“I’m Following in the Footsteps of James Brown, Man:” An Interview with Pete Rock

In celebration of the excellent PeteStrumentals 3, Zilla Rocca speaks to the hip-hop legend about the producer and the MC inside of him waging war and much more.
By    December 22, 2020

Art by Steve Schroeder

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A few days ago, my car was broken into about 30 feet from my front door here in South Philadelphia. It’s a common situation — local junkies prowl the streets with a device (which is legal) that clones the automatic lock device hanging on your keychain to open your car door. No smash and grabs — just quietly opening car doors, rummaging through your arm rest and coin slots, hoping to get a quick stash of quarters and dimes. It’s not even worth reporting to the police, and at worse, you’re out of $1.68 in loose change.

I bring all of this up because the thief who hit my car left something worth more than 20 rolls of quarters: my original copy of Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s The Main Ingredient on CD. This CD has never left any car I’ve owned since 2001. As great as Spotify and Apple Music are for convenience, there is still no better driving experience than loading in a CD or tape and having no choice but to be immersed in one artist. And “The Main Ingredient” is an album you want to experience with no distractions.

For the last 30 years, Pete Rock has been the most consistent hip hop producer of all time. His beats are like a warm fireplace and your favorite robe — plush and comfortable. Something you always go back to every year.

People fronted on the luxury rap of Watch the Throne but still bumped “The Joy.” Dipset’s emergence led to the death of early 2000’s indie hip-hop, but Jim Jones and Max B’s “G’z Up” and “How We Roll” lined the walls of Fat Beats. Even though Dr. Dre is the billionaire headphone god knighted at the best producer, his best song of this decade is “The Pharmacy Freestyle (Real Hip Hop)” with Kurupt and Pete Rock. Dilla too was trying to impress Pete from his early days in Detroit.

With Petestrumentals 3 coming out, I talked with Pete about his transition to becoming a band leader, the “genre” of lo-fi beats, why he’s so good working with Smoke DZA and Griselda, and why Wu-Tang is still the Big Bang of rap. — Zilla Rocca

I interviewed Lord Finesse a couple months back because he did the Motown [State of Mind] remix record, and yours is different because he was using source material for Motown, but he did bring in the homie J-Zone as a live drummer to do breaks. For your vision for this record, having Christian McBride, Daru Jones, what was your first instinct? Was it to cut through all the red tape and work with musicians, or was it, “Hey, I haven’t really had my own in-house team before?” Give me the idea, because for Finesse, it was, he’s a fan of J-Zone, “He’s an ill drummer, maybe I’ll use him someday.” Was it for you like that, or was it, “I want to do something completely new?”

Pete Rock: I’m following in the footsteps of James Brown, man. All I’m saying is, I’ve got to have a band, between the JBs, the Kool & The Gang, and Brass Construction, I’m working within the real bands in this world that have inspired me and that I grew up listening to. I said, “You know what? How could I find that?” I called Daru, and Daru was the man that actually – I told him my thoughts and ideas, and it was like, the idea just started like that *snaps fingers*. It just started coming and he started naming musicians; he knows a lot of musicians – so do I, but he has a lot of musicians that he’s connected to in this timeframe that we’re in. He figured out which musicians could work with my style of music, which is hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk, and that’s basically what every band does, in rock too. We put the band together and got the amazing Marcus Machado, the amazing MonoNeon, the amazing Daru Jones, BigYuki, Jermaine Holmes who was background for D’Angelo, he’s our lead singer, Christopher McBride who plays the horns, he’s an excellent horn player. BigYuki, of course on the keyboards, Jermaine on the vocals, Daru on the drums, Marcus on the guitar, and me probably on tambourine or shaker or some scratches or something. We just made this fun. We don’t look at it as a hill to climb, we just look at it as, “Let’s just get into this.”

When I first caught PeteStrumentals, that put me on to BBE [Barely Breaking Even] back then. That pulled me into the wormhole of the Jay Dee record, the will.i.am record, the Marley [Marl] record. You also worked with Nature Sounds, you worked with Mello [Music Group]; this is your record label now, right?

Pete Rock: Yes, Tru Soul.

With all your dealings with the majors, the indies, what is your vision now after all this time in the game and what you learned for your own label?

Pete Rock: I learned that it’s a hard job, you can’t do it by yourself, and you’re going to need help – you’re going to need some professionals that know certain things from marketing to strategizing to setting up projects. I hired a team, that’s helping, and we’re doing exceptionally great. I can’t complain, man, I’m very grateful for who I have in my corner helping me.

