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‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’: Anatomy of a Perfect Theme Song

All it takes is a few words and boom—you’re right back in the mid-’90s, watching Will Smith play ball in West Philadelphia

Cody Pearson

This Sunday, Peacock will premiere the first episode of Bel-Air, a contemporary, dramatic reimagining of the beloved ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. To mark the occasion, The Ringer is looking back on the legacy of the original series and the influence of the star who defined it, Will Smith. This is a story all about how pop culture got flipped, turned upside down. Welcome to Fresh Prince Day.

Writing about the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is very easy to do—and also very hard to do. It’s very easy to do because, I mean, everybody knows it. There’s no part that I have to set up or explain or provide context for. If I type out the words “Nowwww this is a story all about how …” all of the rest of the pieces instantly snap into place in your head. You can hear the bass kicks and the little tinks and the snares. You can hear the keys that’ll come in later. You can hear Will Smith, with that perfectly temperatured and welcoming voice of his, unrolling the words for you at precisely the right speed.

You can see the chair spinning in front of the graffiti’d backdrop. And you can see the cartoonish police officer admonishing Will for spray-painting on the wall. You can picture the lazy double-team the defenders tried to trap Will with on the basketball court. And you can see the errant shot ricochet off onto the one guy’s head. And you can see Will being picked up and helicoptered around; Will’s mom telling him he’s moving to Bel-Air; the taxi with the “FRESH” license plate; the highstep move Will does when he heads toward the Bel-Air mansion. You can even see the swirl move thing Will does with his head after he knocks on the door.

It’s all there. In your head. Accessible at any point. An amalgam of words and sounds and images that feel less like words and sounds and images and more like a red carpet pointing you toward some very potent and personal nostalgia.

As a storytelling device, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song is unimpeachable. The short version (which is the version that accompanied the show for basically the entire stretch of its six-season run) is just barely over a minute long, but by the end of it you know: who Will Smith is; where Will Smith is from; what Will Smith’s nickname is; what type of person Will Smith is (happy and open-minded); what sort of hobbies Will Smith had as a child; his ideology, so far as it pertains to chilling out, maxing, and relaxing all cool; what sort of mother Will Smith had (protective and loving; so much so that she was willing to send her only child across the country for a chance at a more prosperous life); what sort of interpersonal skills Will Smith had with strangers; what kind of traveler Will Smith was (light; he reset his entire life 2,730 miles to the west and all he needed was one suitcase); and what sort of extended family Will Smith had (loving). It’s as tight a theme song as has ever existed.

It took 15 minutes for Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff to make it. That’s what DJ Jazzy Jeff told EW in 2017. Fifteen minutes. That’s it. Fifteen minutes for a song that has lived on for 30 years, and will live on for 300 more. (This will sound like a lie but I promise it’s not: As I was finishing this article, a Super Bowl ad for the Peacock streaming service was sent out via press release. The ad is Will Smith and a bunch of fans recreating the theme song.)

In that same article, Andy Borowitz, one of the cocreators of the show, argued that, on a word-for-word basis, he believes it is the most well known rap song in history. Here’s his quote: “You know, there’s no way to measure this, but is there a hip-hop song that more people around the world know all the words to? Probably not.” If he’s wrong, it’s not by much. But I suspect he’s right. If anything, I suspect he’s underselling it. I bet there are more people right now who know the words in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song than the words in the national anthem.

You know what never gets old? The pop. I love the pop. The pop never gets old.

The pop is the sound that a crowd makes when, all at once, everybody there yells and screams and cheers because of something that’s just happened. It happens in sports regularly, like when someone hits a buzzer beater in a basketball game, or when a receiver makes an unbelievable play to win a football game, or when somebody punches somebody else so hard that they knock them to sleep. It’s jolting, and overwhelming, and beautiful.

But it happens elsewhere, too. For example, there was an absolutely beautiful pop at the 2020 Oscars when Parasite was announced as the winner of the Best Picture category. Look:

And there were a bunch of pops scattered across the country the weekend that Avengers: Endgame came out. Look:

And maybe my favorite pop ever is this one, which happened during a dance battle when a kid did a small move that was completely unexpected but instantly recognizable. Look:

I mention the pop because whenever Will Smith performs The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song anywhere, it is accompanied by a pop. Every single time. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a talk show or at an actual concert. Will gives some sort of preamble about how he’s about to find out if there are any real fans in the audience, DJ Jazzy Jeff kicks the music on, and then everyone loses their fucking minds before yelling every word of the song back at Will and Jazzy Jeff. Look:

The pop never gets old.

A small thing that is interesting about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song: The official name of it is “Yo Home to Bel-Air,” which is a mistranscription of the line “Yo, holmes, to Bel-Air” that Will Smith shouts at the cab driver who picks him up. I could not find anything to substantiate this claim, but my guess is that a white person heard the line “Yo, holmes, to Bel-Air,” had no idea the term “holmes” was not the word “home,” assumed it was some kind of cool and shortened version of the sentence “Yo, please take me to my home, which is in Bel-Air,” and then made that the official title of the song. This is the story all about how they made the Fresh Prince sound like the West Philadelphia version of E.T.

Remember that thing I said earlier about how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song is very easy to write about because it’s “an amalgam of words and sounds and images that feels less like words and sounds and images and more like a red carpet pointing you toward some very potent and personal nostalgia”? That’s also the same reason why it’s very hard to write about.

Because you know it. You know it in a way that nobody else in your life ever could. You know it in a way that relates directly to your individual existence. In addition to the sounds of the song and the sights of the video, if I type out the words “Nowwww this is a story all about how…” you’ll also have in your head a picture of a piece of your life; a time; a moment; a feeling. You will, even if just for a second, zip back in time to a version of yourself that only you have access to; to a version of yourself that maybe isn’t even all the way true; one that’s fuzzier and warmer and the edges are softened by that warm pull of the past. Everything is all tangled up and impossible to pull apart; you and the song, the song and you.

Just like the pop, it’s jolting, and overwhelming, and beautiful.

And how the hell are you supposed to write about that, other than to say that it happens?