Pete Rock is Hip-Hop history in human form. The producer, DJ, and MC born Peter Phillips witnessed the earliest days of the genre in New York City as he grew up in Mount Vernon, NY. Rock was introduced to the culture through his cousin Heavy D, and he began producing on D’s album Big Tyme in 1989. In the ‘90s, Rock created some of the most beloved music of the era, including Nas’ “The World Is Yours,” Run-DMC’s “Down With The King,” and two albums with rapper C.L. Smooth. Rock’s impeccable palette of samples and sense of rhythm were incredibly influential in the sound of East Coast hip-hop and beyond, and he’s now widely considered one of the best producers of all time.
Rock has stayed active across projects, collaborations, and remixes for decades, including multiple appearances on his friend Busta Rhymes’ recent album Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God. This month, the producer returns with his latest album PeteStrumentals 3, released through his own Tru Soul label.
In contrast to the more traditional beats on the previous installments, PeteStrumentals 3 is entirely sample-free. Instead, Rock assembled the Soul Brothers, a band of ace instrumentalists whose credits include tours with Prince, D’angelo, Sting, Nas, Jack White, and A Tribe Called Quest. The album shows the Soul Brothers’ renditions of Pete Rock’s beats, placing the producer in a bandleader role. PeteStrumentals 3 is a high-spirited funk record rich with Hip-Hop heritage, an essential entry in the legendary producer’s catalog. I spoke to Pete Rock from upstate New York in early December about assembling a band, working through the pandemic, and the possibility of being sampled himself.
Where did you get this idea to put a band together?
I had a band already, and when I met the drummer Daru [Jones], he helped me put the rest of the band together. We were doing live shows, and that's how we got to gel as a band. Practicing in the studio, trying to find our niche. Then I came up with the idea of having the band play over my beats. That's a perfect idea. And, you know, practice makes perfect. So I made a CD of my beats and sent it to the guys and told them, "Here's your blueprint. Do what you gotta do." They just played my beats over and it came out excellent. I told them to make it as close as possible to the beat that I made. I made sure that that happened, working with Mono [Neon] and working with Daru closely, working with all the musicians like a family.
What was your role in the live setting?
I did have a SP set up in the Blue Note one time. Basically, the setup is turntables, and maybe the drum machine, depending on what ideas we come up with. We came up with an idea one time when we performed in Central Park, that I would make Hip-Hop drums, and they would just play over the sampled drums.
Does it feel like a James Brown moment for you to put this band together?
Yep. Sure does. Shout out to the great one. JB rest in peace.
I know you've been a fan of his for your entire life. Can you tell me about meeting him as a child?
Yeah, I was seven years old, and he shook my hand and turned me into Pete Rock. He came to perform in my neighborhood in Mount Vernon, New York. And my mom took me and my younger brother, so we went, and she hooked it up where we got to meet him. Shout out to my mom for that. That's the realest move she could have ever made in her life. She took me ‘cuz she knew, I loved the man.
So you were already following his music. How did you first come across music that you got interested in?
My dad's collection. That's where I learned about everything. It started there. He had a lot of James Brown records. But then as time went on, and I got old and the digging got more advanced for me, I found more of James Brown's stuff. 45s that people never heard before, or knew about.
Do you still listen to him a lot nowadays?
I listen to James Brown almost every other day. He's a huge inspiration, like a blueprint for what I do in Hip-Hop.
I assume the name of the band is a reference to him as well.
Definitely, like Pete Rock and the Soul Brothers, James Brown's a Soul Brother. He's Soul Brother No. 1. I hold myself Soul Brother No. 1 in Hip-Hop, but I'm not the original Soul Brother No. 1. But I'm Soul Brother No. 1 in Hip-Hop.
I know you were able to work on a remix of a Black Eyed Peas song that featured him while he was still alive. Did you get to cross paths with him in the studio while you were working on it?
No, I didn't. But he heard the remix and loved it. That made my day, man. That made my whole life again. I was like, "Wow, man." You know, I sampled his own music and put it in there.
What modern Hip-Hop are you keeping up with?
I listen to Freddie Gibbs, I listen to The Alchemist, I listen to Nottz, I listen to 9th Wonder. I listen to Khrysis, I listen to DJ Khalil, of course Dilla. I listen to Ski Beatz's beats, I listen to Havoc. Large Professor. Q-Tip. 88-Keys. Vitamin D. He's like, my favorite right now.
Do you ever listen to other artists’ music, and hear your sound or your influence filtered through them?
I'm not like that, man. That's what we got to stop doing. I just make music the way I make music. And if something sounds familiar that somebody else did, that's just what it is, it's all good. We're all sampling. That's what we're all doing. We don't own samples, we make a beat our way. Everyone has their way of how they would interpret a sample. So many other great producers too: Marley Marl, Howie Tee, Teddy Riley, 45 King. Those guys were like blueprints for me.
How do you feel about seeing Hip-Hop now grow into a global phenomenon?
I'm cool with it. What started in the Bronx turned into something worldwide and international. It goes to show you the hard work that those guys put in like Kool Herc, and all those early guys bringing Hip-Hop to the world when they did, and creating people like me and DJ Premier and all these other great producers from the 90s.
Without Herc and those guys, where would we be at? You got to really show respect, man, if your life is Hip-Hop, you always got to pay homage to the people who brought it into existence.
Is that something that you've run into in your career? Have you come across people who don't respect the contributions you've made? Or had disrespected other people's contributions in front of you?
It really doesn't matter what they think. God put me here to do a job and I'm on a mission to do what I'm supposed to do here and that's that. To make good music and make you feel good, man. Now, there ain't no crime in that. At all. And people want to feel good, especially now. I'm doing everything in my power to do so.
Can you tell me about sort of the desire to stay independent and control everything on your own terms?
Because we've been taken on a ride, man. Everyone in the business has been through this. We've been through some hardship, and we had to learn the hard way. But being young, I looked at it a different way. I looked at it as "Hey, my job got better than when I was doing, you know, working in the mall." I got to do something fun, and make money doing it. I take hip hop very seriously, I take everything I do seriously, and everything I do is in Heavy D's name.
Would you be happy to hear someone sample this record in their own production in the future?
Hell yeah. Why not? That's great. To hear something like that, you know, people think your music is dope enough to sample it.
What do you do when you're relaxing? Do you take time off?
When I'm relaxing, I'm home, man. I'm a homebody. I'm always making beats. I'm listening to the music, 45s I got that I forgot I had. I like to dig into my own collection at times, like, "Shit, I forgot about these." Start listening to that stuff and making beats. It doesn't stop, man. It doesn't stop at all. And it seems like the records that we find are just limitless. It’s always something out there to find, you know what I'm saying?
Have you been able to visit record stores and still dig for things this past year during the pandemic?
Of course. That doesn't really stop. I got a couple disposable hazmat suits. I just go in, get on the floor, and do what I do.
Are there any projects of yours that you don't talk about necessarily as often but you go back to, like a personal favorite?
I'm proud of everything I do, but the most proud would probably have to be between "Mecca and the Soul Brother" and "New York's Finest,” when it comes to my own work.
Is there anything new to you that you still want to try in your career?
There's lots of things I want to do with my band, and try to see how we could coexist on it, you know what I mean? That’s exciting, to merge my ideas with their skills. People love music. It's medicine, and what some people don't realize, it's a healer. Okay? And I make all kinds of music, street music, cool out music, normal hip hop music, R&B, I could make a house record, I can do all kinds of stuff now. And now that I have a band, there's no limit to what I can do.
*HEADER CREDIT:(Photo by Berman Fenelus)