Happy 25th Anniversary to Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s debut full-length album Mecca And The Soul Brother, originally released June 9, 1992.
There is always something special about one emcee and one producer collaborations. One rapper working exclusively with one producer to create an album with a cohesive sound or feel. Two complementary pieces coming together to become greater as a whole.
These types of musical associations used to be a lot more commonplace, with young up-and-coming emcees partnering with skilled beat makers. The golden age of hip-hop is full of albums that fit the bill, whether it’s LL Cool J and Rick Rubin coming together for Radio (1985), Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre linking up for Doggystyle (1993), King Tee putting in work with DJ Pooh, or Guru and DJ Premier forming the legendary Gang Starr.
The one emcee and one producer blueprint became less in vogue as hip-hop grew in popularity. With artists working to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, it became the norm for aspiring rappers destined for stardom to try to have the sound and style of their albums as varied as possible. As a result, these rappers load their albums with as many different “hot” producers in an attempt to keep their audience broad. Or sometimes, they just like rocking over lots of different types of beats.
In recent years the single emcee-producer pairings have been making a comeback, with established lyricists linking up with top-notch beat creators. For example, Freddie Gibbs put together Piñata (2014) with Madlib and Royce da 5’9” came together with DJ Premier to create the PRhyme project. Independent record label Mello Music Group somewhat specializes in these types of endeavors; in the past five years, they’ve released projects pairing producers like Apollo Brown, Oddisee, Gensu Dean, and L’Orange with emcees like O.C., Finale, Wise Intelligent, Kool Keith, and a whole host of others.
But over the past forty years, few, if any, emcee-producer duos have proven as dynamic as Peter “Pete Rock” Phillips and Corey “C.L. Smooth” Penn. The pair’s musical alliance is something absolutely special. They originally united while they came up in the Mt. Vernon, NY scene, began recording together, and formally debuted with their acclaimed 1991 EP, All Souled Out, for Elektra Records.
But with Mecca And The Soul Brother, the first full-length album they released 25 years ago, they delivered an unequivocal hip-hop masterpiece. With this album, they created a kind of alchemy where the separate pieces, while individually as dope as possible in their respected specialties, became even more powerful when fused together in musical union.
There are few albums that I enjoy listening to as much as Mecca And The Soul Brother. Out of the thousands of albums that I’ve purchased and listened to over the last four decades, few mean as much to me as this one.
I remember the day I bought it. It was the last day of my junior year in high school, in June of 1992, and I had just completed my Art History final, the last exam I had to take that year. It was actually the day after it first hit the shelves. It irked me to be forced to wait a day, but I begrudgingly acknowledged that going to buy an album when I had a test to study for was not the most responsible use of my time. So I drove down to the legendary Leopold’s in Berkeley, my go-to record store during my younger years, and copped the cassette. When I got back to my car, I popped it in the tape deck, and drove off. The tape didn’t leave my deck until July at the absolute earliest. I went through a good month of listening to one side, flipped it over, listened to the next side, then repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Never fast-forwarded a single song. Knew it backwards and forwards. In my opinion, it’s on the shortlist of the greatest albums of all time, hip-hop or otherwise.
What makes Mecca And The Soul Brother so great is the combination of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. That may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but the two feed off of each other like few collaborators have before and since. Their partnership is a purely symbiotic relationship, and results in an album for which neither the beats nor the lyrics are the highlights. It is the chemistry that Pete Rock and C.L. have together that forms the centerpiece of Mecca And The Soul Brother, and the bedrock the album is built upon.
Of the duo, Pete Rock has the most notoriety. His reputation as one of the most inventive hip-hop producers ever has its genesis largely from his work on Mecca. Pete Rock became known for his distinct and largely melodious sound. At the time, you could identify a Pete Rock beat within the first five seconds. One of his signatures became his use of horn samples, and it’s evident here throughout the expanse of Mecca; nearly every song is anchored by a jazz or soul saxophone or trumpet track.
But what doesn’t get talked about is how dense his beats often sound. Pete layers his beats through the album with a thick collage of horns, basslines, vibes, keys, and hard-hitting drums. The man also has a penchant for incorporating the drums from rock group Mountain’s song “Long Red” into his track; the drums are sampled at least four times for songs on Mecca. It’s also worth noting how many songs on the album lack any sort of hook. Maybe half the songs feature Pete Rock’s scratching and vocals on the chorus, but often the pair let the beat ride and let the music shine.
