C.L. Smooth

C.L. Smooth
If you're going to interview C.L. Smooth, you might as well do it with Pete Rock DJing in the background. Fresh off stage in Toronto after performing the iconic New York duo's 20-year-old golden-age classic Mecca and the Soul Brother for the first time ever, Corey "C.L. Smooth" Penn sits with a glass of red wine and reminisces. Pete Rock remains onstage, spinning hip-hop gold for the diehards who won't leave the venue.

"Tonight the promoters wanted strictly Mecca and the Soul Brother. This show right here was the first time I did just songs off one album, and I did songs tonight that I never did ever. I had to study; I had to rehearse. And some of them I got help from Pete Rock, but it was just such fun." C.L., now 43, says he had never performed songs like "Anger in the Nation" and "On and On" until tonight. "It goes to show you, you can relive your stuff and learn something new about it. You can learn new things about yourself through great work."

Consensus says the team's greatest work is Mecca's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," a classic born from the 1990 death of Trouble T Roy, a hip-hop dancer with Heavy D & the Boyz, who died at age 22 after an accidental two-story fall. But two decades after his peak, old-school C.L. Smooth believes he's entered a new creative chamber.

Which hip-hop death hit you the hardest?
Troy's. Because it was like myself dying, we were so young.

How old were you when he died?
We were teenagers back then, so we weren't really getting our feet wet as far as manhood. We were used to guys getting shot, and we'd be numb to that. But this was kinda different; this was very odd, very out of the ordinary. A guy like that who impacted our lives, who we grew up with ― this was very tragic, very different. Different in that it inspired me to make one of the greatest songs that I've ever written without music. That's how it moved me. I wrote without music, then we had to find the music to match it. We came up with this Tom Scott record ("Today"), which Pete played tonight, that was awesome.

Where did you write "T.R.O.Y."?
I was home. I was living with my grandfather at the time. Most of my lyrics came through my grandfather because when he spoke, he was like a lyricist. So I would copy and emulate him and put it on paper and into rhymes.

Did the words for that song flow right out or you, or was this something you were careful to edit?
It flowed right out of me because it was like writing a poem, and it didn't have any music. I had a [studio] session, and the music I wrote for "Reminisce" didn't match the music I had in the session, so [Pete] said, "Listen. Let me live with this and come back with something. And our next session we're going to do this again, and I want you to rap it again." When he did that, it was so awesome. He hit it right on the button. I knew right then when he made that music, it was like, goddamn, you really fuckin' did something awesome. That was the last song on the album, so I was very happy.

How do you feel when you perform it now?
Maaaan, it's like, "How are you 21, 22 writing stuff like this?" As a grown man I couldn't conceptualize myself writing something like this. I'm writing about grown-man stuff, and this kid [my younger self] is coming with stuff deeper than grown men do. It made me realize who I was. I was a fan of myself at that moment. You tend to take your own writing for granted and just look at other people's body of work and think, wow, they're great. But when you can impress yourself, it's a different type of energy.

The impact of that record – did you feel like it affected the rest of your career? Were you trying to match "Reminisce"?
I knew that I could never match that record.

When did you know that?
When we made it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Some things are not meant to be. I would always live in the shadow of it, and I wanted to outdo that record, but it wasn't a record I wanted to make again. I'm trying to outdo that record with something else ― dare to be different. It didn't propel me to repeat this; it propelled me to be different. I can't always be chasing that record; I wanted another record with that level of energy.

What's the best compliment you've received?
When people say my music changed their life, because I'm so imperfect. When people say, "Your music changed my life," I'm like, "I was trying to change my life too." It's like I had the answers, but I really didn't. I was searching for them, but I was moving people like you who were trying to find themselves also. People could listen and think, "This guy is going through different chambers of his mind trying to find himself, but I'm inspired by what he's inspired by." So it's people who say, "Your music inspired me to be and create something."

