‘In The House’, ‘The Fresh Prince’ & The Evolution of Rapper Sitcoms

By | Posted June 2, 2017
From the '90s to today, sitcoms involving rappers and rap have come a long way.
2017-06-02-the-evolution-of-rapper-sitcoms

"In business, particularly in Hollywood, success makes a lot of fear go away, and I think the success of 'Fresh Prince' gave the networks permission to move in directions they may not have normally. We followed 'Fresh Prince' with 'In The House' which starred LL Cool J, and that show ran for three years." - Quincy Jones

A wave cap hilariously covers the hairless head of LL Cool J, an iconic accessory that oddly compliments the black tailored suit he has donned for the evening. In a previous scene, the diamonds dance from the cross hanging from his neck―a small touch, but one that gives his casual attire a dose of hip-hop cool. In the club, the strange chosen location for his business meeting, LL exudes cool, confidence and charisma. The woman he’s meant to meet finds herself resisting his effortless charm before the two could even exchange names.

Without any added context, what I described could be confused as the pilot episode of a reality show starring one of the most successful rappers from the ‘90s, not an episode from the '90s sitcom that he led from 1995-1999.

There’s plenty that LL is remembered for in the '90s, mostly centered around his career as a respected emcee, Platinum-selling rapper and hip-hop heartthrob. You’re more likely to hear about his beef with Canibus or his long tenure at Def Jam than that time he was on television alongside Debbie Allen. At times, even I forget he was given two seasons on NBC and three on UPN for In The House. During a lazy Saturday morning, in a rare moment of listless channel surfing, I happened to stumble upon a mini-marathon of In The House airing on one of BET's obscure channels in the deep recesses of Comcast’s infinite guide. Unlike some of the more renowned sitcoms of the ‘90s, In The House isn’t being blessed with reruns on TV One, BET or MTV2, nor is it accessible on Netflix or Hulu. If it wasn’t for previous viewings of the show in my childhood years, I would have continued to scroll, but the title grabbed my roaming eyes immediately.

Memories of the series are scarce and extremely vague, only recalling LL’s role as Marion Hill―a former Los Angeles Raider who suffered a career-ending injury. I watched in hopes of sparking some kind of nostalgic time machine back to the days of UPN being a thriving network. Seeing Maia Campbell in two vibrant FUBU outfits was a strong enough blast from the past to make me feel like a kid again, but no major memories of the series came galloping back. I’ll admit the two episodes weren’t astounding, far from television that I would rave as must-see, but I wanted to see more. I wanted a chance to fully revisit a relic from the early days of rappers crossing over into television. What LL did with In The House is similar to what Queen Latifah did with Living Single, what Chuck D did with Roc, and what Will Smith started with The Fresh Prince―rappers acquiring sitcoms and bringing a taste of hip-hop to the small screen.

In an early interview with NBC about his then-forthcoming sitcom, Will Smith was asked if his character would be doing any rapping. It’s a fair question, Will was only known for his music with Jazzy Jeff, and there was some expectation that a show based on an acclaimed rap star would include rhymes. Will perfectly replied, “There'll be—there'll be the— the— the rap styles, the rap lingo, the—the rap attitude more than actually the music,” capturing one of the defining elements of the series―bringing the feeling and energy of hip-hop to television without having to rap.

In a post-Cosby Show era, the show needed to showcase what was influencing the young and black, while touching on various sides of the black experience from a rags to riches point of view.

"I didn’t see the show as being trailblazing, but it sort of turned out to be, since it was the first network show to feature a hip-hop star. That might not seem like a big deal in 2015, but in 1990 it was. At the time, the media were freaking out about controversial rappers like 2 Live Crew, and even though Will’s rapping had zero in common with theirs, NBC was irrationally nervous about how the network audience would respond to a show starring a rapper. As it turned out, the show was the highest-rated new sitcom in its first season. In 1990 I had no idea that, 25 years later, it would still be on TV and people would still be enjoying it." - Andy Borowitz

One of the reasons The Fresh Prince holds up so well is the time capsule appeal to the age that it reflects. Not only did Fresh Prince show the appeal of a series driven by black stories and black culture, it did so in the age of hip-hop’s commercial rise to prominence. Will Smith cracked open the door for fellow rappers to run through, and they took the format and adjusted it. Queen Latifah didn’t rap on her series, neither did LL, and yet, television was seeing rappers embody various sides of black culture without their background being at the forefront of their roles.

In The House aired in ‘95, a commercially thriving year for LL. Unlike Will Smith, who had his first ever television role on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, LL was famous enough to have already had experience in acting: a minor role in Krush Groove, a small part in Wildcats, a role alongside the late, great Robin Williams in the feature film Toys, and—before In The House—he starred in the commercially underwhelming Out-Of-Sync, directed by Debbie Allen. None of the roles were able to make him Hollywood’s next crossover act but the recognition from music and the roles made him a name known throughout households. There’s little The Fresh Prince has a common with In The House, but both series were executive produced by the same music mogul―Quincy Jones.

Quincy Jones needs no introduction. His name is synonymous with genius, greatness and music royalty. The mark he has left on music, black music and pop culture is equivalent to the glowing legacy Phil Jackson has left on the NBA. I knew of Quincy’s feats in music, the many mountains he toppled and the kingdoms he built, but I wasn’t familiar with the role he played in television―specifically ‘90s sitcoms.

