Summer of 92
An ode to one of the greatest summer albums in the history of Rap and a bygone era
Ok. It’s not really an ode. This won’t be poetic. But of all the memorable summer Rap albums (From It Takes a Nation of Millions to Summertime 06, there’s been plenty) only one other (The Infamous) resonates as much as Mecca and the Soul Brother.
Although The Source Magazine’s Matty C only gave Mt. Vernon’s finest four mics, Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s debut album was perfect. From the Mark Seliger cover photography to the track listing, from the use of samples to the carefully selected features, everything about Mecca and the Soul Brother equals classic.
But most importantly, it was the music of an era. When I think of that summer I think of Timbs, the L.A. uprisings, rallies in City Park, Polo’s greatest collection, Def Comedy Jam, the best Hip-Hop dances, Ab & Fitch, and I think of Mecca and the Soul Brother.
So for this, it’s 25th anniversary, I’m gonna wax nostalgic about a time of idealism and sax loops.
In order for me to talk about 1992, I need to rewind it back a year to the Spring (and Summer) of the previous year.
I was a member of the Model Organization of African Unity Debate Team at Clark Atlanta University representing Burkina Faso against Big Pharma demo’ing Depo-Provera on the country’s women.
If you’re unaware of how Big Pharma works, here’s a quick summary. Develop drug, test on animals. When it’s safe for animals, test on people of color in so-called Third World Countries. If all those people don’t die off, approve in Western countries.
Depo-Provera at the time had yet to be approved in the US that March of 1991, and it was my job to illustrate how testing on people in the so-called Third World was inherently inhumane and went against the United Nations guidelines for chemical warfare…yeah.
I, along with others, joined the Model Organization of African Unity Debate Team because I was a Political Science major with hopes of entering international law. We were assigned countries and issues that pertained to them and if we won local debates against neighboring schools (Morehouse, Spelman, Georgia State, etc) we would go to the Regional Debates in Washington D.C. that took place over our Spring Break.
I won those debates and was on a bus to D.C. that March.
Our bus driver was on some not-stopping-for-shit type business so when we finally made it to D.C. we were starving. I’on’t know if it was Chili’s or Friday’s or Bennigan’s — it was one of those apostrophe restaurants — but we were waiting to be seated, hanging at the bar when we saw it.
We couldn’t hear what was being said, but we saw it; George Holliday’s grainy VHS footage of four officers beating a man to the ground. We would later learn that man was Rodney King. Outrage is an understatement. We went in that debate fired up.
I went against a Debate member from George Washington University. He never stood a chance (I have no idea where that plaque is…).
As I’ve written before, the years 1990 & 1991 were mostly about House and Rockers (Dancehall/Bashment). There are only four Rap releases that stood out in that time period. I’ll mention two here. The first one came out Tuesday, 4 December 1990.
That album was Brand Nubian’s One For All and it played a major role in my development at the time.
Up until that point, I had spent every spare moment of my freshman year at CAU studying as many aspects of African Religion that I could get my hands on. I practically camped out in the religious section of Woodruff Library.
I was seeking some universal African religious belief system, picking and choosing whatever matched. One for All matched. Numerology? Check. Man/God, higher self? Check. Secret society type initiation? Check.
I heard of the Five Percent before — my Ocean Hill family called them a gang — but Brand Nubian didn’t sound like gang talk. It sounded funky as hell and made Knowledge of Self cool. I wanted to know more. And luckily, the AU Center had two well-known Five Percenters: True Islam (then known as Wise) and Wakeel Allah.
But all of my African Religion study had me puffed up. Not to mention my success in D.C. had me thinking I was in prime debate mode. Boy was I wrong.
I’ve written about what happened when I took all that learning and tried to battle Wakeel before, but suffice it to say that the Summer of 91 saw a shift from African studies to an immersion in all things Islam.
