Pete Rock Explains His Sampling Process, The Power Of Jazz, & Why Crate-Digging Will Never Die

Insofar as hip-hop legends are concerned, few producers can rival the storied career of Pete Rock. Having come of age at a time when hip-hop culture was beginning to take shape in New York City, with elements like emceeing, deejaying, and breakdancing gaining momentum at local parties, a young Pete Rock found himself exploring the vibrant music around him. Inspired by Black musicians and pioneers in the fields of reggae and jazz, Rock quickly became enamored with the art of crate digging, studying the albums he’d discover and eventually implementing them into his production. 

Fresh off the release of his brand new album Petestrumentals 3, Pete Rock has come full circle as a musician and creative visionary. Having mastered the art of the sample, he found new challenges in the realm of live music, allowing his jazz influences to unfold on the jam room floor. “It’s definitely fun to see guys play what I want in my head live in front of me,” explains Rock, reflecting on the process of bringing a musical vision to life with his band The Soul Brothers. “And then me telling them where to place it and what to play. I felt like the cross between James and Barry White and Isaac Hayes.”

In honor of everything he continues to bring to the game, we caught up with Pete Rock to discuss some of his biggest influences, as well as the musicians that made him who he is today. Check out the full conversation below, edited for clarity. 

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HNHH: Pete Rock! How are you doing? How’ve you been doing dealing with pandemic stuff?

Pete Rock: You know what if it wasn’t for music in this world, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now.

Yeah, same here. I mean, I wouldn’t really have a job right now.

Right. [Laughs] But, you know, I’m doing okay. You know, to speak of the circumstances, I’m doing quite well.

Congratulations on the new Petestrumentals album.

Thank you very much.

The trilogy– is it supposed to be a trilogy?

I’m actually working on part four right now.

Oh, nice. What’s the process like, when you’re piecing together something with more live instrumentation?

It’s definitely fun to see guys play what I want in my head live in front of me. And then me telling them where to place it and what to play. I felt like the cross between James and Barry White and Isaac Hayes.

Legends right there. And speaking of which, I just want to say that it’s an honor to be talking to you. You’re a legend out here — a great — one of the most influential producers. So thanks, again, for taking the time.

Anytime. Thank you, you know, when it comes to music, you know, that’s the biggest spark for me to talk about.

Yeah, for sure. You mentioned bringing to life these ideas that you have in your head. I was curious, are you a musician yourself? Do you play any instruments? Do you have any sort of musical theory knowledge that you implement into these jam sessions?

I play around instrumentals, but not seriously. I want to learn the drums. And I seriously want to learn how to play the bass.

Oh, yeah. Both foundational elements right there.

I play the bass with the drum machine, like, really well. I think of bass lines in my head all day, every day, which makes having a band fun. The bass player I have, Mono Neon, who’s Prince’s old bass player, and he’s so– I can’t even explain how dope he is. You know, it takes nothing for him to get a baseline that I’m humming. He’s just dope and I’m grateful to God for him. And we got– You know, we got the album, Pete Rock And The Soul Brothers, the album that we’re gonna do. That’s gonna be outta here. I can’t wait for that. But you know, I got a whole lot of special things lined up. I’m very happy about music and where I’m at. And working with people again, some of my peers that have reached out, and even some new guys. Shout out to everyone that I’ve blessed with music and everyone that I’ve worked with, had ups and downs with.

Pete Rock – So Good

Definitely. Going back to the bassist — To me, a band is only as good as its bassist in a way, you know what I mean? Like a good bassist is going to bring a band to a new level. And I could tell that you’ve always been someone who’s appreciated the bass. You use bass in a lot of your beats to very effective results. What was it about the bass that really spoke to you and your first developing that sound and falling in love with music?

I fell in love with bass from reggae records, believe it or not. My whole family’s Jamaican. We grew up in the Bronx, me and my younger brother, and everyone else was born in Jamaica. My dad had the illest record collection ever and had like almost every reggae hit you can imagine. Even rockers and dubplates, and everything like that. He had it all and I learned a great deal from listening to him play reggae songs. That’s where my love for the bass came from.

Are there any particular artists or songs that really left an impression?

Gregory Isaacs, for one. Coco T. Sugar Minott. Bob Marley. I-Roy, U-Roy, you know, I’m old school. I like the old school guys. The Heptones. Mighty Diamonds. The list goes on and on and on.

Did you ever end up incorporating any of their music into some of your beats, maybe sampling some of their stuff?

Of course. I sample their stuff all the time just to play around. I love it. My band can play reggae too.

