Acclaimed Producer Pete Rock Talks James Brown, Mentorship and Living Up to His Name

Legendary hip-hop producer, Pete Rock (born Peter Phillips), met the legendary songwriter and performer James Brown when he was 7 years old in Mount Vernon, New York. That moment, coupled with a childhood immersed in music, helped to open Rock’s eyes to the very real idea that he too could be a professional musician. That he too could live a creative life.

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When Rock was just 3 years old, he’d realized music was always around. His father was a record collector and DJ and Rock used to listen to his jazz and soul albums (Brown included). At 7, Rock’s mother took him to a show in his hometown of Mount Vernon where Brown was performing. His mother even had the confidence to introduce herself and her son to Brown that night. To this day, Rock, who has since worked with Nas, Kanye, Jay Z and is considered one of the most influential producers ever, says that was one of the greatest days of his life. Now, as the latest judge for the Tracklib Beat Battle Competition (winner announced this Sunday), Rock is taking on the role of mentor to a number of aspiring artists. For Rock, it’s part of paying back what he’d received earlier from people like Brown and others in his more immediate family.

“What I’ve experienced growing up in hip-hop is being mentored by people like Heavy D and Marley Marl and being lucky enough to have that,” Rock tells American Songwriter.

Heavy D, who was one of rap music’s early successful emcees, is also Rock’s cousin. As Heavy D’s career began to blossom in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, he brought Rock along for part of the ride and showed him some of the early business.

“He just took me under his wing,” Rock says, “when he was getting his career off the ground.”

One of the early lessons Rock learned was to stay curious when it came to his art form. In a way, it wasn’t something he needed to be told. But in another, it can be helpful to hear from mentors what you already know to be true. As such, Rock stayed focused. “Keeping my ears open to the street,” he says. “Keeping my ears open to what’s going on.”

Rock has stayed interested when it comes to music. It’s one of the reasons he hooked up with Tracklib, which is a big online source and resource for samples and samplers. “I love music,” the 51-year-old Rock says. “I’m always on a quest, digging for sounds and learning about music that’s already out. From 45s and stuff as a kid, listening to all these greats from Isaac Hayes or Barry White or James Brown to Kool & the Gang to a bunch of other groups that I used to listen to as a kid. Jazz, soul, and R&B.”

The song Rock is likely best known for today is “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” which the artist made with rapper CL Smooth in their groundbreaking duo. Born in Bronx, New York, Rock and his family moved to Mount Vernon, New York around the time of the aforementioned James Brown show when he was 7. He would attend his father’s gigs and later he began digging through crates and finding songs he liked on his own. That digging led to sampling, which led to beat making, which eventually led rock to him co-founding Pete Rock and CL Smooth.

“I look at it like a kid in a candy store when I’m making music,” Rock says. “It makes me feel like that. It’s something that is never difficult, never any type of science other than the talent that I have to make music.”

Rock and CL Smooth met in high school and in 1991 the duo released their debut EP. They followed that up in 1992 with Mecca and the Soul Brother, featuring “They Reminisce Over You,” which is still considered one of the best songs from the golden age of hip-hop. The song, born after a friend and fellow musician (named Troy) died on stage in a devastating accident, has stood the test of time some three decades after its release with its propulsive saxophone, sticky drums, and rich vocals. It remains a testament to its inspiration.

“Just everything about hip-hop and music itself,” Rock says, “it nourishes the soul. Anything like that, people can’t deny it. You got to fall in love with something like that.”

In the early days, Rock used equipment like the Roland-808 and other classic pieces, along with two “turntables and a microphone.” He’s a master surgeon, knows just what to slice and rearrange and sew back together to make a hit. In some ways, he’s reviving older songs, bringing them back to life after years-long dormant. But at the same time, Rock doesn’t look at his practice as anything but him putting one proverbial foot in front of the next. It’s not some big master plan of world domination. Instead, it’s just what he’s about. It’s just what he does.

“I’m not specifically driving myself to anything,” he says. “I don’t aim it to sound like anything. It’s nothing like that. I make sure I make good music to sound good enough for me and for whoever else—there’s no extra stuff to what I do.”

There was a time when the producer’s name came first in the program or marquee—hence: Pete Rock & CL Smooth (or Eric B. & Rakim). But just as Rock doesn’t aim to achieve some workshopped career masterplan, nor does he care where his name is on the project or if it appears prominently at all. Instead, he says, it’s more of internal recognition. It’s about himself living up to his name, whether as Pete Rock & CL Smooth or behind the scenes with the famed group A Tribe Called Quest.

“Doesn’t really matter to me,” he says. “I’m not an egotistical person where the name has to be on the front or the back. As long as I represent my own name, that’s all that matters.”

Rock has been part of classics over his career, to say the least. Once he and CL Smooth parted ways, he went on to work with other rappers, like Nas, creating the beat and singing the hook for the acclaimed, “The World Is Yours.” More recently, Rock worked with Kanye and Jay Z on Kanye’s 2010 LP, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Rock is known for his classic sampling; a big of staticky piano here, a fuzzy saxophone there (with record pops included). It breeds nostalgia but it’s also almost always a classic slice of a timeless song. Rock’s ear is refined. It’s evident also on his Petestrumentals series—with No. 4 now slated for release soon. For Rock, it’s all about making the best song he can with the tools at his disposal. It’s the stuff that’s made him a legend, one sample at a time.

“I love the way it makes me feel,” he says. “The way it makes people feel. The mood that I can put people in positively. That’s one of the great things about good music. It’s inspiring and it really can make a person’s day.”

Photos courtesy Rock Paper Scissors

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