DATE February 18, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Will Smith discusses growing up, his movie "Ali" and
his rapping career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for The New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Will Smith is a Hollywood power-player, one of the few stars who can lure
audiences in large numbers to his films, especially on opening weekend and
especially when he stars in summertime action blockbusters, like "Independence
Day" and his two "Men In Black" films. He's also starred in less showy films,
such as "Six Degrees of Separation," the biographical film "Ali" and his
latest film, the romantic comedy, "Hitch."
But Smith got his start as a teen-age rapper in Philadelphia, teaming up with
DJ Jazzy Jeff and calling himself the Fresh Prince. Smith parlayed the
success of his fun, non-threatening and even self-deprecating rap recordings
into a hit TV show. "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" lasted from 1990 to '96 and
its first season has just been released on DVD. Long before Ryan left Chino
for "The O.C.," Smith played a sassy Philly kid who felt like a fish out of
water after moving to California, an only slightly fictionalized version of
Smith himself. Before we hear Terry's interview with Will Smith, let's listen
to a clip from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." His cousin Carlton, played by
Alfonso Ribeiro, is rehearsing with his a cappella group when Will and his
friend Jazz, played by his real-life recording partner DJ Jazzy Jeff, walk in.
(Soundbite of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air")
Mr. ALFONSO RIBEIRO and Group: (Singing) She's a brick house. She's mighty,
mighty, she's just letting it all hang out. She's a brick house. The lady's
stacked and that's a fact and there isn't anything wrong with that.
(Soundbite of laughing)
Unidentified Man #1: Let's take five, guys.
Mr. RIBEIRO: (As Carlton Banks) Will, was that really necessary?
Mr. WILL SMITH: (As Will Smith) Oh, I'm sorry, Carlton. What--you thought I
was laughing at you?
Mr. RIBEIRO: (As Carlton Banks) It's what it sounded like.
Mr. SMITH: (As Will Smith) Oh, no, no, no, no. See, when I laugh at you,
it's more like this, (laughs), just for future reference.
JAZZY JEFF: (As Jazz) Man, you all butchered that song.
Mr. SMITH: (As Will Smith) Hey, C.C.(ph), I'm telling you, if The Commodores
heard you singing, they'd tie you down to the tracks and run you over with the
(Soundbite of laughing)
Mr. RIBEIRO: (As Carlton Banks) You know, I can understand why you're
threatened. After all, you two possess absolutely no musical ability. Face
it, you're so jealous you're green.
Mr. SMITH: (As Will Smith) All right, but just out of curiosity, Carlton,
what color are you?
Mr. RIBEIRO: (As Carlton Banks) Oh, here we go again. Look, just because I
grew up in the best neighborhoods and pronounce the I-N-Gs at the end of my
words doesn't make me any less black than you.
Unidentified Man #2: No, it's that tie that does it.
Mr. SMITH: (As Will Smith) Look, hey C.C., I'm telling you, if you went down
to Jazz's neighborhood looking the way you look and talking the way you talk,
you wouldn't come home walking the way you walk.
Mr. RIBEIRO: (As Carlton Banks) And what neighborhood is that?
Mr. SMITH: (As Will Smith) Compton.
Mr. RIBEIRO: (As Carlton Banks) And if you can make it there you'll make it
BIANCULLI: A scene from the sitcom, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The first
season has just been released on DVD. Terry spoke with Will Smith in 2001.
She asked him about his days growing up in Philadelphia and his early success
as the Fresh Prince.
(Soundbite of December 17, 2001, interview)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Your early raps were very funny, very self-deprecating, and this was a time in
rap--I mean, I guess it's always been that time in rap where...
Mr. SMITH: I know.
GROSS: ...where raps have been mostly about either bragging about how great
your rhymes are, bragging about what a great lover you are or bragging about
how tough you are or how many women you have, whatever. But, like your really
breakthrough record, "Parents Just Don't Understand," was about getting taken
to the shopping mall by your mother, who wants to buy you all these awful
clothes that are gonna ruin your credibility. In fact, why don't we hear a
little bit of that.
(Soundbite of "Parents Just Don't Understand")
Mr. SMITH: (Rapping) You know, parents are the same no matter time nor place.
