Pete Rock geeks out over his new live band, an ever-expanding comic book collection, and what he learned from the late J Dilla, in an exclusive interview.
If the sample is sacred to hip-hop, Pete Rock is its most vocal disciple. Over the course of three decades, nearly two dozen albums, and countless grailed beats, the Mt. Vernon producer has elevated the loop to an almost divine status. Guided by an uncommon ear for warm chords and cold snares, Pete’s pursuit is at once rigorously academic and deeply holistic, excavating catalogs both objectively classic and refreshingly obscure for the right segment of sound to manipulate.
But when it came to the third installment in his Petestrumentals series (out today via his TruSoul imprint,) the producer opted for a new route to rhythm. On his latest project, it’s not the samples that do the work. It’s the players. Namely, drummer Daru Jones, bassist MonoNeon, guitarist Marcus Machado, keyboardist Big Yuki, vocalist Jermaine Holmes, and Pete himself, who hops on the bass and dots the tracks with percussion throughout the album. Touting a star-powered collective resumé that spans sessions with Prince, D’Angelo, Bilal, Jack White, and a number of luminary talents in a range of disciplines and eras, the band — known as The Soul Brothers — is about as prestigious an ensemble one could assemble. And the way Pete tells it, they were more than worthy of being entrusted with flipping the producer’s scratch beats from low to high fidelity.
Ahead of the album’s release, we caught up with the iconic beatmaker to geek out over his new live band, unpack the pivot in his production process, and uncover what he learned from his distant student-turned-teacher, the late J Dilla. It should be noted, just after our chat, the producer made headlines for a round of posts expressing skepticism over the COVID-19 vaccines. He declined to comment when we reached back out.
What inspired you to abandon samples for this project?
I just felt like I’m at a point now in my career where I could just do basically whatever. I wanted to do this because I believed in this band. I believed that we had something strong going on. And so I just basically grabbed like 25 of my beats, passed it around to the guys, and said, “What do you think, and how close can you come to this, to what you hear?”
Do you think there’s a high fidelity to the original beats you gave them?
Yeah, because my original beats are basically lo-fi hip-hop and still sounds great if EQ’d properly. But with this album, it’s like a pet project for me because it’s going to prove to a lot of people that I have another side to me that’s live, without sampling. That I could make beats without sampling, and play a couple of instruments.
What are you playing on the album?
The bass. And then I’ll help out on a few joints doing the tambourine and things like that. I’m on some Kool & The Gang shit with my band.
So you connected with these musicians first, and then decided to do the album with them?
Yes. And right now we’re doing other stuff. So that direction that I’m speaking of, as far as Kool & The Gang, they’re a big inspiration to me. I’m a huge fan of them. And I wanted to kind of mock them in a positive way, but just doing it the way we do it now in 2020, 2021.
How did you meet these dudes?
Certain shows I would go to. I think that’s how me and Daru met. And then we talked about doing music. I always had the idea of putting a band together. And the things that I discover and listen to daily move me.
Did you have a different approach to arranging records in a live setting, than say, being on the boards or the MP?
Well, when I’m sampling, I’m thinking like a band member, or thinking like band members, or musicians in a band. So there are certain instruments that I go after when I’m making a sampled beat. Or I may just find some samples that have a lot of things in it already or just make it myself. There’s so much you can do with sampling. And I think I’ve done it all. But there’s now a new wave of things happening that I’m going to get involved with that should be fun.
Are you still working on the MPC?
Yeah, but I got a bunch of beats on the SP still too. So I’m doing part two of that. And I also started doing Petestrumentals 4 already, because that’s sampled stuff. That’s just going back into the vault, and picking out stuff I ain’t used… stuff that I’ve had for years. And I still like making new beats today. I’m doing that too. And then just having fun and making music, man. I like to cover all aspects of hip-hop, or styles in hip-hop. It’s like practice. It’s like going to football practice, or basketball practice.
I like that you framed it that way. I’ve found the work ethic of a lot of musicians to be very similar to that of an athlete. You really have to put in the work during the day. And every day you want to get your result or payout. Do you have a system that you’ve built for yourself?
I definitely do a lot of listening to music. A lot of listening to albums. I take a whole day and do that. And then start gathering my ideas up. It’s like the same procedure I have always been doing. But now I feel the importance of listening to music all day, and just taking notes.
That’s the research.
Yep. And then, just getting some ideas together. That’s why I’m grateful for this band. Because I can kind of interpret what I want with them, and they can pick it up with ease.
It’s almost academic in that way. There’s the R&D period, and then there’s the application period.
Definitely. It’s a process, man. Everything’s a process.
Have you tinkered with that at all during the pandemic?
Well yeah. You got to make something of the time that you got while this thing is going on. Also, what needs to be understood is that the pandemic brought a lot of positive things, besides all the negative that’s going down. Like just having to learn more and experience hip hop online. They got so many shows, and different things going on right now. And people putting out music faster. And me, I’m doing mixtapes and free stuff just to keep people’s minds afloat. Putting out albums, and producing people. It’s all that I love doing. It’s all a part of everything that I do. I just make those albums like that so people can know that music is a healer, and you can do anything with the music.
Taking the sample-less route on this project reminds me of how J Dilla had that phase where he stopped using samples for a while. I’ve read and heard interviews of him discussing how you influenced his production. Is there anything in particular you might’ve taken away from your experience with him?