Nice. I wanted to know a little bit about when you first started to get into hip-hop production. All the way back. Can you set the stage for how the culture was evolving at the time when you were a kid growing up in your city?

Listening to Bambaata and Kool Herc and it starts from there. Cold Crush, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Fantastic Five, Funky Four Plus One More, Treacherous Three. So many dope groups that we were influenced by. Kurtis Blow, Jimmy Spicer. Kurtis Blow was our first biggest rap song, and we learned a great deal from our first peers. As far as hip hop goes, the late 70s to early 80s has shaped the 90s.

Definitely. I saw a video one time of Grandmaster Flash on the turntables, he was juggling two at once. It was incredible. And I can only imagine seeing that start to unfold at parties. What was it like first seeing what a DJ could do? And when did it start to click in your head — specifically around the breaks — and how to incorporate those into music?

That same era I just spoke about. That’s where I first saw DJing, graffiti, just hip-hop period. And seeing Flash, DJ Charlie Chase — so many dope DJs. Easy Lee from the Treacherous Three, so many of those guys stood out. But in overall not enough. Because the DJ, he provided the music, but it’s really about the emcee. He was on the front line. You know, the DJ always played the background. So, you know, I loved what that was and what it blossomed into — giving the DJ some light. DJ’s an intricate part of producing as well.

I imagine there must have been a pretty high learning curve at the time. Just taking vinyls and singling out specific places. And I mean, with the technology that was available at the time, was it difficult to first get into production?

I’m a very fast and easy learner. I learn from watching people. Maybe I can have very few instructions from someone showing me how to work something. But you put me in a room with some professionals, and all I’m doing is soaking up, I’m just gonna turn into a sponge and just like, soak it all up. Remember what I saw, remember what I saw that person doing. And then, you know, reading instruction books on drum machines — the SP-12, things of that nature, to further your knowledge on how to work it — and then, boom.

“Heavy D is my cousin. He’s the one who took me under his wing, and saw something in me and said ‘Yo, I want to help bring that out of you.’”

Cool. With Black History Month going on I was wondering — when you were first honing your style, were there any particular Black musicians or influential people who really played a role in your development as an artist and a producer?

Oh, that’s Heavy D, my cousin! You know, Heavy D is my cousin. He’s the one who took me under his wing, and saw something in me and said ‘Yo, I want to help bring that out of you.’ And he was already on his quest, doing what he was doing. Well, in the beginning, we used to just kind of work things out, but when he got his first record out, things started to happen. I used to go on tour with him and carry his records and just be the record boy, but I was happy doing it, because I got to meet people under him. He showed me the ropes, man. He’s the reason why I am who I am today.

Pete Rock

 Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic/Getty Images

So those days touring at the same time, I imagine there were quite a lot of different emcees coming out of the city, different types of producers. When you were starting to get into the game, what were you looking for in an emcee? Did you have a preference of lyrical style? Because I know there was a lot of evolving styles at the time, like, guys like Jaz-O, bringing new flows and like —

I used to look for voice, uh, flow, cadence, and wittiness. And just, you know, just — a bit different from what I’ve been hearing or what’s out there. And, that’s where CL Smooth came in for me, when it came to getting into a partnership with someone to do our music.

I’m a big fan of I guess what you’d call like, golden-era hip-hop at this point. But for me, I always associated that from like, Wu-Tang and Illmatic to, I don’t know what the last golden era album would be — Something in like ‘98 or ‘99?

A Tribe Called Quest, man. Rest in peace to Phife. Um, you know, I could name a bunch of, you know, Tribe, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Redman, EPMD…

But there was kind of like a shift in the sounds. I mean I always just look at, like, the late ‘90s as like, kind of this transition into something —

Oh yeah, the late 90s.

Yeah. You still had that element in like ‘98, ‘99, with some projects, but the sounds were shifting. I guess what I’m getting at is, artists seemed to be undergoing a bit of a stylistic shift, especially New York artists — it almost was getting a little darker, lyrically.

It was. Things started to change. Life started to change. Music on the radio started to change. Life, in general, started to change. And now that we’re going through what we’re going through, the music still hasn’t changed. It’s sad to turn on the radio and hear something you can’t learn from. But, instead, learn something maybe negative from it. But they’re playing it and drilling it in your head every day. And sometimes some of the new stuff, it’s not kosher. Not to be a hater or anything like that, but you know, we gotta teach our children.

“You have a lot of the new generation guys just doing things that we never used to do in the ‘90s. Towards the end of the ‘90s we lost Tupac, we lost Biggie, we started losing people. And I think with that happening, there was a lot of shift in people, personally.”