They don't understand that us kids are gonna make some mistakes. So to you,
all the kids all across the land, there's no need to argue, parents just don't
I remember one year my mom took me school shopping. It was me, my brother, my
mom, oh, my pop, and my little sister--all hopped in the car. We headed
downtown to the Gallery Mall. My mom started bugging with the clothes she
chose. I didn't say nothing at first, I just turned up my nose. She said,
`What's wrong? This shirt costs $20.' I said, `Mom, this shirt is plaid with
a butterfly collar.' The next half-hour was the same old thing, my mother
buying me clothes from 1963, and then she lost her mind and did the ultimate.
I asked her for Adidas and she bought me Zips. I said, `Mom, what are you
doing? You're ruining my rep.' She said, `You're only 16, you don't have a
rep yet.' I said, `Mom, let's put these clothes back, please.' She said,
`No, you go to school to learn, not for a fashion show.' I said, This
GROSS: That's the Fresh Prince, Will Smith. Will Smith, how did you end up
taking that direction in your early rap records and going the self-deprecating
route and admitting that you had a mother?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I know...
GROSS: I mean, most rap records don't admit they even have a mother.
Mr. SMITH: Well, really, I was coming out of the early years of rap music
where--which were less about being tough and more about parties. So, I mean,
it was still out--what I was doing was still sort of out of place, but I
actually--I was younger making rap records then a lot of the people that were
my peers in the rap world at that time, so I was basically an old-school
rapper in with a new-school crowd. So the style was based on--there was a guy
when I was coming up named Grandmaster Cas. And Grandmaster Cas used to make
his party rhymes, but it was always funny and his rhymes always had a comedic
edge to them. And, essentially, I created my entire style after Grandmaster
Cas, but, I mean, he was as rare as I was. But the style is essentially based
on being different. It's based upon doing something that will stand out and
be as different as it could possibly be from all the other records that were
being created at the time.
GROSS: Now did the persona on that record suit your real personality? I
mean, was your mother really taking you to the Gallery--the shopping mall in
Philadelphia--and buying you the wrong sneakers?
Mr. SMITH: Oh, yeah. My mom, you know, she's really good at a lot of
things, but the whole combination of clothes with the shoes--yeah, she's--my
mom wasn't like the best at that. You're good at it, Mom, now. But--oh, wow,
you're in Philly--Right?--yeah, so my mom is going to be...
Mr. SMITH: OK. Yeah, Mom, you weren't great at it, but you were good. But
yes, it was tough some days, and it was even worse for my brother because then
after I was done with the stuff he had to wear it old. At least I got to wear
GROSS: Well, how would you wear the wrong clothes to school? I mean, when
you knew you were wearing clothes that you hated that other people--that your
friends would hate, too.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. That's--no, that was tough.
GROSS: It would make you look foolish. Yeah. What do you do so that you can
still not look foolish in spite of what you're wearing?
Mr. SMITH: You just--you know, you just hope that somebody else has worse
clothes than you, you know, so then you can ride them. And I was always
pretty funny, so that being funny was a pretty good defense because even if
someone had nicer clothes on me, I could make the crowd think that their
clothes were worse than mine just by the jokes.
GROSS: Like what? What would you say?
Mr. SMITH: Oh, God, anything. I remember when Hager washable slacks came
out and that's, you know, if you called somebody's pants Hager washable
reversible slacks, you know, and you just, you know, showed them flipping them
inside and out--they wear them one way on Monday and then flip them inside out
on Tuesday, you know--and it's like, you know, you act that out physically
then you could generally make people laugh with that.
GROSS: Now you weren't from a poor family. Your mother worked for the school
board; your father owned a refrigeration business. Did you feel that being,
you know--did it feel like it would be more authentic if you did rap records
if you were poor? You know, because sometimes authenticity in rap has been
equated with being poor and being from a neighborhood where there's a lot of
Mr. SMITH: Well, I mean, the neighborhood that I was from was, you know, a
working-class neighborhood. I mean, it was--we had our share of shootings and
drug dealers so, I mean, essentially I am from the same type of neighborhood
that those people are from. I just had--I took a different approach, you
know? There wasn't--you know, it wasn't something that I embraced, you know.
I avoided the drug dealers and avoided the dudes shooting craps on the corners
and all of that. It just wasn't something that I chose to embrace, but it was
definitely something that was a part of my neighborhood.
GROSS: You're really good with rhymes, and your recordings tend to tell
interesting stories. I mean, they could almost be a sketch. Did you ever
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. When I was probably 12 years old, 13 years old, I used to
write stories about my friends and I would make them superheroes and I would
sell them their story--you know, Super Terry(ph), you know?
