In The Studio With CL Smooth: A Perfectionist At Work
The weary voice of CL Smooth’s manager melds with a buzz of activity and studio static.
“He’s just wrapping up in the booth and he’s totally into it,” she tells me, slightly frazzled. It’s obvious, though we’re thousands of miles apart and speaking through the impersonal vessel of a mobile phone, that Smooth is not a man to come running when he’s in the zone. “That’s him recording now,” she adds, putting the call on loudspeaker. Quite why I’m the lucky one to get a taste of what goes on when Smooth takes to the booth, I don’t know, but his flow is impressive.
“Roll it back,” instructs another voice, this time the producer, as the poor manager says, “I’m tapping on my watch at him.” There’s a tone of reluctance, but Smooth finally replies: “Nah, it’s time to talk.”
The legendary US rapper has unwittingly lived up to his reputation as an uncompromising artist before our interview has even begun – and when he does start speaking, he affirms that first impression of his work ethic. “I’m just working on finishing up the new album,” he says. “We’ve been in rehearsal, recording right now, and I’m starting a new project with Pete Rock.”
Rock is a long-time collaborator, partner and friend to Smooth, and their connection runs deep. “I think we have something beyond friendship, beyond high school,” Smooth agrees. “We have a creative bond that other people don’t have in other walks of life – on a creative level he knows you and complements you so well, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.”
Together, Smooth and Rock scaled the summit of hip hop back in 1991, following the release of their debut EP All Souled Out. Their breakout track ‘The Creator’, crafted around Smooth’s crisp voice and Rock’s complex and obscure soul breaks, was noticeably lacking in profanity. With the albums Mecca And The Soul Brother and The Main Ingredient following in 1992 and 1994 respectively, they secured a place in history.
2017 marks the 25th anniversary of their debut albumand the peak of Smooth and Rock’s notoriety as collaborators. To celebrate, they’ve reunited to perform around the world, and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s been awesome,” Smooth says emphatically. “I knew it would be positive because we rarely get out to see the people. For a lot of people, we gotta be accessible so they get to see us. And the more we work, the more people will see us because they know we’re active in touring.”
The reunion tour wouldn’t be the colossal celebration it is without an appearance in Australia, marking Smooth and Rock’s first performances here in their entire careers. However, Smooth is almost dismissive about the milestone. “I don’t really think about things like that,” he says. “I really don’t think about the reason it took so long or I wouldn’t be interested in going over. I think I enjoy the moment and partaking in the experience and hoping they [the audience] enjoy the show and I get invited back.”
Just as with his touring and music-making, Smooth seems to be in no particular rush as we speak – he’s a man without particulars. It’s a character he’s developed over time – he’s learned a few things along the course of his career, and it shows in his performances.
“I guess that’s the difference between me as a youngster and the maturity of me knowing it’s a business,” he says. “I wanna leave everything out on the stage – I wanna give them the maximum, because the experience of 25 years, it’s not just a number, it’s a monument of the culture of my music. It signifies maturity of myself and where it started – I take pride in that and I perform like there’s no tomorrow, more than when I was a youth. Now it’s a whole lot different – I’m presenting it as a man, not a youth.”
Smooth is certainly prideful, though not in an arrogant sense. Here stands a man who is quietly reflective of himself. He looks back on his younger self and how his career has developed in time with an odd tone of acceptance: when he’s asked his opinion on himself and Rock being described as “one of the most influential and legendary hip hop groups of all time”, he is largely sceptical. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “I can’t pay attention to that right now – if I’m caught up in that, that’s like reading a paper and saying, ‘That’s you.’
“I don’t look at it that way – the good, the bad, the peaks and the downs, giving people insight. Any man is just like us: whether he’s up or down, all that matters is through that creativity, he’s whole.”
[CL Smooth photo © FRB Photography]