Live Review: Pete Rock & CL Smooth bring the soul of hip hop to Sydney

Oh how I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when a young Pete Rock lifted that immortal saxophone sample from Tom Scott‘s version of “Today”. The peerless beatmaker used that second-long loop to create what is arguably the greatest rap production of all time, that which became “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)”, the signature hit for Pete Rock & CL Smooth and an instantly recognisable piece of rap history. The seminal track is but one of many that made the duo such a critically acclaimed act for the 90’s, laying out a small but powerful body of work that endeared through their solo careers and maintained a huge demand for a reunion tour.

Though they’ve reunited several times over the past few years, the two have never touched Australian soil as Pete Rock & CL Smooth. The 25th anniversary of their beloved debut album, Mecca & The Soul Brother, seemed as good a time as any to change that; hence hip-hop fans across the country finally get to witness the perfect combo of Rock’s soulful production and CL’s famously smooth, exceptional rhymes.

Long gone are the days of inconsistent hip-hop concerts in Australia with messy support acts and generic DJ’s. For the Sydney leg of this tour, the promoters made the wise choice to give local trio Soul Benefits some shine and they certainly made the most of it, winning the crowd over before DJ Samrai took to the decks with a flurry of 90’s hip hop that included a banging Kool G Rap and N.O.R.E mash-up and tracks from Q-Tip, Busta, Das EFX and Wu-Tang among others. If that wasn’t enough, Tall Black Guy happened to be in town for the gig and stepped up to replace New Zealand’s P Money, who was originally scheduled to play a 30 minute set before the main act.

The Detroit producer delivered an interesting, bass-heavy set that stuck true to his city’s eclectic sound. Static salsa turned into De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High”; a stunted Grandmaster Flash was screwed and chopped until it sounded like a galactic funk record; and Skee Lo was given an ultra-weird treatment that sizzled on our ears with deep, melodic drums and sharp hand claps. The crowd sounded disappointed when they heard P Money wasn’t going to be taking the stage, but there was nothing but love heard from the slow-to-grow Metro Theatre audience once TBG wrapped things up and left the stage clear for Rock and Smooth.

Amongst the greatest duos in hip-hop like OutKast, Mobb Deep, Eric B & Rakim, UGK and Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth are like bread-and-butter (artisan of course), complementing each other so flawlessly that it’s hard to believe they ever stopped making music together. Time definitely hasn’t broken those sonic bonds and as soon as CL started with the head-spinning first verse from “Return of the Mecca” over those deep, silky smooth drums it was a non-stop masterclass of dope rhymes over dope beats.

Rock’s production is impeccable and multifaceted; the way he lifts soul, funk and jazz and welds them all into an unmistakable boom-bap is incredible enough, but it’s a testament to his skill how he holds back just enough to let the samples really shine. This tender, gentler approach to hip-hop came across well on stage, lifted even higher with the tendency to start with the sample and then slowly build to the beat from there. Whether it was Ahmad Jamal‘s ethereal piano piece for “It’s on You” or Tom Scott’s aforementioned “Today” on the obvious set-closer, it’s clear Rock respects the foundations of his productions and proudly showcased his influences before passing it on to CL to twist his dexterous bars into a flow which hasn’t aged one bit.

Rock even got in a few bars of his own, both from behind the decks and when he and CL switched places for “The Creator”, a classic song for which they also reversed their roles (it was produced by CL Smooth).

While the set was pretty much everything a fan could have asked for from front to back the extra special treats came from the unexpected inclusions, like Run DMC‘s hard-hitting “Down with the King” and the Poetic Justice cut “One in a Million”. Though of course the fan-favourite of the night was “T.R.O.Y”, the popularity of which is not at all lost on Rock as he teased and stretched the build-up, bordering on obnoxious self-mythologising that would have been slightly annoying had it been anyone else.

Set List
Return of the Mecca
For Pete’s Sake
I Get Physical
Mecca & The Soul Brother
Lots of Lovin’
It’s a Love Thing
Searching
All the Places
I Got a Love
It’s on You
Take You There
The Creator
Down with the King
Can’t Front on Me
The Main Ingredients
One in a Million
Straighten It Out

Encore
They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)

Note: set list should be correct, but I could have sworn they fit in “Sun Won’t Come Out” at some point (that may be wishful thinking).

Pete Rock & CL Smooth play Perth’s Rosemount Hotel on Saturday 11th March and Brisbane’s The Backroom on Thursday 16th March.