We gotta teach younger generations. But if the younger generation has never been taught, it’s hard for them to be role models. So they just keep doing the same thing over and over and over and over again. Which gives us results that sometimes are negative, you know what I’m saying? You have a lot of the new generation guys just doing things that we never used to do in the ‘90s. Towards the end of the ‘90s we lost Tupac, we lost Biggie, we started losing people. And I think with that happening, there was a lot of shift in people, personally. A lot of us were close to certain artists. So that tone was probably set, you know, because of special people, who were talented people, that we lost. So, you know, you mix that in with the pandemic, and you know, ignorance, and you don’t get a good plate of food.

With all these hardships that are going on, I wonder if maybe in ten years we’ll look back on the music that’s being made and start noticing certain patterns. Recurring themes. I guess it’s hard to really assess the present when you’re living in it.

Yeah, man. It’s crazy right now. But if you’re strong-minded, you can handle anything. And I have music to keep me sane. I have family, and those are the most important things right there that’ll keep you sane. I don’t hear many hip-hop artists say this, but maybe they do think it. I feel like that’s the important stuff we need to focus on. Focusing on empowering our youth and making them better people, because, you know, it’s so easy to go a negative way. Why not go a positive way, and make the world a better place to live?

Definitely. Well said. Speaking on the music — when you’re producing, do you prefer to work closely one-on-one with artists?

Of course! Heck yeah! That’s way better doing it in person. It’s way better. ‘Cause, like, when the person’s right there, I start getting excited and start thinking about music. Like, yo, let me play you these, let me play you these beats, man! Let’s see what we can come up with and then we start coming up with crazy ideas and everything right there. Then we just get in and start doing it. Laying the beat, getting in the booth, doing the vocals. That’s the best high in the world.

I can imagine when you’re playing the beats, seeing the artist reacting must be quite a nice feeling. A lot of the time, the music just sounds so much better in a studio setting, anyway. I know a lot of artists drink and smoke in the studio and that might enhance the experience for them, too. Some pretty good vibes going on.

Oh yeah, definitely! Most definitely so. Those vibes right there, for me, whenever that happened, it was just like ‘Wow, man.’ My imagination just starts going nuts. [Laughs] And I start doing anything with the music. You just never know what’s gonna happen or how it’s gonna come out. I always look forward to the outcome of something that I’m excited about.

Who are some emcees who really did something unexpected over one of your beats?

Hmmm. Damn. Oh, man, so many…I mean, you know, Black Thought, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip. Large Pro, so many on the rap tip. Jay-Z, Kanye…

Sounds like you have a preferred type of artist to work with — rappers who have bars.

Yeah. That’s important because that’s the only thing that’s gonna match my music well is if you are speaking some sort of fly shit.

Pete Rock

 Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

A lot of people tend to think that there’s been a bit of a downgrade in the bars today.

There is.

There’s still some stuff though, you know?

There’s still some stuff, but, you know, you just gotta seek it. You know, you gotta pick and choose your poison out here. You can easily pick what you like, and only listen to the guys who spit real lyrics. That’s it.

Do you ever — do you feel that crate-digging is endangered right now, given the technology?

I mean, I still do it, Madlib still does it, the real producers still go out there and find that vinyl. Then you have YouTubers. People who like to dig on YouTube. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, I guess. It is what it is. I just like it the genuine way. I’m cut from that, so I go out there and find it.

“I still do it, Madlib still does it, the real producers still go out there and find that vinyl. Then you have YouTubers. People who like to dig on YouTube. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, I guess. It is what it is. I just like it the genuine way. I’m cut from that, so I go out there and find it.”

I respect that, though. It’s good to keep the tradition.

Yeah, we need more people to actually do that, you know? It’s nothing to it, once you get used to doing it. You’re gonna find yourself having fun doing it when you start finding those real gems.

Is there a particular sample that you hold close to your heart?

You know what, that’s kind of a hard question to answer because there are so many samples out here. But maybe I can. Maybe one. “Reminisce.” Yeah, you know, the T.R.O.Y song. Nothing else past that is more special because that record meant something to me, my community and T.R.O.Y and his family.

I respect that for sure. When you’re hearing a song do you catch the potential samples right away?

Now I do. Before, I used to have to listen, listen. I still listen hard. I listen to the whole album, the whole song, you know, and play it again, and play it again, and study it, and figure it out. And do it.

There are a lot of different vibes you can catch from music, right? So if you’re really into an album that you’re thinking of sampling and it’s bringing you a specific feeling — say it’s very positive, uplifting — do you ever think about taking the sample into a direction that’s the complete opposite? So maybe a bit darker, for example. Or do you tend to keep the same vibe that the original song had?

