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Smith was born and raised in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and also spent time in Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia. His mother, Caroline (née Bright), was a school administrator who worked for the Philadelphia school board, and his father, Willard Christopher Smith, Sr., was a refrigeration engineer.He was raised Baptist. His parents separated when he was thirteen,and did not actually divorce until around 2000.

It is untrue, though widely reported, that Smith turned down a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); he never applied to the school, although he was admitted to a "pre-engineering program" there. According to Smith, "My mother, who worked for the School Board of Philadelphia, had a friend who was the admissions officer at MIT. I had pretty high SAT scores and they needed black kids, so I probably could have gotten in. But I had no intention of going to college.

Smith started as the MC of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, with his childhood friend Jeffrey "DJ Jazzy Jeff" Townes as turntablist and producer, as well as Ready Rock C (Clarence Holmes) as the human beat box. The trio was known for performing humorous, radio-friendly songs, most notably "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "Summertime". They gained critical acclaim and won the first Grammy awarded in the Rap category (1988).Smith had a line in "Voices That Care", a 1991 Persian Gulf War song by a celebrity group. Smith spent money freely during his early career and underpaid his income taxes. The Internal Revenue Service eventually assessed a $2.8 million tax debt against Smith, took many of his possessions, and garnished his income. Smith was nearly bankrupt in 1990, when the NBC television network signed him to a contract and built a sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, around him. The show was successful and began his acting career. Smith set for himself the goal of becoming "the biggest movie star in the world," studying box office successes' common characteristics. His first major roles were in the drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and the action film Bad Boys (1995).


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