BURBANK, CALIF. -- I remember one year my mom took me school shopping.

It was me, my brother, my mom -- oh, my pop and ...

My mom started bugging with the clothes she chose.

I didn't say nothing ... I just turned up my nose.

She said, "What's wrong? This shirt cost $20."

I said, "Mom, the shirt is plaid, with a butterfly collar... .

"Mom, this isn't Sha-na-na; Mom, I'm not Bowser.

"Please, put back the bell-bottomed, Brady Bunch trousers!"

-- from "Parents Just Don't Understand," by D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Jive Records END NOTES

Some rappers use words as weapons. But on this sunny suburban L.A. afternoon, the weapon of choice for comic rapper and fledgling TV star Will Smith -- a k a the Fresh Prince -- is a foot-long, dayglo orange toy sword. "Just smack it against the wall," the sword's 5-year-old owner had instructed Smith, "and it will make good noises."

It is making good noises. Loud spaceship-grenade-light-saber noises as Smith races through NBC's offices, smacking a doorjamb, a potted ficus, a desk. Now he brandishes it at a giggling secretary; next he thrusts it into the grinning face of a publicity rep.

Even in off-the-wall L.A., you gotta wonder: Why are these people so delighted to have a 6-2, 21-year-old black man in a backwards baseball cap running amok in their office? Because indications are that with his much-hyped sitcom, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" (premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 4), Smith -- who with "D.J. Jazzy Jeff" Townes makes cute, G-rated rap songs -- has a hit.

Show or no show, Smith is easy to take. Like, who wouldn't like a jug-eared Philadelphia home-boy who -- despite a Grammy Award and TV-star status -- admits, "I have 20 friends in Philly who could play {the TV} role as well as I can. If there's anything I do that they don't do, it's I believe in myself"?

Who couldn't get into a guy who confesses, "I don't have any goals for saving the ozone, the rain forests. That's important, but what I really want is for my family to be happy. I watched my father and mother work all these years. It would be nice for them not to have to"?

Like, who could even believe a young man so clean-cut that he'd persuade his mom to take a leave from her position on the Philadelphia school board so she could move into a suburban L.A. apartment next door to his -- so she can "keep me straight"?

Smith explains, "See, when you're with your mom, women have a tendency not to approach you. ... I have a girlfriend who is very, very, very good to me. If you took all the girls you met in your life and took all the good things out of them -- that's Tanya. My mom will keep me from messing that up."

He shrugs.

"You know how men are."

Yeah -- and even Tipper Gore might wish a few more were like this. In his music and in the flesh, Smith's buoyant, seemingly effortless niceness -- plus his lack of the rage that makes other rappers and their music so threatening -- make him the perfect TV rap object. Television execs must have seen Smith as a godsend -- the ideal guy to bring a whiff of rap to TV without offending anybody.

Not surprisingly, the resulting show isn't entirely fresh. Its story -- about a Philadelphia street kid who is sent to live with his rich uncle's family in Ronald Reagan's stomping grounds -- is reminiscent of the poor-black-kid-gets-rich-digs tradition set by "Diff'rent Strokes."

But in its pilot, at least, the clever "Fresh" offers moments of authenticity absent from many sitcoms purporting to portray African American life. Like when the stiff, rich uncle -- who initially seems to be TV's classic wannabe-white guy -- reveals his revolutionary roots. Certain standard-but-false TV "blackisms" -- calling folks "sucker" or "jive turkey," constantly giving the high-five or the angry black female head-bob -- are entirely absent.

Credit goes to "Fresh's" largely black creative team -- including acclaimed producer-writer Samm-Art Williams (formerly of "Frank's Place"), executive producer Quincy Jones and pilot director Debbie Allen. Smith says he and other cast members help shape the dialogue. "We can say, 'A brother wouldn't say that.' "

Authenticity, he says, wasn't among his worries. "I figured with Quincy being involved from the beginning, and with Debbie Allen directing -- if it wasn't going to be real with these people, I can't make a real show."

Of course, in a genre as street-oriented as rap, there are those who question the realness of Smith and Towne's always-leave-'em-laughing music. Some wonder if their sound is gritty enough to be regarded as true rap.

It's not only rap, says Harry Allen, a hip-hop music expert, it's good rap. Allen, who has written for Spin, the Village Voice and Essence, says Smith is "an incredibly imaginative lyricist and vocalist" who exemplifies "a certain black suburban perspective. ... Because he's not talking about things that some people think are 'authentically' black, he's been called the hip-hop version of the 'The Cosby Show.' ... But he always struck me as being true to the meaning of hip-hop music -- which is vocal excellence, imagination, liveliness. ... When you listen to Fresh Prince, you may not agree with what he's doing, but I never heard anyone put forth seriously the premise -- as they have with M.C. Hammer -- that he can't rap.