When PeteStrumentals 1 came out, it was a revolutionary record because you couldn’t get an entire record of just beats from elite producers. Now, I have a studio, I can go on my phone on an app to make beats, I can give my son his iPad to make beats and put it out into the ether forever. When you decided to do this record now, 20 years later, and you had PeteStrumentals 2 a few years back on Mello, what is your process going into instrumental records, in general? Is it, “These are beats no one likes,” “These are beats I don’t want anyone to rap on,” “This is my entry into the beat arena today;” what is it for you?

Pete Rock: It’s basically music that’s leftover that I never really played for nobody. Some were rejects that I made into something. My whole thing is, “Alright, let me just make something,” or I’ll make a whole bunch of beats or I’ll make a whole bunch of sampled beats and be like, “Alright, play these over.” That’s what PeteStrumentals 3 is. It’s all my beats made, played over. That’s all.

Did you have any rappers walking in like, “Uh, no no no no. That one’s going to me”?

Pete Rock: No rappers present but my own artist, the 25th Hour Man, who we’re actually going to get some joints together for him to do as well. We got a mixtape I did for 25th Hour Man coming out; it’s for people to get a feel for who he is, so these are just samples that I just slapped together. I took Rick James, I took fucking the Gap Band, you know, normal shit, and I just mixed it in with some of the hip-hop beats that I have that nobody really used that he liked. We made a mixtape out of it, and it’s finished, it’s done, and we’re going to drop some stuff soon.

Leading up to this call, just thinking of my relationship to your music – I’m 38, so I remember hearing “T.R.O.Y.,” it was everywhere in the world, but I didn’t really get into you until I saw the video for “I Got a Love.” For some reason, I was probably 12 or 13, and I somehow got a VHS sampler where it would come out every month, it would come to my house, I think I put my dad’s credit card or something, and it would be kind of like a DJ pool, but it was for videos. I saw that video for “I Got a Love” at the same time I saw The Roots, “Proceed,” and I saw Ill Al Skratch, “Where My Homiez?” It was all on these tapes, and my dad had to pay for it at some point, and I remember getting the “I’ll Take You There” cassette single, and later on getting The Main Ingredient CD. My first intro to a full Pete Rock record was The Main Ingredient – that’s the one I hold dear to my heart.

Pete Rock: People say that. A lot of people say, “We loved Mecca [and the Soul Brother], but The Main Ingredient, man, that was the one.” I was like, “Word? I like Mecca.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Arizona, but I was out there on tour a few years back, and there’s a restaurant called the Main Ingredient based on the album. It’s in Phoenix and it’s a really casual dining spot and they have all framed hip-hop pictures, and the sandwiches are named after hip-hop, but they’re doing this years ago before it was a kitschier thing to do. I asked my friend, he said, “Oh, it’s named after the Pete Rock record, not the band.”

Pete Rock: Oh wow, that’s dope. That’s what’s up.

I was also thinking about a video you did early-YouTube where you’re sampling, “Love Is A Battlefield.” That was, for guys like me – I’m an MC and producer, but back then, that was the beginning of getting access to you guys. We couldn’t physically watch you, unless we’re going to a seminar in New York or something. I’ve been showing that video to people over the years that don’t understand production. They just hear rap like, “Oh okay, it’s rap,” but they don’t understand how you construct it. What happened to that beat? Because it’s fire!

Pete Rock: It’s still there; the beat is still there. I think CL [Smooth] rhymed over it. I heard something with his voice on it and he rapped over it.

How did you feel about revealing your secrets to the world? This video is probably 10-12 years old now.

Pete Rock: I wasn’t a big fan of that; I wasn’t a big fan of letting myself out. Even right now, I’m still not a fan of it, I’ll let a little something go, but my thing is, “You can learn from hearing.” For me, I’m only going to actually teach by listening. That’s how I learn. I wasn’t actually taught how to work something. I learned from listening and watching people. I was in the best places to do these things – Marley Marl’s studio, Teddy Riley’s studio, Howie Tee’s studio. I ain’t nobody at Marley’s studio, I ain’t nobody, I’m just with my cousin Heavy D and I’m soaking all this shit up, man. I’m soaking it all up, because we all come from a very highly musical background, and my pops being a DJ and a record collector himself, it’s already in the family with how deep we are with music.

