Before Will Smith was adopted by a rich family on TV and the rich world of show business in real life, he teamed up with West Philly DJ Jeff Townes. There was a third character in the mix, Clarence Holmes (aka Ready Rock C), but he left the group in 1990 right after the team won a Grammy because he felt Will Smith was a glory hog. (He sued Smith and Towns years later, but the case was kicked on a technicality.)
Under the name DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and later solely under Will Smith’s solo name, the two produced a long string of hits. Townes was a highly talented mixologist, and has renowned skill at the art of scratching—a lost art in today’s all-digital age. And we all know how charming Will Smith can be. Most of their catalog consisted of silly raps aimed primarily at not offending anyone and which borrowed heavily from existing pop culture references to attempt to find an instant audience. For example, Brand New Funk heavily sampled James Brown, and their first single Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble, sampled the theme to TV’s I Dream of Jeannie. Then they did Nightmare on My Street: an extremely corny story about meeting Freddy Krueger, which led to problems with New Line Cinema. (Although rumor has it that the film company later offered Jeff and Will leading roles in the movie House Party, which later went to Kid N Play.) And their Grammy-winning hit, Parents Just Don’t Understand, is the quintessential example of late 1980s rap, when it was still trying to be palatable to suburbia. Even Smith’s later hits, like the theme to Men In Black, put all their weight in instantly recognizable samples and innocuous lyrics. They tried to be hard once, with a single called “You Saw My Blinker Bitch,” but apparently the world wasn’t ready to embrace a gangsta rap style story about a fender bender. So, road rage was about the extent of Smith’s edge.
So why does Summertime make it to the GOAT list? Because it’s the perfect summer song. It’s lively, cute, charming and (like all their other hits) instantly recognizable. Even if you’ve never heard it, you’ll feel like you already know it. Because you do. It’s just lyrics over a reworking of Kool & the Gang’s instrumental song “Summer Madness.”
Further listening: Truly, not much they did stands the test of time. But if you like simple pop raps (and I confess that I myself do like ‘em), check out Smith’s solo hits Getting Jiggy With It, Men In Black, Wild Wild West.
Cover versions: Okay, indie and DIY bands have covered the shit out of this song. Tons below, but don’t miss the lullabye version by Jammy Jams, and The Hood Internet mash-up.