Though Pete Rock earned much of the praise over the years, C.L. Smooth’s lyrical contributions are just as integral. He tailors his verses to ride each beat, with his, um, smooth and laid-back vocal tones becoming an instrument itself. He switches his lyrical flow and cadence effortlessly from verse to verse, charging the beats with infectious verbal energy. C.L.’s flood of verbal gymnastics and stream of consciousness rhymes make him an equal partner in the success of this endeavor.
Mecca is a lengthy album: the CD version clocks in at just under 78 minutes (the maximum length for the medium), while the cassette version runs just under an hour and a half. But with all of this music, the album never drags, and it never feels like there’s a wasted moment. Mecca is an excellent demonstration in album structure, as the duo imbues each separate song with its own energy, slowly building momentum, then knowing when to slow things back down again. Pete and C.L. also masterfully execute the art of the interlude to pace the album. Interspersed between each track, Pete plays snippets of original soul and jazz that he felt captured the appropriate mood, but couldn’t be transformed into a full song.
The album starts of strong with “Return of the Mecca,” a solid and pulsing track that’s simultaneously rough and smooth. Pete filters horns in an out of the track built around thumping, raspy drums. C.L. recites spiritually-based lyrics, evoking the power of self-discovery as he works to improve himself, rapping, “A richer voice than Robin Leach / I’ll reach with a speech, no bleach so you can't impeach / Monumentally smooth, I’ll prove it sincerely / To barely when you're near me clearly never sound weary / Maintain the gravity, assault and battery / So sweet the repeat, you’re bound to catch a cavity.”
Much of Mecca features tracks that showcase C.L. Smooth flexing his verbal muscles. Tracks like “Act Like You Know,” “It’s Like That,” “Can’t Front On Me,” and “If It Ain’t Rough It Ain’t Right” all serve as demonstrations of C.L.’s lyrical excellence coupled with Pete Rock’s production mastery.
Lyrically, not every song on Mecca is built on free-flowing stylings by C.L. Smooth.
He proves himself quite capable of rhyming about more serious subjects, often building a strong narrative through his rhymes. “Ghetto of the Mind” explores the mentality of a drug-dealer living in low-income areas throughout the United States, ashamed for being “forced to sell Hell just to pay the rent.” He laments the hopeless despair he witnesses and experiences every day. Throughout the track, C.L.’s narrator looks for ways to escape his environment, which is both mentally and physically enslaving him. “Killing my own people, I put ’em out of order / Just like the liquor store scene on every corner / I’m trying but the kids keep crying, and the bullets keep flying / Look, a boy, he's on the curb just dying.” It’s a bleak track, focusing on the widespread disenchantment that can appear in economically depressed communities, but one that does offer a sliver of hope in its final verse.
“They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” the album’s first single, is Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s best known and most revered track. It’s still regarded as one of the best-produced hip-hop tracks of all time, and widely considered one of the best hip-hop songs ever. The track remains poignant and still resonates a quarter of a century after it first surfaced. Flexing more of his narrative skills, C.L. reflects on his life and upbringing, honoring the history of his family and the strength that they gave him and the lessons he learned from them while growing up. The song is also a dedication to Troy “Trouble T-Roy” Dixon, a dancer with Heavy D’s crew and the duo’s friend. The beat showcases Pete Rock at his ethereal finest, blending the sax and vocals from Tom Scott’s cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Today,” and melding it with a filtered bassline as well as re-freaked drums from James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” It’s as close to hip-hop perfection as any track ever released.
“Straighten it Out,” the album’s second single, is another musically smooth and mellow entry for the album. Lyrically, it tackles a myriad of topics, from bootlegging to record label drama. But it’s best known for its second verse, concerning the strife associated with clearing samples. The album was released around the time that serious lawsuits really began flying regarding sample clearances, with old-school soul and jazz artists beginning to charge exorbitant rates to artists and their record labels for incorporating elements of their music into hip-hop tracks. C.L. walks the difficult line, struggling to remain respectful to past architects, but still incredulous at the behavior of some artists: “Now you want to sue me, but fans never boo me / Believe I know the times, we been broke, too, G.” The song borrows liberally from Ernie Hines’ “Our Generation,” but fortunately, in this case, the sample was cleared.
Even though C.L. was the primary emcee, Pete Rock’s voice was always present on tracks he produced; he was the first producer to record ad-libs over just about all of his beats. His work with C.L. was no exception, as his deep murmuring bass voice frequently punctuated each line. But, as time has gone on, he’s become known as a rapper as well. The group’s first successful song from their All Souled Out EP, “The Creator,” (actually the B-Side for the single “Go With the Flow”), was a Pete Rock solo cut. The song was held together by an elastic funk baseline and playful rhymes by Pete. The producer does give himself a little more time to shine on Mecca. Though most of his rhymes are written by fellow Westchester County resident and Elektra Records label-mate/homie Grand Puba, Pete Rock drops rhymes on about a quarter of Mecca’s songs.
