May 1, 2011

Pete Rock & CL Smooth - The Main Ingredient (November 8, 1994)

The second full-length from Pete Rock & CL Smooth, The Main Ingredient, has been on my to-do list ever since the write-up for its predecessor, Mecca & The Soul Brother, first ran on HHID. So what kind of excuse do I have for taking my sweet-ass time getting around to an album that is among the most heavily requested in the blog's history? Surprisingly, it wasn't laziness, my go-to answer for most things of this caliber. No, this time it was pure intimidation: Mecca & The Soul Brother wasn't exactly a chore to sit through, but it feels a lot longer than it really is, thanks to the way Pete and CL sequenced the album, bridging the gaps between entirely unrelated tracks with instrumental interludes that made a straight-through listen a tiring affair (although it must be said that the music itself was good). So I had always planned on taking a break between their main two contributions to the hip hop cause (I'm not counting their debut EP, All Souled Out), as I wasn't quite ready to throw myself into that type of commitment so soon.

The Main Ingredient was released in 1994, and it doesn't deviate from the formula that Peter and Corey Penn believed to be a winning one: jazzy samples are beaten into submission and molded to fit their needs, while CL Smooth attacks each track with the exact same level of intensity, regardless of its subject matter. The Main Ingredient can actually be seen as a true follow-up effort in every sense of the word: in places, it sounds exactly like how a Mecca Soul 2: Electric Boogaloo project would. Pete even saw fit to incorporate more musical interludes in between songs, which, once again, don't really relate to one another in any cohesive manner. The main difference between the two projects has to be the sheer number of radio-friendly songs found on The Main Ingredient, and by that I mean that there are a handful of tracks that could slide seamlessly onto radio playlists without any Clear Channel programmers losing their shit, not that either of these guys thought that selling out was the best move to make. Although The Main Ingredient was released around the same time that they appeared alongside Brand Nubian's Grand Puba in a famous (to hip hop heads, anyway) Sprite commercial, so it isn't like they weren't familiar with the concept of signing a piece of paper and receiving money in return.

Sales-wise, The Main Ingredient performed just as well as one would expect a rap album primarily marinated with jazz samples ever could, which is to say, not very well at all, allowing Pete Rock and CL Smooth to remain cult figures in our chosen genre for the rest of their natural lives. It was as well-received by the critics as Mecca & The Soul Brother was, though, and the general consensus that I've seen on the Interweb is that many people believe that The Main Ingredient is the better of the two albums, although there are no songs on here that come close to rivaling the duo's biggest song, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”. Unfortunately, this project will forever be overshadowed by the fact that Pete Rock and CL Smooth called it quits as a duo the year after The Main Ingredient was released. Citing a poor working relationship, both men spun off into solo careers, with Pete Rock continuing to establish himself as one of the best producers in hip hop history, while CL toiled in limbo, unable to release a solo album until 2006, possibly because he had established an identity alongside his former friend that was so strong that hip hop heads refused to let him be his own man, which makes you sad, until you remember just how good he sounded over Peter Q. Rockefeller's production work (and those goddamn glorious horns). During this time, the two worked together sporadically, most notably on Pete Rock's solo debut Soul Survivor, but refused to take it any further than the occasional brunch.

The other reason I'm just now getting to The Main Ingredient actually has to do with the passing of an entirely different artist, Keith Elam, best known as Guru from Gang Starr. At the time of his death, Guru and his partner, DJ Premier, weren't even on speaking terms (due to the interference of a third party who won't be named here, as I don't want to give them any more publicity), and as such, were never able to resolve their differences. Both Pete Rock and CL Smooth decided that their own personal differences shouldn't be enough to keep them apart, and not only have they resolved their issues (as far as I know, anyway – what am I, their biographer?), they have actually reunited as a duo, with a third full-length project being teased as the ever-elusive “coming soon”. Whether that shit is true or not remains to be seen, but I figure that now is as good a time as any to finally give you two a forum to discuss The Main Ingredient.


