As CL Smooth was wrapping up a conversation with his publicist at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival this summer, a twenty-something female in dreads crept up and said, “I just want to tell you ‘They Reminisce Over You’ is one my favorite songs and I remember ever single lyric.” He acted as if it was the first time he’s ever heard that, cracking a smile.
As much as CL would like to distance himself from his past recordings with Pete Rock, their work not only birthed one of the greatest hip-hop songs in the genre’s history but a number of classic albums as well. The duo officially split in ’95, and even though both artists have since hinted at a reunion, the rumors never resulted in more than a scant track or two.
It’s a monumental task for CL to define his sound outside Pete Rock, not because he isn’t a gifted emcee, but because CL and Pete Rock mixed like rice and beans or like gin and juice. Let’s not forget that Pete Rock is one of the greatest producers ever to hit the boards. And you can ask Guru or Erick Parrish who suffers more — the emcee or the producer — when a talented duo breaks up. And let’s not forget that hip-hop isn’t kind to its elders, unless of course CL knows how to do the Chicken Noodle Soup.
So why do we still care? For hip-hop fans, CL (who’s solo album, American Me, was released in October) is engrained in our musical memory. There is not one person familiar with the emcee’s work who does not have the same sentiments as that female fan at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop festival had. When you drop classic material, are you not entitled to a second go-round? CL sure hopes you feel that way. Whatever the reasons for his hiatus — personal, business, writer’s block or lack of inspiration — in hip-hop we are all too ready to dispose of our past. It’s ironic in genre founded in the dusty crates of soul and funk that the early ’90s seem like a distant memory.
What have been up to the past few years?
CL Smooth: Just working hard getting everybody geared up for this new project called American Me, so I am really happy about that.
In terms of production, everyone is always looking for you to work with Pete Rock. Who are you working with on this project?
CL Smooth: I got a lot of features, like Arsonist of the Heatmakerz; Mike Lowe, who used to deejay for the Jungle Brothers, a great producer. I got my homie from the hood J-Matic, he is with the Henchmen. I got KG and the whole Divinemill Crew on there. And I got a great, great track — one of the greatest tracks on American Me — from a dude from Italy. These are my features; these are my co-stars on my project.
Everyone is talking about how we have to bring New York back. As someone who helped bring New York to the forefront, what are your thoughts about that?
CL Smooth: Right now I’m bidding for that presidency. I am out there right now campaigning for that presidency. That’s why I named my project American Me. ‘Cause I am out there campaigning to be the new president of hip-hop. With that in mind, this is what I need to do for hip-hop: add the same contribution as last time but not to think that everybody likes me because of the old music but to really add on to the catalog like it needs to be added onto — with great music, great concepts and great lyrics. That’s what is going to make the catalog bigger.
In terms of longevity, a lot of artists who don’t release album every year get lost in today’s hip-hop market. What are you doing to break that trend?
CL Smooth: What I am doing is staying connected to the street. I think once you are not connected to what is going on, what is the plight of a man, how he walks the earth, then you really don’t know. A record only gives you an invoice; it doesn’t give you the actual work of what you have to do to make that record. My understanding is to stay really current and fresh, and that is hard if you don’t stay connected to the streets. You need bring that vintage good music. I am trying to overcome the impossible; those are the odds that I have to overcome. Basically there isn’t an area for rappers that can mature and not be young-acting and immature. So that is my plight, those are the odds. But I think this is going to shock the world. This album is going to shock the hip-hop and music game, period. They say great hip-hop albums come once every ten years, and here is one right here.
Are you planning any touring or other promotional work for the album?
CL Smooth: Oh, yeah, I am coming from an independent level — this is not a major level. I have my own team, the Blackheart through Shaman Works, distribution through Koch. You know, if everybody does their part and everybody plays their end, there is no reason why CL Smooth cannot be successful. Because ultimately it comes down to your material and your work, and my material and work is above A-grade.
You came out of the ’90s. Do you find any inspiration in the artists out today? I know back then you could just look all around and see all of these artists doing crazy shit —
CL Smooth: Oh, yeah, I’m definitely inspired by their movements, from 50 Cent, Fabulous on down, Common, Kanye — I don’t leave anyone out. I don’t discriminate. What I do discriminate against is unsuccessful albums. What I discriminate against is people who are not successful. I love success. I gravitate to success. It’s a beautiful thing when you have people out here opening up doors that weren’t open when I started. So it gives me more motivation and a greater outlook to go on a track and be successful at it.
I know everyone asks you this, but is there any chance of you working again with Pete Rock or are you just moving forward?
CL Smooth: I think that I am moving forward, but I don’t close the door to anything, I don’t speak negative on it. Just like I don’t speak negative when people ask me that question. My motivation is geared on progress. It’s geared on what work you put out. So if I don’t put out work that I am satisfied with, then there won’t be any cohesion, there won’t be any unity. My whole thing is to lead by example, don’t go back and feel you have to rehash the past. ‘Cause like Bob Marley said, it’s too hard to live the past; we must move on to the future.