Even with Grand Puba writing his rhymes, it’s clear that Pete’s real talents remain on the production side of the equation. But that doesn’t mean the tracks featuring his raps don’t have their appeal. On “For Pete’s Sake,” both C.L. and Pete get busy over another sonically dense, yet upbeat track, rapping over vibes taken from Freddie McCoy’s “Gimme Some.” Here Pete Rock’s verse is sandwiched in between two lyrical exhibitions by C.L. Pete’s verse is reasonably charming, with lines like, “Stay away from the penile, I can rock the senile / Hons always wave ’cause I’m slick like Nu-Nile.” The Source crowned the verse the “Illest Verse of the Month” (perhaps the first the magazine slash hip-hop bible ever handed out), but they were perhaps being tongue in cheek. Or maybe they really liked references to pomade. Regardless, the two stream of consciousness verses that bracket the track are still the lyrical highlight, as C.L. raps, “Here steps the one, the answer to the riddle / Survey says the Black Pres can make you wiggle / The staff to the craft, the stroke of a painter / Perfect stranger, melody arranger.”
“Soul Brother #1” is Mecca’s sole Pete Rock solo cut. Again, Pete’s rhymes are serviceable enough, but it’s the beat he creates that is the star. It’s the closest that Pete gets to creating a Bomb Squad track, noisy and chaotic, but still remaining melodic and funky. The cassette version of the album also features a remix of “The Creator.” Musically, it’s very much similar to the original version, but Pete adds even more jazzy horns to the original bass-line driven track. It also features verses from C.L., as the pair pass the mic back and forth throughout the song.
C.L. Smooth is clearly the lyrical star throughout Mecca, but he and Pete also host a few guest emcees. “The Basement” plays host to friends of the crew and off-shot acts. Over a slow and muddy track that is simultaneously jazzy and reggae influenced, C.L. and Pete share vocal time with the Overweight Lover himself, MC Heavy D, along with Rob-O, Grap Luva, and Dedi Baby Pah. The Heavster, often known for radio friendly rhymes, demonstrates he can get raw with the best of them, while Grap and Rob-O shine as well. Grap and Rob-O would later go on to form the group InI, while Dedi would go on to rap solo. Both InI and Dedi would later record (but not officially release) albums produced entirely by Pete Rock during the mid ’90s.
The album draws to a close with “Skinz,” the pair’s ode to getting busy. Rapping over the horn intro from The Coasters “Down Home Girl,” C.L. adeptly plays the role of the smooth mack daddy, sexing up honeys from around the country. The aforementioned Grand Puba has a guest verse on the track, which makes sense, since he was then well known as a ladies man on the mic. However, he uses the majority of his verse to extol the virtues of using a condom. He does take some time to muse over engaging in some extra-curricular activities, “’Cause when I jump into my thing I make the bedspring sing / And you can ask my old fling, who’s the bedroom king? / Hit the skinz hard, she'll hang on to the bedpost / Then I drop my load, then get up and make some French toast.” Pete Rock drops a quick eight-bar rhyme-break in the midst of C.L.’s second verse. Pete maintains that he himself wrote the brief verse himself, and well, it shows.
Sadly, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth are one of those brilliant musical combos that didn’t last long enough. The pair recorded and released The Main Ingredient in 1994, which built further built upon their chemistry and stands as one of the great hip-hop sophomore albums ever. However, the group fell apart soon after for reasons that have never relay been clear. Post break-up, Pete Rock was still regarded as one of the top two or three hip-hop producers working, with C.L. languishing in relative obscurity. The pair reunited briefly in the late ’90s/early ’00s to release a few 12”s and scattered loosies, but again had an acrimonious breakup a few years later, punctuated by a 2004 interview with AllHipHop.com in which C.L. admonished Pete to “make my beats f#$^ot!” It appears that the two have achieved some sort of peace since then, but the whole spectacle was comically ugly.
It’s a great shame that things fell apart, and Pete Rock and C.L. didn’t get to make more music. Not many truly equal musical partnerships come around in hip-hop, so it’s regrettable when one burns so bright and fast that it barely lasts five years. However, when you reminisce over musical legacies, very few artists can say that they’ve ever created something as special and timeless as Mecca And The Soul Brother.