Continuing with yesterday‘s pop-rap nostalgia thread…
It’s easy to see the appeal of the recent wave of seminal alt-rock band reunions just fine. For the bands, there’s money to be made, oftentimes more money than the band made on its first go-around; I sure don’t remember the Pixies headlining any outdoor shed-venues before they broke up. For the people who love the bands, it’s a chance to relive glory-days memories or a first-time opportunity to see the bands that influenced their favorite bands. And there’s an element of vindication to the whole phenomenon, too; the bands certainly deserve to soak in the kind of adulation that they might not have found on their first go-arounds. I’m crazy excited to see the reconstituted Jesus and Mary Chain, partly because almost every one of their songs is great but also party because I’m anxious to wash away the bad taste of the one time I saw the band shortly before they broke up, playing a perfunctory set to an indifferent crowd in a half-empty DC club. Still, there’s something discomfiting about the prospect of seeing middle-aged men pantomiming their younger, more passionate selves. It’s become an acceptable practice, certainly, sort of like how it used to be an unforgivable sell-out move to sell songs to commercials but now everyone is pretty much OK with it since it at least means broke-ass bands will get money in their pockets. This wave of reunions is understandable, but it’s not exactly inspiring, if that makes sense. So then what do we do with a reuniting group that plainly doesn’t need the money? Is that inspiring, or is it just ridiculous? Let’s talk for a second about the possible impending reunion of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
That reunion’s been rumored for a couple of years now, but now it looks like it might actually happen. I didn’t see this news item when it first ran, but apparently a couple of weeks ago, Will Smith had this to say to Media Takeout: “We always talk about doing a Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince record and a huge tour, we just have to clear the time to do it. Right now, the plan is we are supposed to go out on tour together at the end of this year.” Smith and Jazzy Jeff have always maintained tenuous connections even as Smith’s movie career has supernovaed; Smith supposedly shows up on a skit or two on the new Jazzy Jeff album, and Jeff also produced one track, the pretty good “Here He Comes,” on Smith’s 2005 solo album Lost & Found. I also have a vague memory of Jeff scratching away somewhere on a stage crowded with Sisqo and cowboy-hatted backup dancers when Smith performed “Wild Wild West” at the MTV Movie Awards years ago. Still, these past collabs aren’t exactly the same thing as a full-on reunion tour. As successful as the duo was, Will Smith clearly could be making a whole lot more money doing something else. At this point, he’s one of Hollywood’s few bankable movie stars, so even an arena tour would be a rough equivalent to Keanu Reeves turning down Speed 2 so he could tour clubs with Dogstar. Jeff doesn’t have anything like Smith’s mainstream profile, but he’s doing just fine as well. He’s maintained close ties to the Philly neo-soul community, and he’s had a hand in the careers of people like Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild, so he’s probably not having any trouble paying the rent. It’s also hard to imagine that Smith and Jeff have seen a sudden opening in rap’s landscape for a group like them; rap’s gotten further from their uber-clean crossover style every year since they broke up, and even pop-rap success-stories like the Black Eyed Peas don’t really sound anything like them. Smith’s last couple of solo albums didn’t sell particularly well. If this reunion actually happens, it’ll because the two of them actually feel like it, not because they sense a sudden opportunity.
More than that, though, the prospect has me pretty amped because DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince actually meant something to me during my formative years, something I won’t ever say about the Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. I’m almost certainly seriously herbing myself out for admitting it, but they were the first rap group I ever loved. When Jeff and Prince emerged, Run-DMC had already moved rap aesthetics in a distinctly middle-class direction, but Jeff and Prince pushed the music much, much further into accessible territory, working a storytelling style that made a whole lot more sense to the 9-year-old me than Slick Rick did. They may have had a few rough edges at the beginning (witness sort of annoying first single “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” wherein Prince punches an overly affectionate girl in the chin and then throws a trash can at her), but they ditched those way before I ever heard the group. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Nightmare on My Street” and “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” all advanced a light, self-deprecating style that captured millions of white fourth-graders like me, and album tracks like “Then She Bit Me,” which sampled the Twilight Zone theme, took that same style to much weirder places. The group’s straight-up party songs have also aged shockingly well, as Jeff’s new “Brand New Funk 2K7” with Peedi Crack attests. And if the live interlude from He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper is any indication, the two of them could get it done onstage. When Smith returned to rapping with “Men in Black” in 1997, I remember being excited about the prospect but totally disheartened by the utter lameness of the song and by the fact that he wasn’t using the Fresh Prince name. Music executives seemed to regard Smith’s rapping ability as another opportunity to sell movies, and so his themes for Men in Black and Wild Wild West were essentially no different in content or quality from something like Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks’ “City of Crime” from the Dragnet movie. (Actually, fuck it, I liked “City of Crime” way better.) Smith’s other big solo hits traded in Jeff for the TrackMasters and advanced a crossover style way balder and more toothless than anything he’d done before becoming an actor. Still, if his rapping skills haven’t completely deteriorated, this tour could really be something to see.
All these reunion tours are pretty much just nostalgia in action. And so Peter Hook’s big announcement today that New Order is finally broken up for real this time doesn’t really amount to much beyond the regrettable fact that I’ll never get to see them live, at least until the next time they decide to reunite. But in a lot of ways, reunions like the Pixies and New Order and the Jesus and Mary Chain work on a sort of borrowed nostalgia. These bands aren’t getting big audiences now because they used to be huge, though all of them were certainly successful. They’re getting back together because they’ve had powerful effects on the way music sounds now and because they want to reap the rewards from curious kids who have read about them or copped greatest-hits collections. That’s absolutely not the case with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, a group that was absolutely huge at their peak but which has had virtually no impact on today’s music. Somehow, that might make their impending reunion that much more noble.