It seems like those truly inspired moments are more likely to happen early in an artist's career. Why is that?
In the beginning you're so enthused, you're so virgin to what's about to happen. You know things are going to happen if you're successful, if people like you, but you're anticipating what's to happen, and you don't really know. That's the impact of that newness before the industry numbs you out and you're forced to protect your money and get this accountant and this guy wants to be under you and this guy came home from jail and wants a job. Before everything totally changes in your life, you have this newness and this enthusiasm of, wow, I'm doing something I really like ― before they call it a job. Before they make it a job. That's the virginism of it. Before I create babies and have that baby mother say, "If you don't buy me a car, you won't see your son," I'm doing it. That didn't happen yet. The people can hear and see that newness, as opposed to later on when you're so morbid and old-school and you've been through a lot. That's why there's no chamber for artists growing older and keeping that. You gotta stay in the gym, you gotta stay relevant, you gotta keep yourself active to do these records, to stay up there for two hours and not fall apart.

When did it change for you? When did it feel like a job?
When your group is so great but yet your group doesn't treat each other great. You bicker, you argue, you disagree. Money pulls you over there, and money pulls me over here; it doesn't bring us together like what brought us together ― that common bond, that love for something we would've did for free. Once you put economics and job in the equation, and your family and friends get used to you being successful, they start dividing and conquering. You live and you learn, you earn; you don't learn, you don't earn. These are the things that allow you to do more creative things, gives you more to talk about. That's what I look forward to ― trying to turn that negative into a positive and create off of it. Create off of the misery, create off the disagreement. Create, create, create: that's what made you guys special.

Did you see the A Tribe Called Quest documentary?
No, I didn't get a chance.

Basically it shows them going through the motions and doing reunion shows for a cheque, but there is a lack of love there. Whereas tonight, there was a sense of love.
Real talk: We don't have to talk to each other for a year, eight months, nine months. When you get up there, honestly, all that goes out the window. You can hate each other to the tenth power, and you can practice it every day, but as soon as you get on that stage, it's like, "I appreciate you. I appreciate you." Where you couldn't say it in your real life, you can go up there and say it so freely. And it makes you love each other one more time. That's the beauty and the beast of it.

Kinda like players on a basketball team who might not get along, but come game time, they both want to win.
Right. Once we put on that uniform, we're brothers. And we do it so well. It's like a sin not to come together and make that sweet music for the people. They eat it up. They understand our trials and tribulations, but when we come together we give it our all, and they respect that. They allow us back again.

Twenty years since Mecca and the Soul Brother was released. Does it feel that long?
No, it never does. With anything. I love the way it's being celebrated; I love the way that young people are coming out to support something that we were doing when we were their age. So I'm very humbled. I'm taking a step back and soaking it up. It's not something I thought would happen, but it is happening.

I'm seeing people in the crowd that were probably infants or not even born when the album came out.
I feel very honoured that they're responding and understanding and they're taking the music and being open-minded with it. It goes to show me that in a time and place in my life we were before our time.

At what point did you guys realize this was a classic?
As years past and the music business was so up and down, yet we've always been paid homage to, always been respected as musicians, respected as people who made great music that stands the test of time. So when you have new artists mention your name all the time, it's like a rite of passage, something that is rap royalty, so to speak. I hold that in great honour and humbleness.

What's the most meaningful record to you?
[Run-DMC's] "Down with the King." That was always a group that really had rap wrapped up. They were so iconic. Growing up, you wanted to be them ― the success, the movement, everything. When I made a record with them, I knew I was amongst the greats. I knew I was in that business. I took so much pride to be among Rev Run and DMC and Jam Master Jay and talk to them and have them respect me. Being the ones that gave them their No. 1 record in the history of their catalogue ― bigger than "Sucker MC's." It was like, "Are you kidding me?" That's history. I'm here to stay.

Where did you write that verse?
I wrote that in the studio. We were all together writing. Pete just showed me the picture of us all together writing and mixing the record. It was a great thing. Beautiful. You can see in my face how overwhelmed I was. I was so happy to see that picture.

There are so many more collaborations now, but back then they were events.
Special. And they had to be in-person. They had to be good; they had to gel and connect. They had to complement each other.

Which MC pushed you the most?
LL Cool J pushed me where no other artist has pushed me. His ups, his downs, his ins, his outs. He's the only guy I wanted to be like. When I met him and talked to him and we had dinner, he sent me bottles of champagne. He was a gentleman I wanted to emulate because he was a gentleman, and I admired that. A man's man.

