The Awakening of Pete Rock

Pete Rock turns 50 this year. So does the Ahmad Jamal album he used to change the trajectory of hip-hop forever.

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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.

Rock celebrates his 50th birthday on June 21, but the synchronicity doesn’t end there. Just a few months after Rock’s birth, the jazz-piano giant Ahmad Jamal (who turns 90 on July 2) released a classic trio album for Impulse!, The Awakening. Toward the tail end of hip-hop’s golden age, the relationship between Rock’s production acumen and Jamal’s LP would present a new paradigm for how black musical genius can communicate across generations. 

Ahmad Jamal in the 1970s. Credit: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

As hip-hop entered its second decade, the art of the sample was evolving and Rock was among the pivotal producers who were mining the archives of black music of the ’60s and ’70s — most notably black improvised music, a.k.a. jazz, and its ceaseless possibilities. But Rock’s tastes were sweeping, and he created an original soundscape using hues of not only jazz but soul, funk, rock, blues and his hip-hop forebears. His music was and is distinctive, esoteric, soulful, raw, deep, pensive, funky and sophisticated. Its brilliance lies in its palpability — in the stunning way it gets to the marrow of black essentiality. And there may be no more impactful demonstration of this than “The World Is Yours,” Rock’s epic contribution to Illmatic, the 1994 masterpiece by Nas, then a Queensbridge-raised legend-in-the-making. At the core of that track is a now-iconic sample from one of the most spellbinding songs in any genre, Jamal’s Awakening performance of the Hale Smith composition “I Love Music.”

Rock (right) and C.L. Smooth in July 1992; Mount Vernon, N.Y. Credit: Catherine McGann/Getty Images.

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.

“I Love Music” is a moody cyclical composition that aligned perfectly with Rock’s core musical predilections. Like a moth to a flame, Rock tapped into Jamal’s original use of space and time, as well as his deft harmonic approach, for his own mode of expression. Jamal plays gorgeous solo-piano variations on the same minor-chord progression, modulating by whole steps and baiting the listener more and more with each cycle. Halfway through, the rhythm section of bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Frank Gant joins as the vamp builds in intensity. Finally, a piano glissando leads into a fleeting, bittersweet moment that, when passed through the creative filter of Pete Rock, would become monumental for hip-hop.

“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. 

“When I first heard his music, I knew our hip-hop culture was going to be in good hands,” adds legendary music-television producer and DJ Ralph McDaniels, whose groundbreaking Video Music Box helped elevate the profiles of countless hip-hop and R&B artists. “He is truly an American master.”

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