Credit: Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic
In 1979, Bronx-born Peter Phillips was just two weeks shy of his ninth birthday when President Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation declaring June Black Music Month. In the ensuing 41 years, black music would continue to wholly transform the world, with hip-hop making its own radical global impact along the way — a movement in which Phillips, who became the producer, DJ and emcee known as Pete Rock, played a role of master architect.
When Illmatic was released, Rock was best known for his union with the inventive emcee C.L. Smooth, a duo whose “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” quickly became an anthem — a musical memoir that expresses the familial joys and pains within the black American experience. The track, off the seminal Mecca and the Soul Brother, is a mystically grooving mixture of sax and bass, sampled from an Impulse! LP by Tom Scott, atop drums so gritty you can taste the dust. Arriving between two other foundational ’90s albums — A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, released in 1991, and Midnight Marauders, from ’93 — Rock’s work on Mecca and the Soul Brother was instrumental in creating a jazz-drenched bedrock for emerging voices — like Nas, whose debut presented a new standard of musical and lyrical achievement.
“The sample compounds all of life [into] literally one piano phrase,” says the pianist and conceptualist Jason Moran, a MacArthur Fellow who is also Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, where Nas gave a historic performance of Illmatic, live with the National Symphony Orchestra, for its 20th anniversary in 2014. “I wish I could have seen Pete Rock listening to this record for the first time as the sound of Jamal’s signature ‘patient restlessness’ bathed the room. By the time the ‘break’ happens, we are five minutes in. In the sample, the brightness of the first chord becomes dark, then repels the darkness to rise up with ambition. Pete Rock makes a big band out of this track by adding horn shouts, and his scratching is like a drum solo. Seems so simple, but damn, when geniuses work this thoughtfully, it [gets] everyone fired up.”
The Awakening became a coveted source of inspiration for other producers, but it was Rock who held the key and unlocked the treasure, as he would many times over. In the way that The Awakening is a landmark in black improvised musical perfection, Rock created a comparable caliber of excellence for hip-hop. Descending from an esteemed school of producers including the 45 King, the Bomb Squad and Marley Marl, Rock extended the craft of the hip-hop producer in perspicuous ways, inspiring everyone from 9th Wonder to J Dilla. He achieved this through his skillful record excavating paired with his innovative use of both the SP-1200 sampler/drum machine and EQ — not to mention an impeccable ear and sense of composition, among a multitude of other gifts.
Like Jamal, Rock is a storyteller who manages to create dramatic imagery through his music each and every time — whether on Rock and C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother and The Main Ingredient; his soundtrack work during one of black cinema’s most prolific periods; with his prodigious PeteStrumentals series; or his collaborative work with myriad emcees, including his late, great cousin Heavy D, InI, Brand Nubian, Busta Rhymes, Kid ‘n Play, Redman, Run-DMC, Common, Raekwon, Talib Kweli, Camp Lo, Method Man, Skyzoo, Kanye West and JAY-Z.
“Pete Rock, to me, is considered to be one of the most significant figures in the shaping of hip-hop music,” says Ready to Die producer Easy Mo Bee, another progenitor of golden-age hip-hop.