Pete Tosiello only does summer for the barbecues and busted hydrants.
Of late, there’s been a retrospective celebration of a certain type of regional summertime hits from the mid-‘90s. These songs—“Listen to the Sound,” “Swangin’ & Bangin’,” “Hey Lookaway,” “Attitudes,” to name a few—are marked by their slow, viscous tempos, infectious melodies, and harmlessly vapid lyrics. They beg for warm weather and are equally suited to open-window motoring and barbecues. They have simple, memorable hooks, and in the tradition of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime”—one of 90s rap’s first can’t-miss summer anthems—they use cool, woozy samples to evoke a nostalgic, wistful vibe.
The reason, I think, these singles have regained such esteem is that their innocuous melancholy is enhanced by the fact that these acts were, at least from a national perspective, more or less one hit wonders. The groups were mostly short lived, had tenuous but invaluable links with major label distributors, and usually had a loose association with a more successful local act. While steeped in pop appeal they each hinted at a vibrant, foreign regional scene. They were the organic, populist alternatives to “I Wish,” “Ditty,” “Sweet Potato Pie,” and “Back in the Day.”
To this rich canon of compulsory summer listens by elusive middle American Clinton-era rap acts I submit 1994’s “L.I. Groove” by Hard 2 Obtain.
Hard 2 Obtain, or H2O for short, was a group of between two and eight guys from somewhere in Nassau County. They had one album I’m aware of and the dumb luck of being signed to Atlantic when groups like them were signed to labels like Atlantic. I can’t tell you much about their album Ism & Blues besides that its title and cover are more memorable than the actual music, and if I’ve listened to it in full I’ll probably never do it again. But using a complex formula assuming a long and healthy life with relatively static tastes and responsibilities, I calculate that I will probably listen to “L.I. Groove” another 2,000 times before ascending to the Hard 2 Obtain beyond.
In addition to its unassailable place amidst the infinite summer playlist, “L.I. Groove” is of an elite, storied tradition of geo-specific anthems successfully executed against steep odds. Municipal anthems are extremely hard to pull off because there are a lot of qualifications. For one, your city needs to be relatively small if not uncharted in the rap conscious. You can’t make an “N.Y. Groove” or an “L.A. Groove” because those cities and concepts are monolithic, and attempting to reduce them to a four minute rap track would be reductive and oblivious. New York and L.A. have also never needed an anthem to improve their PR or to enter the mass cognizance. So what you get instead are odes to streets or neighborhoods, or authoritative, definitive songs capturing medium-sized metros and chip-on-their-shoulder suburbs: “Straight Outta Compton,” “Moneyearnin’ Mount Vernon,” “Summertime in the L.B.C.,” “Inglewood Swangin’,” “Cleveland Is the City.”
Long Island has produced a sneaky amount of seminal New York hip hop, but Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, EPMD, Freddie Foxxx, Busta Rhymes, and Keith Murray each failed to produce an “L.I. Groove,” leaving the job to our humble friends in H2O. Yet Long Island’s proximity and familiarity constituted a leg up that would have eluded, say, the “Susquehanna Valley Groove.”
“L.I. Groove” is appropriately of New York but not from New York. The addled lyrics and reliance on a smokin’ horn sample are vaguely reminiscent of Lords of the Underground, but the effect is most similar to Artifacts, perhaps the act which most defined the Tristate-But-Not-Five-Boroughs sound during this period. Artifacts’ appeal was rooted in their no frills precociousness, and “L.I. Groove” is lo-fi; the production is sparse, the vocals are too low, the balance is off, and it’s poorly mastered. But Artifacts’ minimalism dictated that they were never this melodic or musical, and they were exhaustingly lyrical where H2O was decisively not.
The first rapper on “L.I. Groove” looks like Chuck D and sounds like he’s never listened to any rappers besides Grand Puba and Sadat X. He namechecks Barry White and rhymes “prophylactic” with “flavor-tastic.” The second guy tries to do a little singsong-y Pharcyde thing. They’re both entirely competent and sorta’ forgettable—I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times and am not aware of any linear thought or idea across its four minutes and fourteen seconds. But for songs like this that’s actually an asset: it’s blurrily prescriptive rather than descriptive. If H2O was kickin’ that knowledge God or recounting a house party gone awry it wouldn’t be comprehensive, or ambiguous, enough to be the “L.I. Groove.”
If that’s one of the biggest reasons “L.I. Groove” works, it’s the reason H2O didn’t—this was a transcendent moment by a group that clearly had nothing greater in the tank. The “And they at it again, and they at it again, and they at it again” hook is facile and panoramic (shades of “Here come dat boi again”?). There’s a little Rakim vocal sample because of course there is.
I don’t know what happened to H2O, and it doesn’t really matter. Summer’s coming and they’ll be at it again.