In 1989, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince won the first-ever rap Grammy for their lighthearted single "Parents Just Don't Understand." That song's video also did very well on MTV, with Will Smith proving quite adept in front of a camera. When it was finally time for a network TV show to incorporate hip-hop culture, Smith was an obvious choice.
The show was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring Smith as a streetwise kid from Philadelphia whose mother sends him to the wealthy enclave of Bel-Air, California to live with his aunt and uncle. It aired on NBC, which also had The Cosby Show, a wildly successful sit-com about an upper-class black family.
NBC had Smith and his musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff write the theme song, which became unquestionably their most popular work. The duo had no trouble writing it: Jeff programmed some beats and Smith came up with lyrics that explained the show's concept in succinct rhymes (Jeff claimed it took them only 15 minutes).
The show earned decent ratings in its six seasons on the air, but attracted a young audience coveted by advertisers. Long after its run, it stayed on the air in syndication.
Running about 1:05, this is (to the best of our knowledge) the longest TV theme song of the '90s. It's a throwback to '60s TV themes like Green Acres, Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies that laid out the premise in the lyrics. By the time The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted, theme songs were getting shorter or getting cut completely, but other shows didn't star established rap artists, so it made sense to give Smith some room to rhyme.
In this pre-DVR age of television, the theme song had to be quite memorable if it was going to take up much time, and this one was: Just about everyone who watched it knew all the words. The lengthy open left less time for show content, but The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air didn't need much time for plot development. Much of the show revolved around the wild antics of Smith and his cousin Carlton, played by Alfonso Ribeiro.
You won't find this song on any of those "Greatest TV Themes" compilations, and it was never released as a single, at least in America. This is very unusual, since popular TV themes were surefire hits if they were extended and released as singles (here are some examples). It's likely that DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's record label, Jive, wouldn't allow it, since it would saturate the airwaves and detract from their record sales.
An extended version running 2:57 appeared on YouTube in 2007, with additional lyrics describing Smith's journey.
In 1992, a remix running 3:28 was released in the Netherlands, titled "Yo Home To Bel Air." It reached #4 and stayed on the chart for 15 weeks.
The show was created by the husband-and-wife team of Susan and Andy Borowitz. Recalling the first time Smith played him the song he and Jeff came up with for the show, Andy said: "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."
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince kept their hip-hop duo alive while the show was on the air; their biggest hit, "Summertime," was released after the first season. Jeff made frequent appearances on the show as Will's friend Jazz; his scenes often ended in being forcibly ejected by Will's uncle Phil.
The first episode used a longer version of the song, running 1:45 with these additional lyrics:
I begged and pleaded with her day after day But she packed my suitcase and send me on my way She gave me a kiss and then she gave me my ticket. I put my walkman on and said, 'I might as well kick it'.
First class, yo this is bad Drinking orange juice out of a champagne glass. Is this what the people of Bel-Air Living like? Hmmmmm this might be alright.
In subsequent episodes, Smith goes from:
I got in one little fight and my mom got scared And said "You're movin' with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air"
I whistled for a cab and when it came near The license plate said "Fresh" and it had dice in the mirror
Elements of this theme song were used throughout each episode of the show, often as transitions. These "cues" have writing credits assigned to Smith.
Quincy Jones was the executive producer of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but he is not credited for writing or producing the theme.