In The Lab with Pete Rock
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
Across the Tappan Zee Bridge and into the suburbs of Rockland County, just minutes from the Palisades Mall and about a half hour or so from his hometown of Mount Vernon, you can still find legendary producer Pete Rock cooking up beats in his basement. His setup is modest and cozy, with just enough space to maneuver between his turntables and his sampling/recording equipment, and a small sitting area that doubles as a spot to lay down vocals. He’s got an Incredible Hulk poster on the wall “signed by the man himself” and an old Pete Rock & CL Smooth poster from The Main Ingredient days hanging above it, and a massive wall of vinyl. That, plus multiple stacks of records and loose comic books on the floor, framed photos of his family, and a wallet size pic of his late friend J Dilla, which sits directly above his MPC. It smells faintly of trees, and reeks of hip-hop excellence. It’s fucking Pete Rock’s lab. And we’re in it. Wow.
For our first In The Lab interview where we were actually inside the artist’s studio, we sat down with the Chocolate Boy Wonder while he took a break from preparing dinner for his son to talk about his daily routine (he’s currently working on tracks for Fat Joe and Smoke DZA), his sampling process, his favorite spots to dig for records in New York, and his early days learning to DJ and record songs in his basement in Mount Vernon. Plus, we discussed his new mixtape project with Camp Lo 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s Pt. 2 (don’t sleep the shit is fire), and his lab work with CL Smooth, Kanye West, J Dilla, Heavy D, and more. Welcome to the Soul Brother #1 Pete Rock’s world.
Pete Rock: “I like to watch black exploitation movies, at least one or two, before I start making beats. Black Ceasar, Black Shampoo, Hell Up in Harlem, Blacula. Anything that has to do with black soul cinema.
“Sometimes it takes different things [to inspire me]. It could take a ride down to the city or Mount Vernon and back up to Rockland. [I’ll come home] and make some fire! Or even just reading a comic book, and getting inspired by the superheroes to do something dope. And sometimes I feel vibes, too. Like my body tells me, ‘Make beats.’ [Laughs.]”
“I like to [wake up early and go in when I can]. Get my son ready for camp, make some coffee, make something to eat, come down here, and vibe out. [If it’s at night and I’m coming back from being out], I’ll walk in the door, make sure my house is in tact. Take out the garbage, or vacuum. Make sure my son brushes his teeth and isn’t playing too many video games, put him to bed, then I go downstairs.
“[I start by] going through stacks of records, stuff that I haven’t listened to. I might’ve just came home from France with some Euro records, ready to go in on something. I’m looking for anything [on those records] that sounds good. Loops, breaks. It doesn’t always have to be breaks and samples and stuff. [I’m looking for new sounds, like for example] the upper-class sounding music. People are sampling classical music now. Things of that nature. Going into a genre that no one’s really [fully tapped into].
“I’m [still sampling old soul records], but it’s mixed with everything else. Electro, retro. There’s some disco that’s funky. All of that. Of course [you can still find unused samples from ‘70s soul records that haven’t been used]!! You know, people don’t dig much anymore, so all the jewels are left to people like me, Madlib, DJ Premier, Alchemist, Large Professor, Nottz, and a couple of other guys that still dig.
“I like to have a joint [while I'm making beats], especially if I haven’t smoked in a long time. Roll something up. It feels good to listen to good music [after a joint]. Or I like to have a glass of wine, to loosen up. I treat making beats the same way that I always treated it. I don’t even look at age as a factor. Well, the business side of it [I don’t especially like], but I still [love] the creative side.
“I put the record on from start, and I listen to the whole damn thing. By the time I’m [twisting up a joint and smoking], I’m already hearing things. I’ll let Side A play, and sometimes it’s explosive. It depends on what the record is, and what I’ve found. Sometimes I play records, and I don’t have to take the needle off. Like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’ Hearing shit constantly. Then I flip to Side B. That’s how I comb records. Play the whole damn thing. Got to [sit with the whole record and make sure you don’t miss anything dope]. Especially if I hear something on the first drop of the needle. I’m gonna work with that one song, then drop the needle on the next.
“Once I find a song I like, I get the parts to the record that I like, and then coordinate it. Chop it up, and put it in different places. [For young producers reading this interested in making beats with samples, you should definitely be] working on your ear. And working on what to listen for. You want to give a person a vibe, and a rhythm. You want to have a rhythm in your head. I take whatever sounds good to me, and put it together. But you have to exercise your ear. Keep listening to music. Grabbing albums here, grabbing albums there. Taking parts of them, and start trying to create something.
“I’ve got beats made already. I always have extra beats made, just to stay on top of my game. But I’ll make at least four or five [when I come down to work on beats]. I’m much slower than I was back in the days. I was doing like ten, fifteen beats a day. I start at home, then I take it in the big studio, and do what I need to do to [finalize the beat], whether it’s EQing it, putting more music on top, adding more sounds.
