From Biggie to Kendrick: super-producer Pete Rock on hip-hop’s golden ages | Hip-hop

At this year’s BET awards, the honor for lifetime achievement went to Sean “Diddy” Combs – and why not? He signed the Notorious BIG and takes credit for “inventing” the remix. He changed what it means to be called a hip-hop super producer while becoming a multi-platinum-selling rapper himself. Really, he’s not that much different from Pete Rock.

Rock (real name Peter O Philips) is the other kind of super-producer, the one who actually does the grunt work of trawling for rare records and cutting and stitching them into something fresh. In fact, he could just as easily take credit for inventing the remix while reimagining Public Enemy’s Shut Em Down and House of Pain’s Jump Around. Rock has collaborated with Kanye and Kendrick and seen his Midas touch translate to 25m global album sales and untold billions more in streams. And he’s an impressive rapper in his own right; Rolling Stone ranks his 1991 hit with CL Smooth, They Reminisce Over You, among its 500 greatest songs.

Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs accepts the lifetime achievement award last month in Los Angeles. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Before Diddy’s polished samples were fueling rap’s transition into the mainstream in the early aughts, Rock’s jazz-inspired beats defined east coast hip-hop in the 90s. And while the 51-year-old Rock remains a greatly respected producer’s producer, there’s a part of him that’s still fighting for due recognition. His big wish, he tells the Guardian, is that “nothing that we’ve done in my time or era is disrespected, ever. People gotta realize what respect means and start showing people respect for the work they’ve done.”

This year Rock dropped Petestrumentals 4, the latest in a collection of vibes-only EPs – “beats that were laying around that people never really used”, he says. They run the gamut from the Desi-inflected Das Me Da King to the much funkier Brother on the Run. On the lead track, The Message, Rock reprises a signature trick: remixing Malcolm X’s speeches. “Being a proud Black myself, I feel the message still needs to get out there,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that we lost a lot of our leaders, especially Malcolm. I just wanna regurgitate the message to the people, to the youth that’s having a lot of issues out here.”

A Zoom call with Pete Rock is a time warp. Filling the screen in his bucket hat, wood bead necklace and track suit, he looks very much like a 90s b-boy. And he couldn’t seem any nicer or more at peace. Still: even though 90s retro is all the rage again, kids today aren’t really trying to hear Rock’s brand of conscious hip hop. They’re too enamored with the mumble rappers who rhyme over trap beats and too naive to appreciate what they’re missing. It all offends Rock to his core.

Rock frowns in headshot
Pete Rock. Photograph: Courtesy image

Last month he shared a video of Eric Adams condemning drill rap – a darker trap subgenre that the New York City mayor linked to an increase in violent crime. “That kind of hip-hop is doo doo and it disrupts the soul,” Rock wrote in the since-deleted post. “It’s the result of greed, people with no talent and the destruction of the culture.”

Of course music lovers were saying much the same thing back in 1992, when Rock was looping a Tom Scott saxophone riff and a James Brown drum sample to make They Reminisce Over You. The track pays tribute to a backup dancer friend of Rock’s who died while touring with Rock’s cousin, the rapper Heavy D.

Diddy, D and Rock all came of age together in the 80s in the New York City suburb of Mount Vernon. Diddy made a point of nodding at Heavy D in his BET awards acceptance speech. He also recognized Bobby Brown and touted him as the first “Chocolate Boy Wonder”, one a slew of nicknames Diddy has reserved for himself. But for Rock – who not only wasn’t mentioned in Diddy’s speech, but also has been calling himself Chocolate Boy Wonder since the 80s – this otherwise innocent shoutout took on a more sinister intent.

“I wouldn’t call myself puff daddy when I’m THE REAL CHOCOLATE BOY WONDA BOSS,” Rock shot back in a lengthy Instagram rant. “My brother Grap Luva taught you dance steps in your garage on dell ave. I touch drum machines and make beats 4 REAL. You cant erase what I have done in music or try to take my name lol.”

The moment called to mind a skit from Diddy’s No Way Out album, The Mad Producer. On it, a fictional beat maker agitates over unpaid wages, record execs posing as producers and Diddy’s foray into rapping. In retrospect, it sounds like Diddy venting about a relationship that showed its first signs of strain when Rock complained about not being credited with producing Biggie’s breakout smash, Juicy.

Years of these slights, real and perceived, have made Rock publicly combative when it comes to defending his singular knack. Despite his tremendous respect for Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, as a producer and working with him and Jay-Z on the 2010 track The Joy, Rock tweeted in 2019 that Ye “can never be like me when it comes to dem skillz”. He was equally critical of Ye’s support of Donald Trump.

pair grip each other’s hands while sitting on bars
Rock and Smooth on the set of a music video in 1990s New York. Photograph: Images Press/Getty Images

This year the rapper Canibus – whose career stalled in the late 90s after an attempt to embarrass LL Cool J on a song backfired– returned with an EP called C. Though it was billed as a Pete Rock production, the man himself pronounced it “super trash”. “I WOULD NEVER EVER EVER NEVER EVER PRODUCE SOMETHING THAT SOUNDS THIS BAD OMG,” Rock tweeted. And yet Canibus’s manager happily furnished receipts. (Canibus’s response: “Pete, I love you.”)

Meanwhile, Rock and CL Smooth have fought like brothers for decades and left fans hungry for a reunion all the while. Though they only produced two studio albums, their brand of conscious rap set a high bar for the art form that arguably became tougher to uphold after their falling out.

But to hear Smooth tell it in a 2019 interview on Sirius XM, the rift with Rock goes “beyond music” to “being able to talk to each other, articulate, being able to understand each other’s pains”. (Their on-again, off-again partnership was the one topic Rock’s manager deemed off limits before our Zoom call.)

It’s enough to make you wonder whether there are any rappers left who can work with Rock. But, he says, “I’m always thinking of the new spitters. I’ve worked with a few of them – Kendrick on To Pimp a Butterfly. Now I’m working with even younger cats that people haven’t heard yet. That’s the most important part, getting new artists heard that are dope. With real talent. That’s part of my job, to make people aware of those types of things.”

headshot of Rock in hat
Rock: ‘I’m always thinking of the new spitters.’ Photograph: Gustav Images/Courtesy image

Though Rock has yet to tire of putting a fresh spin on old records, be it as a producer or a DJ – “Sampling is such an addicting thing, – there’s nothing like pretending to be your own band in your head” – it’s hard not to take stock of the extent to which Rock’s contemporaries have evolved. RZA, a peer and rival, scores films. 9th Wonder, a protege, teaches beat making at Duke. The Roots, Rock’s conscious rap cousins, are The Tonight Show’s house band. (“It’s crazy,” he says. “I used do hip-hop with those dudes.”)

And then of course there’s Diddy, the arch-rival who did as much to build hip-hop as to devastate the Bad Boy Records artists who helped him achieve billionaire status – some of whom are still fighting for full rights to their hard graft. And the fact that a Black label head couldn’t spare Black artists from this too-familiar fate is partly why Rock is so defensive. “We’re waking up now to say, hey, I want to own my music,” he says. “That’s my blood, sweat and tears on those tapes, and we deserve to make money off of it like they’ve made money off of it.”

But Rock, for all his agita, remains holistic about his work. That’s the bittersweet irony of his music: it can’t ever be all about him. “I never want to outshine the artist,” he says. “I just want to be equal when I know we made a good product– that we are great musicians.”

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