Rap starting making its return that Summer (of 91) that I spent in Denver leading off with the highly anticipated De La Soul is Dead. When Sayyed Munajj and I weren’t watching Farrakhan tapes, hanging out in front of King Soopers, or attending BASTA (Brothers and Sisters Taking Action), we were listening to De La.
We played that album out by June and, while we eagerly awaited Leaders of the New School’s A Future Without a Past, we were blessed with an unexpected Rap treat, the first Rap EP (that I can remember), Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s All Souled Out.
Only five songs (and a remix), All Souled Out was a great appetizer. We had heard Pete Rock’s name before on Heavy D tracks, and bootlegs of his mixes circulated around campus my Freshman year, but this EP caught us off guard.
“Why is it only six songs though?!?” We wondered.
That was the summer. When I went back to Atlanta that Fall, I became a Five Percenter.
Ok. There’s the background information. Let’s get into 92.
I joined the Five Percent on 31 October 91 on a rainy, Atlanta day before my seasonal job shift started at Rich’s department store. By 3 March 92 I had committed all 120 lessons to memory and was on a Greyhound bus headed to Denver with a determined idea to start the organization in the Mile High City.
The month of April was spent recruiting. Sayyed Munajj, my closest friend (and first student), and I drove throughout the city visiting any and everyone who claimed that they wanted to learn about the organization. I gave simple tasks to see if they were serious — fast for three days, write down every definition of the word Knowledge, buy a Quran.
Most weren’t serious.
When we weren’t doing that or going to BASTA meetings, we were watching/studying music videos. As we discussed here, 1992 was a great year for music videos. Two videos come to mind: Ultramagnetic’s “Poppa Large” and the video that’s the root of this writing, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminiscence Over You.”
You know why those videos stood out?
No. Seriously. Prior to 92, my only experience with Timbs were the deer-hunting, a little-bit-between-the-cheek-and-gum-chewing, racists white kids in Burlington, New Jersey. Around that same time over in Milan (84–85), the Paninari had made em popular to the point where kids were getting robbed for their Constructs. When the Wheat Timbs became in style, I couldn’t do it.
For whatever reason, the Timberland Super Boot introduced in 1979 gained popularity to point where we wore them no matter the weather. Whether it was raining or snowing or sunny and humid, we rocked some 40 Belows. And they weren’t easy to find that Spring…most Timbs were not.
So “Poppa Large” had us shook.
But the Marcus Raboy directed “They Reminisce Over You” transcended any fashion moment.
The beauty of sample-heavy Rap between the years 88–94 is that every song is like that Aristotle saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and a producer from that era learned to add just enough to a song.
Thus, “T.R.O.Y.” isn’t just about the oft-cited Tom Scott horns, the Munnings Brother’s contribution is what builds up the anticipation for the song which is a sample found deep on the Bahamian group’s 1971 album.
Back in 92, a single didn’t necessarily mean an album was on the way. And, unless it was detailed in The Source, we just assumed there was no album. We simply reveled in the glory of “T.R.O.Y.,” played the video to death, and enjoyed the moment.
This was the beginning of April 1992.
I’d be lying if I said I knew that the trial of the four officers that brutalized Rodney King was taking place. I had no idea…until that Wednesday when the whole world knew.
Wednesdays to me meant BASTA and possible recruitment of more people to the Five Percent. BASTA meetings, led by Ms. Hughes, dealt with topical subjects affecting young Black men and women of the day: gang violence, teen pregnancy, high school drop-outs, etc.
Twenty to thirty of us, all teens, would take turns commenting on the said above subjects with Ms. Hughes putting a nice summarizing bow on each person’s statement.
I hated that damn bow. I hated respectability politics and that was what BASTA often was. So me and my first two students, Sayyed and Syncere, took turns at busting that up.
29 April provided the perfect opportunity for that.
As word spread that all four of the marauding officers got off scott-free, reports started circulating of possible “rioting.” Having lived through the 60s, Ms. Hughes spoke about the futility of riots and how they destabilized Black communities, alienating tax payers, running out business owners (that never returned), and did more harm than good.