GROSS: What powers do you want to give me?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. You know, that's--we would talk about it and we forgot
what powers that you wanted to have and stuff like that. And then I would
write a story where the kids were superheroes, you know, and sell them for,
you know, 50 cents or a dollar or something like that. But I was doing
that--probably 12 years old until about 14 years old, I was doing that. My
mother worked for the school board and my grandmother was very much into
education, so we were always writing and creating stories or reading Bible
verses or--so, I mean, we were always doing something literary.
GROSS: Did you always have satisfied customers or did your friends ever say,
`I didn't like the story. I want my 50 cents back'?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I would never--we didn't do refunds, but we would rewrite
the story, you know. If you wanted a story adjustment, you know, I wasn't
above a rewrite.
GROSS: I guess that's good experience.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. You know, you can't get a cheese back.
GROSS: So with your mother working for the school board, did she correct you
a lot if you used improper grammar...
Mr. SMITH: Oh, yeah, we were...
GROSS: ...or slang in your speech?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. We weren't allowed to use improper speech, you know. You
would run out of the house and say, `Yo, what's up? What y'all about to do?'
My mother would say, `Oh, back in here. Back'--we would get on punishment for
words like `y'all.' And, you know, you'd be in the house in the middle of the
summer crying and my grandmother would come up and say, `Baby, you know a yawl
is a boat.'
GROSS: Did that irritate you or did you think, `Oh, I'm so glad that she's
teaching me proper speech'?
Mr. SMITH: You know, yeah, it was--yeah, at 12 years old, `Oh, yeah, you know
what? You're right, grandmother.'
Mr. SMITH: `Proper speech.' No, it was tough, but that's--I mean, that's
something I've adapted in my life. I can't stop doing that to other people
and to my kids. But, I mean, very, very early I remember that. I mean, it
was just always important in my household to say things properly. I mean, in
my neighborhood kids would say `lookted,' and my grandmother hated that, you
know. You know, kids--`Oh, he lookted crazy.' Oh, man, my grandmother hated
that. And that was one that you'd almost get a 30-day punishment for that
one. If you said something `lookted' like something, whoo!
GROSS: Do you feel bilingual?
Mr. SMITH: Well, you mean, bilingual in the sense of king's English and
Mr. SMITH: Or English and Spanish?
GROSS: No. No.
Mr. SMITH: No. Yeah, you know, there's a certain bilingual element that all
successful blacks have to have, you know? There--you have to be able to, you
know, speak to the head of IBM in a way that gives confidence and communicates
a sense of your commitment to excellence and perfection. And it all starts
with language, but at the same time you got to be able to relax and chill with
BIANCULLI: Will Smith speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's return to Terry's interview with actor Will Smith. She
spoke with him in 2001 about his starring role in the film "Ali." Here's an
early scene in the movie. Muhammad Ali, then still going by the name Cassius
Clay, is weighing in, preparing to fight Sonny Liston and taunting Liston
with his rhymes.
(Soundbite of "Ali")
Mr. WILL SMITH: (As Muhammad Ali) (Rapping) Hey, listen you ain't no champ.
You a chump. Mother look like a butterfly and sing like a bee. Oh, rumble,
young man, rumble.
Y'all want to lose y'all money, then you better don't sing. He know I'm
great. He will fall in eight.
Mr. MICHAEL BENTT: (As Sonny Liston) Come on, you big ugly bear, I'll whip
you right now.
Unidentified Man: Two-ten and a half, 210 1/2. The challenger, Cassius Clay,
210 1/2 pounds.
Mr. SMITH: (As Muhammad Ali) Man, you showed us right.
Mr. BENTT: (As Sonny Liston) Oh, ugly bear, come on, let's go. You got all
these folks fooled. I ain't scared of you. I ain't scared of you.
Unidentified Man: Two hundred and eighteen, 218. Sonny Liston, the champion
of the world, 218 pounds.
Mr. SMITH: (As Muhammad Ali) Pounds of what? Pounds of ugly. That man is
so ugly when he sweat, the sweat run backwards off his forehead just to stay
away from his face.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BENTT: (As Sonny Liston) Come on, you big ugly bear, I'll turn you into
GROSS: So what did you have to do different to get Ali's voice when Ali was
doing his rhymes or just, you know, doing his bragging thing?