The Main Ingredient kicks off with a brief funky instrumental, but the one attached to the actual song is fairly simple, with its drum hits and organ keys introducing the project. CL Smooth takes the first and third verses effortlessly, while Peter Q. Rockefeller seems to have stepped up his delivery (if not his writing, since he famously uses ghostwriters). The Q-Tip vocal sample (from The Low End Theory's “Verses From The Abstract”) that is worked into the track as though he were in the studio with them constitutes a brilliant idea. Oh, if only the song itself were somewhat more engaging.

The brief half-remembered dream of an instrumental interlude (which plays out after “In The House” but before this second track begins) doesn't prepare you for the somber tones Peter plays for listeners on here. CL Smooth sounds alright enough, but nothing on “Carmel City” sticks to the ribs: his meandering slice-of-life rhymes sound passable, but I'll be damned if I can remember a motherfucking thing he was talking about. Also, Pete Rock's uncharacteristically spacey sound effects sound like a better fit for Large Professor.

I believe this was one of the singles from The Main Ingredient, but the only acceptable reason I can conjure up is because “I Get Physical” kind of bridges the gap, sound-wise, between Mecca & The Soul Brother and this project, because nothing else about this song would cause anyone to purchase this album. CL Smooth has charisma behind the mic, and he is still a perfect fit for Pete Rock's production work, but he's not exactly the go-to guy for hip hop quotables: aside from “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”, I can't recall any other memorable couplets from him. Also, I don't remember it taking this long for me to get into the actual music on The Main Ingredient. Weird.

Although the song's title was borrowed from a Harvey Scales song, it still serves as a fairly bold statement from the duo: on the “chorus”, Pete Rock asserts that, without musical assistance from CL Smooth and himself, the “Sun Won't Come Out”. Although I was amused at how Pete kept dropping references to the duo's previous songs, so maybe I'm taking this write-up a bit too seriously. The overused Bob James “Nautilus” sample in the background (seriously, James should receive a co-writing credit on every rap song ever made) provides the melody to the track, and while I liked this song a lot more than I remembered, it still wasn't anything to write home about. And I taught my home to actually read, so that is a big deal to me.

“I Got A Love”, which was also a single, sounds obviously like a single: Pete's production work grabs your ears immediately...although I had forgotten until today that the melody during the hook disappears completely when the actual verses kick in. So that was strange, having only the drums stand out during CL Smooth's performance when his partner is one of the best producers in hip hop history. The music during the hook immediately transports you back to hip hop radio in 1994, but nothing else about this track holds up today. Yeah, I said it. What of it?

I used to like this Pete Rock solo joint back in the day, probably because as a writer, I entertain the idea of escaping the doldrums of everyday life every fucking day, either in real life or on virtual paper. But my God, this song is fucking boring as shit today. I think Pete Rock is fully capable of carrying a song by himself (he did so on Soul Survivor and wasn't the worse for wear), but this track proves that he needed a bit more practice first. This was disappointing, as I was actually looking forward to this track when I decided to finally cave in and review The Main Ingredient. Stupid biased memories fucking up my reality!

The hook on here is severely lacking in the creativity department (they clearly didn't feel it was worth the effort to try), but Pete's rocking beat, which uses the same Albino Gorilla sample that A Tribe Called Quest marauded over on their “Midnight” (specifically “Psychadelic Shack), works well, making this the first actual track on The Main Ingredient that is actually still good. If only the hook didn't suck so goddamn much, this would have been a great song. As it stands, it's merely pretty good.

Pete sends CL Smooth out to pick up some tacos and a three liter bottle of Pepsi Max while he and guest rapper Rob-O (from Pete's side project InI, which he was never officially a part of but everyone associates him with anyway) take over an entire track on The Main Ingredient. The beat is pleasant enough, but neither artist is intriguing enough for any listener to follow their rhymes with any degree of attentiveness. It was okay to listen to, but the subject matter, which I assume was just these two talking shit, was lost to me. This is why Pete Rock worked with CL Smooth in the first fucking place, folks: to avoid somnambulant collaborations such as this.

