Pete Rock and CL Smooth were true to hip hop’s soul roots, fusing intricate soul samples with jazz breaks, and blessing these concoctions with thought-provoking and knowledgeable lyrics. CL Smooth’s homey voice is one of hip hop’s most recognizable while production partner Pete Rock has become one of hip hop’s most influential producers.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Peter Philips grew up surrounded by his father’s extensive record collection. The elder Philips was a DJ, spinning records at various gigs and would often bring young Peter with him. While attending high school in Mount Vernon, New York, Peter linked up with Corey Penn, who would later become the instantly recognizable voice of the two. Inspired by his father’s immense collection of vinyl, Peter (now going by the moniker Pete Rock) began meticulously taking samples from soul and jazz records. Over his partner’s creations, the newly dubbed CL Smooth began to create lyrical landscapes. The pair billed themselves as Pete Rock & CL Smooth and in 1991 they released a six-track EP titled All Souled Out (Elektra). The EP yielded the successful single “The Creator,” which revealed Smooth’s oven-crisp voice and showed his avoidance of profanity, opting to bless Rock’s compositions with his deeply philosophical lyrics instead. The vast sampling on All Souled Out would be a foreshadowing of Rock’s fondness for complex sampling techniques and a taste for obscure soul breaks. Appropriately titled, All Souled Out sported a dusty and nostalgic sound crafted from soul samples ranging from James Brown to Aretha Franklin to The Meters. Because of its innovative subversions of classic records, All Souled Out found rave reviews and was greatly lauded by noteworthy publications like Rolling Stone. The EP also set the stage for the duo’s influential debut.
In 1992, Pete Rock & CL Smooth released Mecca and the Soul Brother (Elektra), which was another example of Rock’s prestigious production ability. While the pair’s debut full-length met with lackluster commercial sales, it was again widely acclaimed for Rock’s esoteric sample mining and Smooth’s boldly intelligent rhymes. While singles like “Lots of Lovin” were popular, the album also yielded Rock and Smooth’s watershed single “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.OY).” Powered by an instantly recognizable saxophone sample, the track features Smooth’s warm musings about family, friends, and life. Not only did “T.R.O.Y.” define the group’s career, the song has become one of hip hop’s most beloved songs. While “T.R.O.Y.” is indeed an acronym, the song is also a tribute to a dancer named Trouble T. Roy, a member of classic hip hop group Heavy D & the Boyz, who tragically died in 1990. Many of the tracks from Mecca and the Soul Brother begin with brief, yet distinguishably carved instrumentals — perhaps a testament to the fact that the two artists were indeed a group that gave equal attention to the album’s lyrics as well as instrumentation. This attention to Rock’s sampling would become somewhat of a trademark for Pete Rock & CL Smooth and would remain in Rock’s productions even after he and Smooth split up.
Rock and Smooth would remain prominent within the hip hop community by contributing songs to soundtracks from films like Menace II Society and Poetic Justice. Along with producers like DJ Premiere and RZA, Rock is largely responsible for recreating the sound of East Coast hip hop. Before releasing the next joint-venture between himself and band-mate Smooth, Rock produced songs for other iconic hip hop artists such as Run DMC (“Down With the King”), Nas (“The World Is Yours”), Public Enemy (“Shut ‘Em Down”), and Jeru the Damaja (“You Can’t Stop the Prophet (remix)”). Rock also claims that he originally had the idea for the ubiquitous sample behind The Notorious B.I.G’s breakout single “Juicy.” Rock even claims he had a rough prototype of the composition but that the idea was taken from him. While Rock has yet to receive the credit he desires, he did do his own remix of “Juicy,” which employs the same Mtume sample that is used in the original version of the song.
