Thirty years ago this week, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth released their debut album, Mecca and the Soul Brother. It’s a great album, but the highlight is easily “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” It’s a song about nostalgia, and three decades on, it can make those of us who lived through hip-hop’s late ’80s/early ’90s “golden era” feel nostalgic. Pete Rock’s incredible production sounded great in ’92, and it still sounds great today. C.L. Smooth’s lyrics eschew the toughness of that era’s hip-hop for something bigger: the song thanks those who have helped us on our paths and remembers friends and family after they’re gone.
Like the best hip-hop — and the best music of all kinds — it transcends its era. The song was originally inspired by the tragic death of Troy Dixon, better known as “Trouble” T. Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz. Dixon died in a freak accident while on tour; his death also inspired the title of Heavy D & the Boyz’s next album, Peaceful Journey.
When the song starts out, it’s not actually about T. Roy at all; it’s about C.L. Smooth (real name: Corey Penn) and his mother. “18 years younger than my mama,” he rapped. “But I really got beatings ’cause the girl loved drama.” She had him when she was 18, and she had a daughter when she was 21. “Same father as the first but you don’t give a damn.”
Despite not having a relationship with his dad, he did have an important older male figure in his life: his grandfather. “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.” He notes that Poppa Doc gave him important advice (“Use your condom, take sips of the brew”).
It’s in the third verse that he addresses his late friend T. Roy, pointing out that their relationship didn’t start out on a positive note: “T to the R-O-Y, how did you and I meet? In front of Big Lou’s, fighting in the street.” But it soon becomes clear why Troy fits into the story: he was another positive role model. “But only you saw what took many time to see/I dedicate this to you for believing in me.” As C.L. Smooth told XXL, “before his passing, I definitely learned to respect [Troy] and as the years went by I learned to cherish his memories like all the rest of my fallen soldiers in my life that meant something special to me at one point or another.”
The song also mentions other people from his life: “My grandmom Pam holds the family together/My uncle Doc’s the greatest, better yet the latest/If we’re talking about a car, uncle Sterling got the latest/I strive to be live ’cause I got no choice/And run my own business like my aunt Joyce.” But even though these people are specific to his life, the sentiment of reminiscing over them is one that we can all relate to.
The song has a big legacy: The Source named it one of the “100 Best Rap Singles Of All Time.” Spin put it on their list of the “Top 20 Singles of the ’90s,” and it was ranked number 90 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop. Pitchfork, meanwhile, included the song at number 35 on their Top 200 Tracks of the ’90s. The song has been referenced by Gang Starr, Kanye West, De La Soul, and Method Man, among others.
More recently, in the series finale of the Netflix hit Ozark [SPOILER WARNING], “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” scored the show’s most popular character’s final scene. Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore is listening to it in her truck as she’s driving home, where she meets her demise. She’s a huge hip-hop fan (she famously geeked over Killer Mike while listening to Nas' Illmatic in an earlier episode), so it makes sense that she’d be listening to it. She might have been thinking about her departed family members while she was playing it… not knowing that her remaining relative will soon be reminiscing over her.
Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth probably couldn’t have guessed that their first single from their debut album would tell the final chapter of white hillbilly girl from the Ozarks three decades later, but that’s how it works with the best songs: surely Luniz and Guns N Roses couldn’t have expected to hear their music in the context of movies, decades after they recorded them. But “T.R.O.Y.” is one of the greatest songs ever, in any genre, and people will be listening to it for decades to come. It’s a nostalgic track that always feels current.