It's getting harder and harder for me to understand why some critics and fans hold The Main Ingredient in higher regard than Mecca & The Soul Brother. This song is beyond boring: Pete Rock's beat once again fades into obscurity, leaving only the drums behind, technically providing CL Smooth with a foundation to rhyme about absolutely nothing, but even when the melody finds its way back home after being abandoned in the woods, it isn't anything impressive. The little interlude tacked on at the end seems to contain all of the energy that the actual song was lacking.

CL Smooth's flow on The Main Ingredient is much the same as it was on his previous efforts, but that's not necessarily a bad thing: although he'll never appear on anybody's top five, he has a way with words, cramming multiple syllables into a single bar but never neglecting the audience (by that, I mean that listeners will understand every word). So he sounds pretty good on here, even if Pete's treat is sorely lacking. The interlude at the end was pretty interesting, though, as it most likely inspired Puff Daddy to use the same Oliver Sain sample (from “Over The Hill”) for his later “Young G's”.

The most accessible song in Pete Rock and CL Smooth's entire career uses Keni Burke's “Risin' To The Top” as its base, and it still sounds entertaining as hell today, even if CL's rhymes don't make any fucking sense within the context helpfully provided by the chorus. But what the heck, I'll take it, since I still liked this song, but I do have to admit that the honeymoon is pretty much over, and the annulment is on.

Also one of the singles, or maybe the hip hop radio station around my way at the time decided to play an album cut. I'm not actually sure. This version of the song seems more incomplete than I recalled, but not because of a lack of melody this time around: I just seem to remember there being a much more bombastic sound. CL's love rap (of sorts) is decent enough, but the song seems to have green mold growing on it.

Much more up-tempo than most of The Main Ingredient, almost as though the instrumental was the equivalent of Pete Rock shouting, “Hey! Look at me!” For his part, CL brings three verses chock-full of heat into the booth with him, packaged in one of those thermal carriers that pizza delivery guys use, riding the beat as if he's the only rapper that ever could. Which he very well might be. This shit was nice.

A quick verse spit during an interlude from Deda (who also appears on the actual track) lends the song its title. Which doesn't make much sense, even within our chosen genre, where nonsensical tends to be the order of the day. Why would these four artists (Pete Rock also spits a verse) feel the need to prove that they're really performing “in the flesh”, especially when they're recording a song for an album on which you won't be able to actually watch them performing anyway? As the kids would say today, this was a posse cut concept fail. Aside from the lack of a theme, the song itself was also kind of dull, as you don't really want to hear from any of these guys again after you walk away. So there's that.

CL Smooth uses this somber Pete Rock instrumental to relay a message of self-empowerment to the listeners, advising that the only person standing in the way of being all over his nuts is you. Unnecessary EPMD sample aside, “It's On You” tracked very well with my subconscious: it isn't exactly a feel-good listen, but I found it entertaining. The interlude at the end features a verse from Grap Luva (Pete's younger brother) leading into...

That title makes much more sense for a potential posse cut than “In The Flesh” did, so of course this is a CL Smooth solo affair (as Pete's ad-libbed hook doesn't count). I can't think of many artists that would hear this particular instrumental and straight spit, but CL gives it a go, and does so successfully enough. Still, I'm happy that this exercise is now complete.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Just like with Mecca & The Soul Brother, listening to The Main Ingredient is akin to flipping through a book of short stories, where reading one or two stories a night is the best way to digest the material. Except that this time around, you'll probably put the book down and not be tempted to pick it up again for several months, when you absolutely have nothing else to read while you're taking a shit. Pete Rock's production is much more polished this time around, which has the curiously adverse effect of stripping the songs of their magic; the beats lack the spark and hunger that his best work, both past and present, contains. So listening to The Main Ingredient straight through has been downgraded to a bother. CL Smooth's lyrics, on the other hand, sound exactly the same as they always have, which isn't always a bad thing, although that lack of artistic growth can be frustrating, as some of these songs are simply boring as shit. The Main Ingredient was ultimately very disappointing to listen to today, but there are a fair amount of good songs (listed below), and there is still enough on here to wish that Pete Rock would put the bullshit aside and just work together again already, but it doesn't hold up nearly as well as Mecca & The Soul Brother. Hell, the good songs listed below aren't even essential listening.

