When Kool & The Gang released their 1974 single “Summer Madness,” they’d unknowingly laid the foundation for the DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince classic “Summertime.” Released in 1991 from the duo’s fourth studio album, Homebase, the song quickly became the soundtrack of the season, with its laid-back, soulful groove and Will Smith waxing nostalgic about his summers in Philly.
With the music initially conceived by Chicago-based producers Hula & K. Fingers, “Summertime” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the 1992 Grammy Awards. Simultaneously, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff were becoming TV stars due to the incredible success of the beloved ‘90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In fact, the music video for “Summertime” premiered during a July ’91 episode of the show.
More than 30 years later, the song continues to transport listeners back to simpler times, when “riding around in your Jeep or your Benzos” was the only thing on the agenda.
We spoke to DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes), a co-writer of “Summertime,” about creating the timeless track and its impact on pop culture.
The Four Seasons
What’s really funny is…this was the beginning of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This was the first time at the start of a project that Will [Smith] was on the West Coast and I was on the East Coast. And what was interesting is this song really came about because Will was like, “Hey, man, it was 82 degrees on Christmas. It wasn’t like it was at home.” I don’t think people from the East Coast ever really appreciate the four seasons. We get extreme spring, extreme summer, extreme fall, and extreme winter, and there’s something about coming out of winter as things start to blossom and bloom. Everybody kind of jumps the gun and comes outside in shorts when it’s 60 degrees because this is what you’ve been waiting for. But that emotion and feeling when you’re turning the corner into the summer season, Will didn’t get that while he was in L.A. That’s what made him write the song. He would call me and ask, “What’s going on in Philly?” And I was like, “Yo, man, it was, like, 75 degrees. I got the car out and I gotta take it to the car wash.” And he’s like, “Ah, man.” He was missing that. He ended up going into the studio in Chicago, and that’s what came out.
A Flight Delay
Will’s flight was delayed, so he was in Chicago when he wrote it. I don’t think he realized the impact of it. He was really just reflecting on what summers in Philadelphia were like. Everything he said—from Belmont Plateau to wiping your car down and cruising South Street—is something we would do in Philadelphia but not realizing that everybody has exactly the same things where they’re from. The names are just different. What we realized is they were doing that in London, Tokyo, any place that got a chance to see the weather change. This song was pretty much the test. I really think that was one of the biggest driving points of the song, that you can relate to it in your own way.
The Right Touch
Hula & K. Fingers came up with the concept to use [Kool & The Gang’s] “Summer Madness.” The one thing that I realized with Will, he would always say he could write a song in 10 minutes, but coming up with the concept could take 10 days. So the fact [is] the concept of “Summertime” was already there because of “Summer Madness”—all he did was fill in the lines.
It only took a few days to finish the song. Once Will laid down his vocals, he got on the plane and left, and then Hula & K. Fingers finished it. When they sent it to me, I did a version of it. We sent it back in, and the next thing you know, they’re like, “Hey, this is the first single, and this is coming out.”
Kool With It
Kool & The Gang liked the song. I actually did a tribute to Kool & The Gang a year and a half ago. Kool walked right up to me and was like, “Hey man, thank you. This was amazing for us.” They’re like our big brothers.
A Welcome Surprise
You don’t ever predict a hit. I knew we had something. I was like, “Oh, man, this feels good. It sounds good. It feels good.” I kind of felt like people were gonna like it. I didn’t think it was going to be a hit. I didn’t think it was going to turn into what it turned into. And the thing that I’ve always said: As an artist, you long to have something that stands the test of time. As much as I love “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” they had a run and then faded out. To have something that you can look up and 20 years later, it still resonates with people like it did the very first time, that is so rare. That is extremely rare. You can’t call it. You only hope to have something like that. Every year, I think it’s the year like, “OK, this is it. They’re not gonna play ‘Summertime’ this year.” Then as soon as it gets warm, I get texts like, “Yeah, now playing ‘Summertime.’ Or, “Another radio station just dropped ‘Summertime’.” It’s absolutely a blessing.
Art Imitates Life
We actually shot the video in a lot of the places that Will talked about. We shot on South Street, we shot in the park, and the main part of the video was shot at the Belmont Plateau. It was funny because I remember the video director coming up with all of these treatments, and I remember Will and I saying, “You know what, the treatments are cool, but I think what we want to do is invite all of our friends and have a barbecue because that’s what the song is about.’ Ninety percent of the people in that video were our friends. It wasn’t really like a celebrity barbecue as much as my mom was in it, Will’s mom was in it, and his grandmother was in it. My son, who was probably four years old, was in it. My friend’s sons were in it. We had friends in it who have since passed away. It was a great day because what we really did is we would start the record over and he would start filming it. We would be like, “Hey, we’re gonna do the Soul Train line” or whatever. It was a really, really fun day because it was an actual picnic. It wasn’t just staged food. So they cooked the food, and we ate it, and then they’d cook more food. I could tell the emotion of what we were trying to capture came across in the video.
We debuted the video on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That was the first time that was ever done. At the end—and I want to say it was the first season—of the show, the video came on. It debuted to 10…15 million people. That was amazing. I don’t know if a record company could have ever gotten greater promotion. One of the early lessons that I learned is when it comes to music, you had to be a music fan to know who DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince was. With television, a 90-year-old white grandmother in Nebraska knows who you are. So the level of notoriety changed. I could walk through the mall being DJ Jazzy Jeff, but it was really hard to walk through the mall being Jazz from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That was one of the first times that something like that was cross-promoted. There were people that loved the TV show who had no idea we did music. That wasn’t Jive or RCA’s idea either—that was 100 percent Will. It really worked out for everybody.
Again & Again
Every once in a while at shows, I play it. I am one of those people that I don’t listen to a lot of the stuff that I do. I like when I’m surprised and I hear it. And I realize, like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” And especially because “Summertime” is a song that I pretty much get to hear every year. It’s gonna be 85 degrees here today—I guarantee if I turn the radio on, I’m gonna hear “Summertime” about three or four times. You get that smile, reminiscing back, and just the level of appreciation of what year it is and that we are still listening to that song. I’m extremely appreciative of having something like that.
Fourth Time’s A Charm
I know, especially early in hip-hop, artists didn’t have a lot of longevity. If you had an album that didn’t do too well, it almost signaled your demise. We came off of “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” and rolled right into “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” sold three million more copies, won all the awards, and then came back with And in This Corner…, which sold a million copies, and it wasn’t met with the same admiration—I mean, it was a good album, but it wasn’t the album that He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper was. I even think down to the record company, you started to get a sense that people didn’t believe in you anymore. Then we came with “Summertime.” I almost feel like we hit this lull and came back with this record that propelled us. I don’t know any other hip-hop acts that came back like that. And even jumping ahead to think, we had that first one, had a lull, came back with “Summertime,” we had a hit with “Boom! Shake the Room,” and then Will and I completely disappear. Then Will comes back with “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Men in Black.” We’ve been resurrected like five or six times. Who else can say that?