DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime” is a ridiculously obvious choice for a summertime jam, but that’s not really an issue as far as I’m concerned. Summer jams are about sharing moments with the people around you and basking in pure, unexamined pop pleasure. Overthinking things runs counter to the whole concept, as do the kind of status anxieties that often lie behind the desire to show off one’s knowledge of obscure music or ability to think outside the box.
“Summertime” is an obvious choice in the same way that margaritas are an obvious choice for a summertime beverage: because they’re so perfectly designed for it that arguing about it is pointless. You could strip “Summertime” of its title and “summer-summer-summertime” hook and it would still be incredibly well-suited to playing at a backyard barbecue, or poolside, or in a borrowed convertible. The song’s tempo (just a couple BPM slower than it seems like it should be), the lackadaisically ascending synth line lifted from Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” and Will Smith’s low-key flow all suggest warm weather that’s just too nice for you to want to waste it on trivial matters like staying on top of the beat. He could have been rapping about the economy or the situation in the Middle East and the song would still read as intensely summery.
But Will Smith is never one to hit a nail anywhere but directly on its head, so of course the lyrics are about summer and the things that you do during the summer that are fun: hanging out, cooking out, trying to impress girls. I had just turned 14 when the song dropped in May of 1991, still stuck in a small town in Michigan and dependent on radio rap songs to tell me what’s cool. When I heard the line “Hustle to the mall to get me a short set” I literally hustled to the mall to buy a short set, which was something I had never heard of before then. (I picked out one that was white with black trim and said “Brooklyn” on the front, even though at that point I had only ever been to Brooklyn, Michigan.) I fantasized about having a Jeep with an Alpine stereo that I could blast the song through while I cruised around with no particular destination in mind. I still do, as a matter of fact.
Every year on the first day where it’s really nice out, I cue up “Summertime” and crank it to levels that someone might complain about if it were a different song. Sometimes it happens in a social setting, but in recent years it’s been more likely to happen when I’m by myself in my office and I’ve given up on trying to get any work done because the weather’s just too good. Even in those cases when I’m celebrating by myself, it’s always one of my favorite days of the year.