I wasn’t hearing none of that and by meetings end, had riled up most of the teens.
Of course, it was a time before cellphones so there was no second by second updates on the situation in South Central. But this was a developing story and every channel had coverage. By the time I got home that night, Los Angeles was up in flames.
The next day saw protests erupting throughout the US. Most were peaceful. Not so in Atlanta. In fact, from our view, it looked like Atlanta was going to erupt as well. There were several marches, some ending in “vandalism” and arrests, others with speeches for equal rights and justice.
And when I saw that cops were pushing through the AUC, tear gassing Clark, Morris Brown, Morehouse, and Spelman students, I was partially outraged…and partially upset I wasn’t there. My body was in Colorado, but my heart was in Atlanta.
Two years prior, Milwaukee Alderman, Michael McGee threatened that if change had not taken place by 1995, that he and his Black Panther Militia would spark the revolution by disrupting “white life.” Looking around at media reports, it seemed like life imitating the fictional world of The Spook Who Sat By the Door where the revolution started over police confrontations…it just wasn’t taking place in Colorado. But it was fuel for my proverbial Nationalistic fervor which helped when we started having rallies.
What attracted me to the Five Percent?
That’s one of those words that originated with the Five Percent and has invaded everyday lingo.
People use cipher when they talk about smoking or freestyling but that term was originally applied to the gathering of Five Percenters where the members would expound on their understanding of the day’s degree — meaning their interpretation of one of the lessons from the Supreme Wisdom — which are the answers from The Honorable Elijah Muhammad to questions asked by Master Fard Muhammad.
Five Percenters called those lessons 120 and, depending on where you lived, would meet either once a month or every Sunday. I was walking back from Woodruff Library one Sunday when I saw a Cipher of forty to fifty men and women in the parking lot of the Catholic Center on the corners of Fair Street and James P. Brawley. Everyone who stepped into the center of the circle repeated the same thing first, “I see today’s degree as…” and then they would elaborate.
I was blown away.
Fast Forward to May of 1992, I knew that if we held our Rallies where most of the Black and Brown people congregated on Sunday — City Park — that we would attract people with the Cipher alone. We started out with five to six people but by the end of May we were attracting at least thirty. One of the first people that we attracted would end being one of my closest brothers and allies in Islam. He joined towards the end of May and this is where the story begins.
The brother had his own apartment.
We were nineteen and that was a huge deal. He also had his own car, a white Grand Am. We were at his place to go through the Supreme Mathematics. Due to the fact that Syncere had completed his Lessons, this brother was going to be his first student.
The brother didn’t have a menial job like most us either, he had a city job where he worked overnights. He was forgoing sleep to learn these Lessons. We went through the word Knowledge and the many definitions. We discussed expectations — no smoking, no drinking, etc. After that we hung out for a bit and the brother threw in a cassette.
Those Joe Zawinul keys chimed in, an explanation of ‘the Mecca’ by Pete Rock, then that “Long Red” beat dropped, and me and Syncere said in unison, “He got that Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth!” The brother was the first to have it. That brother took on the name Understanding Allah and Mecca and The Soul Brother became our first soundtrack.
People often use that term ‘soundtrack’ but a soundtrack is the music that accompanies a movie, playing throughout the film and punctuating various scenes. Sometimes the soundtrack is more memorable than the movie itself. The shelf life of the modern album would barely play beyond the opening titles, never mind the entirety of a movie.
Mecca and The Soul Brother was released on Tuesday, 9 June and we had it in heavy rotation (i.e. we played both sides of the cassettes, flipped the tape…and played it again) for two months straight. It’s all we listened to. On our way to rallies, Mecca and the Soul Brother. After the rallies as we cruised the park, Mecca and the Soul Brother. On our way to Cherry Creek Mall…Juneteenth…as we started our mentoring program Khepera Neter…it’s all we listened to.
Not to mention, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth worked the circuit on all the shows we watched from Arsenio…
…In Living Color…
…to Yo! MTV Raps…
…twice; once on set and the other time with Fab Five Freddy taking an excursion up to Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon.
