NBC needn’t have worried. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” proved immediately popular after its debut. Though the show was undeniably a sitcom, it often dealt with heavy themes. The season 4 episode, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” is still cited as one of the most emotionally affecting episodes of TV ever, and a high point of Will Smith’s acting career.
And the whole time it was transcending its sitcom framework, “The Fresh Prince” was bringing hip-hop culture to the living rooms of America. Will Smith, whose apparent corniness had thus far been a sticking point, suddenly found his non-threatening aura a benefit, perfectly placed to bring hip-hop to the masses. As such, the show used elements of Smith’s real life, including his name, his fashion sense, and his being from West Philadelphia. Smith’s style was about as overtly hip-hop as you could get — especially in the earlier seasons. Be it flipping his private school jacket inside out, his oversized shirts and pants, or the influence of Afrocentric style, Smith brought the look of hip-hop — particularly the more conscious variety — into the mainstream.
And there was, of course, the music. From the moment the title sequence started, the show wore its hip-hop influence on its sleeve. Smith’s opening rap not only became a popular title theme but one of the most recognizable songs of the ’90s, at least for the generation that grew up on “The Fresh Prince.” Even in the U.K., back when I dared to venture out into the hellscape that was nightlife on the South Coast, the “Fresh Prince” theme song would reliably find its way into DJ sets and usually got a bigger reaction than other songs.