Monday, June 20, 2016
June 20, 2016: SummerStudying: The Fresh Prince and “Summertime”
[To kick off the summer of 2016, a series AmericanStudying some famous summer texts and contexts. Add your responses to these posts or other SummerStudying nominations for a crowd-sourced post that’ll go down like a glass of iced lemonade!]
On two distinct but equally significant ways to AmericanStudy the Fresh Prince.
He had had his famous failures, but by the time Will Smith released 1991’s “Summertime” (under his rap name the Fresh Prince, and in conjunction with his partner and co-writer DJ Jazzy Jeff), the multi-talented artist was back on his path toward world (or at least cultural) domination. He had just completed the first season of his TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which would over its six seasons become one of the decade’s most popular sitcoms; he was only two years out from his acclaimed film debut in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and only a handful from his first mega-hits, Bad Boys (1995) and Independence Day (1996); and “Summertime” itself became one of his first huge hits, reaching #4 on Billboard’s singles chart and #1 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart. It wasn’t quite the Willenium yet in 1991, but the occasion was at least approaching.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to argue with Smith’s uniquely successful presence in 1990s American culture (has any other artist had simultaneous hits in TV, film, and music?), but how we AmericanStudy that presence, well, that’s a more complex and open-ended question. On the one hand, I think it’s possible to see Smith’s rap career, and more specifically a song like “Summertime,” as a crucial stage in the genre’s evolution from something locally and culturally grounded (in urban, African American communities and experiences) to something more mainstream and marketable (more, you could say, Bel-Air). “Summertime” even opens with lyrics that explicitly contrast its vibe and identity with other contemporary songs: “Here it is the groove slightly transformed/Just a bit of a break from the norm/Just a little something to break the monotony/Of all that hardcore dance that has gotten to be/A little bit out of control.” Seen in this light, the song’s sample of (and closing allusion to) Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness” (1974) indicates that it is a “new definition” (as the song’s closing lyric puts it) of such musical and cultural traditions.
On the other hand, this reading of Smith’s music and/or persona would seem to me problematic in precisely the same ways as were critiques of The Cosby Show for being insufficiently representative of particular versions of the African American experience. That is, Will Smith’s raps were no less (and no more) “representative” than Tupac Shakur’s, and vice versa—each are first and foremost the expression of a particular artist and voice, but each can also connect to multiple possible communities and experiences, and thus communicate those to their audiences. Seen in that light, “Summertime” can be read as a profoundly intertextual conversation with tradition, one that opens with a verse that entreats its audience to “think of the summers of the past” and then alludes in each of the next two verses to “Summer Madness,” that source of its musical sample. Whether that tradition is specifically African American or broadly American (or simply human) depends in part of the listener’s own identity and perspective, and of course the different possibilities are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re all part of that complex cultural entity that was and is the Fresh Prince.
Next SummerStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other summer texts or contexts you’d highlight?