When Russell Simmon’s revolutionary Def Comedy Jam began airing in July, the house DJ, Kid Capri, always cut up a Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth song — particularly at the end of the show when the dancers caught wreck as the end credits rolled.
And we haven’t even talked about the album yet.
My Rap attention span in 2017 is no different than most — it’s short. Anything beyond an hour and my mind starts to drift into all the things one can do in that amount of time…run a few miles…watch a few episodes of a sitcom…reshingle the roof…well maybe not that, but it certainly seems like that.
Mecca and the Soul Brother’s 16 songs clock in at 1 hour and 17 minutes and we played every second of it (Although if I had a quick trip, I listened to Side 2…beginning with “On and On”).
I didn’t have children then but when I listen to the album now it occurs to me — there’s minimal to no cursing. Certainly none from C.L. Smooth who rides each beat with precision. Nor is there any curses from Heavy D. Of course they have to bleep every other word out of the mouth of Grand Puba. And then there’s the tracks…
While there may be some familiar samples (everyone knows Sister Nancy) and some less familiar but common ones (Grant Green had a good run in that era), many of the samples are left field. Pete Rock was clearly among a group of second generation record diggers, who, in this writer’s opinion elevated what was considered a break.
The beat digger generation didn’t just listen to a record for the few second breakdown, instead they listened to the whole record. But “Cameo” wouldn’t classically be considered a break neither would “You’re the Fool.” But what Pete Rock did masterfully was mine songs for melodies. The ubiquitous horns found on Mecca and the Soul Brother come from various sources and most of them are rare, little known artists or 45s.
That’s what made Pete Rock’s production stand out. That and the fact that I had never heard anyone throw so many different sequences in a song AND Pete Rock’s interlude samples were better than most people’s whole albums.
But that was the ethos — be different, be original, be fly.
Which is why when everyone was wearing the best damn line of clothes that Polo ever produced, me and Sayyed Munajj were on the wrong side of history wearing Hilfiger at his original, urban height. It’s what made me and Understanding venture into Abercrombie & Fitch, before they became all gaudy and young, when the quality was still good. It’s what attracted me to the Five Percent, the brother’s and sister’s “self-styled wisdom.” It was the era.
When I read the twenty year retrospects on Mecca and the Soul Brother and the more recent twenty-five year ones, it made me realize — most of the people who are writing about this music never EXPERIENCED it. They talk of albums like One for All or Business Never Personal as underrated based on record sales. They have no idea how we LIVED with the music.
And that’s across the board. Most of these people have no idea who AMG is but that summer of 92, while we were running Mecca into the ground, the Crips in City Park were playing “Bitch Betta Have My Money” and Quik’s “Just Like Compton” (and a shit load of other songs that I never listened to). They called us “them New York niggas” based on our style of dress and our musical choices…and well…we knew what they were into.
That’s what Rap was to us…better put…that’s what Hip-Hop was…it was our culture. Not just something that we threw on in the background or something that we clocked the stats on like stocks. Ask many of the most popular “Hip Hop” dancers who lived in that era and they will tell you, the music was made to dance to.
I could have just as easily talked about Brian McKnight’s first album (released 23 June) or What’s The 411 (28 July) they both got serious play in the Grand Am as well (I even had a cassette labeled ‘Grand Am Jams’). It was a slower time as far as the life cycle of a record and we made memories with the music…songs so visceral that upon hearing them images of the time immediately rush to my mind.
With a wide variety of topics ranging from love, liberation, and bootlegging, Mecca and the Soul Brother was a classic, a classic during an era when being a classic meant top quality, extraordinary, and most importantly a part of everyday life.
If someone doesn’t talk about an album like that, they’re just using the word classic as a filler because their vocabulary is lacking. And if you weren’t alive in that era as a living, cognizant being, study the albums of that time period otherwise…pipe down…you don’t know what you’re talking about.