story-song "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble." But their second was a tribute to "The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff."
They kept that balance throughout their early career as a group. Their second album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, had it throughout — in its title, and especially in its songs.
The record marked another pivotal moment for rap, as it was the genre's first double album. The first two sides had plenty of Will's stories ("Parents Just Don't Understand"; "A Nightmare on My Street"), but sides C and D — billed as a "Bonus Scratch Album" — belonged almost entirely to Jeff.
Whether it was Will and Jeff's success, the overall prominence of duos across genres, or just something in the water, within a few years of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince getting their start, co-billed DJ/emcee duos were pretty much everywhere. There was Eric B & Rakim, whose first single came out the same year as Will and Jeff's, and Cash Money & Marvelous, who released their first single one year later.
We also can't forget L.A.'s entry into the sweepstakes, Rodney-O & Joe Cooley, whose 1987 single "Everlasting Bass" was the city's pre-gangsta rap anthem. X-Clan compatriots Unique & Dashan came out in 1989 and, like Rodney-O and Cooley, billed the rapper first. DJ Chuck Chillout & Kool Chip had limited releases as a team — one single and one album to follow it up — but they made an impact regardless. By the dawn of the 1990s, the equally billed DJ/rapper duo was a hip-hop trope.
It was a format that would morph over the years. First, into groups like Gang Starr, which consisted of a rapper and a DJ/producer subsumed under a single entity name. Later, into MF DOOM's album-length producer collaborations like Madvillainy (Madlib) and The Mouse and the Mask (Danger Mouse). And even today, into rapper/producer pairings like Drake and Noah "40" Shebib, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, or The Alchemist and essentially everybody in the world.
Without DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, the world might not have paid so much attention to all of these efforts. If there's one thing that Jeff and Will showed us, it's that in rap music or anywhere else, there's real power in teamwork.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince will reunite as part of "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop," which will air Sunday, Dec. 10, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. ET and 8 to 10 p.m. PT. Tune in on the CBS Television Network, and stream live and on demand on Paramount+.