The legendary hip-hop producer discusses the genre’s evolution
Despite its short lifespan, hip-hop has evolved throughout the years. Some may claim that the genre’s golden era peaked throughout the 80s and 90s and fell during the mid-00s. Big record labels may have steered hip-hop to be more materialistic, and as music technology has developed, sounds have become more artificial. But there’s still a glimmer of hope with new generation artists, as this relatively young genre still has plenty of time to evolve.
Many may have their own opinions about the state of modern hip-hop, but it’s not often you get to hear it straight from the mouth of one of the genre’s pioneers. About To Blow had the opportunity to chat with Pete Rock before his show at Proud Camden in London last month.
Pete wastes no time while in London to build upon his impressive record collection. “The digging aspect over here, the UK vinyl – it’s amazing”.
These days, in commercial hip-hop, the genre has steered away from its socio-political roots, with many big labels and artists pushing a particular sound, rather than striving to be unique and creative. Hip-hop has evolved into hip-POP.
As the genre first emerged in the Bronx in the 70s when block parties became increasingly popular thanks to the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, it’s difficult to believe that a city so synonymous with this style would eventually lose touch with its values decades later.
The importance of sampling as an art in hip-hop goes without saying, with classical and jazz records being given a modern spin. It follows in the footsteps of earlier American musical genres, including blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, taking additional inspiration from funk, soul and R&B. With many of today’s commercial sounds, this sampling and appreciation for past music has been lost along the way.
“I see more love for the culture abroad than I do in The States now,” Pete reflects on the current state of the US hip-hop scene and the lack of unique talent. “People are in it for the money … There are very few leaders in hip-hop … There’s more love here [in the UK] than there is there. It gets a little bit more abused [in the USA], and I’m a little bit ashamed to say that because it started in New York”.
But in order to keep the “old school” sound alive, it would help to give those records more airplay to educate and reach out to the new generation, Pete claims. “They give old school records one hour a day. As much as those records did for the culture – those records are what made hip-hop music.”
Pete Rock & CL Smooth were well-known for their poetic raps, however Pete claims that in today’s mainstream hip-hop, most tracks lack the lyrical content that was synonymous with the genre. “You can’t learn from it, it’s offensive, it’s like, ‘turn off the radio, please’ … I just feel like people are making things that just run off you like oil in water, it don’t mix, it’s strip club music, so save that shit for the strip clubs, don’t throw it on the radio”.
But it’s thanks to those few, like Pete – still in the game – who refuse to be dictated by big record labels in order to maintain creative freedom and stay true to their own sound. “These major labels want one sound … and that one sound is generating them so much money. I didn’t really have too much of a relationship with major labels due to that”.
So it may come as a surprise to find out that Pete worked with multi-million dollar artist Kanye West on his 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and praised him on his musical knowledge. “He’s actually a knowledgeable guy when it comes to hip-hop … I love Kanye West.” Kanye is a prime example of an artist who rose to fame being associated with an “old school” sound to then take a sharp turn, experimenting creatively. On Kanye’s sound, Pete claims that The College Dropout album was his best. While many may agree, Pete acknowledges that it’s essential for an artist to keep experimenting and growing musically. “But then you have to evolve being an artist, people want him to keep making that stuff. Ok, but let him show you who he is first, let him branch out a little bit, then maybe he’ll go back”.
Aside from the majority of the artificial-sounding mainstream music we hear today, there’s a resurgence of that jazzy and soulful hip-hop sound in the form of young, talented artists, some of which Pete Rock himself has worked with, including Mac Miller and Joey Bada$$. Mac collaborated with Pete on Camp Lo’s mixtape 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s Pt. II. “It’s coming back. You know, the world spins and I’ve learned that things get recycled, just like we sampled jazz, soul, these new guys sample our 90s music now, and remake that. Now, it’s coming back to that “boom bap” stage where they’re either mixing it with R’n’B or just doing it hip-hop, the original way”.
The late J Dilla was another of underground hip-hop’s most influential producers who idolised Pete and impressed him beyond belief with his sampling techniques. “It was a pleasure meeting his mom, she told me a whole lot of stories about how he wanted to be Pete Rock and do what Pete Rock does. I was flattered and things, and I was like, “Wow, this kid is dope!” like he’s a level higher than Pete Rock, but I feel like it’s never really a level higher, you just do it differently.”
In the early 90s, during the first stages of Pete’s musical career, he joined forces with rapper CL Smooth. The two formed a dream duo that consisted of Pete’s melodic samples complimented by CL’s poetic lyrics and flowing vocals. Their two critically-acclaimed studio albums, Mecca & The Soul Brother and The Main Ingredient became immensely influential even to this day, especially their timeless classic They Reminisce Over You, which features signature horn-driven hooks.
The two were soon propelled into the ranks of the hip-hop elite alongside other jazz-rap groups including A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr. On the friendly competition between his peers, Pete jokes, “We used to go at each other. Secretly, I was told by Ali [Shaheed Muhammad] that they [A Tribe Called Quest] used to try and battle me. I wasn’t battling anybody, I was just doing it because I love it, I wasn’t thinking about that, but when I heard that I was like, ‘Ah, y’all was battling me?’ If I’d have known that back then, maybe I would have went a little bit harder, but I was just doing what I do”.
When hip-hop first emerged in the 70s in the deprived areas of New York, it brought people together at block parties and became a big part of African American culture. Jazz-rap groups such as Pete Rock & CL Smooth and A Tribe Called Quest used sampling as an art, paying homage to earlier American musical genres including jazz, funk and soul. This style of hip-hop, as Pete discusses, stays true to the foundations of when it originated, whereas, throughout the noughties, big record labels created an image of hip-hop that represented material gain. As the industry became more reliant on technology, the artistry of producers became fragmented; new music tools were used and the sound became more artificial. But new technology can still work wonders for sampling today to create a sound that’s raw and authentic. With up-and-coming artists recycling and sampling the likes of Pete and co, the new generation are gradually being exposed to the early sounds of US hip-hop culture.
PeteStrumentals 2, the follow up to the heralded 2001 release is out now and available to stream below.