When it comes to showing the world certain things, I’ll go as far as what you saw on “Love is a Battlefield.” There’s a certain way I feel about that thing because that, if I’m going to teach someone – any outsider or stranger – this is real power that I’m showing people, when it comes to me showing people how I make beats. Y’all are going to have to pay for that. You understand what I’m saying? Real talk, because this is going to empower people. I have a thing that I’m doing now that I’m working on where I have a class and I’ll be the teacher, showing young kids how to use their ear first, not just how to make beats. You’ve got to exercise this first. Play them a bunch of music and see what they latch onto and keep learning what their style is – that’s how you teach people how to use their ear, then you show them how to use the drum machines and the machinery.

I’m not sure how plugged in you are with the lower rungs of all the genres, but there’s the lo-fi style of rap where it’s basically the SP-404 and dudes just rapping over 2-bar loops without drums, but the loop doesn’t hit.

Pete Rock: They don’t know what they’re doing, man. Listen: When I hear people, the first thing I’m listening to is how the beat is made, and there’s a lot of sloppy, tactical – how does he not hear that the tempo’s not right? When it’s looping, you hear the big-little skip space, and I’m like, “Damn, all he had to do was speed it up to make it sound normal,” and they rap to it like they don’t give a fuck.

It’s a “vibe.”

Pete Rock: Oh my god, that “vibe,” y’all got to change that because that shit is trash; y’all don’t know what you’re talking about – “vibe.” That shit is off-tempo and it’s fucked up and you’re rhyming to some shit sounding crazy – the beat-wise, the producers, tighten that shit up, man.

I was thinking about where your place is now, where I really really love your work with Griselda, with the Statue of Limitations record with Smoke DZA and Benny, and it made me think back to working with Jim Jones and Max B, even Kurupt with “Yessir.” I feel like you’re a logical steppingstone for more street-oriented guys. I noticed street-guys need the contrast of your warmth and melody. Your career working with every type of rapper, R&B, crossover artist, your own records, do you approach anything differently with guys that have more of an edge to them?

Pete Rock: Yeah, that’s basically seeing what they’re about, maybe hanging with them for a day, or maybe seeing them or visiting them in a studio session; you get a vibe on people. That’s what I do: I pick up vibes and I run with ‘em. Sometimes I apply it to the beats, the person that I’m working with, and it comes out exactly how I want it and exactly how I think they’re going to like it. Figuring out someone’s style is easy just by listening to what they already rap to; then you say, “Alright, bet. I hear those beats; I’ll make those beats, but ten times better.” No disrespect, but I put my foot in everything I do.

With you being an MC as well, when do you know this is the time for me to get busy, or this is the time to present it to someone else, because you’ve been rhyming for probably over 30 years, and you’re not a guy like, “Oh, there’s Pete just popping in.” You have so much presence and so many memorable parts, even just doing adlibs, or doing that verse on the House of Pain remix for “Jump Around.” That stands out a lot, and I was wondering, are you ever at war with yourself, with the producer-side and the MC-side?

Pete Rock: Yeah, I am. A small war though; the producer-side always wins. I rap when I want to, basically, that’s what I’ve been doing for years. If I make a beat and I feel like I want to get on it, then I’ll get on it, whether it’ll be from my music or people I’m working with, or Skyzoo, or whoever else – if I make a beat that I feel like, “Maybe I’ll sound good on this,” then I’ll jump on it. An MC’s job – they take their job very seriously – a real MC takes their job very seriously, so there’s no disrespect when I say I just do it when I want to, because I would want someone to respect my method of music-making. They would want someone to respect their written compositions, so there’s nothing but respect there. I just know that if I concentrate more on the writing that I would be a really really great MC, or if I did back in the 90s more rapping than producing, I think I would be good. It’s something about the music that I love more than the rapping. It’s hearing other people rapping over my shit.

Going back to PeteStrumentals 3, when you were making this particular record, now thinking of being a bandleader and having – I have a drum set, I have a horn section over here, I have an ill drummer, I have someone that can play the keys, I have someone that can play the bass – how does that differ from you being a one-man-band for so long, because you probably have the best basslines in rap history, in terms of a producer’s catalog? I think your basslines – I’ve played your music at every type of job I’ve had at some point because you have a lot of instrumental records out, and it doesn’t matter what age or background – I’ve been around people from all over the world, and when your stuff comes on, people inherently start moving from the basslines.