Pete Rock & CL Smooth released their third and final album in 1994 with The Main Ingredient (Elektra). While no track on the duo’s third effort attained the treasured status that “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” garnered, tracks like “I Got A Love,” “It’s On You,” and “Take You There” were further testaments to the group’s devotion to soulful hip hop. The album hears Rock’s production style truly began to come into its own, characterized largely by heavy horn sections and swooning bass-lines. The album is often considered the most mature and complete album concocted by the duo. Despite three lauded albums, Pete Rock & CL Smooth decided to split up after the release of The Main Ingredient. While Smooth has gone on to exist in the hip hop community rather enigmatically, Rock has gone on to become one of the genre’s most prolific and influential producers.
Pete Rock inked a solo deal with Loud Records, the same hip hop/soul label that was home to artists like The Wu Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and Big Punisher. As would be expected, Rock handled all of the production for his solo debut, 1998’s Soul Survivor (Loud). Aside from the production, Rock takes a stab at rhyming on many of the album’s tracks. Soul Survivor also features a lengthy list of guest appearances from MCs like Common, Black Thought (from The Roots), Kool G Rap, as well as Inspectah Deck, Method Man, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killa. Rock even collaborates with CL Smooth on “Da Two.” Keeping with Rock’s loyalty to soul music, he employs the crooning pipes of singers like Vinia Mojica and Carl McIntosh.
The stretch of Rock’s production was far reaching and in 1998, he worked with Detroit hip hop group Slum Village on the song “Once Upon a Time” from their album Fantastic, Vol. 2 (Good Vibe). While Rock was regularly contributing to various projects, his work with Slum Village was especially significant in that he worked alongside the group’s in-house producer Jay Dee (who would later be known as J-Dilla). Rock’s production from his days alongside CL Smooth was a huge influence on J-Dilla’s work with artists like Busta Rhymes, Common, and Q-Tip, before the Detroit-born producer sadly died of complications of Lupus in 2005. In 2001, independent hip hop label BBE began to release a series of instrumental albums called The Beat Generation, the first of which was Jay Dee’s Welcome to Detroit(BBE). Subsequently, Rock released his own instrumental album for the series with PeteStrumentals (2001 BBE).
Throughout his career, Rock assisted other fledgling artists in launching their own careers. Most notably were albums by INI and Deda. By the mid-1990s, both groups were set to release their debuts, but Deda and INI both fell prey to record label turmoil and their releases were shelved. While both Rock-produced projects were bootlegged in underground circles, neither saw an official release until in 2003, when Rock released the double disc Lost & Found: Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics (BBE), which consists of INI’s Center of Attention and Deda’s The Original Baby Pa. The following year, Rock released Soul Survivor II (2004 BBE), which once again sported an abundant array of hip hop artists laying rhymes over Rock’s legendary production. Along with rappers such as Talib Kweli, GZA, and Pharoahe Monch, Rock and his old collaborator CL Smooth once united. After the release of Soul Survivor II, the cutting room floor was apparently full of unused beats from the album’s production. In 2005, BBE released The Surviving Elements: From Soul Survivor II Sessions (BBE), an album which Rock claims was released without his permission.
In 2006, CL Smooth released a solo album, American Me (Shaman Work Recordings). Rock’s production is nowhere to be found on Smooth’s solo debut and it was soon publicized that the pair were not on friendly terms. That same year, Rock released Underground Classics (2006 Rapster), a compilation of older, hard-to-find Pete Rock collaborations, including work with Gang Starr, Jeru the Damaja, INI, Edo G, and The U.N. Smooth released a second solo album, The Outsider (2007 Blackheart Entertainment) in 2007. Even though there was a rift between them, Rock produced two songs for Smooth’s album. In 2008, Rock released another collection of his work withNY’s Finest (2008 Nature Sounds), which was graced by prominent artists like Redman, Jim Jones, and Styles P.
Hip hop’s golden age is an era that is celebrated but never replicated. Pete Rock and CL Smooth helped create this sound and innovate the two-person hip hop “group” of one MC and one DJ. Smooth’s silky maneuvering through his lyrics shall forever be celebrated as one of hip hop’s greatest voices. Meanwhile Rock’s intricate knowledge and reworking of soul and jazz records has become a thing of hip hop legend.