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CL Smooth Interview: Straightening it out

Marko Kutlesa sat down with CL Smooth ahead of his and Pete Rock's return to the UK.

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 25th Sep 2017

Image: Pete Rock & CL Smooth (credit)

The golden age of American hip-hop was already hitting its peak when Mount Vernon duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth entered the fray. Building on the foundations of the genre's originators, this era attained its reputation by the diversity of sounds and styles, both lyrically and musically, explored by acts such as Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, Eric B & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, NWA and Public Enemy.

Though their joint contribution was relatively short-lived, no less could be said of Pete Rock & CL Smooth. Pete Rock's beats were some of the best of the era, his samples indebted to a truly dusty fingered digger's knowledge of jazz, while CL Smooth boasted a unique flow and thoughtful, socially conscious, if at time atypically braggadocious lyrical content.

They emerged in 1991 with a trio of singles but it was in 1992 with the release of their debut album Mecca And the Soul Brother and its anthemic, mournful single 'They Reminisce Over You' that they attained peak status. Production, collaboration and guest appearances from some of the best in the business followed, with the pair going on to record with Public Enemy, EPMD and write and produce Run DMC's 1993 comeback single 'Down With The King'

Their second album, The Main Ingredient was, at the time, considered an understated affair and it is perhaps only in hindsight, with the beloved era's finery poured over ever since, that its brilliance has truly been acknowledged. 

Their partnership officially dissolved in 1995 but each went on to pursue solo careers. They also contributed to each other's solo works on several occasions, giving hope that they might one day reconvene, in between occasional spats via interviews, but it was tragedy from another of hip hop's dynamic duos that forced the issue.

The death of Guru in 2010 sadly ensured that peers Gangstarr could never return and acrimonious differences between that group's members went unresolved. Older and wiser by that stage, Pete Rock & CL Smooth were determined for that not to happen with their partnership and much to the delight of audiences began touring their classic material once more, including a riotous handful of dates in the UK last year.

Ahead of another return to these shores, we sat down with CL Smooth to learn more about the duo's history, rooting for female rappers and distilling inspiration in today's youth.

So, you guys are out on tour again after hitting the UK last year. For those who weren't at the shows, what can people expect from these run of dates?

You can expect a full live show of 25 years worth of classics that have transcended and made a great impact on the culture, the game of hip hop. 

How does it feel to once again have the opportunity to perform your music in front of live audiences?

Well, I'm very used to it, I've been doing it for so long. It's not foreign or new to me. It's not like I come off my couch and just do it, it's been developed. It's a career. It's what I do. A persona. It's sort of like taking on the mindset of a footballer, a boxer, someone who is dedicated and intense. You have to be to last this long.

How do you find the audiences have changed in the time you've been performing?

It seems like through every peak and plateau of the business and my career the audience just keeps getting younger. Throughout the span of a 25-year career I've found myself signing autographs for 17/18-year-olds, people who are closer to the age I was when I started to make these type of records, feeling their emotions, having aspirations to be great and make impactful music. I'm very grateful that we're always going into another generation and that we're transcending.

You've known Pete since school. I know the death of Guru was a catalyst for you both to put some difference behind you. How has the wisdom you've gained from life altered the way you view your friendship?

Well, I think you grow in certain aspects and you grow apart in other aspects. It's just about what's truth and what's a lie, what is to gain and what is to falter. I think we've grown beyond the music, we've grown into individuals and that's a beautiful thing. Also, not to put it lightly, that we're still here after 25 years to be able to debate on things, to disagree and to agree.

We're still here breathing. So, despite any accolades, any moment of gratitude and glory, we're still here breathing, we're still able to make a statement and be heard, instead of posthumously celebrated.

On 'Straighten It Out' some of your lyrics dealt with bootlegging and sample clearance. Being released in 1992, that was quite an early stand you took in defence of original artists. What specifically inspired you to do that?

I think it was just self-expression. Art. 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.

What emcees and rappers did you look up to when you started?

I looked up to plenty, right from fourth grade. Sucker MCs, Run DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Spoonie Gee. There was a whole cluster of greats that were the beginning of rap, the Afrika Bambaataa days when rap was new to us and new to the world. We saw its inception grow at such a rapid pace at the same time when there was so much going on in the world; segregation, drug dealing, politics, police corruption. Just as many of the same things are still happening 25 years later.

Is it disappointing that some of these things that have been discussed in hip hop for 25 years remain the same issues today? In many ways things haven't really changed.

Exactly. They've declined. I think when I was young, trying to be an artist, trying to be heard, there was more positive hope that was being injected into the music. Nowadays it just seems like we're trying to get away from reality. There's a different concept of thinking.

Rather than fighting for your message to be heard, now there's too much media. Anyone can be heard now. It's nothing special. Everyone has a voice now. When hip hop was new it was a genuinely small number of people who had to fight to get their voices heard. 