Mr. SMITH: Well, essentially, his voice--he has a really big, wide, open
chest, which gives you that really heavy resonance, but he constricts his
throat, which gives you a really sort of higher-pitched, nasally sound. So I
had dialect instructors that were teaching me how to technically--where to
place my tongue and how to hold my teeth and all of that in order to create
the sound that Muhammad Ali created with his voice. So, I mean, after a while
it became natural but in the beginning it was really constricted and really
affected and, you know, it's like trying to stand up straight and trying to
keep my chin down and all those special little tricks that they taught me to
create the sound.
GROSS: Can you demonstrate what you did with your voice?
Mr. SMITH: Can I demons--well, then I'd have to charge you my full fee.
GROSS: Well, fair enough. Were you much of a fighter?
Mr. SMITH: Not really. I never was a good fighter, but I guess at about 12
or 13 years old I was in school and I got into a fight in school with a guy
named Jason Murphy(ph), and he punched me square in the middle of my nose with
all he had, and I realized that, you know, it only took a second for me to
clear up. And while I was standing there realizing that it didn't really hurt
that bad, he punched me again. And I was--you know, it was a strange moment,
but it was when I discovered that I could take a punch. And the second that I
realized I was, like, comfortable getting hit, I became a better fighter
10-fold, and I think that really helped me in this project, that not being
scared of being hit is the center of what makes a fighter be able to be in a
rugged war in the ring, because you already know that you're going to get hit,
so your approach to that--you got to be in a position to get hit in order to
hit somebody. That mind-set of not running and not being scared is hugely
important to be successful in the ring.
GROSS: When has that actually--have you needed that? Have people ever tried
to challenge you because you're famous and because you're self-deprecating in
some of your rhymes? They figure, `Well, I can take him.'
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. Well, a whole lot now that I played "Ali."
Mr. SMITH: So that, yeah, you know, now that's what--Sylvester Stallone told
me that, too. You know, when I talked to him, I told him I was doing "Ali"
and he said, `Oh, man,' he said, `every movie theater and bar and mall in the
country, everybody is going to want to fight you now.'
GROSS: Isn't that annoying? I mean, don't you feel like saying to the world,
`It's a movie'?
Mr. SMITH: Well, no, the thing is, if you drop one person real good and try
to get hard copy or something to get it on tape, it will be cool.
GROSS: Right. Right. Might as well make it pay. So did you have to
actually take punches for the shoot?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. We decided very early on that there would be no movie
fighting in this film, that all of the fighting was going to be real punches,
real fighting. We would essentially do it like a stunt--you know, you set it
up, you get five or six cameras going, and when we got in the ring, you know,
we looked at each other, gave each other a pound and went at it.
GROSS: Now when Ali got punched, he didn't know that this was going to happen
a few minutes before it did, whereas you know in this scene you get hit hard,
so does that help or not to know that it's coming?
Mr. SMITH: Oh, no. Yeah, that's worse. That is much worse. That's what I
told Ali, you know. I told him, making this movie was way tougher than any of
those fights that he had in real life. I said, `You didn't know Joe Frazier
was about to knock you down, but I knew James Toney was about to clip me
GROSS: So what do you do to prepare for that?
Mr. SMITH: You bite down on your mouthpiece really hard. You just--you
don't want to have your mouth hanging open when you get hit. And, you know,
you'd be surprised how--and it's a really weird feeling--I know it sounds
bizarre, but there's something that's really cathartic about getting hit and
GROSS: What was the worst punch you took?
Mr. SMITH: It was the James Toney left hook, the one where Ali gets knocked
down by Joe Frazier, because, essentially I just--you know, we had all agreed
earlier that, again, there's no movie fighting. So I went to James Toney
before we did it and I said, `Listen, you know, this is for our families, this
is for our children, this is for Ali's legacy.' I said, `So don't play with
it. Go ahead, throw the punch in there. Let's get it good and let's go
home.' And I--you know, he said, `All right, man, I'll let it happen.' I
said, `Oh, and by the way'--and then I just punched him in the nose right
before the take. And he was like, `OK.' But that may not have been the best
idea. It got the--because he laid into it pretty nicely on me.
BIANCULLI: Will Smith speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. The first season of
his TV series, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," is now out on DVD and he's
starring in the new romantic comedy, "Hitch."
I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Y'all Know")
Mr. SMITH: (Singing) ...raising the roof. Uh! Uh! Observe the high roller.
Mic controller, number one hip-hop son. Call me solar. Why? 'Cause I shine.