"What a lot of people had problems with," Allen continues, "was his subject matter -- he's so clean-cut."

Smith doesn't apologize for his good-natured lyrics -- "apologize for selling 3 million albums?" he asks in mock horror. Because when he started making music nine years ago, he was sure of one thing: "I wanted to make music my mother could listen to. In the process I made music palatable to mainstream America."

Spoken like the nice, middle-class brother he is. Smith's dad is a refrigerator engineer who gave his name to his son. ("But I'm not a 'Junior,' " says the rapper, "because my father thinks that suggests you're less than your father.")

Early on, the elder Smith taught his son the value of earning what you want.

"My father is one of those people who doesn't care if you're a child or a woman -- if you're playing a game with him, he'll never let you win," says Smith. "We played chess a lot, started when I was 10, 11. I finally beat him when I was 16. It was a very big day. It's like, when I did win, it shot my confidence up. And to have won at that meant I could win in anything."

Maybe he already knew that. Smith got his regal nickname from teachers at Overbrook High School in Winfield, Pa., who were struck by his confidence. "They were being sarcastic -- I always carried myself like I thought I was special. Rather than follow a rule, I'd want to talk to the person who made it."

He laughs. "I'd want to have a word with the principal."

The kid who began rapping for fun at parties at age 12 joined with musician Jeff Townes in 1981. (Despite Smith's solo foray into acting, they're still a duo -- Townes will appear on at least one episode of "Bel Air," and their new album will be released next year.) Five years later they became D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

"That takes some nerve," Arsenio Hall once joked to Smith about his stage name. "So what's the other Prince -- stale?"

The duo's first hit, "Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble," was released in 1986. The debut album, "Rock the House," was followed by "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper," which sold 2.5 million copies, peaking at No. 5 on Billboard's LP chart. The album featured the hit "Parents Just Don't Understand," which in 1988 won the first-ever Grammy for Best Rap Performance. The next year, the song "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson," from the album "And in This Corner," was nominated for another Grammy in the same category.

Last year, Smith was hanging out in the greenroom during an "Arsenio Hall Show" taping when he met TV and record producer Benny Medina of Warner Bros., who told Smith he was developing a comedy based on his own experience as a teenager from Watts who moved in with the family of a white TV film composer in Beverly Hills. Though Smith promptly lost Medina's card, the producer called him a few weeks later and TV history -- or so NBC hopes -- was made.

This guy who's been famous since he was 17 says he has no worries about the pitfalls of superstardom. "I've already tripped out on the money, the girls. I have been out here, hanging with Eddie Murphy, Mike Tyson. Showtime! I've been through all that."

He waves a hand that takes in the spare NBC office, with its posters of the network's previous hits.

"But people say it'll change my life -- the money, when everybody recognizes my face. What nobody understands is money is not new to me. I don't even like to talk about money -- you can't talk about money and not sound like you're gloating."

He will talk about other rappers. "I listen to everybody. Poor Righteous Teachers and Michel'le are who I listen to now."

It amuses him that the very rappers some folks find objectionable are most sought after by teens. "Ice-T has it -- very few teenagers want to wear a Jazzy Jeff T-shirt, but they want to wear Ice-T. Groups like N.W.A. and Ice-T will sell out the Coliseum a lot faster than D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince."

But mention the folks who are trying to muffle these groups and the comic gets serious, using the roughshod language associated with more streetwise rappers. "You can say you don't like an artist's opinion. But you can't say his mission is {invalid}. Nobody can say anything in music that I'll disagree with because it's an art form. Guns N'Roses said a lot of {expletive} I don't like. I don't like what they say or stand for. I wish Axl Rose would kiss my . ...

"But I can't argue with the artistic merit of the records they've sold, or the fact that if you take the lyrics out, the music sounds nice. You can't say Ice-T is a bad person because he calls somebody a bitch. ... And 2 Live Crew has nothing on Madonna."

But the guy in the orange cap, black Nike Quantums and lime neon shirt ("lime is good. See how I matched the orange and lime and lavender here in the shirt?") can't stay mad long. It isn't in his nature. Though the media have made much of the fact that after high school, Smith turned down a two-year preparatory course at MIT to pursue music, ultimately it wasn't music that he was pursuing.

"Actually, I'm a comedian who uses rap music as my tool," he says. "Just like M.C. Hammer is a dancer who uses rap as his tool."

As to whether the world will think he's as funny an actor as he is a rapper, Smith -- who's ready to go shoot hoops with another NBC star, Kadeem Hardison of "A Different World" -- admits he has no idea. "I'm waiting to hear from the fans," he says. Then he laughs.

"But I crack myself up."