Thursday, July 29, 2010

Playing the CL Smooth Game, or: Why the NAACP Should Be Up on 'Snacks and Shit'

If you have any longevity as a fan of Hip Hop you probably know the group Pete Rock & CL Smooth. Their song They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) is one of the great undisputed heavyweight hip hop songs of all time. The duo emerged in ’91 as a less-gritty update on the virtuoso producer-as-Batman with professional emcee-as Robin template that Gang Starr (RIP) established a couple years earlier (the problematic dynamics of having Robin as your frontman are only one of the reasons to identify them in this fashion, and also to save a post dedicated to those issues for another time).

Recently I was looking at Snacks and Shit, a site that makes jokey pull-quotes of absurd hip hop lyrics, and it reminded me of CL Smooth, and some of his lyrics, and this game my friends and I used to play back in the day. We didn't have a formal name for it at the time, but I'm gonna call it "The CL Smooth game".

Now I’m not going to get in full-on essay mode for this, mostly because I'm still waiting for my David Sedaris/Sloane Crosley bubble bath to arrive so I can soak my prose in those funny-amiability crystals before wrangling it into something resembling an essay (do stick around for that though: i’ve been shot at, arrested for holding a dvd, and have enough 'Beauty and the Blogger' tales for a few seasons of Problematic Sex in the City). But I do think there's a meandering personal narrative that connects this CL Smooth game I'm about to share with some current events on the political landscape. Perhaps you've recently heard about the Tea Party, and the NAACP, and racism in America?

Coates has a great post-and-comments digging into this issue of how Obama is handling the Race Problem at the moment. My short-form opinion is: (1.) Hip Hop culture is what’s missing from the Race Politics conversation. To talk race without hip hop is like sharing recipes in a world without food, pots, pans, stoves. If Race is Batman, Hip Hop is the utility belt. If Race is the melting pot of NYC, then Hip Hop is our Modern Museum of Ethnocultural Art and Literature that everyone stands in front of with the younger white bloggers pantsing each other and going “shots fired!” and the older white journalists saying, “here we stand before the museum of hip hop in unified solidarity, we are passing around a petition to make a stamp of tupac, then we will go back to our uptown homes and watch sitcoms” and meanwhile no one ever goes in to look closely and consider the actual artifacts. Race is the construct, the theory that we think and talk about in pursuit of equality, justice, happiness etc.; Hip Hop is the theorizing in action. And all the conversations will continue to go nowhere until enough people get on board with that. It's deeper than rap. *swallows rick ross sized lump in throat*

(2.) the NAACP would be in better position for these serious battles if they displayed any sense of humor during Race War downtime. and this is where snacks-and-shit (and really hip hop blogs, blogs in general) come in because it’s an example of making/having fun with a culture you love. blogs allow you to take the glove off the clenched fist every now and again. Comedians do this also.  In my opinion an NAACP run by Chris Rock, Chappelle, Aaron McGruder and a couple smart bloggers would have the same mission of advancement, the same proactive culture-conscious agenda, but be a whole lot more entertaining and compelling about it. Plus, they would get the added bonus of making themselves a more difficult target when these Race War battles intensify.

(For example, when the NAACP talks about Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston, for me it’s like a bizarro King Midas where everything once golden is touched and turned to boring. you probably knew Hughes and Hurston were good writers, and black. but did you know they’re hilarious? and called themselves the Niggerati, and made flailing attempts at producing a satirical magazine? i didn’t know that until this internet information age. the NAACP and all the iterations of Black History Month were of no help to me in appreciating the laughter that comes before the tears. I thought the issue of literary sobriety, which i associate with the NAACP sensibility, was addressed well in this Paul Beatty essay.)

So anyhughes, CL Smooth. This might end up as a lot of build-up for a game that maybe you had to be there to enjoy. My apologies if it doesn't work for you. but here’s how to play:

1. get very high and/or drunk. (Feel free to add more of this if needed; it's a party game!)

2. Cue up classic hip hop album, "Mecca and the Soul Brother".

3. listen closely to CL Smooth's lyrics. if you're new to listening to lyrics, you want to focus on:
(a) the old lyricist wart of rhyming just to rhyme. in the same way a blogger sometimes needs to put a post out there just to keep things moving, a rapper would sometimes need to add a couplet in there just to fill out the rhyme. sort of like mad libs with rhyme schemes instead of nouns, adjectives, verbs. and as is so often the case with rushed blog posts, snarky hilarity ensues in the commentariat.

(b) Pete Rock's commitment to being the hyperactive ad-lib cheerleader on the verses. "unh"ing and "that's right"ing and "whoooo"ing everything like it’s an ancient urban-contemporary episode of Glee.

(c) When in doubt say the rhymes out loud, like you're reading them for your grandma.

