Pete Rock & CL Smooth: The Best of Pete Rock & CL Smooth: Good Life
Me and my boy, Frank Jr., have been listening to hip-hop since about 1978. Though we were clearly of the moment -- first generation hip-hop heads with requisite ghetto passports -- we were always out of step with the hip-hop moment. Much of that had to do with our general demeanors as cerebral nerds (legendary Strat-o-Matic players) and with the old men we called our fathers (Frank Sr. and AC), who instilled in us just too much respect for the Jazz, Blues and Gospel Quartets of their youth to ever think that any one form of music surpassed another. It was all a continuum. So, while we rocked our Run-DMC/Miami Vice gear until it was well past cliché (you know, Kangols, shell-top Adidas, dark sport jackets and pastel t-shirts) and were the first in line when It Takes a Nation of Millions hit stores, it was never as if hip-hop's fascination with the hyper-present (and the hyper-real) ever fazed us. We needed shit that was timeless -- Coltrane, Bobby "Blue" Bland, the Dixie Hummingbirds immediately come to mind -- and hip-hop had yet to prove that it would be that in the late 1980s. Then one day we heard "They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.)", and it was Frank who remarked rather succinctly that, if we had been hip-hop artists, I think this is the kind of music we would have made. "They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y)" (1992) is, of course, the now-classic single by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and is one of the many gems collected on The Best of Pete Rock and CL Smooth: Good Life.
In the early 1990s, Pete Rock and CL Smooth epitomized what I call East Coast hip-hop's "Hard-Bop minimalist" period. It was an era marked by production that was generous in its sparseness, featuring tightly coiled melodic riffs that easily recalled, in tone and in style, the early 1960s musical musings of Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Definitively East Coast in style and swagger, producer/DJs like Pete Rock, DJ Premier (see Primo's work on Gangstarr's Step into the Arena and Nas's Illmatic), Ali Shaheed Muhammad (especially on Tribe's Low End Theory) and Pete Rock's mentor DJ Eddie F (see his "funky sensation" remix of LL's "Round the Way Girl") created a crunchy, hard-driving soundscape that was the perfect antithesis to the hyper-nihilism and over-funked funk of Cali's gangsta aesthetic.
While the so-called hip-hop/jazz hybrid never really took the hip-hop mainstream to the heights of improvisational genius, critic Charlie Braxton does highlight the jazz affinities of Pete Rock and CL Smooth as they relate to the practice of sampling. Comparing three legendary saxophonists to three now-legendary producer/DJs, according to Braxton, "Marley Marl would be analogous to [Coleman] Hawkins, because he single-handedly changed the way we listen to hip-hop by popularizing the use of sampled drum tracks . . . DJ Premier would be akin to Charlie Parker, because of the way he chops up multiple samples to form his own rhythms and complex melodies" much like the way Parker sampled chords, finally adding that "Pete Rock would be the John Coltrane of crew, because, like the late great saxophone giant, he dared to dig deeper into the musical lexicon to bring new excogitation to hip-hop". (liner notes)
But it would be wrong to think of the success of Pete Rock and CL Smooth as simply being the result of a production genius. What allowed the music of the duo to exist as highbrow hip-hop with a round-the-way feel was the everyman flow of CL Smooth. Whether riffing about bootleggers ("Straighten it Out"), wifey ("Lots of Lovin'"), or the stress of being a black man ("It's on You"), CL Smooth was never flashy, but seriously functional, in a manner only surpassed by Dave/Trugoy of De La Soul, Kool G Rap, and perhaps the under-rated AZ.
The "Chocolate Boy Wonder" and the "Carmel King", as the duo affectionately referred to themselves, first broke through with the EP All Souled Out. Pete grabbed a horn riff from the Stax assembly line for his "solo" joint, "The Creator", layering it over a groove that was clearly indebted to Marley Marl's work on the remix to LL's "Ya Jingling, Baby" (the same way House of Pain's "Jump Around" owes something to "The Creator"). But it was on the hypnotic "Mecca and the Soul Brother" that audiences would be introduced to Pete Rock's signature cascading horn lines (it's clear that bruh listened to some Earth, Wind and Fire and Chicago as a shortie) and CL Smooth's playful wit: "Train like Rocky but still can't step to me / So take a hint, money, leave it alone / And play like Stephanie Mills and find a home" (come on and ease on down, ease on down the road ).
It was a year later that Pete Rock and CL Smooth would become synonymous with the best that hip-hop had to offer. Though it rarely gets mentioned by Viacom-drunk "experts", Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992) is one of the most finely crafted hip-hop recordings ever. The project's interludes, where Pete Rock offered snippets of the classic jazz that he was listening to -- like Cannonball Adderley ("Country Preacher"), Eddie Harris ("Free Speech"), and Les McCann ("Talk to the People") -- were as sought after by listeners as the songs that comprised Mecca and the Soul Brother. As Joe Schloss notes in his forthcoming book, Making Beats: the Art of Sample Based Hip-Hop (Wesleyan University Press), it was as if Pete Rock couldn't allow there to be any moments of silence on the recording.