Praise the Big Willie I'm raised in Philly. I daze and thrillin' ya. Don't
be silly ya can't see me. Again I'm killin...
(Soundbite of "Ouch!")
THE RUTLES: (Singing) Ouch! You're breaking my heart. Ouch! I'm falling
apart. Ouch! Ow-ow-ouch!
BIANCULLI: Coming up, Monty Python's Eric Idle. He promises that his show
"Spam A Lot" is as good as, or quite likely better than, any other show with
killer rabbits and a legless knight opening on Broadway this season. And
David Edelstein reviews "Nobody Knows."
You've been listening to The Rutles poking fun at The Beatles' song "Help!"
with their version, "Ouch!"
(Soundbite of "Ouch!")
THE RUTLES: (Singing) Ouch! Don't desert me. Ouch! Please don't hurt me.
Ouch! Ow-ow-ouch! What is this thing called love? Why do they say it makes
the world go 'round? Oh, no, what do they say it makes the world go 'round?
I can't explain the way I feel for you, my feet don't touch the ground. The
way I feel for you, my feet don't touch the ground. Ouch! Don't desert me.
Ouch! Please don't hurt me. Ouch! Ow-ow-ouch!
When we first met I must admit I fell for you right from the start. I must
admit I fell for you right from the start. Now when we meet all kinds of
things it seems upset the apple cart. All kinds of things it seems upset the
apple cart. Ouch!
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Japanese film "Nobody Knows"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The Japanese film "Nobody Knows" is inspired by the true story of four
children in the late '80s left by their mother to fend for themselves in a
small apartment. There was a national uproar after tragedy struck and the
truth came out, but the film approaches that story from a less sensational
vantage point. David Edelstein has this review.
It opens with a train ride; a boy and his mother. She's awfully cute, even a
little babyish. The boy looks older than she does. He's solemn and
preoccupied. He sits next to a big yellow suitcase, which he gently caresses.
When he and his mother arrive at their new apartment building, they lug that
suitcase and another up the stairs, and when they get to their apartment, they
open it up and a little girl rolls out, smiling, happy, clutching a doll.
There's a boy in the other case. The landlord mustn't know there's more than
one child, and there are four in all, the youngest boy mentally disabled. So
the three younger kids may never go out, not even onto the veranda to do
Hirokazu Koreeda's "Nobody Knows" is based on what was dubbed in Japan `the
affair of the four abandoned children of Nichisugamo(ph).' Four children of
different fathers took care of themselves and one another for long periods
while their mother went off with assorted men. The older boy, here called
Akira, did the shopping and occasionally sought out one of his siblings'
fathers for money. But none of them had ever gone to school, and none knew
how to keep house, treat illness or injury, or function as a parent.
The film has been compared to the great Italian neo-realist tragedies of the
'40s and '50s, but it's more austere and more allusive. All the same, the
director's humanism is in every frame. Koreeda has said he wanted to make you
see this `frightening and unfathomable story' in a compassionate light, and to
show the profound communion among these four children, who learn to support
and sustain one another in the absence of parents. So whatever the children
do together has a magical clarity, a fullness that stops your breath: playing
the game Rock Paper Scissors, plinking a toy piano, running up and down a long
Even after the mother has been absent for six months and the fragile bonds are
beginning to dissolve, there's a shot of the overdue gas bill with lovely
childish doodles all over it--so blessedly oblivious to the reality that is
fast encroaching on this dream life.
That reality does come, and it must be said that watching four kids slowly
starve from neglect over the course of a year is almost impossible to bear.
As the children gaze out at the world through windows or fences, sometimes at
other kids, schoolkids, sometimes at trains heading for the airport and points
unknown, you're reminded that even the worst parent in the world is essential
not only for children's survival, but their sense of self. These children
have no way of making sense of what they're going through, or of a world that
doesn't register their existence. They don't even know enough to be angry.
The performances of the children, especially Yuya Yagira as Akira, are beyond
praise. You never even register that they're actors. And the director
doesn't demonize the mother, played by a Japanese pop singer known as You, who
seems less like a monster than a narcissistic child in her own peculiar world.
"Nobody Knows" gives you no conventional release. The director ends the movie
before the world discovered the abandoned children of Nichisugamo. I found
the last sequence so wrenching I could hardly look at the screen, yet I think
Koreeda means it to be hopeful. In an indifferent universe, these precious
moments of love, grief and human interaction are the tenderest mercy.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.