Pete Rock: Wow, that’s dope. Me being a soulful guy, it’s just in me to have rhythm; I’m a rhythmic person. I do everything in rhythm, and especially when I’m making beats. With that said, it’s a good thing to hear someone say this to me because this is how I feel about music. Period. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to planet earth. It’s medicine. People don’t realize what music does. You have people that use music in a different way that’s not so positive, but music’s made for positivity. It’s something that helps people study, it inspires people, it makes you feel good about yourself. The other stuff, sometimes it does the total opposite, it takes away from everything that’s important to you and it makes people into things they’re not. I don’t mean to preach or anything like that, but you know, some of us vets, that are true vets, get really tired of these kids not understanding how to make music and how to stay relevant. They want to do it their way – “Okay, but you’re going to have to change up sooner-or-later and your audience will be the first ones to let you know that.”

The marketplace decides.

Pete Rock: That’s right. I’m saying some real shit here, and some people need to learn and listen and realize that this music thing is not a game; I don’t take this for granted, at all. I have never.

I’m just reflecting on everything you’re saying and holding back crazy fanboy comments, because I talked to Prince Paul earlier this year and I told him, “I need to fanboy out with you on a couple records specifically before we talk.”

Pete Rock: I did that with Prince Paul back when I used to work at WBLS back when I was like 15 years old, when De La [Soul]’s first album hit the scene. I was on producers, man. Trust me, I was a young, young dude who knew producers. I was a fan of these producers, saying to myself, “I’m going to be a producer.”

You guys were also going to producer college by digging, going to record conventions, and everything you said, from going to the studio with Howie Tee and Teddy. That was like your college, so when you guys got deals, even though you were like 19-20 years old, you guys were young, but you were fully formed because everything you did, it was just soaking it all in and being in the environment with each other and trying to compete. When you talk about now, people can go to college, or can just download an app going for it, it’s not the same as the years and days you guys would spend – “Oh, I’m just heading out,” but you’re immersing yourself in so much music and around each other, because back then it was probably like, what, 10 guys that made beats? How many people really made beats back in 1990?

Pete Rock: Yes. And I’m still sitting on a mountain of shit that nobody – see, here’s the thing, man. I don’t never brag or none of that shit, but I think I’ve got more beats than everybody in this game, because I’m telling you, I just sit; I’m just sitting. I’ve got so many beats already. These albums I’m making, I’m just picking them; I’m not making the beats. I’m saying, “Let me hear this. Oh, you want that one. Alright.” The Flee Lord album, everything, I just took a bunch of beats and said, “Yo, listen to these,” and he picked out the album out of that batch. Same with Smoke DZA, same with PeteStrumentals, same with all that shit that I’m doing right now. I’m barely making anything. I’ve got beats just sitting there made, a whole bunch of beats. But I like to make new beats, I love making new beats and I always do; I love making new beats because I live for the outcome of a beat. Then, I live for the outcome of a song. That’s my main purpose; that’s what I live for, and my family.

You’re a builder. You like to build it up and step back and be like, “Yeah, I built that.” Like Soul Survivor, it’s not even to me the best producer album, to me it’s one of the best rap albums ever made. Soul Survivor, it was like the most perfect year because you were hitting people – Ghostface [Killah] becoming one of the greatest ever, you were hitting him.

Pete Rock: Wu-Tang was on top.

[Inspectah] Deck off of “Triumph,” Kurupt doing more East Coast, you’re catching Prodigy. Even Sticky [Fingaz], then you had Heavy D, Beenie Man, Method Man, OC – when you were doing it, was it just, “Okay, I have an idea. I’m going to record this with Loud. I have people coming through,” or were you stepping back being like…?

Pete Rock: Well, Loud was the best hip-hop label that I’ve ever been on. You know who was on Loud; I don’t even need to tell you who was on Loud. Trust me, when I got signed there, I felt like I was welcomed with open arms from every artist on there. We used to have so much fun and dope conversations – then I’m finding out what my music did for those cats, man. They telling me stories and shit like that, and I’m like, “Whoa, for real?” I’m blown away, because me, I just make the beats; I don’t know what’s going on or what it’s doing for people. I know when I did “Reminisce” and Charlie Brown from L.O.N.S. and them was in the studio when I first played it back for the first time, and everybody started crying.

Motherfuckas, everyone in the room was crying, even me, boohoo. They reminisce over you. God was in the room when I made that thing. I’m saying that to say, producing to me is the most important thing in hip-hop because you can rap, but no one’s going to buy acapella albums. It’s the music and the lyrics that match that interest people, but it has to be the right match.

Here it is, the High School High song [“The Rap World”], you and Large Pro. Tell me about that song, please.