He’s my friend. He’s become my favorite producer over everyone. Not disrespectfully either. He’s my favorite guy. And for me to hear that I inspired him is a great feeling. When we were hanging around each other we was just bouncing off hot rocks to one another. It was crazy. He was just such a humble guy. And I could feel his energy. It was very positive. To see us together in one room… It was crazy.
Do you remember when you met him?
Yeah. I met him back in like what, ’96, ’95. Something like that. When I heard his beats for the first time… Q-Tip came into my session at Green Street and played his tapes for me. And I wanted to meet him after I heard what I heard. And then I ended up going to Detroit to hang out with him for a whole week in his basement.
I got to know his moms. Shout out to Ma Dukes. That’s the homie, and she’s a great lady, a very strong woman, and a very positive person. It’s a pleasure to know her.
Over the last five years or so it feels like people really started catching on to how influential Dilla was, and how impactful his music was in the larger scope of hip-hop and R&B production. Is there something in particular that you would attribute that to? It feels convenient almost sometimes, but at the same time, it’s also long overdue.
I don’t know. It may be being James Brown fans. I’m a huge James Brown fan. It’s no secret. And just using our ear. And you know what? His music taught us to have good ears. He had good ears. I’m just giving you my experience with James Brown’s music. Which would inspire me and people like Dilla to make the beats we make today is constantly, constantly, constantly listening to James Brown’s music. It was like a big, huge blueprint to life itself.
We took that very serious growing up. My dad made sure he instilled his music in me at a very young age. And then I ended up meeting him when I was like seven years old when he came to my neighborhood and did a show. My moms took me and my younger brother. She took me backstage to meet him. And when I shook his hand, I think I became Pete Rock that day.
I think as producers, your muscle is your ear. It’s the thing that always distinguishes a producer in my brain. The way you find and isolate a sound. I went back to listen to “The Joy” recently from Watch The Throne. The way you flipped the live version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Makings of You” is just stellar. It made me realize how finetuned your ear has always been for R&B and soul. And I’ve always wondered, did you ever think about doing an R&B record or album with someone?
Hell yeah, man. I talk about it a lot with a lot of people. And I think, you never know what may happen, sir. When they start hearing my music again, maybe cats will start reaching out and wanting to do stuff.
I got a lot of ideas. I lock into what I learned from other people too. Like Teddy Riley, for instance. If I’m going to do R&B, he’s the perfect blueprint. To put my hip-hop in it and do melodic stuff. Because that’s one of my favorite things to do. And that’s why I always try to put my best foot forward when I’m making music. Because I want to hear good shit. I just want to hear good shit, man.
Speaking of which, are you still buying records?
Hell yeah. That never ever stops, ever.
For sample-based producers, I can imagine this pandemic shit really shaking up a part of the process.
There’s always a way for us, bro. We still doing it. It don’t matter. We go to the stores. People respect us. They let us come in, and do what we do. Or you can go online. There’s nothing wrong with going online, but you know their prices is a little steep.
How’s your comic book collection looking these days?
They’re like records to me.
Any recent standouts?
No new variants yet. But I got some coming in the mail, so I’m going to see what they sent me.
I would have loved to have heard your soundtrack or score to one of these Marvel films or shows. Was that ever something you wanted to get into?
Yeah, of course. I always said I wanted to have my music in movies, and commercials, and TV shows. Everything like that. I’m going to keep doing this kind of music that people like. That they actually like vibing to. Life is about catching a vibe.
Is there a particular Marvel title that you would have wanted to put some music to?
Almost everything. But my favorite character is The Incredible Hulk, of course. I’m a big Hulk fan. Lou Ferrigno Hulk. The old school Hulk. The Avengers movie was good. I just feel like he lost his way in Hollywood.
What do you think about the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Looks interesting, man. Looks real, real interesting. I think they’re setting up the multi-verse. They got Daredevil and [Spider-man] getting together now. And Alfred Molina is coming back as [Doctor Octopus] from Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man. They’re saying Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire will return as Spider-Man in the multi-verse. Both of them. How dope is that, man? I cannot wait to see something like this. We are dying here. This is stuff we dreamt about as kids.
You’ve got to put something to one of these movies or shows. There’s like 30 of them on the way.
Yep. I’m going to. I believe I’m going to. But man, listen. I’m a big time collector of the obscure blaxploitation movies where you see people we know and that you never knew did movies like this. I’m into finding stuff like that. That turns me on.
They’ve got some crazy soundtracks too.
Ridiculous soundtracks. And the music that you hear is like, “Oh my gosh.” And then to find out that they never made a soundtrack to some of it, or they just made a couple of singles from the movie.
I just came across this one soundtrack that Jerry Butler did for a movie called Melinda. The theme and the reprise are two of the most gorgeous arrangements I have ever heard in my life.
I have that on vinyl. Petestrumentals 4 has “Melinda” on it.
What’s 2021 looking like for you?
As far as releasing music and doing what I love, real good.
I got Petestrumentals 4 coming out. I got my new label, Tru Soul, where I’m dropping stuff. And I got my new artist, Amir, AKA the 25th-Hour Man. I produced a mixtape that we’re putting out just for people to get a feel. And we got an album called Dope Boys Soul we’re putting out.