BUY OR BURN? I would burn this one. There is enough decent material on here to warrant spinning it once, but if you ever listen to it a second time, I would be surprised. This just wasn't very compelling. It is what it is.

BEST TRACKS: “The Main Ingredient”; “Check It Out”; “It's On You”; “Take You There”


You can read about the other Pete Rock & CL Smooth projects here, and as for Pete Rock's solo career, here's the link to those write-ups, as well.


  1. Real talk, this album is boring as hell. I bought it a while ago since I dug Mecca & The Soul Brother, and I played it once and never again picked it up.

  2. Are you sure that the lyrics are so nonsensical and the music is so soporific?

    Is it possible that you are an impatient listener or that you are somewhat lazy/glib in your interpretations? Or perhaps that you fail to take into account relevant contexts when formulating your reviews?

    Serious question, not meant to be interpreted as "shots fired."

  3. Damn, I think this album is really entertaining. The drums on here are just awesome.
    Yeah, I suppose the energy level on some songs was lacking, but the beats sounded so clean and hard.

  4. AnonymousMay 01, 2011

    I honestly can't fathom why you would think so lowly of this album as to give it a fucking recommendation for a burn. It's your opinion, of course, so I can't do anything about it. I just find it disconcerting that you would give it a burn, even if I knew from the beginning that you would basically slam one of my favorite albums to the ground.

    I still find the beats to be the best of any albums of the 90's. And while CL is an awesome lyricist, I can barely remember anything he says. He certainly retained his skill from the first album though, maybe even stepped it up a little bit. And just because the sound is more polished doesn't immediately make it worse than the rawer, more stripped down beats of it's 1994 contemporaries. Matter of fact, I find these "polished" - they really don't even sound that polished if you ask me, so I figure you're overexaggerating - beats to be better than any beat from almost any other hip hop album except for a select few and definitely better than their first album - enough to make a difference. So in laconic terms, I find this album to be the best hip hop album of the nineties. NOw I'm just repeating myself to prove a point.

    Like I said previously, it's your rather heartbreaking opinion. However, this does little to comfort me in the eventual slandering of J Dilla's material from 1994 - 2001. Or Large Pro's unreleased-until-recently album The LP. Or The Pharcyde's second album, LabCabInCalifornia. Or Digable Planets. Or Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. Or pretty much any album I can think of. After all, you pretty much slandered the sole Lootpack album and plenty of other albums that I love.

  5. AnonymousMay 01, 2011

    I disagree completely with this review. If you slander this album, I can't imagine how you'll rate J Dilla's 1995-2001 material or The Pharcyde's second album.

  6. Man that blows this is one of my favourite albums. Oh well I still enjoy it.

    You should check some of the remixes that appeared on their Rare Tracks album specifically "I Got A Love (Remix)" and "Searching (Remix)" which uses the same sample as Heltah Skeltah's "Letha Brainz Blo"

    Peace and much respect.

  7. AnonymousMay 01, 2011

    Never listened to this album. But the writing for this review was entertaining dammit! I wasn't the biggest fan of the second album, Mecca and the Soul Brother, but appreciate it was very well made and original. Thanks for the review:)


  8. While I agree that Mecca and The Soul Brother is far superior, this was still a damn good album. Also, no love for "In The House"? Personally, I think that is Pete Rock & CL Smooth's best song. The beat is mesmerizing.

