Breaks With Tradition

Breaks With Tradition: “Summer In The City”

Damn, it’s been hot. Hot enough to make the phrase Hotter Than July seem like an impossibility, hot enough to rewire the entire idea of what “normal” heat is, hot enough to send Greta Thunberg on an intercontinental mission to get Anyone to do Anything about this godforsaken state of things. “Hot Girl Summer” notwithstanding, we’re in the kind of dog days that have made a once-romanticized season feel apocalyptic. How can you even hear a summer song nowadays without feeling some kind of knot in your stomach?

Well, if any song can bypass that, it’s Quincy Jones’ cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit “Summer In The City.” While both versions were both released in their titular season — the original was a #1 smash through much of August 1966, and an edit of Jones’ version came out as a B-side in July of 1973 — it’s Quincy’s version that feels more like a year-round pleasure, and not just because it kicked off an LP that hit store shelves in October. It’s all down to an arrangement and some musical performances that were taken out of season; as a sample source, it’s an all-weather favorite.

The Original: Quincy Jones Ft. Valerie Simpson, “Summer In The City” (from You’ve Got It Bad Girl, A&M, 1973)

Quincy’s ’73 LP You’ve Got It Bad Girl is a mighty strange record when it comes down to it. It’s tribute-heavy thanks to an Aretha Franklin/Roberta Flack medley and two Stevie Wonder hit-song covers, alongside a rangy shapeshifting soul-jazz reconstruction of Dizzy Gillespie’s proto-Afro-Cuban “Manteca.” But it also sneaks in a couple of his contemporaneous themes — including the “Love Theme” from Sam Peckinpah’s Steve McQueen/Ali McGraw thriller The Getaway and the immortal “The Streetbeater,” or as the jacket gracelessly refers to it, “‘Sanford & Son Theme’ – NBC-TV (The Streetbeater).” So all at once it’s a testament to the versatility Jones had developed in some two decades-plus of writing, composing, and arranging, and something of an off-kilter portfolio. It works in the end in part because he’s got a lot of amazing people on board — joined-at-the-hip harmonica player “Toots” Thielmans, fusion legends Bob James and George Duke playing electric piano (on “Manteca” and “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” respectively), and an incognito Billy Preston/Bill Withers/Stevie Wonder chorus credited as “Three Beautiful Brothers” on “Superstition.”

But there’s nothing wrong with peaking early, and if putting his Lovin’ Spoonful cover at the beginning of the album makes for a pretty mellow start, it’s also immediately arresting. That famous intertwined organ riff and electric piano vamp at the beginning, supplied by French Hammond player Eddy Louiss and soundtrack maestro Dave Grusin respectively, would be enough to sustain just about any soul-jazz cut’s backbone. But then there’s the strings — the breeze that cuts through the humidity — and the ensemble’s almost bossa-flavored run-up to the lead vocal from Valerie Simpson, whose first “oooh-eee-yeah” alone is enough to feel like an ice cube pressed to your sun-scorched forehead. Simpson’s vocal is still one of her greatest performances, even accounting for her later work with her husband/co-songwriter Nick Ashford, and the fact that the lyrics are reduced to the bridge and the beat-the-heat night-time chorus — complete with a fine twist on the line “go out and find a girl” (“ain’t it nice just to be a girl?”) — leaves the arrangement to do all the work of evoking a shadowless heat haze radiating off brick and concrete.

The First Sample: Nightmares On Wax, “Nights Interlude” (from A Word of Science, Warp, 1991)

George Evelyn really dug Quincy’s “Summer In The City” cover, or at least I’m guessing he did given how often he flipped it. As Nightmares On Wax, he got ahead of the trip-hop/downtempo curve pretty quickly, the sound of a scene of hip-hoppers turned ravers pivoting halfway back to hip-hop. It was a marked change from the first couple singles NOW released on Warp, but not so much from the demos and home-taping experimental mixes he made as a mid ’80s teenager, some of which worked their way into A Word Of Science in ’91. “Nights Interlude” starts off his debut album just like “Summer In The City” started off You Got It Bad Girl, but to deliberately reworked intent: the source material’s not drastically cut up or distorted, but the rearrangement of the loops upends the original slow-burn dynamic into something a little more ruminative and meditative. Anyone who’s listened to Quincy’s cut a few times can both pinpoint just where Evelyn lifted his loops and appreciate how he was able to make his own mood piece from it. And he didn’t finish there: He’d later rework this idea into “Night’s Introlude” for 1995’s Smokers Delight and “Les Nuits” for 1999’s Carboot Soul, a sort of decade-spanning triptych that’s as vivid a way to demonstrate the through-lines of one’s stylistic evolution as you could ask for from a sample-flipping artist.

