Rap has had many magical once-in-a-lifetime eras, but here’s one of them. In 1992, people were just starting to figure out that it probably wasn’t legal to sample anything and everything without permission or repercussion, but rap producers were still doing it, possibly understanding that the clock was running out on the way they were making music. And the same time, sampling technology was improving all the time, and visionary producers were figuring out different ways to layer up shards of other people’s music, to build their own pocket orchestras. West Coast rap was about to have its biggest moment ever, but New York was still the complete center of the rap universe, and it seemed entirely secure in that position, not showing any bluster or fury at all the other cities that were developing their own styles. New York’s rappers and producers had something like a generation or two to get really, really good at what they were doing. And the major labels of the world were starting to figure out that rap albums could be something other than singles-plus-filler, and that they wouldn’t necessarily need to pressure every rap group to throw love songs or hip-house tracks onto their records. That’s the climate that made it possible for Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s calm, unassuming masterpiece to make it into the world 20 years ago.
A few months ago, Lupe Fiasco released “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free),” a clumsy flip of Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You),” the breezy and heartfelt elegy that anchors Mecca And The Soul Brother. Just about everyone agrees that “T.R.O.Y.” is one of the most perfect rap songs ever created, and it’s the sort of thing that other rappers line up to say nice things about, but Pete Rock himself wasn’t happy about the loose approximation Lupe and his team made of Rock’s own original beat. In a long Twitter rant, Rock called Lupe’s version of the track “wack,” which it certainly is, and added, “TROY should be left alone. Feel so violated,the beat is next to my heart and was made Outta anguish and pain. When it’s like that it should not be touched by no one.” That’s a funny position to take, since Rock made that beat from other people’s music, particularly an iconic horn-loop from Tom Scott’s “Today.” And as Lupe later noted, Rock didn’t own the track at all; Lupe had to license the sample straight from Scott’s camp. But fuck that. The loop belongs to Pete Rock, and he’s allowed to feel as emotional as he wants about it, because it’s an emotional record.
“T.R.O.Y.” is a dedication to Trouble T-Roy, a dancer from Heavy D And The Boyz who died in 1990, after an accidental fall from an exit ramp. T-Roy was a good friend of Rock’s, and in interviews, Rock has talked about how he was jumping up and down with excitement when he made the track, and how he and his friends were crying in the studio during the final mixdown. The song itself only mentions T-Roy a couple of times. For the rest of it, it’s CL Smooth giving sharp, clear-eyed memories of growing up poor and black, finding wisdom where other people didn’t see any, blundering his way into adulthood. But even though he’s not a constant presence in the song, T-Roy hangs over the entire thing just because it’s impossible to imagine it existing without him. Sad as it is, the senseless death of a friend is a rite of passage in a lot of ways; I’m not sure you can call yourself a grown-up until you’re forced to wrap your head around it at least once. And so “T.R.O.Y.” finds CL Smooth, a reflective rapper by temperament, in an especially reflective mood, going back to the happy glow of every major event that led to his life. And it’s also just a masterful piece of music, CL expertly winding his conversational delivery through that dizzily beautiful forest of horns.
“T.R.O.Y.” is not, of course, the only song on Mecca And The Soul Brother. It’s a long, sprawling album, more than an hour long, and it goes through all sorts of moods and ideas. It’s an early example of the fully mature rap album, the long holistic experience that’s been conceived and put together as a seamless whole. Plenty of the song come with little interstitial bits of music that help to set up the songs that follow them, and many of those bits of music could easily be entire songs themselves. Rock tended to sample five or six different sources per song, but you only really know that if you’re intimately familiar with each of the original songs, or if you’re staring at the album’s Wikipedia page, since Rock was brilliant at making them sound like they’d always belonged together. CL, just as importantly, was at his peak there as one of history’s all-time most effortlessly pleasant rappers; his voice just dips and floats with an unearthly sort of ease. You can’t rap like that if you’re trying to sound tough, or smart, or fashionable. You can’t rap like that if you’re trying to be anything. Delivery like that exists outside of trends and movements; it’s its own thing.
The album has political songs and love songs and goofy shit-talking songs, but all that stuff blurs into one glorious whole. And when you notice that cuss-words are being bleeped out on the freestyle-rap intro to “On And On,” it’s a bit of a revelation, since that’s when you realize that there’s no cussing anywhere else on the album. These days, it would be impossible to make a no-cussing rap album without making a big point out of it, but CL Smooth makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
East Coast-centric producers idolize Pete Rock, and the album’s big-statement wholeness certainly foreshadowed plenty of the great rap albums that would follow soon after, but I’m not sure that I could call Mecca And The Soul Brother a hugely influential album. It didn’t sell a ton at the time, and “CL Smooth-esque” isn’t a descriptor you see too many critics throwing around. But Mecca And The Soul Brother is nevertheless a stone classic album and a gorgeous encapsulation of everything that was right and beautiful about New York rap at that time. It took a particular set of circumstances to allow an album like that to exist, and that same set of circumstances couldn’t ever exist again — not even two years later, when the duo made their still-pretty-great sophomore album The Main Ingredient. So the album stands as an example of two hugely gifted and complementary young artists making the best album they ever could make, actualizing their shared potential completely.
And now let’s listen to a couple of songs.