For a fun, soulful outdoor barbecue, there are several things you must have. Of course, there's the food: potato salad, baked beans, ribs. (And whoever is manning the grill better know what he's doing.) You must have beer and liquor for the adults, Kool-Aid or Capri Sun pouches for the kids. But if you want to keep the barbecue from sinking into lame territory, you must also have music - plenty of good, upbeat jams.
As friends and I prepare to get together for the Fourth of July, we delegate different duties. Besides doing some cooking, I'm in charge of the music. Here are highlights from my playlist, one that I hope will appease the progressive urbanites, old heads and gutta folks who are sure to show up.
Erykah Badu, "Honey": The bonus track on her latest album, the superb New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War, this feel-good jam is ideal for a laid-back summer afternoon. The rubbery groove - borrowed from "I'm in Love," an obscure 1978 Nancy Wilson track - is perfect for nondancers like yours truly. I can do my lazy two-step move, drink in hand, and not look ridiculous.
Zapp, "More Bounce to the Ounce": This flowing funk monster, a heavy influence on Dr. Dre's gangsta rap productions of the '90s, was inescapable during the summer of 1980. Twenty-eight years later, it is still a sure party starter that hasn't aged a bit. Even Roger Troutman's vocoder usage still sounds strangely innovative. It is downright impossible to sit still during this cut. You tap your feet, you nod your head. Something moves.
Madonna, "Borderline": So we go from heavy electro-funk to fluffy '80s pop. Why not? This is, hands down, my favorite song by the chameleonic superstar. Forget Hard Candy, her overly calculated, icily detached new album. I prefer the young, hungry Madonna, whose powerless, hopelessly thin vocals managed to sound somewhat soulful on this cut. The production was overseen by Reggie Lucas who, with James Mtume, had crafted a similar sound for Stephanie Mills earlier in the decade. This song is so 1984, but it's still a nice trip.
Usher, "This Ain't Sex": This is a standout on the R&B; superstar's new album, the overlong and uneven Here I Stand. The ghost of the glorious '80s Michael Jackson has long loomed over Usher's career. And on this track, he almost pulls off the pop legend's effervescent sound circa Off the Wall. But no matter how hard he tries, Usher will never be the marvelously nuanced soul singer Jackson was in his heyday.
Michael Jackson, "Get on the Floor": Well, since we're talking about the King of Pop, I may as well throw in one of his songs. But let's forgo the classic hits and pick an album cut from 1979's Off the Wall, a much better dance record than 1982's celebrated Thriller. "Get on the Floor" is propulsive and utterly joyful. Midway through the song, slightly off mic, you can hear a giddy Jackson laugh. This is probably one of his most overlooked tracks from the era.
Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, "It Takes Two": We must have hip-hop somewhere in the mix. But I figure I should go with a timeless cut, and rap doesn't get as transcendent as this platinum-selling 1988 smash. This track greatly expanded the possibilities of sampling in hip-hop. Built on the 1972 Lyn Collins' classic "Think (About It)," the rap completely reconstructs elements of the song (the bass line, the female vocal) and turns it into something sonically fresh and hard-hitting. You add Base's insistent, endless rhyming to it and - shazam! - you have classic hip-hop. Ah, the good old days before so much of mainstream rap became one depressing minstrel show.
Al Green, "Love and Happiness": This 1972 evergreen is sure to solicit shouts after the twangy opening guitar riff. And as soon as the beat kicks in, you better believe everybody will be up and grooving and singing along. This is my family's all-time favorite cut to play at gatherings. It was during this song that my grandmother Mama Teacake (may she rest in peace) used to show us grandkids how to do her "famous belly roll." As she got down, rolling her hips and snapping her fingers, we all shook our heads in shame.
ZZ Hill, "Cheatin' in the Next Room": My East Coast friends know nothing about this silken blues ballad. But for those of us raised in black neighborhoods in the deep South during the 1980s, this cut was widely played on adult stations and in corner juke joints. It's taken from Hill's 1982 masterpiece Down Home Blues. The LP, long available on CD, is one of the biggest sellers for Malaco, the Mississippi-based indie label. This is one of the last songs played at the barbecue, after the sun melts away and everyone's full. Somebody opens a bottle of good cognac, and the adults kick back, eyes closed and heads nodding to this mellow tale of love gone bad.