Pretty much anyone alive who has a radio or TV knows the name “Will Smith.” Coming from humble beginnings, Smith paved a path for himself in the entertainment industry from rapper to sitcom star to Academy Award-nominated leading man.
Smith seems to excel in nearly every area he pursues, so why haven’t we heard his name as much lately? Read on to find out what happened to Will Smith and what he’s up to now.
West Philadelphia Born And Raised
Born Willard Carroll Smith Jr. on September 25, 1968, Smith was raised by his school board employee mother and refrigeration company owning father in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Early on, he was exposed to a hodgepodge of various religions, beliefs, and identities, growing up in a largely Orthodox Jewish and Muslim community while being raised Baptist and attending a Catholic school for elementary school, before attending his local public school, Overbrook High School.
Smith has an older sister, Pamela, as well as younger twin siblings, Harry and Ellen. The four grew up in Wynnefield, a neighborhood of West Philadelphia, raised in a middle-class household. Smith’s parents split up when he was 13, but he still managed to learn important life lessons from both that would aid him for the rest of his life: from his father, the necessity to have a strong work ethic, and from his mother, the importance of education.
Indeed, Smith clearly was well-educated and self-aware from a young age, as by the time he was only 12 years old, he was already sure he wanted to be a rapper. He began then and there trying to imitate established rappers he admired, like Grandmaster Flash, while simultaneously making the raps uniquely his by adding in some of his own comedy and personality.
Then, when Smith was 16, he met neighborhood DJ Jeff Townes at a party. Becoming fast friends, the two decided to become musical partners and collaborators, thus creating DJ Jazzy & The Fresh Prince, a hip-hop duo that would be the starting line for the long and impressive career Smith would have.
Getting Into Music
Under the guidance of Townes’s manager, James Lassiter, the two created a space that was all their own instead of trying to create a band that would go head-to-head with harder or edgier rap groups like the then-rising N.W.A. and other similar groups popping up on the West Coast.
Instead, Smith and Townes leaned into their skillsets, creating catchy and entertaining hip-hop and clean raps, working hard to sing about what they knew as they started their first album while Smith was still in high school.
Their first single in 1986, the funny and playful “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” was a success and, along with the group’s debut album Rock the House in 1987 (which made it onto the Billboard 200), helped pave the way for Smith to become a millionaire before he even turned 18. This made it a pretty simple decision to continue pursuing a career in music instead of going to college after his high school graduation.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince had a major breakthrough just two years later in 1988 with their album He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper. Their sophomore album helped them earn their very first Grammy Award in 1989 in the brand new category of Best Rap Performance for the song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The whole tracklist for the album is as follows:
- Nightmare On My Street
- Here We Go Again
- Brand New Funk
- Time to Chill
- Charlie Mack (1st Out Of The Limo)
- As We Go
- Parents Just Don’t Understand
- Pump Up The Bass
- Let’s Get Busy Baby
- Live At Union Square (November 1986)
- DJ On The Wheels
- My Buddy
- Rhythm Trax (House Party Style)
- He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper
- Hip Hop Dancer’s Theme
- Jazzy’s In The House
- Human Video Game
Their third album, And In This Corner… of 1989, was also a success. But it was not until their fourth studio album, Homebase, in 1991 that the group released the most popular single of their career, “Summertime,” which peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned them a second Grammy Award.
In 1993, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince released their fifth and final album together, Code Red, before parting ways and heading in different directions; It seemed that Smith had his eyes on a whole new ballgame.
With all of his success and rising star power, it was only a matter of time before Smith crossed over into the worlds of film and television.
After dipping his toe into the world of television in a 1990 episode of ABC Afterschool Special, Smith made a splash in a major way by making a deal with NBC to star in a sitcom loosely based on his life growing up in Philadelphia. This led to the still-beloved classic The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran from 1990 to 1996 and opened more doors for Smith in the entertainment industry than ever before.
In the midst of making Fresh Prince, Smith began breaking into film with starring roles in projects like 1993 comedy-drama Six Degrees of Separation and 1995 action-comedy Bad Boys. His post-Fresh Prince career saw even more film work and leading man roles, starring in blockbusters like 1996 sci-fi action epic Independence Day and 1997 sci-fi action-comedy Men in Black (as well as in its 2002 and 2012 sequel films).
His career in film continued with 2001 biographical sports drama Ali (for which he was nominated the Academy Award for Best Actor), 2006 biographical drama The Pursuit of Happyness (which, for the second time, saw him nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor), and 2007 post-apocalyptic action thriller I Am Legend, just to name a few.
While he had many other roles on film and a few on television besides the major ones listed above, Smith also notably made a name for himself in film and television behind the camera as a producer as well as occasional writer and director. He has produced films like 2008 drama The Secret Life of Bees (executive produced by his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith), 2010 martial arts drama The Karate Kid (starring his son, Jaden Smith), 2014 musical comedy Annie, and much more.
However, after many years in starring roles and putting out movie after movie each year, it seems that Smith is going back to where he started as he moves forward in a new chapter of his career.
Going Back to Basics
While his movies in the last half-decade or so have been fewer as well as not as critically acclaimed as some of his earlier films, Smith not only continues to put in solid on-screen work at a slower pace but also to do something new—by doing something old.
As he has cut back a little on film work, he has started getting back into music again. Smith has been making songs and featuring as a guest artist in songs like “Icon,” “Don’t Be Afraid to be Different,” “Live It Up,” and “Està Rico,” as well as the lead for songs like “Get Lit,” “Will (Remix),” and Aladdin number Friend Like Me and Prince Ali all in the last three years.
Amidst this, Smith continues his film work, with movies like King Richard and Emancipation in the works to be made and released within the next year or two. Smith has also been busy supporting his children Jaden and Willow in their own burgeoning careers as actors and musicians, as well as handling recent rumors and drama concerning his relationship status with his life partner, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Clearly, Smith is still out there living life and putting in the work, so fans of his music, movies, and television series can be happy and look forward to seeing even more from the talented star in the future.