First released in 1992, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother is now out in a double disc version on Traffic Records. Mecca was the New York duo’s first full-length album, part of a new surge out of New York that would serve as a stylistic counterpoint to the West Coast G-funk of Dr. Dre.
Sampling was still a bedrock of rap music then and Pete Rock, legendary for his stamina in stalking the aisles of record stores, is a crate digger supreme. On Mecca, he mixed obvious choices (Sly, James Brown) with left field ones (The Coasters, Lee Michaels, Mongo Santamaria, Super Session, Little Richard) while often relying on the ultra obscure (Skull Snaps, Ernie Hines). Although simpler and more direct than the Bomb Squad was with Public Enemy, Pete Rock achieved the same essential result: New music to be heard in new ways. Mecca doesn’t literally sound like it has a live band, but it feels like it does, a live band which just happens to have a really good scratch DJ at its center. Mecca came out as the battle over sampling was heating up and Pete Rock was sure he was going to win (“Better than the original who first made it / But now you want to sue me, fans never boo me / Believe I know the times, we been broke, too, G / Here’s another sample clear, seeya, get the hell outta here”).
The tracks are true songs—they have structure, solos of a sort, storylines, and clear emotional pathways. There’s a languid ease to Mecca’s celebration of sex and a bite to its description of the politics of poverty as seen through the prism of Islam. There’s also a downright corny love song (“Lots of Lovin’”). All are very good. But then the stakes get raised.
“Ghettos of the Mind” starts off with a drug dealer explaining his personal situation (“Public housing, a thousand in a tent / So I’m forced to sell hell just to pay the rent”) before giving a fuller, more social explanation (“Finally the cops come dumb to the slum / Pull out a gun and arrest the wrong one / Wax all the Puerto Ricans and all the blacks / So they never can relax”). The song moves toward a happy ending, at least for the protagonist (“But the pain was all gone when I got to see my healthy son born / And now I bring him home to the ghetto, only to make a stronger fellow / Maybe do some good for the neighborhood / It’s hard playin’ hero livin’ less than a zero”). The song ends by proclaiming that the real ghetto is in the mind and the only escape is to be a visionary.
“They Reminisce Over You” begins with chopping, jangling guitar chords which invite you in. Then boom! An irresistible sax sample (Tom Scott covering the Jefferson Airplane) carries you away and sets you down in the story of Troy Dixon, part of the performing crew with Pete Rock’s cousin Heavy D. Dixon died at the age of 22 but despite that the song’s story isn’t a tragedy. It’s the saga of an entire extended family and the spirit that radiates out in all directions is simply “I love you.” The track draws power and resonance from the choice of the word “reminisce” instead of “remember.” When you reminisce, you think about the good times, the shared times, the hard times, the bonds between one human being and another. That word, along with an instrumental bed bursting with energy and C.L. Smooth’s casually emotive delivery, have made “They Reminisce Over You” one of hip-hop’s most beloved songs. It’s so vibrant and inclusive, anyone can see their own life in it.
C.L. Smooth is the writer, the rapper, Pete Rock’s co-producer. His lyrics are accessible but dense (“the beat is fat but the rhyme is obese”). You can have a good time just going with his honey-dipped flow but you have to listen repeatedly to get all the meanings. One phrase will refer to other phrases and he uses a lot of internal rhymes and a dizzying pop culture palette (Penn & Teller to Don Shula, Old Yeller to Bob Uecker). C.L. is arrogant but engaging, like a preacher who really believes there’s a heaven and wants to share the good news yet expects you to work hard to find your way in. He seldom uses one word where two or three will do. This expansive approach puts the pressure on him to be tight, to always be in the pocket. That’s no problem since “I’m more disciplined than a Shaolin monk.”
Disc 2 contains one song not on Mecca yet meeting its standard (“It’s Not a Game”); five versions, all worthy, of “They Reminisce Over You;” and several other remixes along with acapella and instrumental tracks. You hear things you missed on Disc 1 while getting fresh ears and a new prism with which to go back to it.
The sampling wars are over. We lost and we are now hemmed in by an occupation army of lawyers. To make an album like Mecca and the Soul Brother would be unthinkable today. Yet eighteen years later it still sounds not only fresh but almost futuristic, stirring hopes for a coming time that will see all of musical history as a universal birthright we can all use as we see fit.
Rock & Rap Confidential / 2010