In the latest installment of our Behind The Beat series, Thomas Hobbs spoke with the legendary Pete Rock about how he and a teenaged Nas recorded “The World is Yours,” one of the greatest rap records of all time.
Thanks to its perfect blend of vivid jazz, dusty boom bap, and teenage wisdom, ‘The World Is Yours’ still has infinite replay value 27 years later. It serves as a time capsule to a brighter moment for New York City: a teenage rap prodigy called Nas had briefly unified the five boroughs, making everyone believe they had an heir to Rakim who could help win back dominance from the West Coast.
“It’s endured as it captures the feel of New York City so perfectly,” reckons the song’s legendary producer Pete Rock. “It is about the world being your oyster. I know the phrase of ‘the world is yours’ comes from Scarface, but Nas’ message was about showing Black America how to make the best choices so people can live a long life and have longevity. That kind of message doesn’t get old.”
Rock, who is now 50, admits his memories of those glory days are getting a little hazier. He remembers Large Professor bringing Nas to his home studio — which extended into his neighbor’s basement at his home in Mount Vernon — around “92, 93”. The producer had been amazed by the Queensbridge adolescent’s pledge to snuff Jesus and wave “automatic guns at nuns” on attention-grabbing guest verses from early 1990s posse cuts by Main Source and MC Serch.
Even with only a handful of guest verses, Nas was the hottest rapper in the City. Rock agrees that the rising artist’s scratchy, Sahara-dry vocals sounded more like they belonged to a prophet than a kid barely clear of his 18th birthday. “These weren’t raps, it was street literature,” Rock said. “I had a spacious basement studio that generated a lot of excitement in the neighborhood as kids were always rapping down there and celebrities kept popping by to get beats [from me].”
Rock was an A-List producer who had already worked on classic songs with C.L. Smooth, Redman, and Heavy D, but he says being visited by a teenage Nas still felt “special.”
“Nas was a new voice but he already had such distinctive skill,” Rock said. “It was like it was supposed to happen; this guy had to be in hip-hop. There was no way in the world he could do anything else but rap. Anyway, he came in and I just started playing him some of my beats.”
The beat that caught Nas’ attention was particularly special for Rock. The producer was a devoted fan of legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, admiring the way his track “I Love Music” presented pristine layers of piano that playfully twist around one another before elegantly unraveling. In the song, there’s a five-second loop that occurs at the 4.58-second mark, where a dark hum of bass seems to awaken a nostalgic chime. It disappears into the Ether almost as quickly as it arrives, but Rock couldn’t get this brief moment of beauty out of his head.
“I kept repeating this loop with my hand on the SB-1200 over and over. Then I looped it up real quick, just to see what it might sound like without drums. I was in love with it. Ahmad Jamal is one of my favorite pianists so being able to make something that sampled his music was very special for me. That loop just sparked so much nostalgia, and making the rest of ‘The World Is Yours’ beat wasn’t too hard after that.”
Nas recorded his raps separately, but Rock still managed to soak up the atmosphere of those fabled Illmatic sessions (which included producers like Q-Tip, Large Professor, and DJ Premier) when he added scratches to “The World Is Yours” beat at Times Square’s Battery Studios. These scratches gave the track its raw edge, as Rock fluidly pushed the sample’s gorgeous nostalgia right into the gutter. He did all this in the presence of DJ Premier. “I didn’t gear up [for Preemo] or put on a show, I just did what I’m supposed to do and knocked those scratches out of the park,” Rock said. “There was something special in the air as everyone was inspired by one another; there were a lot of producers in the same room working and pushing each other for Illmatic.”
He sighs and continues: “It’s not like that with this new generation. Everyone’s emailing verses and MP3’ing, and the beats are all made on the computer. You lose the spirit in the sound, and the songs end up in the hands of people the artists or producers don’t even know. The old-fashioned way resulted in the greatest sound ever. That process of being in the same room with people is why I made so many great records. It’s why Illmatic still sounds so great, too.”
Aside from Rock’s smooth beat, which romanticizes gritty New York City with the crystal-clear clarity of a Martin Scorsese film and also taps into rap’s lineage to jazz in the most fluid of ways, “The World Is Yours” still sounds so great because of Nas’ assured rapping. He sounds like he’s lived several lives already, rapping about how his unborn son will be his resurrection and the struggle of the Black experience in America — “Dwellin’ in the Rotten Apple, you get tackled, or caught by the devil’s lasso, shit is a hassle” — in a way that’s eternally wise, especially given how inequality only appears to have worsened in America in the years since. Bars like “wipe the sweat off my dome, spit the phlegm on the streets” awaken the senses, making you imagine suede Timberland boots crunching over broken bottles.
I’ve always wondered if Nas’ insistence that Pete Rock help him rap the hook and also appear in a cameo to scratch like a God in the song’s music video, were both passing of the torch moments, with the Queensbridge MC paying tribute to the brain behind his worn out Mecca and The Soul Brother cassette. But Rock isn’t in the mood to eulogize this moment. “People always think there’s more to something than there was. It’s simple work, man. And that hook was just our thoughts coming together,” he said. “Just natural shit. That’s it. Nothing extravagant. Instinct.”
Rough diamond beats from Pete Rock, like “A Little Soul” and “Smooth Sailing”, inspired producers like J Dilla and Madlib, while 1998’s “Tha Game” (featuring Raekwon, Ghostface, and Prodigy) and its medieval drive-by theatrics feel like a larger-than-life Griselda beat years before the Buffalo crew were a force. Rock’s career has shown a constant need to innovate and push forward and be one step ahead of everybody else. This makes it understandable that he might get frustrated about only getting asked about “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” and “The World Is Yours” over and over. “I always wanted to do something different, so it can be hard [to look back],” Rock said.
The veteran’s music continues to point in fascinating directions, with the recently released Petestrumentals 3 LP, which tellingly has zero samples, well deserving of praise. Rock brought in musicians and singers like Christian McBride, Daru Jones, and Jermaine Holmes to form “The Soul Brothers” band, with this subsequent album feeling like Rock’s attempt to out-funk D’Angelo and Sly Stone. Songs like “So Good” and “Say It Again” have the luxurious feel of seeing someone perform at Ronnie Scott’s jazz bar, a whisky on the rocks under table light as the mellow groove helps you to sink back into your seat.
“That’s a great comparison,” Rock tells me. “I was influenced by people like Sly, Brass Construction, Kool and the Gang, James Brown, Isaac Hayes – all kinds of funk bands and jazzmen. All their music is in my blood, and I’ve always been an extension of them in hip-hop form. I wanted this to sound like a Marvin Gaye or Leon Wear record but with no vocals. My beats don’t need words to guide you or help you escape. It’s made by grown men who feel good about their lives. It’s escapism. I want people to hear it and be like, ‘Hey Pete Rock is still out here rocking!’”
I try to tempt Rock to look back on “The World Is Yours” one last time. Is it the best rap song ever? Does he ever wish he had a time machine so he could return back to that golden era? He half-groans and tells me: “‘The World Is Yours’ isn’t my best beat, but it is good, I guess. Look, I miss the ’80s, ’70s, and ’90s. I miss the fact artists, who were once here, aren’t here anymore. From singers to songwriters to producers to rappers. RIP to my cousin Heavy D. I miss those days. But I’m also very happy with where my life is at right now.”
Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno.