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Photo by Beth Fladung.

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Pete Rock keeps active nowadays by doing what he perfected as a teenager: putting sounds into his sampler and banging out beats. “I was nineteen years old when I mastered the SP[1200],” remembers Pete, now thirty-seven years old. “I promised myself I would make the sampler my instrument, so I read the manual, like, fifty times. You couldn’t find me for months after that.”

published online
Originally published in Issue 29
By David Ma

For over twenty years, Pete’s signature beats had artists, record execs, and peers taking notice. His partnership with C. L. Smooth produced acclaimed albums, while his many remixes displayed his steadiness as a beatsmith. As a result, his style and approach have been instructive for today’s producers. “9th Wonder, RZA, and Just Blaze have all mentioned me when they talk about their influences,” he says with enthusiasm. “I never thought I’d get so much respect! I’m honored, ’cause all those guys are dope to me.” 

Pete, enjoying the growing acknowledgement he gets these days, proudly explains: “I love it. I love the fact that when people talk about hip-hop producers, I’m always mentioned.”

Do you remember the first day you got your hands on the SP1200?

I was at my friend Eddie F’s house. He was a DJ for my cousin Heavy D, and he was showing me all his equipment. I didn’t know what the SP was. I knew it made beats, but not exactly how. Eddie said, “I got an extra one—want it?” So I took it and didn’t leave my house for months, literally.

Do you view making beats differently now that you’re older?

My outlook’s changed and definitely grew. I’m more patient now. I mean, I [still] got mad beats on the SP, and they are all different and varied. But when I was younger, I just focused on a certain style that I thought was mine. Now I’m open to doing whatever I feel is fresh. 

What was your first official remix project and how’d it happen?

I was lucky enough to land a gig at Def Jam. They asked me to record Public Enemy’s “Shut ’Em Down.” That was my debut remix. After that, everyone wanted to know who I was. Then, me and C.L. put out our first EP in ’91.

Take us back to when you met C. L. Smooth.

It was in high school. I heard from a mutual friend that C.L. could rap, and our friend hooked us up. We started making music together in my next-door neighbor’s basement. I did a party in my neighbor’s place and left my equipment there, so we just stayed [laughs] and started doing demos. We made about fifty songs there.

Was the All Souled Out EP just selections from these demo tracks?

Yeah, it was mostly stuff we made in the basement. But we took it into the big house and enhanced it and cleaned things up. I was just getting a hang of things. We weren’t completely comfortable till the next album.

So you were pretty confident by the time Mecca and the Soul Brother hit?

Yes, definitely. That album is a burst of young energy! It was [just] us going for the gusto! At that point in time, I just wanted to really put my sound on the table. This was gonna be it; this was gonna be the album that would define who we are. And I think we did that. 

Do you remember finding the Tom Scott record with the horns you sampled for “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”?

Large Professor played the record for me at his house; that’s when I first heard it. I was in a New Orleans record shop when I found it for myself. Black Sheep had used it for “Similak Child,” but I went more into the record; they just sampled the beginning. By going into it further, I found those horns! It made me cry, seriously. 

Why were you so moved?

It just reflected all the sadness I was going through. Troy was a close friend of ours and this is his tribute song. He was also Heavy D’s dancer and known throughout the community. We were all appalled when he died. I made that beat out of depression.

How were things when The Main Ingredient was made?

Better. I was twenty-two or twenty-three by then, and wanted to mix R&B and hip-hop [together] a little bit more. “Searching” is R&B and sort of just matured that way. If you listen to The Main Ingredient, there are still elements of Mecca in it. We had matured a lot by then, and I’m proud of that album.

Let’s shift gears and touch on your friend, Marley Marl. You’ve said in interviews that he was an influence on you.

The first day we met, I was speechless. I couldn’t believe I was in the guy’s house that’d produced for the Juice Crew! Marley’s sampling was so funky. He’d take a snare from this record, a kick from that record, and just build new sounds! His technical abilities, along with what he chose to sample, amazed me. I really think he made history with sampling.

Is it true he had a heart attack recently?

Yeah. I picked him up from the hospital. Luckily, he’s fine now. But he said he didn’t even feel it when it happened, and that it wasn’t painful, which is good. It’s scary. I dropped everything and went to the hospital. Man, I’m just glad he’s okay. I was really upset; I thought I was gonna lose another friend.

Do you remember the last time you and Biggie spoke?

Man, it was right before he died. He told me: “Pete, my raps sound best with you and Large Pro. I love that shit!” That was the last thing he said to me before he died, I swear.

