Can the tune of society be produced in a recording studio? There are those who believe what inspires music starts outside the audio booth, and what artists carry inside with them will soon come out. Iconic producer and hip hop recording artist Pete Rock wants listeners to take from his music exactly what he puts in to it: His soul.
The Bronx-born beat maker, dubbed Soul Brother #1, made his mark producing music of the heart, even when the beats were painful. “Martin Luther King said this,” Pete Rock begins, “‘we’ve got difficult days ahead’.” Teamed with his legendary MC partner C.L. Smooth, the pair made a generation bow their heads and pay respects to their past and those passed on. “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)”, the debut single from their first full-length album, was dedicated to Pete Rock’s late brother Trouble T Roy – a member of Heavy D & The Boys. The single has become one of the most highly-regarded classics in hip hop music history.
As a solo artist, or creating scores for others, Pete Rock made it his mission to uphold the lineage of soul music all while becoming one of the most successful, creative, influential and respected music producers of all time. His inspiration: The world around him.
Soul Train: What was it like for you growing up in the Soul Train era?
Pete Rock: Beautiful, man; I can’t explain to you how ill it was to be running to the TV to turn on Soul Train…every Saturday. We looked forward to Soul Train. I remember Curtis Mayfield being on there when it first aired on TV. He was like one of the first acts they booked on the show. From there it was just plain old history! And then when I got to do Soul Train… Me and C.L.??! We were bugging out being there in the studio, like, “Wow, look at the stage! It’s so small in here; it looks so big on TV! Wow! James Brown was in here, everybody was here!” [Laughs]
Soul Train: Does your performance still mean as much to you today?
Pete Rock: Oh yeah. We performed “Take You There” and “They Reminisce Over You”; they let us do two songs! Rap groups were only able to do one song then you’re outta there. But we did two! And Don Cornelius couldn’t get our names right – it was funny. He called me C.L. and called C.L. Pete. But it was a great experience. We got to meet the dancers–some of the ones from the 70s and 80s was still there in the 90s. It was like, “Look, there is the Asian chick with the long hair! Look, there she is right there!” [Laughs] It was great being there. I went down the Soul Train Line, kid! [Laughs] I just wanted to do something memorable.
Soul Train: Speaking of doing something memorable…Since you mentioned Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, let me throw a few more names out: Michael Jackson, Gerald Levert, Whitney Houston, Tina Marie, Luther Vandross, Barry White, Donna Summer, MCA, Heavy D. They’re all gone.
Pete Rock: Unbelievable, bro. We lost a great deal of great musicians, unbelievable singers, rappers…
Soul Train: I wrote an article for SoulTrain.com inspired by Heavy D’s acceptance speech from when he won his first Soul Train Award. It was the year he was heavily-favored to win the Grammy but didn’t. Barely a week after I wrote it he was gone. As soon as I heard he passed I logged on to Twitter and went to your page. The picture you posted of you and Hev…and what you wrote… Dude, it touched my heart, bro. I cried.
Pete Rock: Looking at those pictures made me cry! We go so far back…it’s not even funny. He was a very, very good person. He always helped everybody. He just grabbed you by the hand and took you with him! He was like an angel that was needed, that’s how I look at it. He was hand-picked. He was too good to be on this earth.
Soul Train: Each of those artists I mentioned, and so many I didn’t, invested a great deal into soul music. But when they’re gone what do you think gets taken out?
Pete Rock: Hmm… Well, nothing is really missing from soul music if you’re a talented musician. But what you can take from it… Everything that was taught to them, and what they put from their life and their emotions into their music, that’s what you take from their stuff. It was that kind of inspiration. It helps when you’re trying to be creative, be original, and not sound like anyone else.
Soul Train: Here’s what I think: Once they’ve gone their fundamentals go with them.
Pete Rock: Mmm… [Pause] I can’t even argue with that. They probably do because I don’t see any of this new generation being inspired by any of the real musicians at all. They just follow each other, doing what the next man is doing – which is kinda ruining the music. Our women are ruined listening to this s–t that sounds like strip club music. Now women only want a certain thing from a man… It’s just so corny out there right now, man.
Soul Train: Songs with meaning are not always the most popular anymore.
