When the hip-hop elders get together at their secret meeting in the mountains of Switzerland every year to talk about the state of things, they consistently place Pete Rock next to DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, and RZA on the list of five greatest hip-hop producers of all time. In fact, many heads, particularly those who are descended from the jazzy-soulful Native Tongues division of the hip-hop nation, routinely place his greatest beat, “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You),” at the very top of the list of the greatest beats by anyone.
So no matter how much radio play or mainstream attention is given to N.Y.’s Finest (released this month via Caroline), his first album since 2004, make no mistake: Any work by this soul survivor matters. With recent attention thrown his way thanks to his strong work on Ghostface Killah’s critical smash Fishscale (2006) and controversial buzz thanks to his unexpected collab with Jim Jones on “We Roll,” the lead single from the new album, Pete Rock is back on everybody’s short list in 2008. Here, he talks about his current position in hip-hop and how it relates to his already-cemented legacy.
This record is basically a producer’s record, with a different guest emcee on nearly every track. Did you decide who you wanted to work with first or did you make the beat and think, “I know who would be hot on this”?
I decided who I wanted to work with. There were also other people who I wanted to work with, but because of schedules it just didn’t work out. But I’ll get around to the people I haven’t worked with yet.
What draws you to making an album like this with so many different guests?
Everyone that’s on my album, there’s always something different about them, which puts me in the mood to where I’m creative within their world. I try to put inject myself into their world and try to come up with something that makes it work for them and for myself.
A lot of people are complaining about you working with Jim Jones on the record. What are your thoughts on that issue?
Everybody’s got something to say. I just think people should give it a chance. They are so used to hearing him on his style of music that he was doing before he got with me and did that song. He’s just branching off and doing different stuff. And I feel like cats should respect the fact that he’s worked with me, ‘cause you got a lot of these cats that are just into themselves and really don’t have the talent to make the beats that’s really bringing them across to the audience that would really be interested. So I think people should give him a shot, give it a chance.
I think he’s dope on the song. Max B came up with that hook and it was dope to me. And that was me just keeping my ears tuned to the streets and to the radio and to everything that’s going on today and using some of today’s relevant artists on some Pete Rock shit. Why not?
Do you ever get frustrated with fans who don’t seem to want you to break out of what you used to do?
No, not really. More, I just feel like if you don’t know your history then there’s no respect there. So you’re not gonna have the respect that you would have if you knew the type of person I was and what I’ve done for this industry, as far as hip-hop goes and changing the game and changing the way that people make beats and make records. So I don’t really fault them for that, they just have to learn. And that’s why I’m putting this album out there, to kind of reintroduce who I am to the younger generation so they don’t get misled. I feel there are a lot of people right now that are being misled.
Raekwon and Masta Killa appear on “The PJs,” which is a great track. You’ve been working with Wu-Tang on and off for a decade. How did you first hook up with them?
It was through Loud Records. A guy named Chris LaMonica was a friend of mine, and he was working at Loud Records and I used to visit them all the time. Then at one of the visits I sat in with Steve Rifkin and we talked about doing an album, and that’s when he kind of was thinking about signing me. And I met a couple of the Wu guys and we got acquainted, and the rest is history.
What do you feel the Wu bring to a track?
Just realness and raw real life. That’s the type of thing that intrigues me, when I see brothers like them and where they come from and how hard they struggled to be who they are and to get what they have. Even the work they’ve done in hip-hop, that got my attention, like everybody else that was a Wu-Tang fan.
You worked with Ghost recently, what was the process on that?
It was easy. I sat with Ghost in Staten Island, and we sat down in the studio and we went to a couple of beats, and it was just like two soul brothers just having fun listening to — it makes me chuckle just to think about it — listening to music and beats and shit. ‘Cause Ghost has a lot of soul, like me, so something was bound to come out of that. Anything I’m working on, something good is gonna come out of it, and Ghost is one of the most talented members of Wu-Tang.