“I love working here. It’s the most comfortable space in the world, to be in your house. [And up here in this neighborhood in Rockland, no one bothers me.] I like that, too.”
Digging in New York, Past and Present
“A-1 [Record Shop] is one that I think everyone knows in New York. Then you got Jazz [Record] Center. Then there’s another one on Carmine called House of Oldies. I don’t know if Bleecker Bob’s is still around. I drove by there the other day. There’s antique spots that have records in there too. There’s one on Thompson Street [I go to].
“In White Plains, across from where the Galleria and Noda’s and all that is, there was a record store there [back in the day] that had vinyl. I went up in there and bought up everything. They had some good [stuff]. RIP to my man Roger that passed away, he had a spot on City Island. People got hip to that spot and started going there, so I went up in there and bought up a whole lot of stuff. Then I heard Kay Gee from Naughty By Nature came up in there and scraped the place up. But Diamond D, and Showbiz, and those guys used to always go there too.
“In Mount Vernon, in this shoemaker place, they used to have a couple records there up in the window. I had found the sample to ‘Go With the Flow’ for the All Souled Out EP there. It was only a dollar for the album, but now, people know about it, and it’s extra expensive. Then you had Yellowbird. Then, Mount Vernon and the Bronx are right next to each other, so we used to go to the Bronx and go to Moodies, and Nu-Look. And before that it was Brad’s Records, in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“My record collection started through my [father’s]. I got a lot of stuff for Mecca and the Soul Brother [from there]. I used a lot of his jazz stuff. He had Kool & the Gang 45s. Mounds of 45s, which are mine now. Rest In Peace. He had everything. Jazz, rock, soul, and especially reggae, because we’re Jamaican.
“It’s cool [that people are using lots of reggae samples now]. I like it. It depends on how creative you are with it. How you flip it. I’ve done it [a few times]. I did a joint on NY’s Finest, and a couple with [Heavy D]. Rest In Peace. I did the joint [‘Massive’] on Soul Survivor with Heav and Beanie Man.”
“The Basement” in Mount Vernon
“I always looked forward to making beats, especially [back in the day in my basement] when I was in my father’s collection digging for jewels and I found something, like, ‘Let me see what I can do with this.’ I had a two turntables, a mixer, an amp, a tape deck, and a couple samplers. I had the S-950, and the SP-1200. That’s what I was working with at the time. And I had a few gate reverb things in the rack mount for the microphone, and that was it. And I recorded on [the same old track machine I still have here right now]. All the stuff before we blew up in 1991, I was [recording in the basement].
“There were a couple of homies in the hood that rhymed, and that’s how it all started. Just working with local people. But nobody famous until I met CL Smooth. I liked his voice, and how he rapped, so I was like, ‘Let me work with this dude.’ And we became friends, and we ended up becoming a duo. He was different, and his voice was different. Me, I like originality, and wanted to have our own identity.
“He was coming in with the rhymes ready. I would make a cassette for him, and he would take a cassette with beats home and write to them, and come in the studio ready to do it. That’s what I liked about him. All I would ever see him do was make corrections, but he wouldn’t write in the studio.”
Creating 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s Pt. 2 with Camp Lo
“Mixtapes are really albums [now]. It’s the new language. So I call it a mixtape. I decided to do it free this time, because the community doesn’t get the real stuff through radio anymore. There’s a need for the music. So we put something out to give to the community for free. That’s the least you can do. We can still make money off the album, going on the road and doing shows. We’re gonna put together a nice little package, and hopefully go out on the road. [We’re already talking about a bill with Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Camp Lo], it’s just getting someone to bite on it, the promoters.
“I gave them thirty beats [to start the project], and I made three beats fresh. The rest I had in the stash. I had them on discs, little floppys, and zips, dating back to ‘99, 2000. ‘Glitter and Gold,’ I made that beat in ‘95. That’s an SP-1200 beat. I went through my stash, and said, ‘Oh, maybe they’ll sound good on these.’ That’s the same thing I did with Nas. I gave him thirty, too, maybe a year ago. That’s sixty beats out there! But I told them, ‘Take whatever you want out of there, whatever you feel you want to rap too, and whatever else you need, [I got that too].
“We did the whole album right here, right where you’re sitting. Suede doesn’t write rhymes, he just paces back and forth. He does the writing in his head. That’s what I like about them. They’re witty, and fast. They would fight and bicker with each other, but there’s still a respect. But they’re fun to work with, and fun to be around. They would come in with beats they wanted to work on, and I had my engineer guy Dave Dar up here, and we went to work.
“The engineer is the person who’s running the Pro Tools, and you’re the one instructing him what to do, and how to do it. He’s just facilitating that for me. [I feel really comfortable with Dave] because not only is he really down to earth, but he understands real music. He’s a Spanish cat, Puerto Rican guy. He gets the spirit of New York.”
