It's a common scene on a rainy Sunday at the Guitar Center in downtown Brooklyn. Someone has settled into deep concentration with a piece of equipment in the middle of the store. But unlike most shoppers who test-drive gear, a crowd gathers around this particular person. We watch, as Pete Rock, hip-hop legend, responsible for the music behind classics like Nas' "The World Is Yours" and Public Enemy's "Shut Em Down" remix, taps out a smooth, spacey beat from the stock sounds on an MPC2500.
|Pete made his name in the late '80s as a DJ on WBLS, as something like a protégé of Marley Marl. But Pete soon discovered his talent behind the boards and started producing. He developed a signature style, warm samples from obscure jazz and funk records layered over hard-hitting drum loops with horn licks added for accent and melody. The sound would influence beat makers for years to come and play a large role in defining the sound of the so-called "golden era" of hip-hop.
In the first half of the decade, Pete Rock laid down the tracks (and half the rhymes) for an EP and a pair of albums as half of Pete Rock and CL Smooth, spawning classic singles like "T.R.O.Y." and "The Creator." He also produced and remixed artists like Nas ("The World Is Yours"), Jeru tha Damaja ("Can't Stop the Prophet") and Run-DMC ("Down With the King"), all of which were integral pieces of the '90s rap cannon. After parting ways with CL Smooth in 1995, Pete released 1998's Soul Survivor and 2004's Soul Survivor II, as well as an album of instrumentals (Petestrumentals in 2001).
Pete Rock is still making moves over twenty years into his career. In February, he released his third solo album, New York's Finest. Like his previous solo efforts, "Finest" features beats and rhymes from Pete alongside verses from an impressive roster of guest rappers.
Pete spends some time demo'ing some keyboards, samplers and other pieces of new gear, then we sat down for some Q&A.
Guitar Center: Talk about the equipment you're relying on to make beats these days.
Pete Rock: Basically, now I'm an MPC guy. I did this whole album with the MPC2000XL. I like that machine a lot. I like Akai products period. Even the 4000 and the 5000 they're coming out with, I'm anxious to get those. I love the 2500, the sounds in there are ridiculous. I really like that drum machine.
Why did you switch over from the SP1200 back in the day?
Well, I didn't want to pigeonhole myself with the same SP sound. I wanted to try new equipment and new things. With the SP, I was doing a lot more work manually, just to try to get the samples in there. The MPC came with so much sample time, three minutes, that's more than enough time to sample whatever you need.
So the biggest difference was sampling time?
Yeah. The SP gives you a fatter sound than the MPC though. The MPC's still good if you know how to EQ your sounds to make it sound like an SP.
What gives the SP better sound?
It just has that raw sound, especially when you're EQ'ing your sounds before you sample them. It just gives you back a heavy sound. Everything you've heard in my career up to 1999, 2000, those beats were all coming from the SP. Compare that to Soul Survivor 2 and this new one. You can hear the difference in the beats. No other drum machine can really compare to the special old analog sound of that drum machine. The old E-Mu systems, the SPs - they knew what they were doing.
Pete bangs out the beat, a 95 beats-per-minute head-nodder with stuttering kick drums and robotic beeps. The style is a little different than the lush boom-bap which made him famous in the '90s, an interpretation of the post-millenial methods of producers like J. Dilla and Hi-Tek. Notably, Pete constructs the beat entirely from the pre-packaged sounds in the machine. Despite making a name for himself by flipping forgotten funk vinyl, he has learned to produce without samples. Today he has a Fender Rhodes and a Moog at home to help him cook up the same textures and sounds he looks for on a record.
You still get samples from records, but talk about how you're working more with live instruments.
Yeah, I'm doing all the live stuff because everyone's so nervous these days about sampling. I still believe in sampling the artist that's not very well known, or artists you don't normally hear about. There are so many records out there from so many bands and artists and people, you'll always find something if you're an avid digger.
You ever get stung on sample clearance?
Well, almost. We always caught it in the nick of time. We've cleared every sample we've ever used.
Has it gotten harder to clear songs?