  9. djbosscrewwreckaMay 01, 2011

    "And I taught my home to actually read, so that is a big deal to me." Straight classic.
    There's been a lot of quality albums on this site this year = good stuff.
    I think this review is a pretty good call. I rate this album, but agree with all of the criticisms you mentioned. Sometimes it's beautiful, laid-back, smooth and easy on the ear, but sometimes it verges into bland and uninspiring. Mecca and the Soul Brother is the better album for me because of the energy levels.
    It could definitely do with being a bit shorter. Not just the number of tracks (all hip hop albums are guilty of that), but more losing a few of the unnecessary interludes, and not needing three verses in every song.
    That's also a good point that Cl Smooth doesn't have many classic quotable lines. Mostly it doesn't matter though because his melodic emceeing suits the Pete Rock production.

  10. A burn???
    You just lost your credibility man.

  11. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    first , this should a gut reaction (max i know you didnt listen to hip hop when this came , not old enough), second this is a classic album , third max stick second rate wu albums

  12. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    what a crap review - brilliant album

  13. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    one of the best albums ever - clean your ears out max

  14. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    musically, i feel that this album played a big jump start to the "neo soul" movement of the mid 90's - early 00's. i think this deserves more credit than a burn personally. this album is one of my faves

  15. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    reading this review now does have me curious to see what you thought of pharcyde's LabCabInCalifornia

  16. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    @ fat pimp , the writer never had any credibility in the first place.

  17. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    i think he's spot on, this album was tame in comparison to mecca.

    max, are you looking forward to vast aire's solo effort coming out next month? production from j-zone man

  18. It's not essential.
    If this is one of the best albums ever, there are about 500 of those, in hip-hop alone.

  19. P_CaptainMay 02, 2011

    I rarely listen to this cause CL is kinda lackluster here and doesn't say much for the whole album. The production, on the other hand, is alone to make this worth a buy. Maybe the third-last anonymous is right and that you should just stick to albums by Wu-Tang weed-carriers.

  20. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    seriously, you should make this gut reaction or retract this shit...ur lost man..something's going wrong.

  21. A.R. MarksMay 02, 2011

    I definitely feel like this project was too hard to sit through. It just doesn't have that bounce, that fucking "wow" factor that Pete's best work does. The beats on here were cool but they were trying way too hard to mature rather than just keep the shit interesting, imo.

  22. AnonymousMay 03, 2011

    what a bad review , dope album buy buy buy

  23. AnonymousMay 03, 2011

    this is a gut reaction max . your not fooling anyone.

  24. AnonymousMay 03, 2011

    I'd reiterate my position that max has little to no soul which is the reason why he can't dig certain kina material...the words were pretty harsh and sometimes it seem like the writing is the star of the show as opposed to the review...but...i ran out and bought this and i could listen "In the flesh" on loop for a week but the ish was'n as pleasantly engaging as i thought it would be, it reached the point where i started thinking there was sup'm wrong with me why i could'n get into the shit more deeply than i had... one could possibly come to a simular conclusion but with out the extra vitriol (save it for shit we really fucking hate)

  25. AnonymousMay 04, 2011

    This review suprised the hell out of me. It's one of my favorite hiphop albums and i think its more consistent than Mecca And The Soul Brother which has some of their best songs but its kinda half ass.

  26. this album is a classic. when i listen to it i think of late '94-'95 (which '95 was "a very good year" for hip-hop) when shit was still good. what i thought you would mention was how peter phillips kept utilizing biz markie soundbytes throughout the album as if they were james brown vocal samples, something i always thought was odd.

    the only thing i do agree with is corey's lack of resonance when it comes to his rhymes but he does have one of the dopest voices in the industry.

