Some of the garage-type guitar, bass and organ samples that characterize the loops on Lost, Cool Calm Pete's solo debut, come from some pretty hard-to-find records. The reissue kings at Sundazed probably won't be able to get their hands on what Pete's got for his beats. But when I ask where I can, he gets quiet.
"You know, I really wish I knew more places. When I'm in Korea or when I'm talking to some people, I try to get people to send shit out, but it's really just luck," he says, careful not to reveal his sources, other than that he's been listening to a lot of sixties and seventies soul from Japan and Korea.. "I've inherited a couple of small collections from odd family members and friends. And after this record, they heard that I was doing that, so every few months I get a small crate that gets sent to me. So, you know, my family has been helping me get all the records together."
So, the Korean-born, Queens-based former Babbletron emcee and now beatmaker and solo artist is getting records from his family to craft his lazy, moody beats. That excuse might work for now, but he's gonna have to spill the beans sooner or later about his seemingly new knack for laying down catchy, soulful backdrops and even better rhymes.
Pete juggles a couple of chores on Embedded Music's Lost, released July 12, handling half of the beats and nearly all of the rhymes. The record came together while Babbletron, the New York City outfit for which Pete takes half the vocal duties, is on somewhat of a break.
"It's not like we got beef or anything," he says. "It's just, people gotta get their life organized, you know? So I decided about a year-and-change ago to just start working on a solo project ... and I think it came out okay."
This unassuming demeanor is also commonplace on his better-than-okay record. Pete's flow is lazy and looming, as if he's doing an impression of Eric Sermon or Vast Aire on ample doses of Robitussin. He sounds just as stoned when I ask him if the solemn air of disillusionment on the title track has anything to do with the general misfortunes of being an independent emcee.
"Not in particular. Because that's where I am, I guess, it might project that way," he says of "Lost," the title track and first single. "But at least in the last few years, anyone in New York will tell you, it's the climate right now. Here, it's just ... well, it kinda sucks."
"Lost" definitely emanates Pete's distaste for the state of the nation in New York. He rattles off inward complaints and nearly crushed optimism: "I got hopes and dreams, son/ Rollin' downhill and the year has just begun." Occasionally his voice climbs into higher tones, but it doesn't stay there long. Instead he tumbles downward into dampened near-whining, as if he's shaking his head in disappointment. The backdrop doesn't help a bit; it's one of Pete's solid downtempo beats, with subtle, minor-key string pluckings of a beachside combo accenting a snare-heavy break. As far off and tropical as it sounds, Calm Pete keeps everything pretty local.
"I guess it's kinda my escape, you know?" he says of laying down the single's vacation-like tracks. "I recorded everything in a home studio, and I don't really have house engineer, so it's pretty much rigged up so I'm my own engineer here. So I think [the whole record] has a kind of internalized, introverted feel."
Even if some of the rawer, chaotic-sounding pieces on Lost, such as "Windsprints," start off with more fire, they eventually slow to an even burn toward the end. Pete and Usual Suspectz member Doc Strange collaborate for beat purposes on "Windsprints," and a stinging fuzz-guitar loop follows Pete's abstractions through frequent scratching and a quotable sampled chorus until a sluggish organ-laced coda puts an abrupt end to the track.
When he's not lumbering around in his home studio, Pete keeps busy doing design work for the skate company Supreme, putting his Bachelor of Fine Arts to reasonable use.
"It's kind of fresh because my boss has been pretty supportive of things I do outside," he says. "And he's just basically giving me a few months off, and I'm just gonna pop back in for some consulting -- just design stuff."
The emcee's background in design complements his younger days in what he calls the "regular hip-hop upbringing." Pete grew up in Queens after moving from Seoul, Korea, when he was but a toddler. He graduated from the "infamous" Art & Design, the school that formerly housed crews such as Mobb Deep and Organized Konfusion and to which Pete cheekily refers "the rappy rap high school." After rappy-rappiness, he pursued painting in college for four years and eventually disregarded his original plans to be a gallery artist, putting more time into music and freelance work.
"I approach these kind of albums, or making music, without really knowing what's going to happen. And since the summer has been going a lot better than I expected, I'm kind of just concentrating on that," he says. "I'm meeting booking agents and stuff, and I'm trying to sort out the business aspect of everything. Ideally, I'd love to just work on another album and put it out and have people buy it, but it's just not that simple. But maybe it can be. I don't know."