In my mind, "They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.)", the lead single from Mecca and the Soul Brother, is on a very short list of the most exquisite hip-hop recordings ever. Though few people remember Trouble T Roy, a member of Heavy D and the Boyz, who died in a senseless "horseplay" accident while on tour with Kid and Play in 1990, "They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.)" was hip-hop's first eulogy -- nailing the concept years before eulogies became a hip-hop requisite, like the gospel songs that close so many "I want to bone your ass" R&B recordings. Like DuBois's essay, "On Alexander Crummell" (from The Souls of Black Folk, 1903), where he eulogized the legendary 19th century activist and intellectual, Pete Rock and CL Smooth's eulogy for Trouble T-Roy has overshadowed the object of the eulogy. Not simply a tribute to fallen friend, "They Reminisce over You" was also a tribute to family.
In the opening verse of the song, CL Smooth gives love to his mom, tracing her rise from single parenthood to full-fledged womanhood ("After ten years without no spouse, Momma's getting' married in the house / Listen, positive over negative for the woman and master, Mother Queen's rise in a chapter"). The second verse was dedicated to his grandfather (Poppa Doc), who stepped in when CL Smooth's "biological didn't bother" (Shaq built a whole song around that line to pay tribute to his own "step" father on Shaq Fu: The Return, 1994). In an era that was defined by a severe generational divide within the black community (even more powerfully severe contemporarily), CL Smooth creates a touching portrait of a relationship between a twenty-something black man and his elder. When CL flows with "Noddin' off to sleep to a jazz tune / I can hear his head banging on the wall in the next room / I get the pillow and hope I don't wake", it was a scene that had been shared by many young black men with their fathers, uncles, and grand-fathers. It highlighted why the hip-hop/jazz hybrid that emerged in the early 1990s resonated so powerfully among older black men who were jazz fans in their youth -- suddenly these old men (full of Southern pain, as brotha' Umar Bin Hassan puts it), whose music had been rendered irrelevant by two-decades of corporatized soul and R&B (rhythm and bullshit, to some) had something to teach the younger cats, who were digging in their crates to find Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson, and Ronnie Foster.
On "Straighten It Out", the follow-up single from Mecca and the Soul Brother, Pete Rock and CL Smooth get at different sides of music industry politics. Talking about boot-leggers, CL gets real: "Any duplication of this one is fatal / On 1-2-5, I gotta hit ya live / Beat your ass with my tape, any race or shape". Not just concerned with the preservation of their own royalties, Pete and CL also reach out to their peers ("Cuz if they got mine, they got yours too / But together here's what we got to do Straighten it out"). Where the first verse of "Straighten It Out" deals with those who ostensibly "steal" from artists (this is, of course, the pre-Napster era), in the second verse Pete Rock and CL Smooth defend the practice of sampling -- an art-form (yes, I called it that) that has often been portrayed as a form of theft in its own right (a lot of talk about older cats not getting paid, but most of them didn't even have the publishing rights on their joints). Though CL admits that "the funk legacy I pass on, clearancy for high rates / Everytime we sample all the past time greats", he reminds listeners that that practice of sampling (in its most creative forms -- I'm not talking about a Bad Boy classic) is not simply about appropriating, but reconstructing ("I start from scratch, cuz the bass-line is critical / Better than the original who first made it").
If Mecca and the Soul Brother was stridently serious in some of its themes and its invocation of Hard-Bop jazz (there were playful ditties like "Skinz" and "Lots of Lovin'"), then the follow-up, The Main Ingredient (1994), found the duo much more laid back -- Pete Rock employing sampling techniques closer to the radio-friendly choices made by the Bad Boy camp, though still employing his signature horn and vibe lines. On the lead single, "I Got a Love", Pete borrows a base line from Mel and Tim's version of Gene Chandler's "Groovy Situation" and embellishes it with steel drums to give the song a Caribbean swing, while CL flows lovely about the honey he trying to get with ("She's so thick and God is my witness / Sometime you just can't believe that I'm hittin' this").
On the seriously radio-friendly "Take You There", Pete Rock gives yet another spin on Keni Burke's "Rising to the Top" (1982) -- a song that was sampled by Doug E. Fresh (his classic remake), and as recently as last year by LL Cool J ("Paradise") . Burke's recording, which is a stepper classic (step, step, side to side . . .), may be the most obscure "hit" in all of 1980s black pop. Always a DJ, Pete's use of the song gives love to a bunch of East Coast cool down grooves, like Burke's "Rising to the Top", Midnight Starr's "Curious", and Atlantic Starr's "Silver Shadow". The duo dip into the world of Donald Byrd and the Mizell Brothers (Larry and Fonce) on "All the Places", essentially a remake of Byrd's "Places and Spaces" (1975). The song, like "I Got a Love", also features sampled drop-ins from Biz Markie, as the duo give some up for hip-hop's clown prince. Taking into account tracks like "In the House", their remake of Roy Ayers's "Searching", and the brilliant "It's on You", Pete and CL's The Main Ingredient was arguably a better, if not as provocative, effort than Mecca and the Soul Brother. The fact that the Pete Rock and CL Smooth didn't achieve the kind of commercial success that they deserved may explain why they chose to break up after the release of The Main Ingredient.
Nevertheless, tracks like "One in a Million" (from the Poetic Justice soundtrack, 1993), and even "Take You Time" (featuring Loose Ends) from Pete's solo joint, Soul Survivor (1999), are further evidence that Pete Rock and CL Smooth were a group for the ages, even if folks weren't ready for them -- just yet. The Best of Pete Rock and CL Smooth: Good Life is both the perfect introduction and a powerful reminiscence of one of hip-hop's most important groups.