4. Laugh. laugh like a highbrow snooty black person who loves rap but has standards for it.

5. repeat until you pass out.

ok, that's all probably difficult to follow. let's take one verse out for a test drive. this is the first verse on the first song, "Return of the Mecca". the first lyrics you hear on this critically-acclaimed album. Like translating an ancient text, some parts are open to interpretation, but I think I've captured most of it:

Be sure to explore the hardcore that came before Columbus
Discover no other serve the soul on a dish
huh? what? this is vaguely an allusion to columbus discovering america, and black people having soul, and maybe slavery? but …. well, *snicker*
OK means Official, Kid, not decrepit though
the lyrical dynamo set the flow when I do so
Entice the price with the mic device
Hit ya slice so precise that you never heard twice
"OK means official, kid." hee-hee. that line was kinda cool and funny back in the olden days of NEVER. and did he just say "hit ya slice so precise you never heard twice"? I thought so. *ROFL*.
Fierce how I pierce when you near the frontier
A world premiere so put the armor on your gear
The overlord aboard with the two-edged sword
Adored and restored, now the young gun toured
*hahahaha*, my eyes are starting to water. say these lyrics out loud to someone you love, very hardcore and earnest like, i dare you...
Preserve the herb, never kick it to the curb
Vocalize a verb, and the return of the word
Mecca, the reincarnated selector
From the whole agenda, something to remember
A richer voice than Robin Leach
I'll reach, with a speech, no bleach so you can't impeach
... also by this point in the song Pete Rock has ad-libbed well over ten times for about 8 bars of lyrics. his role is key. if you wrote a post on a blog and someone said "whooo" or "unh" to every line that possibly alluded to something in the remote vicinity of clever, wouldn't that be funny? Go to the top of this post and say *whooo* every two lines. if it's not already clear, I'd find such an activity hilarious.
Monumentally smooth, I'll prove it sincerely
Severely when you're near me, clearly never sound weary
Maintain the gravity, assault and battery
So sweet the repeat, you're bound to catch a cavity
My ability to wreck a facility
C.L.'s potential, smooth n' sequential
Deep in every measure, hit the lotto for the beggar
The midnight wrecker, return of the Mecca
whooo, good stuff. after playing a round I'm reminded my own writing reads like this sometimes. there's a hazy outline of coherency and meaning. very coded and insidery. like the robin leach and bleach line is vaguely about being black and authentic. but, it's just kinda tough to parse. there could probably be a CL Smooth decoder ring for hip hop bloggers. or maybe just for me.

CL, if you're reading, no disrespect. I grew up on your music. You're part of history. it's the only reason i kid.

Part of the point is that it's not all like this, TROY is brilliant (and actually the PR and CL revival songs, like Appreciate, is instructive in seeing how CL has grown as a lyricist over the years). But there are hits and misses. like life's potential, smooth n' sequential.

And, I don't know, the snacks site, or this game as an example of pre-internet laughing-at-lyrics-and-rappers is not the greatest example of cultural or moral vice, but it's in the ballpark for the typical conservative agenda. naacp expends effort on censoring -- nay, burying! -- the n-word (cause it's dead, you see), exercising their role as a moral police, fighting to silence their own teammates, and to what end?  it's a shell game. so when an andrew breitbart draws them into the Tea Party racist-reverse-racism shell game, the support is diluted by the skepticism of those who find it all silly in the first place. comedians, bloggers, left of center ragamuffins who have little regard for american formalism. NAACP was fighting the good fight here, but after Obama apologizes they need to open up a bottle of something strong and play the CL game, or maybe ice some bros.

Anysmooth, I think my Sedaris-Sloane crystals have arrived. so gonna go now. thanks for playing along if you made it this far.


  1. Hi TAN

    Perhaps this is the cynical side of me but it hip hop still a valid forum for a dialogue on race at this point? Seems to me that rap's credibility as a vehicle for candid race discussion evaporated a long time ago...I would be delighted to hear why I am incorrect about this.


    Cranky old guy

  2. The came before Columbus line is a reference to this old Afrocentric book that was really popular among 5 Percenters and east coast hip-hop fans back in the day:

    Believe it's out of print now though.

  3. T: nice call

    CJB: don't follow. if you concede rap once had credibility as a vehicle for race discussion, how/when did it evaporate? I'm not saying there's a group like Public Enemy out now, one that's popular and pointedly using the music for political activism. I'm talking about the culture overall that has evolved over the last 30-40 years as being the most tangible, accessible, functional means to discuss modern race relations in america. how could you have an informed discussion on the subject without talking about hip hop?

  4. if you concede rap once had credibility as a vehicle for race discussion, how/when did it evaporate?


    --I think right about the time that we started to see rap collaborations with limp bizkit, when the black eyed peas were being marketed as hip hop, when gritty snare drum sounds and SP 1200's were replaced with poppy sounding dumbed down beats with no low end, when hip hop finally became once and for all swallowed up by capitalism. (Common Eulogized it in I used to love H.E.R. and that record came out when? More than 10 years ago? Damn, I'm old. But that's another story).

    Right now Hip hop to me seems like Jazz in the late 70's. There might be a good song that comes out now and again, the legacy is there, but the vitality is not there anymore as an overall movement.

    I agree that hip hop is the most accessible means of discussing race in America, but I don't agree that it's the most functional or effective since what the art form has become since its encounter with capitalism and media and what is being presented in the music now is so divergent from what is going on in reality. Is there hip hop out there with an audience addressing and challenging--either topically or at least in spirit-- the blatant racism underscoring the current immigration debate? Disproportionate minority confinement and incarceration? AM talk radio hatred?

    Maybe there is and I'm just not being exposed to it. Like I said before, I'd be delighted to be wrong about this. If so, please please advise. I was just listening to Common's Soul By the Pound Remix and wishing there was still music like that coming out.

    I'll be the first person to admit that I am not the most in touch with everything that is coming out now in the genre, but I was a hip hop DJ for over 10 years. During that time, from around 92-2005 or so, I watched the art from lose credibility slowly but surely. Was it when the Source started handing out 5 mics to any album that came out? Was it when it was OK to collaborate with Justin Timberlake on tracks to increase record sales. leaving the controversial stuff for the album tracks?

    I don't see how what is coming out now hip hop wise is adding to a tangible discussion of race in the US that is constructive, viable, or progressive in any way.


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