"My record collection started through my father's..."
Pete Rock was the son of Jamaicans who'd emigrated to the Bronx in the 1960s; with young Pete moving to Westchester County as a kid. His father's love of music would turn Peter into a fiend for delicious vinyl. “I got a lot of stuff for Mecca and the Soul Brother [from there]," Rock said in 2013 of his dad's records. "I used a lot of his jazz stuff. He had Kool & the Gang 45s. Mounds of 45s, which are mine now. Rest In Peace. He had everything. Jazz, rock, soul, and especially reggae, because we’re Jamaican.”
Those records sowed the seeds for Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, aka The Chocolate Boy Wonder and Caramel King. Coming out of Mt. Vernon, N.Y. in the early 1990s, Peter Philips and Corey Penn were set for a major breakout in the spring of 1992. Pete was the cousin of rap superstar Heavy D, and it was through Heavy D and DJ Eddie F of The Boyz that Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth made their first steps in the industry. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth debuted in 1991 with their 6-track EP All Souled Out, a stellar extended player that showcased their laid-back rhyme style and Pete's penchant for soul-sampling beats. That EP featured their debut single “The Creator,” and announced them as upstarts. But by the time they got around to recording their debut full-length, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth had grown tremendously.
“We’ve taken it from nothing and made it into something,” C.L. would explain to the Source in 1992. “We went from pause button to 4-track, to 8-track, to 24-track, to 48-track. The thing that makes us so compatible is both of our skills grew together. His beats have made me a better rap artist, and my raps have made him a better producer. It’s great that we have family in the business already such as [Grand] Puba and Heavy D, they really sat back and let us develop. We basically helped ourselves, but Eddie F did point us towards the right direction.”
For anyone who hadn't caught on to them after their EP All Souled Out, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth would put the world on notice with their debut studio album. Rock's gift for soul samples and C.L.'s laid-back lyricism were the perfect marriage, and the duo from Mt. Vernon set a new standard for classic East Coast Hip-Hop. Throughout 1991, Pete Rock was making his name on tracks by stars like Brand Nubian, Kid 'n Play and Main Source; and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth made a noteworthy appearance on the famous Heavy D & The Boyz posse cut "Don't Curse" in late 1991, alongside Big Daddy Kane, Q-Tip and Kool G Rap.
In an era of undeniable crate-diggers like DJ Premier, Large Professor, Diamond D, and Q-Tip, Pete Rock's ear still managed to stand out from the crowd. Mecca and The Soul Brother features Rock drifting through sublime tracks from artists as disparate as Connie Mitchell and Sister Nancy; Ernie Hines and Les McCann; Talking Heads and Cannonball Adderley. His father's records had gifted young Peter with exquisite taste, and his productions gave C.L. Smooth a lush tapestry on which to paint his direct, thoughtful rhymes.
C.L.'s technique was strong but not showy; his wordplay drifting from introspection to topical throughout the duo's debut album.
"I think it was just self-expression. Art," C.L. said in 2017. "I think art can bring you into a lot of peaks and valleys. Where water will go, water will stay. That's how you explore and adventure into politics, innuendo, living life, how you live, your perceptions of it. This was just one stance that we liked to take in our platform of making music. When your voice is heard you want it to say something that has substance."
His rhymes are front-and-center, and helped push singles like "Lots Of Lovin'" across the airwaves; giving Mecca and The Soul Brother some of the early 1990s most beloved tracks. On the classic track, C.L. gets romantic as he salutes the object of his affection while also honoring Black womanhood.
I think art can bring you into a lot of peaks and valleys. Where water will go, water will stay. That's how you explore and adventure into politics, innuendo, living life, how you live, your perceptions of it."
- C.L. Smooth (SKIDDLE, 2017)
The sample-heavy sound of the album would become a benchmark for so many producers going forward. DJ Premier and Large Professor had already been creating music that was redefining the art of sampling and shaping the sound of East Coast Hip-Hop in the 1990s; Pete Rock's soulful approach was another pillar that would come to exemplify classic "boom bap," and Mecca... was a jumping off point for what would be an illustrious career.
Rock and C.L. Smooth were under pressure to deliver; as they'd been championed by the multiplatinum Heavy D and All Souled Out had seemed to hint at great things to come. After Rock was tapped to remix Public Enemy's "Shut 'Em Down," their careers shifted into another gear. And they knew they had something to say.
"We were a new group comin' under Heavy D and we wanted people to feel us," Rock told XXL in 2012. "If you listen to C.L.’s lyrics to 'Straighten It Out,' he was talkin' about the bootleg situation and how strong that was in the ’90s. [Back then on] 125th St., every block you crossed there was a stream of bootleggers out there sellin' Hip-Hop music on cassette. We figured, "Hey, let’s do a concept about that and call it 'Straighten it Out.'" We ended up doin' the video on 125th, it was crazy. I’m sayin' that to say that this was our learning process on comin' up in the game, and the issues we wanted to address from the streets to listenin' to music and feelin' inspired."
