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.
1. IN THE HOUSE
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.
2. CARMEL CITY
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.
3. I GET PHYSICAL
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.
4. SUN WON'T COME OUT
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.
5. I GOT A LOVE
“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!
7. THE MAIN INGREDIENT
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.
8. WORLDWIDE (FEAT. ROB-O)
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.
9. ALL THE PLACES
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.
10. TELL ME
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”.
11. TAKE YOU THERE
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.
13. CHECK IT OUT
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.
14. IN THE FLESH (FEAT. ROB-O & DEDA)
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.
15. IT'S ON YOU
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...
16. GET ON THE MIC
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.