After all these years, with all your history, how do you want to be remembered?

Well, they still play “T.R.O.Y.” in the clubs, and it makes my day when young cats come up to me and tell me how much they love it. I just want to be remembered as one of the best. I just want my beats to still make noise ten, twenty years from now.

You know, I’m just really thankful. I’m thankful, ’cause not many from our era are doing it, and many don’t even get recognized. Thank y’all so much for caring.

Your work has inspired young producers and impacted many people. What records would you say have inspired Pete Rock? 


Record Rundown

Isaac Hayes
Joy (Stax) 1973

I could just sit down and listen to this album from beginning to end. It’s something my father used to play to me when I was young. From the A-side to the B-side, all the songs are perfectly constructed. There isn’t a bad thing about this album. It reminds me of older days of music that I loved so much—a time that’s lost. I still love it so much. His voice, the arrangements—I could put it [on] right now for the rest of the day.

Michael Jackson
Off the Wall (Epic) 1979

It was simply filled with so many great songs! I didn’t hear it in its entirety until, like, ’82 or ’83. But when I did, it blew me away. I mean, for a pop album, it’s one of the greatest—no doubt. It has so many amazing songs on it. For all of them to be so good is an accomplishment for the makers of this album. And it still sounds good today, you know?

Aretha Franklin
Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic) 1972

She came across with such a great message. Everyone has talent, and it’s just about finding your niche and putting your energy towards that. Do it, and do it well, with passion and grace. That was her message. And that’s what she did. With this album, her voice, the arrangements, everything was just so powerful. I took a lot of things from this album, but, mainly, to me, it’s just full of [so] much grace.

Quincy Jones
The Dude (A&M) 1981

I can listen to this at a barbecue or when I’m alone. It’s good on all occasions. I remember focusing on just the how smooth Quincy Jones’s methods were. He was fascinating. I used to listen to “Razzamatazz” with my friends, and I’d be in my own world thinking about how fresh everything in this record sounds. He’s simply a master. This, to me, is unmistakably remarkable.

Kurtis Blow
Kurtis Blow (Mercury) 1980

Kurtis was [like] the first rapper! I have to give him props! It was the first time I heard a rap album that was done so proper. The production and how everything fit with the rhymes were astounding. Plus everything on that record was so clean. “Christmas Rappin’” alone makes this album. The beats are hard, and Kurtis is so on point. Yeah, man, I’ve always really enjoyed this album.

Run-DMC
Run-DMC (Profile/Arista) 1984

I mean, what else is there to say about these dudes? They affected me in the same way they affected everybody else. They were just immediately so dope! They took what we were hearing in the neighborhood at all the block parties and barbecues and built on it. But they did it in a smart way that wasn’t like they were selling out or anything. Their sound, and just overall energy, hit me real hard.

Isaac Hayes
To Be Continued (Stax) 1970

I know I’m picking him twice, [laughs] but he’s the number one soul brother to me, next to James Brown. And I really love this album. I mean, I can listen to so many of his records all day long. But some of my favorite songs by him are on this one. It just stuck with me. When I hear it now, it makes me think of when I first discovered it as a kid. This album of his in particular, I would say, affected my production and the way I hear things.

Eric B. & Rakim
Paid in Full (4th & Broadway) 1987

I was still pretty young when it came out. I just started hanging in Harlem, and there was a place called the Rooftop there that we’d go to. And every time we’d take a trip to go to that club, we’d put that tape in the cassette player for the ride. This was my traveling music! I mean, Rakim’s lyrics and Eric B.’s cuts were so influential. Everything was classic. The whole album is one of the dopest ever. It’s still unbelievable to me.

L.L. Cool J
Radio (Def Jam) 1985

I remember seeing him at the Latin Quarter when I [was] about fifteen years old. And he was only, like, sixteen. Older folks always admire young cats that are trying to do something with their lives, and L.L.’s lyrics always reflected bettering oneself. It just made sense to me. He was on Def Jam, which was real cool to me too, and there was just something about him. Hip-hop to me isn’t as good anymore. But this album represents a certain graciousness that we rarely see now.


James Brown
Hell (Polydor) 1974

He’s obviously number one to me. He’s my favorite artist of the ’70s, hands down. He’s the creator of funk, hip-hop, and just the beat in general. There wouldn’t be a boom-bap without him. I love all kinds of artists, but he just touched me. The entire album, the sounds, everything you hear is just pure energy. My favorite song was “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” because it’s so dope. Plus, it defined my father perfectly. [laughs]

Pete Rock’s NY’s Finest is out now on Nature Sounds.