If you listen to C.L.’s lyrics to 'Straighten It Out,' he was talkin' about the bootleg situation and how strong that was in the ’90s."
- Pete Rock (XXL, 2012)
One of the sonic trademarks of Mecca and The Soul Brother is the way the album's tracks are sequenced and bookended with soul and jazz instrumentals. It heightens the musical connectivity between these rap kids' sonic textures and the broad patchwork of Black music that served as an endless wellspring of inspiration. The samples are consistently inspired, evoking the lineage and ethos from which Hip-Hop was spawned. When Pete and C.L. bemoan the "Ghettos Of the Mind" it's a direct through-line to Bama The Village Poet's treatise via both sample and spirit. And the instrumental interludes make it all feel like you're listening in as the world's hippest jazz trio plays in some dimly-lit speakeasy.
"Now I appreciate what we took it from," C.L. explained in 2017. "We were inspired by these older records and older artists that were so great, that's what makes it so beautiful now; you grow and you come back to the old music, the classics that made you and inspired you. Now you get to hear what they're really talking about."
The timelessness of the album is indicative of that musical lineage. “For Pete’s Sake” features C.L. Smooth’s fluid raps over a perfect sample of Freddie McCoy’s “Gimmie Some” and drums from “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss. “Anger In the Nation” features C.L. turning his focus towards South Africa and the U.S. military; while "Act Like You Know” is pure East Coast hardcore; carried by C.L.'s wordplay:
Straight from the heart I frame the art/Tune up my class, real fast, very smart/Dictate the technique, wait a minute, I speak/Loved by my son and a kiss on the cheek/Stutter-step the concept, blueprint, or pro/Steady as we go—so act like you know...”
"Now I can relate to a 17-year-old listening to my music from 1992. It's 2017 and here they are getting to know how it started, not just thinking that it started in 2015. They're going all the way back to the 80s and 90s. If we're the golden era, then the 80s must be the double platinum diamond era, because those are the guys who inspired us to be whoever we wanted to be instead of fitting in. Everybody in the 90s wanted to stand out. That's what made it the golden era."
The album's spirit is no-bullshit, and lyrical showcases like "If It Ain't Rough, It Ain't Right" (which features a brilliant sample of the bassline from "Once In A Lifetime") and the rambunctious posse cut "The Basement" (with Heavy D, Rob-O, Grap and Dida) feel like late night rhyme sessions that capture the camaraderie of friends spittin' in a cipher.
It's impossible to discuss Mecca and The Soul Brother without recognizing the towering majesty of the album's most famous track. "They Reminisce Over You" is one of the most beloved songs of the 1990s, a Hip-Hop standard born of a very specific tragedy. The July 1990 death of Troy "Trouble T-Roy" Dixon of Heavy D & The Boyz is one of Hip-Hop's saddest moments. They'd been on tour with Public Enemy when the dancer fell to his death after a performance in Indianapolis. Dixon's sudden passing shocked fans and peers. Heavy D & The Boyz had toured with Digital Underground shortly after that group added a young Tupac Shakur, and Shakur and Dixon had become close on the road.
“Tupac came in my room crying, bawling," D.U. manager tour manager Sleuth-Pro told VIBE years later. "They’d grown really close, always joking around. (Tupac) really showed a sensitive side that night,” he said. “He wanted an advance on some money because he wanted to go get drunk. He was hurt for the rest of the tour.”
Mt. Vernon mourned Troy especially deeply, and a grief-stricken Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth sought to put their pain to music.
"At that point in time, I was depressed," Rock said in 2012. "But when I heard that sample of [Tom Scott's "Today"], it did something to my soul and i just put it down and tried to make something of it. and i was getting excited making the beat. I was calling people like, 'Yo, [producer] Large [Professor], I want to come to your house. I need you to hear how I'm doing this.' I wanted the world to hear this. When it was finished, I cried. I was like, Wow, this is a great song for my homie. He meant a lot to a lot of us. So I'm glad I was able to give that back to him."
C.L. Smooth wrote about his fallen friend as one person who believed in C.L. when no one else did; and he also used the song to pay homage to his parents and family.
“I wrote ‘They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)’ in ’92,” he explained to XXL. “It had been in my head but I just couldn’t put it together and [one day] I wrote it right there in the studio and just recorded it… It just took me about an hour to write it, it was the last record [for the Mecca and the Soul Brother album].”
Decades later, Mecca and The Soul Brother sits near the apex of the glory days of early 1990s boom bap. In those heady years before Wu-Tang Clan and Bad Boy Records reshaped the landscape of New York City Hip-Hop, when achieving rap success didn't necessarily mean going platinum and when hardcore rap didn't necessarily mean rhyming about murder, there was a generation of vinyl obsessives who absorbed the jazz, soul, funk and rock of their forefathers. Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth embodied the best of that generation. The duo would famously fragment in the mid-1990s (after dropping their stellar sophomore album The Main Ingredient in 1994), but the legacy of what they achieved together stands forever.