  27. AnonymousMay 09, 2011

    This is actually up there with Mecca and The Soul Brother. Lord knows why you're dumbass would reccommend a burn. I know a DJ who pretty has a collection of classic hip hop albums and says that this album is a masterpiece. Ask the older generation and they'll tell you the same shit. Max you obviously started listening to hip hop in 98 or 2000 so i'm not mad at you for this horrible mediocre review

  28. AnonymousMay 17, 2011


    "The Main Ingredient is full of rich, resonant, hypnotic songs -- the production being among some of the most seductive in hip-hop -- that subtly, but absolutely, swing with their lock-step precision. In characteristic Pete Rock fashion, all of the sharp edges have been sanded down, leaving a vibrant and completely lush musical backdrop which seems to have a dreamy nostalgia about it. Old '60s and '70s soul, soul-jazz, and funk samples abound, and the music is dotted with gauzy keyboard washes, hugely echoed bass-drum kicks, milky basslines, and muted horn loops, almost sounding like they are emanating out of water. All of the songs feel immediate, yet they are infused with the sort of roomy ambience that lends to each the impression of a classic tune, evocative of an earlier era, but not one that can be described exactly, and not one to which you can definitively point."

    Soulful, refined, highly musical and genre transcending, The Main Ingredient is a timeless masterpiece. If you don't own it already, you should buy the best album of the nineties now.

    Oh, and by the way, "In the House", "Escape" and "All the Places" are among the best-produced tracks in hip-hop history: sophistication personified.

  29. Max, sometimes you should pick up a right mood to wright pete's production makes it classic even if it was tony yayo all over those beats.

    Your reviews getting worse, man, if you don't love hip-hop anymore maybe you should quit with writing?

  30. Also when you start to mention samples the song was made of here and there so often it doesn't make review better.

  31. LOL, I'm just going to act like I didn't read this lame ass review. get off your high horse. you're not as dope as you think you are. a search for this album brought me here and just like that I'm gone, never to return to this lame ass site again.

  32. Wow, this review just kept attracting the vitriol. Max, you called it like you saw it. What's more, I agree with you 100%. I don't have any "hip hop credibility" to worry about losing here, so I'll say it: this album was beautifully made and showcased msome incredible talent on the part of the MC and producer... But it lacked the forward movement that I like in my music, regardless of genre. I can see why it's on some "best of all time" lists, but it's not as appealing to me as the Mecca LP.

  33. AnonymousMay 14, 2015

    The only flaws this album has is that it lacks a TROY & CL has 2 more love raps. Otherwise, The Main Ingredient is every bit as awesome as its predecessor.

  34. Wow, I found this blog by accident today and I read a few of the review -- it looks like the reviewer has had his ears filled with molten lead or something of the sort. Because pretty much every album that has actual music on it (mid-90s G-Funk, and jazz-influenced hip-hop in particular) is given negative reviews while faceless truly boring garbage ("sophisticated" rhymes notwithstanding) is rated highly.

    I'm actually old enough to remember those late 90s days and I have over the years repeatedly realized to my horror that I find myself being one of the few people to realize that hip-hop died not only because of No Limit and Bad Boy and general commercialization, but also because the "real artists" loved by what we now call hipsters decided that it was beneath them to bother with finding good beats and crafting good songs, their microphone mastery was somehow supposed to be sufficient in their minds. Well, it wasn't, and as a result among the torrent of underground backpackery rap releases since the late 90s there have been very few truly good albums. But I guess if you know nothing better and if your hip-hop snobbery has become such a core part of your identity, you will still like them/never be able to admit the truth to yourself, let alone the rest of the world.

    This album is a prime example -- so CL Smooth isn't the most energetic MC ever and you find that boring? Well, do you expect it to be anything different from a rapper called "CL Smooth"? But we can ignore that -- the bigger issue is that how the fuck someone can say that the beats are not good when this and the shelved InI album are the pinnacle of that kind of hip-hop production is beyond my ability to fully comprehend...

  35. I have to disagree with you on this one, buddy.

    This album simply lacked a TROY 2 of sorts and needed a tad less songs about the ladies. Otherwise, this was a home run for me. And CL was getting his stream-of-consciousness on. Being a Wu Stan, I can completely get behind that. Furthermore, In The House, All The Places and In The Flesh are all timeless, dammit!