The Fourth of July is almost here, and hopefully you’re almost done preparing for your cookout. (Remember, it’s a cookout, not a barbecue. A cookout is an event. Barbecue is a sauce.) There are other people throwing lesser cookouts than yours; they're online right now researching raisin-walnut chicken-salad recipes, but not you. You know what is important. After you buy 383 rolls of aluminum foil (the median consumption at the average black cookout, including wrapping up to-go plates), marinate the ribs and stir the Kool-Aid, there is still one necessary ingredient vital to all black gatherings:
Have no fear. We assembled an esteemed panel of researchers, pollsters and cultural experts to put together a playlist of the greatest cookout songs of all time. After a horrifically bloody fistfight because Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” was left off the list, there was one guy left. Here’s the countdown he came up with.
Although I’ve never read the liner notes, I can almost guarantee that the Gap Band made this song at a cookout. It is too perfect. When you listen to it, you almost get smoke in your eyes. If you think this song is about lavishing complimentary praise on a beautiful woman, you’ve never had my Aunt Marvell’s potato salad. If you don’t dance when you taste it, you will at least shuffle back and forth like you’re in a church choir. It’s outstanding. Girl, it knocks me out.
It’s outstanding. It makes me wanna …
You get my drift.
This is the perfunctory song that you have to play for all your saved aunts and uncles during the cookout. Not only is it inspirational, but it also shuts up your great-aunt Sophie who keeps asking if you have any James Cleveland or Mississippi Mass Choir. I always play it as soon as all the food is done because we can go right into saying grace without turning down the radio. You can also play it whenever the cussing gets too loud at the dominoes table.
You can’t cuss when they’re talking about Jesus.
It is not yet a federal law, but I think I read somewhere that 23 states mandate that all barbecues, cookouts and gatherings that necessitate smoke coming from a grill must have at least one Earth, Wind & Fire song played during the gathering. Some people will argue that “Reasons” is a better song, but I think it should be reserved for intimate situations, or—as my Uncle Junior called it at cookouts—the “freaky-deaky” (there were children around).
I don’t want to get into a philosophical debate about which one is best. I just know we are legally required to play a song by “the Elements” or we could be hauled off to jail, and they say if you get locked up for not playing Earth, Wind & Fire, the inmates treat you worse than Jared from Subway.
At every cookout, there will be at least one person who had a few too many Bud Light Limes and is a little lit. “Back That Azz Up” is just a mechanism to find out who that person is. There has been some perfunctory research on why anyone who has more than .03 blood alcohol content feels the biological need to twerk when this song is played, but it hasn’t been completed yet. “Back That Azz Up” will reveal all the ratchetness in your family. Even if your niece can hold her “drop it low” primal urges, her little 3-year-old (still wearing pull-ups) won’t be able to resist. Even your Aunt Sophie will tap her feet.
And you know she loves Jesus.
This song is about … umm … well, the flashlight is a metaphor for … ahhh. Man, look. No one knows what this song means—not even George Clinton. I’m sure he was probably high off snorting some concoction of paprika and Purplesaurus Rex Kool-Aid (which, by the way, is just grape Kool-Aid mixed with lemonade. You can’t fool me, Kool-Aid Man; I don’t care how many walls you burst through) when he wrote this, but the funkiness is undeniable.
I feel that I am somewhat cheating by even listing this song as perfect for a cookout because truthfully, whenever you play “Flashlight,” people will dance. At parties. At weddings. At divorces. At court sentencings. In fact, at my funeral, I don’t even want a eulogy. I just want my pallbearers to do the Electric Slide down the aisle with my casket and then lower me into the ground as Clinton wails, “Now I lay me down to sleeeeeep/I guess I’ll go count the sheep.”
Remember, we are the light.
This has been the go-to cookout song since time immemorial. Your parents played it at barbecues. There are stories that when Harriet Tubman departed the Underground Railroad and deposited her cargo in the safety of Canada, they would have a celebratory cookout and play this song. If you read the original translation of the Scriptures that were left out of the New Testament, the book of Jerome speaks of how the DJ played “Love and Happiness” when Jesus fed the multitude with two fish and five loaves.
I’m serious …
Look it up.
Sometime during the night, things will get serious at the spades table. Maybe there will be a dispute about which suit led or whose deal it is. Perhaps some confounded scoundrel will renege.
Whatever the case may be, there are only two things that can calm the argument down: your Aunt Marvell’s potato salad (which you have already cleaned out) and this song. Everyone on the table will stop arguing, close their eyes, lean back and start reciting the lyrics to this hip-hop classic …
That’s when you show your partner that you have the Big Joker.
Playing "Wobble" at a cookout has nothing to do with watching all the people full of ribs and burned hot dogs shuffle in flip-flops to choreographed steps around the backyard. At cookouts, this song is not about who doesn’t know how to do the Wobble. It is about watching your nephew teach your saved and sanctified Aunt Marvell how to back it up.
Just please make sure Aunt Marvell doesn’t fall and hurt her potato-salad-making hand. (Did I mention it was outstanding?)
“Before I Let Go” is like macaroni and cheese or aluminum foil—you shouldn’t have a cookout without it.
The first amendment of the international cookout constitution states that Frankie Beverly and Maze should be played at all cookouts. I’m not saying that you have to play it—I’m just saying that you should. It makes the ribs taste better. It makes the Kool-Aid sweeter.
For a moment, let’s set aside that this is the greatest cookout song ever. Let us forget that I (and many other hip-hop conspiracy theorists) believe that Rakim wrote this song. I won’t even dwell on the fact that this song sounds like summer. In my opinion, "Summertime’s" genius lies in the first two sounds you hear on the record:
Honestly, I believe that every important moment in life should begin with that sentence. When a woman is giving birth to her first baby, before her final push, her husband should be in the delivery room with a boombox cued up to that lick. I prayed that at President Obama’s last State of the Union, he’d walk out to Jazzy Jeff cutting it up on the 1s and 2s on the House floor. If I die tomorrow, my biggest regret will be that I didn’t propose to my future wife by getting on my knees, pulling out a ring and screaming, “Drums, please!”
But life is not about sorrow or regret.
It is about Aunt Marvell’s potato salad.