I like to keep the vibe of the original. You know, just to show some respect musically. I only sample stuff that gives me a good feel. Something that sets my soul on fire. And then, you know, listening real hard and well, and knowing the song by heart.

Cool. Is there anything that you’ve got cooking up in particular right now on the more hip hop side?

PeteStrumentals 4, I’m working on. I’m working on some Soul Survivor 3, working on a couple of artists’ projects. I got my artists and my label Tru Soul Records. I have my artist Amir, who’ll be out on the label — my first release, and I’m excited about it. I’m also working with artists you know — AZ, a couple of other people. Papoose too, Papoose and a couple other artists.

Cool. Do you have any artists that you still have on the bucket list, maybe one that you really want to do a project with?

Yeah. Yeah, kinda. Definitely. I would like to work more with Kendrick Lamar. Um, you know, even do a joint with LL, but I think Q-Tip right now is working with LL Cool J.

I saw that they were actually in the studio together not too long ago.

Yeah, yeah. And there’s a few others out here that I would like to get my paws on, on a music tip, you know what I’m saying?

What was it like working with an artist like Kendrick? A very conceptual type of guy, you know?

Yeah, he was — he’s very articulate in what he wants. And I was happy to be a part of To Pimp A Butterfly with him. I was an immediate fan from the first mixtapes he was doing. And then the first album is like, my favorite album by him — I play it all the time still right now. Shoutout to all of ‘em. Schoolboy Q, all of ‘em. Jay Rock. The whole crew, man. They all dope to me.

“[Kendrick Lamar] is very articulate in what he wants. And I was happy to be a part of To Pimp A Butterfly with him. I was an immediate fan from the first mixtapes he was doing. And then the first album is like, my favorite album by him.”

Pete Rock-TDE collaborations are always welcome in my books. I would love to hear that.

We can’t go wrong with any of that. Anyone, anybody I’m working with.

Definitely, and even the live band stuff — I’m really liking that sound, you know? Playing live music really comes with a certain type of camaraderie and chemistry and trust.

So much fun. It’s like you said, there’s so much trust. That’s absolutely correct because, you gotta know who the band is gonna be by the end of the month. Who the real members are gonna be — but shoutout to everyone that was a part of the group in the beginning?

Were you a big jazz fan at any point in your life?

Of course. Huge, huge jazz fan. Jazz is like, my favorite. And some of the most complicated music to understand is jazz. I know these jazz musicians do soul music easily but soul musicians don’t do jazz as easily as the jazz musicians do soul, you know? If you’re going to be a band member in anything, I would play between soul and jazz first.

Cool. How did you — when did you first start to kind of fall in love with jazz music, and what was it about that sound that spoke to you?

Probably as a kid. I fell in love with jazz and I always felt it was something relaxing. And I always felt it was always Black, too. It just gives me the sense of the ‘60s — the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, you know, jazz was very influential in those days for how we move forward in life.

“I fell in love with jazz and I always felt it was something relaxing. And I always felt it was always Black, too. It just gives me the sense of the ‘60s — the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, you know, jazz was very influential in those days for how we move forward in life.”

Yeah, it’s interesting you say that and it’s cool ‘cause people think of these prominent Black figures and don’t always associate their influence with music. Or how what they stood for started to impact the music being made at the time. Their influence really runs deeper than people might think, you know?

Yeah. Big time, man. Like I said, it always gave me the aura of some type of Blackness. Just because of who I listened to — from John Coltrane to Thelonious to Miles to you know, to Bobby Hutcherson, Grant Green, so many to name. You know, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine, Boots Randolph — great sax player. Lots of others, man. Those were all the crusaders, they were all like big, big jazz influences in my life.

That’s cool to hear them coming out in your current music too. You’re keeping the spirit alive.

Yes, definitely, man. Thank you.

It’s too bad you can’t take the show on the road just yet.

Yeah, not yet. I can only hope that I will, one day. And if not, then we’ll just keep making the music to keep people sane out here.

As long as you got the jam space going. Do you guys rehearse a lot?

We do. When they’re in town. Most of the musicians live in New York, but two — Mono and Daru are the out-of-towners. They gotta come to New York. But we have a base that we’ll work out of.

Sweet. Well, best of luck with all your endeavors. Thanks again for taking the time, I appreciate the conversation. It’s an honor to talk to a hip-hop legend.

Thank you. I was just gonna tell you, stay safe and keep your head up man. I know it’s a lot going on, you know what I’m saying. But we gotta just keep our heads up. Stay strong and move forward and protect your family.

Yeah, well said. And keep doing what you’re doing. Peace!

Definitely will, man. Appreciate it.

Pete Rock

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