The Early Sample: MC Solaar, “Western Modern” (from “Victime De La Mode” single, 1991)

It was in October 1991, literally less than one month after the release of A Word Of Science, that the second known flip of “Summer In The City” hit — curiously enough, as the b-side to the Dakar-born French MC’s early single “Victime De La Mode.” The timing makes it almost assured that producer Jimmy Jay came up with the idea independently of Evelyn, but the loop he did use — and as “Nights Interlude” proved, there were a lot to choose from — latched right on to the Louiss/Grusin interplay at the beginning of Jones’ recording. It’s a bit lower in the mix than the bassline, but it’s there, a chill counterpart to Solaar’s low-affect, calm-and-collected flow. It’s a sly move (however possibly unintentional) to give the first French MC to cross over to hip-hop’s inner circle a loop riding significantly on an organ played by a French musician underheralded in his home country. But it was so thoroughly eclipsed just over a year later by the single most famous usage of that same loop that even for a b-side, it undeservingly became an obscure footnote to the career of an artist whose renown outside the Francophone world is still short of his talent.

The Breakthrough Sample: The Pharcyde, “Passin’ Me By” (from Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, Delicious Vinyl, 1992)

For this beat alone, J-Swift was and should still be That Dude — a literal Third Time’s The Charm that outdid two already-strong sample flips and inspired dozens upon dozens of others. There’s that Louiss/Grusin opening again, but interwoven with the unrelieved itchy sawblade tension of Jimi Hendrix’s opening guitar scratch to “Are You Experienced?” and a twitchy little fragment of an Andrew White bass vamp from Weather Report’s “125th Street Congress” to give everything the air of lighthearted but frustrated reminiscence that the lyrics set in stone. And hell yes he put the Skull Snaps “It’s A New Day” drums beneath it all, because why not make 200% sure it’ll be a banger?

The Weirdo Sample: Ras G, “A4″ (from AinaT, Leaving, 2011)

I use the term “weirdo” with the utmost respect here: Ras G, who passed away late last month at the age of 40, was a constant presence in the Los Angeles beat scene from its earliest days through the heyday of Low End Theory and an artist who embodied everything cosmically exploratory in the city’s abstractionist beats. A catalyst to everyone who collaborated with him, from Open Mike Eagle to Flying Lotus, he manipulated beats with the approach of an artist who could split the differences between Sun Ra, King Tubby, and Madlib until you weren’t sure which end was up. Sometimes he could have fun playing with the obvious, too: “A4″ makes it sound like he found an even more weather-beaten copy of the Quincy LP than J-Swift did, and it rides on loops that feel like they arrive in medias res and take on entirely new dimensions through this unfamiliar version of their repetitions. The bit starting around the 23-second mark where he leaves that Grusin two-note back-and-forth electric piano riff running in circles unresolved is hilarious to anyone who expects to know how it’s supposed to resolve, and when he lets it resolve like it does on the original only to run that stuck loop back again even longer, it erases the line between “fucking with you” as a prank and “fucking with you” as a way to recalibrate your perceptions.

The Recent Sample: Action Bronson & Party Supplies ft. Ab-Soul, “Through the Eyes of a G” (from Blue Chips 2, self-released, 2013)

“Recent” being relative once again — supposedly Big Sean’s “No Favors” samples “Summer In The City” but damned if I can hear it — let’s jump back a little ways to Peak Bronsolino, when his charismatic scumbag gourmand lyricism was really starting to get preposterously vivid. That’s for good and for bad (it’s your call what category to put that Muppet Babies joke in, because I’m still like “what” every time I hear it), but with Party Supplies in “let me just drop in whatever and you rap over it” mode, it clicks as classic mixtape fodder with Ab-Soul’s solid verse as a good bonus.