They Reminisce Over You

Hip-hop at its best is about truth-telling. It doesn’t get any realer than “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth.

There are a lot of “serious” musicians who think that the best way to express their inner pain is by causing pain to the listener. The music I like uses inner pain as the starting point for pleasure. “T.R.O.Y.” tells a somber story, but it uses attractively tight and funky music to do it. The track was inspired by the life and early death of Pete Rock’s cousin and friend  “Trouble” T. Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz. In a 2007 Village Voice interview, Pete Rock said:

I had a friend of mine that passed away, and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can’t believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying.

The Tom Scott record in question is his rendition of “Today” by Jefferson Airplane. The great sax riff comes in at 1:37.

Here’s a transcription of it:

Pete Rock wasn’t the first hip-hop producer to have noticed this riff. Slick Rick used it a year earlier it on “It’s A Boy.” Hip-hop loves Tom Scott generally–many tracks sample the beat from “Sneakin’ In The Back.” I had never heard of Tom Scott before writing this post, but I turn out to have heard a lot of his work. He’s best known to hippies for playing sax and lyricon on Terrapin Station by the Grateful Dead and has been a session guy on a zillion other albums. He also wrote the theme songs for Starsky & Hutch, Hill Street Blues and Family Ties.

And here’s the original Jefferson Airplane song at the head of this memetic family tree:

The chain of ideas from Jefferson Airplane to Tom Scott to Pete Rock and CL Smooth reminds me very much of the chain from Paul Simon to Bob James to Run-DMC that culminates in “Peter Piper.” It seems like a recipe for success: golden-age hip-hop group samples jazz fusion cover of sixties pop-rock song.

I’ve debated the musical merits of sampling endlessly with my friends and students, musicians and non-musicians alike. “T.R.O.Y.” is a perfect example of why sampling is so valuable. There’s no other way for Pete Rock to have arrived at his sound, not even if he had hired Tom Scott to come in and play his sax riff live in the studio. They could, in theory, have painstakingly recreated the instrumentation and ambiance from Scott’s original recording, but the result would still not have had the effortless, tossed-off feel of the samples. Playing a riff from a chart sounds very different from discovering it in the heat of the moment. Pete Rock’s looping transformed unprominent pieces of Tom Scott’s shaggy improvisation into laser-beam-focused funk.

The chain of musical inheritance doesn’t end with Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Their song has been sampled and quoted many times. Hear my mashup of some of them here:

It makes me feel good about the world that Pete Rock’s pain has inspired so many new ideas.

6 thoughts on “They Reminisce Over You

  1. Hey Ethan, where did you find that transcript? Basically I started to learn sax, just to play this piece.
    I’m trying to play that hook on my alto sax, but it doesn’t feel right.
    Do you have the entire sax sheet?

    Thank you so much!

  2. T.R.O.Y. emerged from the depths of my memory a few days ago. I hadn’t heard it in a decade at least and I couldn’t remember the name, but I managed to find it through Wikipedia.

    It’s weird because I’ve been missing a lost loved one really bad lately, and listening to They Reminisce has made me feel better, but I didn’t even know the origin of T.R.O.Y. until now. It’s exactly what I needed to hear though.

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