And the ladies must've factored into that…
I wanted his ladies, too. I wanted his body. I wanted his structure. I wanted everything about him because to me he epitomized beauty in the black man, in the whole equation of being ultra masculine ― and that's what I loved.

Have you spoken to him recently?
No, I haven't. I wish him well. He's in my prayers all the time, and I'm in his. He's somebody who's always going to be family to me.

Tell me a good Heavy D story.
Oh, man. Which one? Heavy D gave me my first SkyPager. Heavy D gave me my first cellphone. I remember it had to be '89, '90. I remember him picking me from school and then driving around and saying I was his cousin too. [Pete Rock is the younger cousin of Heavy D.] It made me feel good. He was so intelligent. He felt so old, yet he was only 21 or 22. He was so old fashioned. What I took from him was his sense of fashion, his neatness, his cleanliness. For a big guy, he was so ultra sharp and clean. He taught me how to be sharp and clean and precise. I couldn't have better mentors than the LL Cool Js, Big Daddy Kanes, Heavy Ds, the Dougie Freshes, Chuck Ds, Eric Bs, Rakims ― they sat down and really talked to me. Erick Sermon. They gave me real talk, and I really appreciated it and applied it to my everyday life.

Do you feel underappreciated as an MC?
I don't because I don't look for praise. I know that people out there appreciate my music and love my music, but I don't look for appraisal like most do. I'm just happy that people come to my shows and it's sold out. I know I coulda had a better career so we could talk about it, but that didn't happen. So I don't look at things superficial. I don't look at the outside; I look at the inside. I'm able to have a good life, music has given me everything and continues to, whether it's publicized or not. So I'm grateful.

Have you made enough money off the older albums and shows to live comfortably?
You can never make enough money, but at the same time it allows me to make a living. It allows me to invest in other things. As you get older, you get smarter with your money. I don't hang out as much. I invest my money in businesses and it makes me successful. It allows me to come do shows and have it not be the cake; it's the icing. I have the cake already. It allows me to keep my music money and live my life through other means of support. This is my fun; this is my supplemental income on steroids.

A lot of guys who put out a rap album 20 years ago lose their breath control, but you sounded sharp out there.
Well, I do my training. It's a job you have to do within this job. In order for me to do two or three records, I have to train every day, two hours a day. I have to run three to five miles Monday through Friday. Otherwise, I really couldn't this, I'm gonna be honest with you. If I don't train, I know I can't do that.

So what's next? Solo record?
I'm working on a solo record.

Is there any chance of another group record?
It's a possibility if Pete says, "Hey, I'm inspired. This is what I got for you." I'm prepared for that. When he pitches me something, I got the mitt for it. I'm ready to pull it out. Until then, my creative juices are flowing right now. I'm in the studio every day, and it's been great, great music. I anticipate on releasing something in November, a single called "Ask About Me." A single for the streets, and we'll see what happens.

If you could see an entire album performed at a concert, what would you choose?
Amy Winehouse do her Back to Black album. Yes. I think she's awesome. I woulda loved to work with her. And Janis Joplin.

Tell me about "One in a Million," a personal favourite.
"One in a Million" was a soundtrack song. We were in L.A. talking to the director of [Poetic Justice, John Singleton], and he requested us personally. He wanted something in particular; he just didn't want any record. He wanted something with jazz-slash-L.A.-slash-Pete Rock & CL Smooth. It was a great opportunity, and it worked out well. It was the first time I started singing. Everybody knew me for the rap, but they didn't know I would sing. I was one of the first rap artists to sing the hooks. Now you got everybody singing the hooks, but I was one of the first.

Did you feel like you were taking a risk?
Look at all these instruments that we use in our music. My voice could just be another instrument. In certain music, you don't have to be this great vocalist like a Mariah Carey. In jazz you can scat; you can be an instrument with your voice. That's what I tried to develop ― an instrument that went along with the other instruments. Deliver with the singing part, then come in with the rap.

Anything else you want to add?
Toronto really inspired me to come out tonight, young and old, big and small. It was a real inspiration to come out and be celebrated and welcomed with open arms. I'm just speechless by the opportunity and the time we spent tonight. It was very special to me.