You're not going to find many people who've made their mark in three separate fields in an entire lifetime, but Will Smith has done it, with style, before turning 30. From The Fresh Prince Of Bel-air to Six Degrees Of Separation to blockbusters like Independence Day and Men In Black, will Smith has conquered the TV and movie world. He's also revived his musical career, performing the theme to Men In Black and seeing it go straight to #1.Will Smith appeals to all ages and ethnic groups -- and the amazing thing is, he's just beginning to hit his stride.
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CHAPTER ONENINETEEN-SIXTY-EIGHT was a pivotal year for race relations in America. The previous couple of years had seen tensions mount into riots at various points across the country--Watts in 1965, Detroit in '67. The Civil Rights Act might have become legislation, but words didn't seem to have made much difference in the way blacks were treated across the U.S.The Black Panthers, feared or revered depending on your viewpoint and color, organized themselves to help the ghetto communities in whatever ways they felt necessary, and 1968 showed them to be strong and fearless. And down in Mexico City, black American athletes gave the raised fist Panther salute while being awarded their medals. Politics had entered sport in a controversial way.The war in Vietnam raged more strongly than ever, even as peace marchers demonstrated against it. The first flowering of the hippie culture might have died, but its legacy was influencing a generation across the Western hemisphere. Caught between hatred and war and love and peace, the world was becoming a far more complex place in which to live than it had been just a decade before.Some, though, just got on with their lives, doing what they could, concentrating on work and family, letting much of what was going on in the outside world pass them by. Willard Smith and his wife Caroline were like that. They were hardly blind to what was going on--they couldn't ignore it, since it was all over the newspapers and television--but they had other things on their minds in 1968.Phildadelphia was one of those cities whose inner city seemed like a powder keg waiting to blow at the time--it was volatile and occasionally violent. But in the Winfield neighborhood in the southwest of the city where the Smiths lived, things were calmer. It was made up of middle-class black families who still had to get up for work every day. The row houses were kept neat. These were people who'd managed to make something of themselves, and were proud of it. They didn't want a revolution, just a paycheck.Willard Smith owned his own company, Arcac, which designed and installed commercial refrigeration equipment. Caroline worked at the Board of Education as an administrator. They had one daughter, Pamela, but now they were expecting another child.When Caroline gave birth to a healthy boy on September 25, it was a major event in the family. This was the first son, someone to carry on the name. And so he became Willard C. Smith, Jr.Three years later Pamela and Will would be joined by twins, Harry and Ellen, completing the Smith clan. It was quite a brood to pack into a row house, but the Smiths liked their neighborhood; they had friends there, it was home.From the beginning, young Will was quite precocious. Unusually, as Caroline Smith remembered, "He could talk before he could walk," and once he'd found his voice there was no shutting him up. Each night his parents would read to him, and the Dr. Seuss books became a firm favorite at bedtime, with their nonsense and clever rhymes. They might even have had a subconscious influence on what he'd end up doing as a teenager, as Will noted many years later."If you listen to them a certain way, books like Green Eggs and Ham and Hop On Pop sound a lot like hip-hop."Certainly Will was adept with language from a very young age. But he also showed an quick sense of humor, something that every member of the Smith family seemed to have."I was blessed with a really, really funny family," Will said. "Dinnertime was like a nightly laugh riot."The humor could be verbal, or any of the antics young boys in particular seemed to find hilarious."Will did the gross things kids do, like put straws up his nose," younger sister Ellen remembered.The Smiths were secure in their world. The parents worked hard every day, always giving their best, and that was the ethic that they strove to pass on to their children. You could have fun, but this was a life where you had to work, to love God and the church.To Willard Smith, part of loving his kids was discipline. He had a very strong moral sense, and felt his offspring needed firm boundaries, limits on their behavior, and to immediately recognize the difference between right and wrong. And if they went beyond them, they knew what to expect. Caroline might be a softer touch, but with their father there was no chance of getting away unscathed."My father was the man with all the answers, the disciplinarian," Will told TV Guide. "He did his shaping by taking little chunks out of your behind."But even when he was being spanked, Will wasn't about to let his humor vanish into tears."Will was punished first because he's older," said Harry. "Then he'd go around a corner and make faces so we'd laugh--and we'd get punished worse."Hands might have hit backsides from time to time, and Will Sr. might have been tough on his son, but it was all done with love. And in return Will Jr. gained an incredible amount of respect for his parents."There are individual personality traits of celebrities and sports stars and people I admire," he revealed years later as an adult, "but the only people I ever idolized are my parents."His maternal grandmother, Helen Bright, was also an important figure in his young life. She was active in her church, the Resurrection