In terms of actually making an album, do you think there is anything particularly different about Ghost and his process?
[Laughs] Maybe, maybe not. There is a method to his madness. He gets it done. That’s the thing: At the end of the day, everyone is satisfied and happy, including me.
You are two decades into your career. What do you think your legacy will be and what do you think your biggest contribution to hip-hop has been?
Just being able to put balance and change the way music is made. And even changing the business side of it and demanding more money from labels or artists for the work that you do. ‘Cause you’re worth more.
And last but not least, speaking to the youth about my history and what hip-hop has meant to me as a whole. Even before I got into hip-hop, what it meant to me then. It was very important, and I felt like music ran through my blood lines, with my father being a deejay and teaching me about records. I always thought vinyl was just intriguing. A black piece of wax that spins on a turntable and nothing but good sound comes from it. So that inspiration just keeps me going in hip-hop. And I just want to be remembered as someone who was not even legendary but someone who was intelligent with music and creative.
I watched the video promo for the new album, and it was great to hear the best producers of the last five years pay tribute to your skills and your impact.
Yeah, and vice versa. I do the same. Even when I do interviews now, I talk about Pharrell and Kanye and how they’re steering the hip-hop thing back into the right direction. With the effort of Kanye bringing back sampling and stuff like that, I say thank you to him ‘cause a lot of these young kids don’t know the type of work that’s done behind the scenes music-wise. Being a producer is a real job.
Do you feel like you’ve been influenced by them in your recent work?
Definitely. You just have to reach out to your audience, and even with the new crowd, you gotta break ‘em in. And it’s not easy to do when you’re getting older, cause the game today is about looking for the youngest talent they can possibly find, whether they’re experienced or not.
There are a lot of people who think “T.R.O.Y.” is the best hip-hop beat ever. Do you think it’s your best work?
Yeah, I think it is, because of the circumstances that I made it under. [Troy Dixon, a.k.a. Trouble T Roy of Heavy D & The Boyz], a good close friend of mine and the whole community where I’m from, Mount Vernon, passed away, and it touched the whole community. So with that song, it hit it right on the button, heartfelt. When I was making the beat and playing the sample and listening deeply to the music, I started to cry, because it was something that was messing with my emotions and touched my soul.
There is a small musical vignette before “T.R.O.Y.” on the album cut, and it’s something I always loved about your work on the Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth records. What was the motivation behind mini beats like that?
I just did it to make the album more exciting. The skits that certain people do, some people overdo it, some people don’t do it enough, and some people don’t do it at all. And doing nothing at all makes your album duller. So to me, it’s kind of like after you bake a cake, you’re putting the sprinkles on it. And then it’s done.
People often group you in with DJ Premier because you both kind of defined the sound of hip-hop in the early ‘90s. What would you say the similarities and differences are between you?
He’s one of the only producers from my era that’s still doin’ something, so that’s why I think people kind of link us together. I love this hip-hop shit, I’m always going to be around doing this shit. And you can tell when the person is still around, obviously, he loves it that much, just like me.
He’s very street at times, but I like to be versatile and be street and be a little R&B, a little melodic, mix a little pop with a little reggae — a little bit of everything. I can hit any genre and still be a smash in each genre. But where my heart lies is in the underground, and I think Primo’s does as well, and you can tell by some of the artists that we still work with, regardless of if we’re doing records for Christina Aguilera or Keyshia Cole.
By the way, I did do a song on the new Keyshia Cole album.
Yeah, you didn’t get credit for that.
Yeah, I didn’t get credit, but it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her manager.
It seems to happen far too often.
These young cats, they come into the game and they don’t realize certain things, and they just need to be more respectful.
What do you most want people to know about the new record?
It’s something good that hasn’t been out in New York in a long, long time, And I feel like New York needs it right now. We’ve been through a lot, with people in the news and rappers, and the September 11 situation and just everything going wrong. It just seems like it all happened at one time. After 9/11, people weren’t the same, everyone just kind of changed. They were hit with a reality check.