From Biggie to Kendrick: Super-producer Pete Rock on the Golden Age of Hip-Hop | hip-hop
ADuring this year’s BET Awards, the Lifetime Achievement Honor went to Sean “Diddy” Combs – and why not? He signed the Notorious BIG and takes credit for “inventing” the remix. He changed what it means to be called a hip-hop super producer while becoming a multi-platinum rapper himself. Really, he’s not that different from Pete Rock.
Rock (real name Peter O Philips) is the other a sort of super-producer, one who does the tedious work of finding rare records and cutting and assembling them into something new. In reality, he might as well take credit for coming up with the remix while reimagining Public Enemy’s Shut Em Down and House of Pain’s Jump Around. Rock collaborated with Kanye and Kendrick and saw his Midas touch translate to 25 million album sales worldwide and billions more in streams. And he’s an awesome rapper in his own right; Rolling Stone lists its 1991 hit with CL Smooth, They Reminisce Over You, among its 500 greatest songs.
Before Diddy’s polished samples fueled rap’s transition to the mainstream in the early 2000s, Rock’s jazz-inspired beats defined East Coast hip-hop in the ’90s. 51-year-old remains a highly respected producer, there is a part of him that is still fighting for proper recognition. His big wish, he tells the Guardian, is that “nothing we did in my day or my time be disrespectful, ever. People need to understand what respect means and start showing respect to people for the work they have done.
This year, Rock released Petestrumentals 4, the latest in a collection of vibe-only EPs — “dragging beats that people never really used,” he says. They run the gamut, from the Desi-influenced Das Me Da King to the much funkier Brother on the Run. On the title track, The Message, Rock picks up a signature trick: remixing the speeches of Malcolm X. “Being a proud black person myself, I think the message still needs to get out there,” he says. “It’s a shame that we lost a lot of our leaders, especially Malcolm. I just want to regurgitate the message to people, to young people who have a lot of problems here.
A Zoom call with Pete Rock is a time warp. Filling the screen in his bob, wooden bead necklace and tracksuit, he looks a lot like a 90s b-boy. And he couldn’t seem nicer or more at peace. Yet: Even though ’90s retro is all the rage again, today’s kids aren’t really trying to hear Rock’s brand of conscious hip hop. They’re too enamored with mumble rappers who rhyme over trap beats and too naive to appreciate what they’re missing. All of this offends Rock to his heart.
Last month, he shared a video of Eric Adams condemning drill rap — a darker trap subgenre that the mayor of New York has linked to an increase in violent crime. “This kind of hip-hop is doo doo and it disturbs the soul,” Rock wrote in the since-deleted post. “It’s the result of greed, talentless people and the destruction of culture.”
Of course, music lovers were saying much the same thing back in 1992, when Rock looped a saxophone riff from Tom Scott and a drum sample from James Brown to make They Reminisce Over You. The track pays tribute to a backup dancer friend of Rock’s who died while touring with Rock’s cousin, rapper Heavy D.
Diddy, D and Rock all grew up together in the 80s in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon. Diddy made a point of nodding to Heavy D in his BET Awards acceptance speech. He also recognized Bobby Brown and introduced him as the first “Chocolate Boy Wonder”, a nickname Diddy reserved for himself. But for Rock — who not only wasn’t mentioned in Diddy’s speech, but has also been called Chocolate Boy Wonder since the ’80s — that otherwise innocent scream took on a more sinister intent.
“I wouldn’t be called Puff Daddy when I’m THE REAL CHOCOLATE BOY WONDA BOSS,” Rock replied in a lengthy Instagram rant. “My brother Grap Luva taught you dance moves in your garage on dell ave. I hit drum machines and make 4 REAL beats. You can’t erase what I did in music or try to take my name lol.
The moment recalled a skit from Diddy’s album No Way Out, The Mad Producer. On this one, a fictional beatmaker fusses over unpaid wages, record executives posing as producers, and Diddy’s foray into rapping. In retrospect, it feels like Diddy venting a relationship that showed its first signs of strain when Rock complained about not being credited with producing Biggie’s hit Juicy.
Years of these slights, real and perceived, have made Rock publicly combative when it comes to defending his singular talent. Despite his huge respect for Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, as a producer and working with him and Jay-Z on the 2010 track The Joy, Rock tweeted in 2019 that Ye “can never be like me when he it’s about dem skillz”. He also criticized Ye’s support for Donald Trump.
This year rapper Canibus – whose career came to a halt in the late 90s after he tried to embarrass LL Cool J over a song that backfired – returned with an EP titled C. Although ‘t was billed as a Pete Rock production, the man himself declared it “super trash”. “I WILL NEVER EVER EVER EVER PRODUCE ANYTHING THAT SOUNDS THIS BAD OMG,” Rock tweeted. And yet the manager of Canibus happily receipts provided. (Canibus response: “Pete, I love you.”)
Meanwhile, Rock and CL Smooth fought like brothers for decades and left fans hungry for a reunion the entire time. Although they only produced two studio albums, their brand of conscious rapping set the bar high for the art form which arguably became harder to sustain after their demise.
But to hear Smooth say it in a 2019 Sirius XM interview, the breakup with Rock goes “beyond the music” to “being able to talk to each other, to articulate, to be able to understand each other’s pains.” . (Their recurring partnership was the only topic Rock’s manager deemed off-limits prior to our Zoom call.)
It’s enough to wonder if there are any rappers left who can work with Rock. But, he says, “I always think about the new spitters. I worked with a couple of them – Kendrick on To Pimp a Butterfly. Now I work with even younger cats that people haven’t heard of yet. That’s the most important part, getting new artists heard that are dope. With real talent. It’s part of my job, to make people aware of this stuff.
Although rock still never tires of putting a new spin on old records, whether as a producer or a DJ – “Sampling is such an addictive thing, – there’s no such thing as pretending to be your own band in your head” – it’s hard not to take stock of the evolution of the contemporaries of Rock. RZA, a peer and rival, scores films. 9th Wonder, a protege, teaches beatmaking at Duke. The Roots, the Rock’s conscious rap cousins, are the Tonight Show’s house band. (“That’s crazy,” he says. “I used to do hip-hop with these guys.”)
And then of course there’s Diddy, the great rival who did as much to build hip-hop as he did to devastate the Bad Boy Records artists who helped him achieve billionaire status – some of whom are still fighting for it. full rights to their hard work. And the fact that a black label head couldn’t spare black artists that all-too-familiar fate is part of why rock is so defensive. “We wake up now to say, hey, I want to own my music,” he says. “It’s my blood, sweat and tears on these tapes, and we deserve to make money out of it like they made money out of it.”
But Rock, for all his restlessness, remains holistic in his work. It’s the bittersweet irony of his music: it can never be just about him. “I never want to eclipse the artist,” he says. “I just want to be equal when I know we’ve made a good product – which we are great musicians.