“I write when I feel it. It depends on what kind of beat. I break out paper and pen, always. I know people [write on their phone]. I [first] seen the Game do that. Broke out his Blackberry, wrote a verse, then a hook, then another verse.”
Practicing DJ Skills
“I [still work on my DJ skills in the lab], of course. I’ll go to the clubs, and brush up, see what they’re rocking out there, and then apply it to what I do. I’m listening to [all the new shit], I can’t even front. I am. I have to. I fucks with Slaughterhouse, Nas, Kanye, Kendrick, Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Mac Wilds. I did two songs on [Mac’s] joint.
“I was seven years old [when I learned how to DJ]. I was loving the fact that you could rub a record. I got hip to that, and attracted to that when I was seven. My cousin Floyd taught me how to scratch, that’s Heavy D’s brother. I would just be practicing, going back and forth, cutting all day long, not wanting to come outside.”
Working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with Kanye West in Hawaii
“It was a big spot. It had an upstairs, and he was working on like three different things at once. You walk in, and he had signs up that said, ‘No Twitter.’ Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, and a bunch of people [were out there when I was there]. Kanye’s the type of dude who is musical, and different, and wants to do something better than the next person. And I like that. He’s very talented, and knowledgeable of the music, and what I had done. He would tell me how he used to sample my interludes. I’d be like, ‘Oh, nice.’
“Then we’d get a vibe, and I’d start playing him beats. I think I played him eight, and he picked three. And then he narrowed it down to one, which was ‘The Joy.’ He asked me to rhyme on it, but I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not ready.’ But then he put Jay on it, so I was kind of glad. He rhymed on it while I was out there. He was quick. Lyrically [sharp].”
Working with a young Roc Marciano
“That’s my homie. I met him at a car wash in New York. He was in the car with Busta Rhymes. We met, and dapped up, and later on got together and started working together. He’s one of those cats that likes real music, and likes it funky. And that’s where my heart is always, so we got along perfectly. And his rhymes are dope. He’s ill. I was one of the first producers to let people know we were working together. And you would hear [the finished product].”
“Greene St., which was the one I used to work in [and was my home base for a number of years]. That was the best place I ever worked in on the hip-hop tip. It had a sound in there that I loved. The speakers were loud [and crisp]. After doing a song, you’d blast it, and not have to worry about blowing the speakers or nothing [like that]. Public Enemy used to work in there, Run-D.M.C., EPMD, you name it. Everyone. I used to be in sessions and hear The Bomb Squad working on Ice Cube’s album [Amerikkka’s Most Wanted].”
Making Beats with J Dilla
“J Dilla, Rest In Peace. He was the master digger. The choices he made, the music he was listening to. Taking records from the ‘80s, or really anywhere, and you’d look at it like, ‘That’s nothing.’ You wouldn’t think anything would be on it. And then [he’d find some shit on it]!
“He was very humble dude. And shy, almost. But only to a certain extent, until you got to know him. [Being in the studio with him was filled with] excitement. We were ready for each other. He knew I had something good, and I knew he had something good. It was the excitement of two dope producers [sharing ideas]. I’d be playing beats for him on cassette, and he’d be going crazy. That was a great feeling to see him doing that, and him telling me how I inspired him. But his beats were amazing to me.
“I used to watch him doing beats on the [MPC] 3000. And at the time, I was still working with the SP. And after seeing him work the 3, I went and got the 2000 XL, and started working on that. I would get a joy just from watching him, and I wouldn’t really be like, ‘Yo, what are you doing?’ I always would be able to figure drum machines out, and things of that nature. But [watching him], I’d be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know a drum machine could do that!’ He was showing me [the depth of the machine’s capabilities].”
Digging/Beatmaking with Large Professor and Q-Tip
“I liked going digging with Large Professor. He had a good knowledge of records. And if you don’t dig, you don’t find. So I was learning about new stuff as well, [and we would teach each other]. He’s another fun guy to listen to make beats. He’s a little out there with it, but in a good way. He does whatever, and it sounds good. Tip, too. He’s got a good knowledge of records, and good at digging as well. He can dig. He finds good records. [I haven’t come across any new cats that are into digging like those guys.] Well, Alchemist, but [he’s a little older]. I’m not sure if Statik Selektah digs, but he sounds like he digs.”
Recording with Heavy D
“He’s family. We knew each other since babies. We used to record in the basement. He was fun, writing about fun topics. We hung out like brothers. Eating, drinking, writing, listening to music. That was our life.
“He was a perfectionist. He liked his stuff to be recorded the right way, and to sound good. He would think about the crowd and the audience, and how they were going to perceive it. He was really into the craft. And he showed me that you have to [pay attention to the details] and be on point.”