C.L. Smooth was an artsy rapper in the early 1990s. His collaboration with producer Pete Rock, "Mecca and the Soul Brother," was one of the classics of early 1990s hip hop. Though he doesn't get appreciated the way KRS-One, Q-Tip, and the early Nas do for their artistry, C.L. Smooth gets a place in my -- but probably not just my -- Artistic Rap Hall of Fame.
The classic song -- really the one song that everyone should know -- is called "They Reminisce Over You". It's got a beautiful jazz saxophone sample, and pretty thoughtful lyrics as rap songs go. The following lines from the middle of the song have been hard-wired in my memory for about 11 or 12 years:
When I date back I recall a man off the family tree
My right hand poppa doc I see
Took me from a boy to a man so I always had a father
When my biological didn’t bother
Taking care of this so who am I to bicker
Not a bad ticker but I’m clocking pop’s liver ["clocking," meaning "copying"]
But you can never say that his life is through
5 kids at 21 believe he got a right too
Here we go while I check the scene
With the Portuguese lover at the age of 14 [he's talking about himself now]
The same age, front page, no fuss
But I bet you all your dough, they live longer than us
There are some moments that are a little confusing in a narrative sense to be sure. (For example, I've never really understood "My right hand poppa doc I see". Is that a reference to Haiti's Papa Doc Duvalier?) But despite its confusing points, fundamentally this is a song about memory, dysfunctional families, and death, especially from AIDS, which shows up later in the song. As (presumably) autobiography, it hangs together thematically in a way that few other rap songs do. It works as rap, but it also works as 'poetry' in a more technical sense.
I was happy to see that serious poets are citing it, as in this New York Times review of some new books of poetry out.
In ''The Listening: Poems,'' Kyle Dargan writes an attractive, melodic line that no one would mistake for prose. But his first loyalty -- like that of his models, particularly the Black Arts Movement poets -- is to the language people speak. That's not to say his language isn't stylized. It's like a spoken shorthand, blending the creative elision of lyric poetry with the wit, brio and irony of black English and hip-hop slang (''The Listening'' is almost certainly the first poetry collection to include epigraphs from both Elizabeth Bishop and C. L. Smooth). In the sonnet ''Bluff,'' Dargan sketches the troubled relationship between his street-savvy father and his disciplinarian grandfather in just a few strokes: ''sometimes it's easier to beat the city / than to beat the house.''
Elizabeth Bishop... and C.L. Smooth!