I miss Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. Anytime I hear “T.R.O.Y (They Reminisce Over You)” at any “Old Skool Hip-hop Night” at a club, everyone’s hands are waving in the air and people are screaming more than Pharrell does on Noreaga’s “Nothin’.” “T.R.O.Y.” is the Dick Clark of hip-hop: it’s an ageless wonder, and people are still booty droppin’ it with about as much fervor as a Lil Jon beat to a personal track about struggle, loss and pain. But a reunion between the two seems less likely than one with Sonny and Cher. So until then, BBE’s (Barely Breaking Even Records) release of the highly sought after, Pete Rock-produced Center of Attention by his group InI will tide you over.
InI consists of Rock’s younger brother Grap Lova, Rob-O and the Chocolate Boy Wonder himself. The group formed after Rock and C.L. Smooth inexplicably called it quits in 1994. By 1996, they’d finished their debut, Center of Attention, but label issues kept it in the vault.
It’s surprising how an album like this was never released until now. The production is slightly different than the tracks Pete Rock cut for C.L. Smooth, but purists won’t be disappointed. Almost every track grooves at around 90 to 94 bpms, and production yields a somewhat more minimalist approach.
The beats rely less on samples and horns than older Pete Rock tracks, but they still pound with his soul-sonic polyrhythmic signature sounds. The jazzy down-tempo flip of Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy” on “Grown Man’s Sport” stands out. The production doesn’t drive the album alone; it’s also the content of the rhymes put down by both Grap Luva and Rob-O.
The emcees bring the skills, despite that there’s probably one too many songs about their lyrical superiority on Center of Attention. What’s more interesting is the other theme that rides through parts of this LP: the ongoing conflict of wanting to “keep it real” versus the priorities of the industry to sell records.
On “What You Say,” Grap Luva stresses this: “Into the cipher / Words now possess value / If you wanna know the real let me tell you / Be responsible for what you say / For the words you speak may cause dismay.” Grap Luva’s verse on “Center of Attention” speaks to similar issues, including a commentary about what he feels should be the priorities of his urban community.
This industry paradox may seem pretty commonplace by today’s standards, but perhaps a contextualization of the lyrics in recent hip-hop history (i.e. the submission of the more sonically democratic “golden age of hip-hop” sound to the “hardcore” and “gangsta” rap identity of the early- to mid-nineties) might better explain the politics of the industry and perhaps the reason why the record was ultimately shelved in 1996. Still, despite the delay, Center of Attention, like other Pete Rock productions, possesses that longevity to be an insta-classic.