Hailing from Mount Vernon, the same New York suburb that produced Heavy D. and the Untouchables production crew, the teenaged Pete Rock (Phillips) came into prominence as a backup DJ for hip-hop producer Marley Marl. His recording career began with a series of fairly routine remix jobs for a number of new jack swing crossover artists, but took off when he and rapper C.L. Smooth (Corey Penn) dropped the stunning debut EP All Souled Out. Rock’s already mature musical sense merges the tunesmithing craft of his R&B productions with the sound pastiche of his hip-hop background. Smooth’s laid-back delivery and keen social gaze complement the songs well, as on the wonderful “Good Life,” where Southern funk horns punctuate the cutting look at middle-class African-America.
Mecca and the Soul Brother rises on the incredible “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” meant as a tribute to the late Heavy D. dancer Trouble T-Roy. In it, C.L. Smooth waxes autobiographical, revealing heartrending tragicomedies of his own family. “Ghettos of the Mind,” “Anger in the Nation” and “Straighten It Out” take on the serious task of nation-building; Pete Rock’s turn on the mic (“For Pete’s Sake”) and a mic-passing session with Grand Puba (“Skinz”) lighten the mood. Between tracks, Rock teases listeners with samples of rare sides that lesser producers would have turned (and often did turn) into entire songs.
The duo sounds to be running out of steam on The Main Ingredient. Pushed toward commercial R&B by the minor success of the first album’s “Lots of Lovin,” The Main Ingredient detours into unimaginative singles like the embarrassing “Searching” and the only slightly more tolerable “Take You There.” Nonetheless, the sublime “All the Places” (built on Donald Byrd’s “Places and Spaces”) proves they still have it. Partly undercut by the commercial embrace of gun-toting hardcore rap, the duo called it quits in 1995.