Baptist. She was "the woman ... who put together the Easter egg hunt and the plays and the programs for the holidays" and made sure the Smith children were "in all her little plays."Church on Sunday was a part of growing up, accepted without question.From an early age the idea of God was in Will's mind. But, as with most children, it remained fairly abstract until the family took what was really the vacation of a lifetime, an automobile trip across the United States."When I was about seven, we drove cross-country and saw Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore and the Alamo and the Grand Canyon. You see something beautiful, bigger than you, it mellows you, changes your attitude for life."It was an experience that couldn't help but stay with him, one that truly brought home the idea of something much bigger and grander than himself. Fourteen years later, when some of his friends were coming out to L.A. to visit, Will (then beginning his tenure as star of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" insisted they drive across the continent to understand things in the same way he had.Although Caroline Smith worked for the Board of Education, she wanted something better than a standard public school education for her own family. While it wasn't the easiest thing to afford with four kids, she insisted on them going to Catholic schools, where the grounding in essential subjects would be much better.From kindergarten until eighth grade, Will went to Our Lady of Lourdes. He proved to be an adept student, shining in math, science, and English, where his writing--particularly of poetry--received high praise, which encouraged him to keep doing it.But there was another side to Will at school. The sense of humor he displayed with his family at mealtimes couldn't help but peek through in the classroom, where the other kids proved to be a wonderful, captive audience.It made him, as he rapidly discovered and enjoyed, the center of attention."It's always been fun for me to tell a story and make people laugh," he explained in Cosmopolitan. "I've always been a show-off, and uncomfortable when people weren't looking at me."Looking at him was something the others couldn't help,since, by his own admission, Will had a slightly odd appearance."When I was little, everybody always told me I looked like Alfred E. Neuman, the weird guy on the cover of Mad Magazine. I always had the square-looking fade hairdo, and I liked it, even though it made my ears stick out. One guy once told me I looked like a car with the doors open."But being the clown took away from his looks. Having the joke, the story, the right line meant he was going to be accepted for his words and his humor, rather than victimized because he looked odd.At home, though, he knew exactly where to draw the line, and there wasn't anyone--schoolmate, friend, anyone--who could get him to go past it."Even with peer pressure, there wasn't a friend I had who could pressure me to do something I knew would get me in trouble with my father. My father had so much control over me growing up--I didn't have too much of an opportunity to do things the wrong way. My father was always in my business. He always knew everything I was doing!"One thing the whole family was involved with was music. Caroline was a good pianist, and there was a piano in the house. Will, with a strong ear, soon began to pick up bits and pieces, and it wasn't too long before his mother began teaching him the basics. But it was the drums, and rhythm, that really fascinated him. A set in the basement gave him the opportunity to learn, and much to the consternation of everybody else, he started to teach himself.More than anything else a person can play, the drums require the coordination of all four limbs--no easy task, particularly for a young boy. But Will managed it. While he was never in the professional class, he could sit down at a drum kit and not seem like an idiot banging around.All the kids were encouraged to play, and the family even formed a small ensemble, playing jazz for their own amusement. It was a regular part of family life, as Will noted."There were instruments around the house, and I just played a little of everything."While he showed some talent, he didn't seem to have the motivation to really practice on any one thing. To him, messing around like this was just something the Smiths did; he never saw himself as a musician. When he was ten, Will Sr. bought him his own stereo, and he could begin listening to the funk that was the burgeoning black music scene in 1978.The Smiths were a very close-knit family. It was all for one and one for all, well-illustrated by something that happened when Will was nine years old." ... My older sister (Pamela) must have been about fifteen. Some guys pulled a knife on me and took my money when I was coming home from school. I came in crying and my sister asked me why. I told her and she right away grabbed a baseball bat. We walked around for four hours looking for these guys. She had no concern for her own safety. Somebody had done something to her brother and she was going to do everything in her power to make sure they never did it again."They never did find the thieves, but in some ways it didn't matter; this was a family with a great deal of love for each other.Of course, there were plenty of things about which Will Sr. and Caroline needed to educate their children, and drugs, a problem which had barely existed when they were young, was one of them. But his father gave Will Jr. a graphic lesson about them that made a deep enough impact to last until the present day.He put his son in the car and drove him through Philadelphia's skid-row area, a place the boy had been warned away from."He pointed to the bums sleeping in the doorways and said: 'This is what people look like when they do drugs.'"It was all Will ever needed to hear.
