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Pete Rock & CL Smooth

Venue: The Garage, Highbury, London

Date: 2nd September 2016

By Andrew Kay | 04 September 2016

I was shocked to realise that it had actually been 25 years since I last saw Pete Rock and C.L Smooth live. That was in May 1992 at the Hammersmith Palais  (a venue now replaced by a homogenized chain gym). The crowd at the Palais was a nervous, energetic sort and there was a fair bit of intimidation going on in the queue outside. Just as I thought something was going to occur, a school friend turned up- stocky, wearing a goose jacket and carrying a grey (in legal terms) metal ruler in his jacket’s inside pocket.  It was a blessed relief to see him there, as he provided a calming influence and a feeling of protection for myself. This was a strange night in many ways, as label mate’s Leaders of the New School were playing the same night across town at Bar Rumba near Piccadilly Circus. Why they couldn’t have scheduled them on different nights is anyone’s guess?  I don’t remember much of that night, except  “Jump” by Kriss Kross got the best response and Pete Rock and C.L Smooth had only really the ‘All Souled Out” EP and bits and pieces from their fledgling album, “Mecca and the Soul Brother.” They were quite good, if not the finished article. Two kids did get robbed inside, as I recall-for their baseball caps. But, in the main, the night went off peacefully, belying the venue’s reputation, cemented by the famed song by the Clash, “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais.”

Fast-forward 25 years and the crowd at Highbury’s Garage were mainly white with a few urban hipsters and kids wanting an edgy night out, peppered by elder statesmen, in their 40s: nonplussed and not easily impressed, but still a bit pleased with themselves.

The usual mixture of backpack beats and familiar favourites provided a taster for the evening’s main event:  two artists that had an EP and two albums before acrimoniously splitting up around 1995. As is nearly always the case, their solo efforts never lived up to their collaborative ones, reunited as they seemed to be tonight, for this leg of their world tour, for the cash.

That might be a cheerless thing to say, but often groups get back simply for necessity and whilst there was chemistry and a certain chumminess between Rock and Smooth tonight, it never felt quite genuine.

Pete Rock provided a medley of soul and pop tunes, verging on parody with “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, but it was done to waste time and to make sure that both did an no more than the allotted hour and stuck to the strict 10 p.m curfew. This was more than could be expected. Most old school rap artists can barely manage thirty minutes before looking like they need a lie down nowadays. At least Pete Rock and C.L Smooth had gotten in shape for this tour, realising that in your mid to late 40s, you have to pace yourself and getting up on stage for an hour isn’t the easy gig it may once have been.

The formula for the hour was fairly simple: play the original sample and morph it into the sampled beat, as a sort of mixture of homage to the original foundation whilst providing an anatomy of a track through the use of the sample.  This sort of worked, more so when tracks from “The Main Ingredient” were played, because some of those from “Mecca and the Soul Brother” are now sounding quite dated.  There were odd choices too- the flavourless and flat version of “Lots of Lovin’ was rendered live, but the remix is hundred times better; one verse was played from one track; the whole from another. It made for inconsistent entertainment.  However, a cheeky rendering of Run DMC’s “Down With the King” was an inspired moment. Sometimes the EQ’ing of CL’s voice was drowned out in an imbalance of music and lyrics. CL was mostly polished in his delivery, infrequently calling on Pete Rock when his breathlessness skipped the songs punch-line.  CL’s stage show was good- well rehearsed with engagingly animated moments of physicality.

But it all felt like the Pete Rock show, happy as he was behind the boards, encouraging his colleague to feel included and baiting the crowd to do the same.  “The Creator” got an amazing response, even though it’s mainly a Pete Rock track, in both production and verse.

Rounding things out was the sublime moment of their collaborative triumph: the timeless, never dated, universally loved, gospel- church inspired, jazz influenced “T.R.O.Y” The Tom Scott/ Jefferson Airplane cover of “Today” was played in full- a beautiful song in its own right, and as the familiar saxophone sample rang out over the Garage, the playful manipulation of traditional instruments and technology came together to capture a perfect moment of synergy.  Pete Rock, knowing that this was the crescendo we all had waited to witness, played Pied Piper with the crowd, as they were led on the crest of a beautiful sonic wave, as Pete’s smooth, but rugged production felt like the song was being heard again for the very first time. CL played his part to perfection and even if the audience all knew that this was their finest hour, we played along with it and it left us satisfied, floating out of the venue on a cloud of hope and optimism.  “T.R.O.Y” will never date as a song. Its themes of love, family and death are ageless-25 years have passed and it’s still as beautiful, catchy and poignant as when it was first released.

Pete Rock and CL Smooth are, again, one of hip-hop’s true kings. I’m not sure if this will result in a reunion album, but for fans of two albums and an EP stuck in a timeless warp of the early to mid 1990s, this was an hour to reminisce about two artists who have contributed much to the art form and culture, but who were always better together.  Lets hope this tour bares artistic fruit in the near future.

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