You mentioned Run DMC. How did it feel to be approached for you both to work on 'Down With The King'?

Well, it was exciting. You were a kid, 18 years old, hustling in the street, who watched their cars go by, saw the tinted up BMW and having aspirations to be like that. Then, finding yourself in the studio, two or three years later, and not just making a record with them but making the biggest hit that they ever did in terms of sales.

For me, it made official my presence in the business, who I was as an artist like I belonged. It was a great honour and accolade to have, it made me feel comfortable enough to move on and think about having this as my career.

There's a real appetite for the early 90s boom bap hip hop sound emerging again. Do you think that's naturally down to the cyclical nature of the time that's passed, or an out and out reaction to what hip hop has become?

I think it's a little bit of both. Plain and simple, I think music is something that doesn't have an expiration date. It just goes on and on. You get to pick at it like food. When I was growing up it was all about hip hop, that rebel music, the youth music until it grew and became a legitimate genre of music. 

Now I appreciate what we took it from. 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.

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.

Who are you feeling out there as an emcee now, and what producers do you really think are on top of their game?

I'm hearing great producers all the time. It fluctuates. I'm more interested in how difficult it is to be noticed, to be successful. I root for the women. They're underrated and sometimes they just materialise, come out of nowhere. 

People often don't think they can do it, it's a male-dominated industry and so when a woman comes along and does it, it kind of makes me think of old times when the queens really were the kings but they couldn't really call her that because she was a woman. I'm really excited by the Remy Martins, the Nicki Minajs. I know they came from the Queen Latifahs, the Yo-Yos, the MC Lytes, the women of hip hop. So, I love how that's evolved.

There are so many great producers, known and unknown. I'm just in love with the good music.

One of the things that always struck me about you both was the space in your music, Pete's beats gave you the opportunity to be a bit more languid and philosophical about your subject matter - making the music a lot more intelligent but never overbearing. What influenced that approach?

My part of that I think I took from my grandfather. My grandfather was really CL Smooth. What I did was take everything that he was, his walk, his approach, his conversation, his language skills, his swagger and rap it up in my teenage self and imitate, emulate it as if he were a rapper.

It's very common for MCs and singers to guest on other people's work and similarly, it's common for producers to handle one or two tracks on a marquee artist's album. That's always happened. 

What's less common these days is that classic hip hop partnership of one MC and one producer/DJ who grow with one another. What has hip hop gained and what has hip hop lost in regards to the loss of that exclusive partnership?

Well, I really can't say. I think it's an intelligent, good question, but to me, hip hop is not there to be over thought about. It's more about not knowing, the unknown, where it takes you, the journey. I think if we knew everything, every angle, what's going to happen, it just wouldn't make it interesting, enough. 

Music is evolving. Whatever is happening, the content might be less but it's an economic situation. We can't forget that this is a business. We can't forget that it's made us businessmen instead of killers. It's just the evolution of what hip hop has become. What we can do is concentrate on where we came from and evolve what we have today.

You mentioned at the start that people will be hearing 25 years of classic music on the tour. Will they be hearing anything new?

Of course. When you tour classic music it only inspires you to want to make more. The steps, the mood of what you're supposed to come out of the studio with, if you're not doing that then it's going to take more time to gel and marinade these kinds of thoughts, lock into what is more important, what made you in the beginning. 

It wasn't the kids, it wasn't the wives, it was the hunger and the love of the music. If we began like that then we have to lock everything out, everything that makes us feel important and just concentrate on the music. In the beginning that's all we had and that's how I put myself in the position to be here now. That's how I would like to lead in doing new material; feeling it like I used to feel it. Because music is a feeling. It's not something I look at and think I only want to make money. Music is a representation of me. 

Having said all that, with 25 years worth of life having passed, do you think it's possible for you both to block everything out and come up with the new music your fans have been asking for for so long?

Well, that's my position. That's the challenge of it. To want to do it and to put yourself in a position where you're able to do it. I feel I have put myself in that position. I've sacrificed. My kids are grown now, I'm not married. My thing now is my house, my mind, my business. Everything is geared towards the next step in life. S

So, if I can get someone else to think and be like-minded like that it would only make the road easier. The challenge and the love of it commit me to any hard roads I need to take to get there unwavering. The only way I would step away from it is if I had a partner that didn't want to do it. Sometimes you can't make people do what you want to do. You have to want to do it from the heart. 

Pete Rock & CL Smooth hit the Uk for two dates in October 2017, tickets for both shows avaiable via the boxes below:

Find tickets for both events below.

Manchester - O2 Ritz, Saturday 14th October

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London - The Garage Islington, Sunday 15th October

Ticket waiting list for Pete Rock and CL Smooth

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