Pete Rock: I loved making that record. I had this drum and bass, right? Large always used to come to the crib back in the day, and I used to go to his house, so he came over and we made that. I made the beat – I made the drums and the bassline, and I put one little sample, a Bob James sample, and then he did the rest; and then we rapped on it together. I told him the other day, “We need to do that shit again, bro. We need to do that shit again and fuck these niggas up,” because he can still rap and make beats; he’s still the shit. I love Large Professor, he’s a real life, down-to-earth digger. He has 2-3 copies of everything, and I’m like, “Yo, this nigga got doubles of every mothafuckin’ heater.” I’m like, “Man, I’ve got to step my game up fucking with this dude.” That’s how that went down – we did High School High, I just did the bassline and drums, and he did the rest, and when he did the rest, I was very happy with it and I was like, “Let’s go lace this thing,” and that’s what we did: eight bars apiece to make a 16-bar verse.

That’s it, but it sounds like a duo. Everything about it sounds like my-turn-your-turn-my-turn-your-turn, give-and-go and that’s it.

Pete Rock: If we would’ve capitalized on that, on that record alone and made an EP, an EP with 6 songs of me and him rapping and producing, that shit would have been a classic.

You guys are both working still, so why not? 2021.

Pete Rock: I’mma hit him up, off of this convo right here.

The other song I really want to nerd-out about is, “Strange Fruit.” How the fuck did you get Tragedy Khadafi, Cappadonna, and Sticky — that is strange fruit. How the fuck did you think of that?

Pete Rock: Those are all my friends. Me and Trag have a deeper background. I met him when he was 13, or maybe 12, and I was probably the same age, maybe a year older or something, and me and that man been tight for a long time. When he came home from jail, I was like, “Yo, bro, come on man. We overdue; we ain’t never got in there and got busy.” “Strange Fruit” we did that, and that was dope because being on Loud, you had all the dope groups on Loud, and then you’ve got me promoting, word gets out that I’m doing an album on Loud, and I start reaching out to people. I just started reaching out to my favorite people. Everybody that’s on that album are people that I like, and even if you’re not on the album, I still like you. It’s just, you didn’t get to make the album. Everyone that’s on there are people that I like, and when I call Sticky, he was front-and-center, when I called Cappa, he was front-and-center – that’s easy because Loud, Wu-Tang, I meant a lot to them brothas, so they came through for me.

I made a playlist years ago called “Soul Brother Number Wu” with all of your production with the Wu-Tang members over the years. Some of the Raekwon joints to “R.A.G.U.,” the stuff from Ghost, Masta Killa; it’s just when you line it up, again, it’s like you running side-by-side, adjacent to the whole style/aesthetic that they have, but then bringing a warmth and a bounce and something very melodic, which is separate from the RZA sound, or True Master. I think it’s a match – like hand and glove with guys that are street-oriented because it kind of grounds them while they shoot their darts.

Pete Rock: They make any beat sound good. Period. Every last member in that group – they’re the illest thing to happen to hip-hop, ever. You know what was ill about them – I don’t think they know how big of a comic book fan I am, and for them to mimic after Marvel characters had me like, “This is automatically my favorite rap group.” That took it over the top for Wu-Tang, for me, is when they mixed it in with Marvel characters.

Your feelings as a comic book lord, Chocolate Boy Wonder, and still knowing comics, what is your biggest enjoyment from the new wave of the superhero/MCU/DC stuff?

Pete Rock: I’m going to tell you, first-of-all, what interested me about comic books is the art. Straight-up the art, then the stories, but it was always the art first. The Marvel thing inspired us so much as kids. It stuck with us from kids, it stuck with us until we grew up. From a certain age, still young – teenagers now, and now we incorporate the super heroism to what we do, because it’s in us, from what inspired us back in our younger days. Reading those books and being like, “Dad, what kind of powers do I want?” The Incredible Hulk comes to mind; he’s my favorite. Spidey’s my second favorite, Wolverine’s my third, but Hulk, number one.

Are you reading Immortal Hulk?

Pete Rock: It’s a great story; it’s a great read, man.

It’s like a horror story.

Pete Rock: That’s what I’m saying. Do you see what you just said? Hulk is a horror story; the Hulk idea comes from Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Stan Lee was sampling; he sampled Frankenstein, he sampled Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, put it together and made The Incredible Hulk. Who does that? That’s genius shit. We carry the heroism within hip-hop, and we applied it to hip-hop and we’re super in hip-hop, and that’s what makes us great.

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