Today it is, because people want so much money for sampling their music. But it is what it is, it's a business. There are a lot of artists out there who don't mind you sampling their music, like Elton John, and then you got people out there who don't want hip-hop producers sampling their music. And then you got people who just want money for it. They take sixty or seventy-five percent of the song, and then you won't really make any money off the record. But it sounds great, so I'm gonna keep doing it regardless. Not everybody's an a-hole.
||Sampling obvious songs has come back, people aren't digging as deep as they used to.
Yeah thanks to Kanye West, with him using big name artists like Steely Dan and Ray Charles, people like that. We all did that back in the day too, but it was more of the songs that weren't big hits. Today, these guys are using the biggest records that these old '70s artists made. I'm sure Kanye has a beautiful recording budget to where he can buy those kinds of samples. But cats that still do underground and midstream hip-hop music, we like to sample from stuff that people never sampled from, or even artists people never heard of. If you're going to flip a song everyone knows, you gotta make sure everyone feels it almost like they feel the original song. You have to create as close to the original and make it better than the original.
Do you try to recreate the sound of the kind of albums you try to sample?
Pretty much. But I'm always gonna sample. I want to show people that I can make beats without sampling and I can make beats with samples. But I just like making beats with samples better. But I've got something coming out where I didn't sample anything at all. I just used straight keyboards. And it's hot!
For DJ'ing I assume you're still using Technics 1200s?
You know how you need two arms and two legs? You need the 1200s. Those are a necessity right now. Hip-hop can't happen without those turntables. Doing a party can't happen without those turntables. They got new ones that try to look like the 1200s and feel like the 1200's and maybe even scratch like the 1200s, but those Technics are historical! This is a historical invention.
What kind of mixer are you using right now?
Right now I'm using a Rane, because I have Serato at home too, so I use the Rane with the Serato built in. It's a little confusing in the beginning, but once you learn to use it, you'll be on point with it.
Why did you choose Serato as opposed to one of the other options, like Final Scratch?
I had a couple of good friends over there, my guy Jeff and the rest of the guys, they are fans of my music and I just sat down and chit-chatted with them. When I got my system, they took me through the whole procedure. They walked me through everything and made sure I knew how to use it, but there are tricks of the trade I'm still learning.
What is it like to work with Jim Jones and Styles P, guys who came up on your music?
With Jim Jones, that was just out of respect. I spent a lot of time in Harlem in my life. He's the new cat out there that people love. I went to one of his shows down in the city and it was crazy. The club was packed to capacity and everyone was singing the words to every song he did on stage. I said: "This would be a good guy to do a record with."
As for Styles P, he's just a gangster. I've always been a fan of The Lox. Sheek Louch, Jadakiss and Styles. Me and Styles developed a working relationship when we did a couple songs, I did "Gangsta Gangsta" for his album that's out right now with The Lox on it. He's from my neighborhood. We're like not even five minutes apart from each other, he's in Yonkers and I'm in Mount Vernon.
The new album is called New York's Finest. Was the focus on this album to really give New York some shine?
Basically the way the world is and the way people are, nobody's unifying with one another. It's just every man for himself. So I figured if we ever had that unity, New York would be back on top. Until then, we'll always be complaining about this person and that person doing music that's not "New York music" and is not a "New York artist," and so forth. It's all about unifying and coming together, finding the missing pieces to the puzzle. The game today, there's a lot of balance missing in the music. There's less creativity and more doing it for the money and the moment.
How have you updated your sound to stay current?
I just listen to what's going on around me. Going out to the clubs, doing my homework, seeing what the people are going crazy for and so forth. It's homework! It's like going to school and coming home to do your homework.
How do you stay excited about producing? You've been producing for over 20 years now.
When I dig and find stuff like "oh my god, have people heard this? This is crazy!" There's not a lot of people digging like that any more. Producers got lazy. I love digging and finding stuff that makes me like "I gotta make this when I get home." That right there drives me to keep going.
What would be the advice you'd say for producers coming up?
Just to have passion for what you do and love what you do and you'll excel. If you're trying to be in the music business producing artists, you gotta love what you're doing with your heart and soul. And buy my new album!
Interview: Andrew Friedman
Photos: Nicholas Routzen
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