The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was always about the music. Produced by composer and record producer Quincy Jones, Will Smith’s sitcom can lay claim to what is arguably the most iconic – certainly the most fun to sing – TV theme song of the 1990s. Say to somebody who grew up in the ’90s, “Now this a story all about how…” and they’ll almost surely respond with “my life got flipped, turned upside down.” TV theme songs just don’t get any catchier.
The show wasn’t limited to the music of its star, though. From the very first season up through its final season, music was always incorporated into the show with a variety of guest stars. The show could have easily rested on appeasing its young audience by bringing on only the hot hip-hop and R&B acts of the day, but drew from a variety of musical genres, spanning over several generations.
So, with that in mind, let’s look back at the musicians who spent some time with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Heavy D, Quincy Jones, and Al B. Sure! as themselves
“Someday, Your Prince Will Be in Effect (Part 2)” (season one)
The first season of The Fresh Prince wasted no time in using Will Smith’s music business connections — actually, it was probably more producer Quincy Jones — in pulling in guest stars, and this episode was full of them. The episode is the second half of a two-parter that has Will and Carlton competing to land a date with Melinda for the upcoming Halloween party. In addition to producer Quincy Jones making his first cameo, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, rapper Heavy D and R&B crooner Al B. Sure! also get mixed up in Will and Carlton’s hijinks. Also, Bo knows cameos.
Tevin Campbell as Little T
“Just Infatuation” (season one)
When this 1991 episode premiered, singer Tevin Campbell had already had two top-10 hits on the Billboard R&B charts and was preparing to release his debut album T.E.V.I.N. Needless to say, his appearance carried a lot of weight and was the penultimate episode of season one. He plays himself, and earns the infatuation of Ashley, who gets to go on a date with him for her birthday when Hilary says she knows his agent. Will and Carlton both assume that Tevin will just use Ashley and forget about her, but the guys soon find out that Tevin’s intentions are nothing but chivalrous. Awww.
Queen Latifah as Marissa Redman and Dee Dee
“Working It Out” and “She Ain’t Heavy” (seasons one and two)
Queen Latifah’s guest cameos on The Fresh Prince are a bit bizarre, only for the reason that she plays two completely different characters, both of whom go on dates with Will. The episodes are in back-to-back seasons, so I’m guessing that producers were just banking on the hope that the audience wouldn’t notice. In “Working It Out,” the Queen plays a bossy actress who threatens to fire Hilary if she doesn’t set her up on a date with Will. Will agrees, but only on the condition that Hilary give in to Jazz’s romantic pursuits and goes on a double date.
Queen Latifah’s second appearance is also one of those classic Fresh Prince episodes that teaches a lesson in the end. Queen plays Dee Dee, the daughter of Uncle Phil’s boss who hits it off with Will when they attend a Laker game. Will likes Dee Dee, but cancels their next date because his friends start teasing him about her full figure. Dee Dee and Will both go on dates with other people, but are bored to tears. It’s only when Will runs into her at the dance that he realizes it’s what’s on the inside that really counts.
Bell Biv DeVoe as themselves
“The Butler Did It” (season two)
In an episode that takes the classic premise of out-of-town parents and partying kids, Hilary and Carlton decide to use their house for a music video shoot when Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv go away for the weekend. Will is actually mostly innocent this episode, but naturally causes more chaos when both his and Ashley’s Girl Scout troop stumble into the Bell Biv DeVoe video shoot. The kids must all scramble to wrap up the shoot and put the house back to normal when they find out that Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv have decided to return early.
Tom Jones as himself
“The Alma Matter” (season three)
In a case of perfect casting, Tom Jones appears as Carlton’s guardian angel. The plot follows both Will and Carlton competing for an offer from a Princeton representative who’s visiting their prep school. Will nails the interview by being himself, but Carlton flounders hopelessly by acting like a total idiot. Depressed and defeated, Carlton receives a visit from Jones who takes the opportunity to show Carlton a world where he didn’t exist. The highlight of the cameo is, of course, Tom Jones jumping in and doing the “Carlton Dance” while Alfonso Ribeiro belts out “It’s Not Unusual.” Quincy Jones also made his second cameo in this episode, playing himself.
Boyz II Men as themselves
“Twas the Night Before Christening” (season four)
This season four Christmas episode no doubt had one of the show’s most iconic cameos, featuring R&B power group Boys II Men at the height of their fame. For his first Christmas and upcoming christening, baby Nicky is being showered with a ridiculous amount of gifts. In an effort to come out on top, Will foolishly promises to get Boys II Men to perform and must then scramble to make his harebrained scheme a reality. Just as Will’s about to confess that he couldn’t pull the surprise off, the fellas walk in crooning “Silent Night” and all is right in the Banks household.
Branford Marsalis as Duane
“Stop, Will! in the Name of Love” (season four)
Co-written by Weeds and Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, Ashley asks Will to chaperone her on a date, because she assumes her father will be an overprotective nuisance. Her plan backfires, though, when Will is just as overprotective. Will is also dealing with his own dating dilemma and can’t remember the name of the girl he has over. After catching on and learning about his double standards when chaperoning Ashley, Will’s date bails on him, but not before he can pantomime a sweet sax solo that Branford Marsalis is performing in the courtyard.
Isaac Hayes as The Minister
“The Wedding Show (Psyche!)” (season five)
Season five of The Fresh Prince saw Will get serious in his dating life and settle into a relationship with Lisa (Nia Long). “A Decent Proposal” saw Will propose to Lisa, and, in this episode’s storyline, both Uncle Phil and Lisa’s father have extravagant wedding plans for the couple. Will and Lisa decide to ditch their family and head off to Las Vegas to elope in a secret ceremony at a ’70s funk-themed wedding chapel. Naturally, the minister of this funky house of marriage is none other than singer Isaac Hayes, who attempts to perform the ceremony with a spin on his classic Shaft theme.
B.B. King as Pappy
“Bourgie Sings the Blues” (season six)
Throughout the show’s run, it becomes clear that Carlton doesn’t handle any type of pressure well. When he lands an interview with Princeton, he buckles under the pressure, throws a tantrum, and runs off to a blues bar to spend the rest of his days with an old singer named Pappy — played by the late B.B. King — and Will steps in to handle the interview for him. Will later finds Carlton in the bar where he explains to Carlton that his cushy life pretty much disqualifies him from making a living singing about the hardships of growing up in 1930s Mississippi.
Wayne Newton as Fred
“Viva Lost Wages” (season six)
Beside becoming a mess under pressure, Carlton also had a tendency to go overboard throughout, and Las Vegas just kicks that part of his character into high gear. Uncle Phil gives the guys a pair of tickets to Sin City for Carlton’s 21st birthday, and as soon as they arrive, Carlton immediately becomes a raging gambling addict. When Will discovers that Carlton has blown all of their cash and pawned their tickets home for more slot money, he tries to swindle the casino owner played by Wayne Newton. Obviously, that doesn’t work, and the pair enter a talent competition as Will the Thrill and Boogaloo Shrimp to win back their losses.