Pete Rock: Growing up we weren’t inspired by the kind of lyrics you hear today. We looked forward to becoming professionals in music. That’s the inspiration we gathered growing up listening to them. 80s rock, 80s R&B, 80s soft rock, the 90s, the 70s…that’s what we ate growing up, that was our meal.
Soul Train: Have you gotten so full on what we’re fed today that you just want to wave the white flag?
Pete Rock: [Laughs] When the music changed we were all upset. No one spends time on the music anymore. It’s a money game now. People are making beats in five minutes, and you can tell. There’s no love in that music, there’s no passion in it, no…nothing in it. There’s no type of inspiration in it. It’s like oil and water: you’re the oil, the water splashes you and just runs right off of you. That’s what we’re dealing with today. There’s nothing to look forward to when you’re listening to that stuff.
Soul Train: The well of artists raised on the more inspiring, more artistic music from back in the day hasn’t completely dried up, has it?
Pete Rock: No. And the few of us that are still around are doing what we can to keep the real s—t out there. I got the 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s project with Camp Lo. I did an album with Smiff-N-Wessun. I enjoyed doing that, just keeping my head in the game still. I’m going to be working with Cory Gunz–he’s signed to Young Money. I’ll work with who wants to work with me and respects me.
Soul Train: My friend Mark Smith wanted me to ask you this: Do you miss producing entire albums?
Pete Rock: Yeah… [Laughs] That’s why I’m doing them again. I’m a consumer of music. I buy albums. I listen. A lot of the times today I just fast forward, fast forward, fast forward through a lot of s—t. I just copped Wiz Khalifa’s album, and I heard a joint with 50 [Cent] on there that’s kinda hard! And you have Kanye [West], and people like that who keep the soul in it. There’s a few other producers out there who keep the soul and hip hop vibe going just a tad bit, but it’s not enough. Too many people get in the game with the wrong intentions. And with a little help, and some politics, [it] gets messed up.
Soul Train: Okay, DJ Reality wanted me to ask you this: How have the technical changes to making music affected you?
Pete Rock: You know what? I’m still passionate about what I do so it doesn’t really affect me. I listen to what’s going out there…It’s all simple. I can do this blindfolded with two hands tied behind my back and on one leg. [Laughs] C’mon man…I can tap the drum machine with my chin and do the hi-hats with my lips! This is what they want?! Okay, let me apply myself. That’s all I do, and it’s still funky.
Soul Train: It’s harder today to distinguish one producer from another, especially with hip hop.
Pete Rock: Because all they’re using is the [Roland] TR808! That’s a classic drum machine, and on almost every record today they’re using its sounds. Then they slow the tempo down to make rap records, but it’s not creative because there’s a million others doing the same…exact…thing. There’s nothing versatile about that. And that’s what’s making people who have given their all to being a musician say, “You know what? I give up.”
Soul Train: So much has been made simple it feels like the world is giving up. So with all the scandals, economic turmoil, and social conflicts, do you think the world is losing its rhythm and its soul?
Pete Rock: Yeah. There’s so much going on out here that’s crazy. Like this Jerry Sandusky cat: this dude has been out here beasting on kids for years. Then he walks around confident like nothing is going to happen! And the [George] Zimmerman case: this dude is just going through the motions – in and out of jail, and he’s the only one alive to tell his side of the story. Trayvon [Martin] ain’t here to tell his side! And Casey Anthony??! Cases like that right there??! People are falling loose at the seams but getting away with their crimes!
Soul Train: Pete, how do you address what affects or touches your soul?
Pete Rock: I just turn my head into the music and try to address certain issues. When I do, I talk about something substantial. I’m not talking about how much money I got, how many chicks I’m smashing, or how many cars I got in the driveway. That’s not soul music. You can make fun records to let people know you can be a fun person, but don’t totally ignore what’s going on in this world.
Want to know what else inspires Pete Rock? Ask him yourself @PeteRock.
–Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, is an acclaimed entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of both XPOZ Magazine and The Underwire Interactive Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Hear/Say Now Magazine, Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, MLive.com, and AllHipHop.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker. Also visit TheGrooveSpt.com and ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.