In 1990, Quincy Jones embarked on a joint-venture deal with Time Warner Inc. to produce movies, TV and records. This is the same deal that Quincy Jones used to create what was meant to be hip-hop’s Rolling Stone: Vibe Magazine. Before going the magazine route, Quincy Jones Entertainment's first-ever series was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a comedy sitcom loosely based off the life of Benny Medina, who went from a life on the streets to the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air after being adopted by a wealthy Jewish family. A young black man adopted by a white family had already been done by Different Strokes, so Medina adjusted his story to star an affluent black family who takes in a nephew from a far more harsh upbringing.

Benny pitched the fish-out-of-water story to Quincy, and made it clear that he wanted Will Smith as the lead. In an interview with Ebony Magazine, Medina describes how Will auditioned at Quincy Jones' house in a room full of NBC executives; they loved the idea, but had to be convinced of his acting before signing off on the series. By the end of his audition, contracts were being signed and phone calls were being made.

Benny picked Will, but it was Quincy who chose LL to star on In The House. Debbie Allen told the Los Angeles Times in 1995 that Quincy pursued her for about four years about returning to television. Both LL and Debbie found the script picture perfect for where they were in their lives―LL was on a spiritual path after getting over hurdles in his personal life, the same way his character Marion was overcoming a similar crisis. Debbie saw in Jackie a woman learning about life, bouncing back after her husband left the mother of two to be with a younger woman. The contrast of these two stories intertwining under one roof brought the hope of something fresh and new to television, a union of two people reaching the next phase of their lives.

It’s a bit humorous that LL was asked about street credibility in an 1996 interview with the LA Times. But this was when the concept of selling out and crossing over was frowned upon. Rap was peaking in popularity but there was a resistance to dive into mainstream waters. Cool J wasn’t a hardcore rapper, but the Queens-bred, multi-Platinum star didn’t want hip-hop to think he was compromising his roots for greener pastures.

A rapper landing an acting role wouldn’t even worry about such scrutiny in 2017. With Atlanta, Donald Glover was able to make a series loosely surrounding the hustle and grind of trying to make it in the music industry from a rapper's perspective. Donald raps as Childish Gambino but in the series his role is of the manager and not artist. Brian Tyree Henry doesn’t rap but has perfected the role of rapper Paper Boi―not only does he portray a rapper but he does so without becoming a caricature full of clichés and stereotypes. While Will and LL were able to bring a slice of hip-hop to non-rapper roles, Donald and Brian are bringing even more nuances to Atlanta that show what reality looks like outside of the studio.

We’re seeing a new-age wave of shows and series where hip-hop is at the forefront by actors who didn’t get their start by rapping. Even Issa Rae’s Insecure incorporates a rapping main character, it’s like hip-hop has found a new way of entering into this next phase of television by utilizing the artform and not the individual artist.   

"A person who just listens to rap records might think, 'Oh, LL's doing a TV show, and he's going to lose his street credibility,'" said the Queens, N.Y.-born musician during a recent interview on the show's set. "But a person who is part of the hip-hop culture would say, 'Oh LL's hustling; he's expanding; he's moving on even more, and that's good.' It's the difference between a critic listening to a rap record and [a person who is] understanding and living hip-hop culture. [Fashion designers] Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan may not be from the streets, but their clothes have street credibility. It's the culture that give you the credibility." - 'LL Cool J's Defense : With the Rapper 'In the House,' His Street Rep Is on the Line'

“I didn’t know it existed,” DJBooth managing editor Brendan Varan replied after I inquired if he remembered In The House. The reply was a bit surprising but not completely shocking; In The House wasn’t the second coming of Fresh Prince but it did star a famous rapper, and in the later seasons, Alfonso Ribeiro. In The House is the transitional minor role that Carlton took after the finale of Fresh Prince. Somehow, a series that had LL, Debbie Allen (who departed from the series after season two), Kim Wayans (In Living Color) and Alfonso Ribeiro isn’t more revered. Brendan’s response was just another reminder of what happens when a series fails to enter syndication and stay on television long after its final episode. A generation of TV viewers will know of NCIS special agent Sam Hanna and not Marion Hill.

I don’t know who owns the rights to In The House; the series originally aired on NBC but moved to UPN after its cancellation. It's a black sitcom tragedy that the show has yet to find a place in the modern age of streaming services. In The House didn’t change television or have the same impact as predecessor The Fresh Prince or series that came later like Martin, but I believe LL Cool J’s early dabbling in television shouldn’t be somewhere on the darker side of cable TV. LL has, of course, traveled leaps and bounds beyond, on both big and small screens, but the show is a small piece of his legacy that should be remembered.

In The House also serves as another point of reference to how far hip-hop has come and evolved within pop culture. From In The House to Atlanta, The Fresh Prince to Insecure, the way rap is represented only further showcases the power and prestige of the culture.

Luckily, inthehouse95 on YouTube has a bulk of the series uploaded. If you need a nostalgic trip to the '90s when FUBU was fresh, wave caps were worn with suits and LL Cool J was spreading positive vibes every week on NBC, watching In The House is a good way to waste a weekend.

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