Rappers might take most of the plaudits — and most of the money — but the real architects of hip hop are the producers. And the producer, DJ, remixer and sometime rapper Pete Rock is up there with the likes of Marley Marl, DJ Premier and J Dilla in formulating the basic building blocks of hip-hop music.
As well as his classic work with CL Smooth in the early 1990s, Rock's unmistakeable beats and judicious use of soul, funk and jazz samples have formed the backbone of tracks by rappers including the Notorious BIG, Nas, Large Professor, Rakim, Heavy D, A Tribe Called Quest and Common. His remix skills have helped reshape music both inside the world of hip hop — Public Enemy, Black Star, Jeru the Damaja — and outside — Madonna, Mary J. Blige, Panda Bear and Johnny Cash.
How Peter Phillips Became Pete Rock
Peter Phillips was born in the birthplace of hip hop, the Bronx, on June 21, 1970. His Jamaican parents were both music lovers. His dad was an avid record collector and sometime DJ. When Phillips was just seven, his mother took him to watch James Brown in Mount Vernon, New York, where his family had just moved. After the concert, the young music fan was taken backstage to meet the Godfather of Soul. “It was crazy,” Phillips reflected in 2014. “When we met him I think he passed something on to me. I wasn’t the same after I met him.”
Around the same time, his older cousin Heavy D — of Heavy D & the Boyz fame — gave Phillips his Pete Rock moniker. Indeed it was his cousin that later provided a 16-year-old Rock with his first break. Heavy D introduced his cousin to seminal hip-hop producer and DJ Marley Marl. Impressed by Rock's turntable skills, Marl recruited him to DJ on the WBLS radio show he hosted, In Control.
'All Souled Out' with CL Smooth
Alongside his school friend Corey Brent Penn — aka CL Smooth — Rock got his first production credit in 1990 on Johnny Gill’s "Rub You the Right Way." When Smooth displayed his honeyed rapping skills, a duo was born. Signed to Elektra, their first release was the All Souled Out EP in 1991. Layered with Rock’s emblematic soulful samples, All Souled was a critical smash.
Even better was to come. The following year, the pair released their iconic debut album, Mecca and the Soul Brother. Featuring the tracks "Straighten It Out," "Ghettos of the Mind" and "Soul Brother #1" (Rock’s nickname, alongside Chocolate Boy Wonder), it garnered rave reviews and was instantly considered a pivotal release in the golden age of hip hop.
Recalling the album in an interview with the hip hop magazine XXL 20 years on, Rock said: “You want to talk about people bein’ on cloud nine, we were ridin’ high because we were on to somethin,’ we hit it and people accepted it. That is what made us feel great. We all started feelin’ ourselves at that point, which is normal. Once we seen how the people responded to the music, we knew we had somethin.’ So, we just kept the formula and continued to make more music like that.”
The album also contained the duo’s jazz-inflected signature hit, "They Reminisce Over You (TROY)," inspired by the death of the pair’s close friend Troy Dixon, a dancer with Heavy D & The Boyz.
'The Main Ingredient'
In 1994, soon after Rock and CL Smooth released their second album, The Main Ingredient — another critical, if not commercial, success — the duo announced a split. By then Rock was in demand for his production skills. Run DMC came calling for their 1993 comeback single, "Down With the King," while Rock’s trademark manipulated samples, loops and languid grooves helped propel Nas’ debut album Illmatic (Rock produced "The World Is Yours") to Hall of Fame status.
Over the following years, Rock would lay down the beats for AZ ("Gimme Yours"), Rakim ("The Saga Begins"), Raekwon ("Sneakers"), DJ Babu ("Cake"), Common ("The Bitch In Yoo" — the notorious Ice Cube diss track) and latterly, Jay Z and Kanye West ("The Joy," a bonus track on their Grammy-winning Watch The Throne).
The Remix King and Royalties Overdue
The manner in which Rock lays down his beats is legendary in hip-hop circles. He has remixed everyone from Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, House of Pain and Black Star to the indie darling Panda Bear. There is even an unreleased remix of Madonna’s "Secret" out there.
Controversy has often plagued Rock. He has claimed that The Notorious BIG’s "Juicy" is essentially his production, for which he never received a credit. Rock told Wax Poetics magazine in 2008: “Biggie and Sean [Combs] came to my house one day and the beat was playing on my drum machine. Biggie thought I was making it for CL. When I told him I was just making it for myself, he immediately wanted it. I said sure, but didn’t think much of it. Then, next thing I know, I heard it playing somewhere. I’m over it now though... Really, I just wish Biggie was still alive so I could work with him.”
A Tribe Called Quest’s "Jazz (We Got) from The Low End Theory" is another Rock beat that was either recreated by Q-Tip or exchanged, depending on whose account you listen to. Either way, Rock is given a shout out at the end of the track by Q-Tip: "Pete Rock for the beat, ya don’t stop."
Rock’s broad sonic palette comes from his unquenchable desire for hunting for rare vinyl. He told Wax Poetics that “My digging [for records] is off the chain! I always have so much energy to do it! That’s really the most important part of beatmaking — finding sounds that are dope. Large Pro and I would bring records over to each other’s house and just bug out. Through Large Pro, I met Nas, and that’s how 'The World Is Yours' happened.”
Working with INI to Going Solo with 'Soul Survivor'
After his partnership with CL Smooth disbanded, Rock began work with the group INI, which featured his younger brother, Gregory — aka Grap Luva. Their single "Fakin Jax" was a mid-1990s underground classic. Record company disputes meant that INI’s hotly anticipated album wasn’t released. It went on to be one of the most bootlegged albums of the decade. A version finally came out in 2003 on the record label BBE as part of its series Lost & Found: Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics.
In 1998, Rock released his first solo album, Soul Survivor. A mesmerizing piece of late-period "golden age" East Coast hip hop, it contained collaborations with, among others, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Black Thought of the Roots, Large Professor, Kool G Rap and Rock's former sparring partner CL Smooth. A follow up was released in 2004.
In 2016, alongside Smoke DZA, he released "Don’t Smoke Rock." It provided further evidence that Pete Rock remains one of hip hop’s most cherished producers.
(Profile photo of Pete Rock by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)
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