In 1979, barely twelve years old, Will Smith underwent a life-changing experience. He was listening to the radio one day and a song came on by a band called Sugar Hill Gang. It was called "Rapper's Delight" and it was unlike anything that had entered his suburban Philadelphia world before. It had a beat as huge and funky as the music he loved, but over the top people were talking, rhyming, being funny.It had never occured to him that you could talk over the top of music, let alone do it this way, with humor. Immediately he was lost to the whole idea.It was rap, of course, and "Rapper's Delight" was the first record in the style to make any kind of commercial impact; indeed,' it made a huge commercial impact, not only in the black market, but all across the board. To many it seemed like a novelty--the extended version ran some fifteen minutes, unheard-of at the time--but to others it was a clarion call.Rap, in the days before it became known as hip-hop, was still a young form--street music, served up at parties and clubs in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and even in Manhattan. It was music that had taken its inspiration both from the "toasters" of Jamaican music (who were, by and large, the first rappers), and those who'd learned it was possible to take existing records, mess around with them on the turntables, and create a sound that was completely new. In New York it had been going on for a few years, slowly developing, with people like Kool Here, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash leading the way by playing the music and starting breakdance "crews." But it had remained quite underground, mostly a ghetto music, until Sylvia Robinson, who ran Sugar Hill Records in New Jersey, heard a bootleg tape of some live rap, and saw its commercial potential.The Sugar Hill Gang was made up of three rappers, Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee, all trying out outdo and outboast each other as they took turns at the mic. The background took what had been a huge hit for Chic, "Good Times"--a song familiar to so many listeners--and used it as a bedrock for the words.The refrain in the lyrics helped popularize the term hip-hop (supposedly created by Bronx rapper Starski the Love-. bug). It wasn't even really representative of what was truly happening in the music, according to Grandmaster Caz."It didn't represent what MCing was, what rap and hip-hop was. It didn't represent what it truly was, but mainstream and nationally, it was everyone's first taste of what hip-hop was."It hadn't even been the first rap record (that credit went to the Fatback Band), but with selling two million copies worldwide, and being played endlessly on urban radio, it might as well have been. For Will Smith in Philadelphia, it was his first taste. And he was immediately smitten."I started rapping as soon as I heard that first song. I rapped all day long until I thought my mom was going to lose her mind! Music, after all, has always been in my heart. At first, I did it as a hobby and I enjoyed it and got really good at it. When you enjoy what you do, you're going to get really good at it. And I just concentrated on it."For Will, it offered the perfect combination. In school, he was good at English, at using words, and he'd been writing poetry. He could crack the class up with his humor, and he loved being the center of attention. Nothing brought all that together like being a rapper. And suddenly, particularly among black youth, rap was the music of choice.As Jeff Townes, who in a few years would become better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, Will's musical partner, explained,"When rap came out, there was this buzz: This is something new. We never heard this before, but somebody made this especially for us. This is our music because our parents don't like it, our grandmothers don't like it. But we like it."In the wake of "Rapper's Delight," hip-hop was everywhere. Overnight a whole string of records started to come out, some good, some bad, and some that took the art form further. In the hands of the Sugar Hill Gang it had beenparty ...
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