Pete Rock

"Pete Rock & J Dilla Birthed a Beat Generation that Shaped the Future" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 4 January 2018, read the article on the AFH site


Within the space of three months in 2001, two of Hip-Hop’s preeminent producers, J Dilla and Pete Rock were in a kind of competition, and this led to the release of two ground-breaking albums that would shape the sound of the genre for the next decade and beyond.

According to Hip-Hop folklore, when Pete Rock heard Jay Dee’s idiosyncratic and, as it would later prove, highly influential debut, Welcome 2 Detroit on its February 2001 release, he felt compelled to match it and did so with PeteStrumentals a few months later.

“This guy took it at least two or three levels higher than me,” Pete Rock said of the Slum Village co-founder in Brian “B.Kyle” Atkins’ documentary Still Shining, per Complex “It’s like a chain reaction. Basically, it was like Larry Smith to Marley Marl, from Marley Marl to Pete Rock, from Pete Rock to Jay Dee….” He then says that Dilla was the “brand-new king,” with a talent that was  “ridiculous.” The two had worked together on the Villa’s Fantastic, Vol. 2 in 2000.

The two albums came out in the Beat Generation series via London-based label, BBE Records. The label was founded by DJs, Peter Adarkwah and Ben Jolly and took its name from the Universal Robot Band track, “Barely Breaking Even” from 1982. Later Beat Generation contributors in the series included Marley Marl’s Re-Entry, will.i.am.’s Lost ChangeDJ Jazzy Jeff (twice), DJ SpinnaKing BrittMadlib, then Dilla with The Shining in 2006.

BBE Records boss Adarkwah says that the series made its name in the US, with other key producers, such as Flying Lotus and 9th Wonder citing its importance. Not only did it set up the Jay Dee-Pete Rock dyad, it also ushered in an era where Pete Rock-type beat-tapes have their own currency. Something that is arguably a defining feature of the current Hip-Hop scene.

Adarkwah’s message to the Beat Generation producers was simple: “Do what you feel,” and urged the beat-makers to create music that embodied their musical tastes, in all its eclecticism.

“I’d been on enough shopping trips with Kenny [Dope] and Mr Thing to know that those guys don’t just listen to Hip-Hop. They buy Jazz, Rock, Funk, Reggae – they’re into everything. So, Beat Generation wasn’t just about people who make beats. It was about that Beat spirit of Allen Ginsberg and Jazz poetry. My brief to them was, ‘Do what you feel. Try and express what your influences are on record.’” He says that Dilla and Spinna out of all the contributors “nailed it the best.”

Leading up to his Welcome 2 Detroit solo record debut, Slum Village’s Dilla had been establishing himself as a producer, as one-third of The Ummah and working on Common’s 2000 critically acclaimed Like Water For Chocolateamong other projects.

Welcome 2 Detroit was a radical move on his part and unlike anything else around at the time: an album made up of fragments and unexpected musical and tonal shifts that was also marked by the  personality of its maker and the city he came from. On Welcome 2 Detroit, the young producer is reveling in mixing up musical genres (see: “Rico Suave Bossa Nova”) and thereby helps smash the template of a what a Hip-Hop album might sound like.

In the album liner notes, Dilla says how “B.B.E (Big Booty Express),” which transformed Kraftwerk’s elemental break “Trans-Europe Express” into a kind of space-age stripper anthem, was “his baby,” maybe because of its debt to Detroit Techno origins.

Dilla also sang a cover of Jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” with Neo-Soul star, Dwele on trumpet and keys.

PeteStrumentals, meanwhile, put in place the foundations for all Soul-based Hip-Hop production that came in its wake, see here the pure melody and moody intelligence of “Smooth Sailing” and perhaps most famously “A Little Soul.”

In 2015, Pete Rock dropped PeteStrumentals 2 on Mello Music Group.

Six Beats: Godfather Don

Described by Immobilarity1 as “an evil, dark version of Large Professor, production-wise,” Godfather Don fits into one stream in the 90s NY underground associated with Kool Keith (The Cenobites, Ultramagnetic MCs), but is also known for his solo releases as producer and MC.

Despite some Godfather Don tracks tolling thousands of clicks online - “Status” has notched up 1.2 million views - the music I’m seeking out rolls in the tens, or hundreds, if lucky (okay this is a slight exaggeration, let’s say low thousands on average). Much if not most of his music seems to be overlooked. So this is written in part as a desire to balance things out, amid all of the hip-hop hagiography that exists of the usual suspects. Now and always, I’m interested in the artists who get lost in the mix.

Unlike Large Professor though, Godfather Don’s music is not trying to recreate a song in a conventional sense, with the exception perhaps with the first beat included here (and a few other examples of the same). There is nothing remotely symphonic, or lush and orchestral or even “jazzy” (as the genre is commonly misunderstood when applied to 90s-era beats). Nor is there anything slick, or too refined about Godfather Don’s instrumentals. This is music made of clay then perfected into object of beauty.

None of this is to suggest that the music if simple is basic or unskilled. In fact, this music is art because it doesn’t try to be something different to what it is - a hip-hop beat recorded and conceived in a certain environment, within a certain mindset. It sounds genuine, as if you sense the character of its maker (but this might be projection on my part). Added to this, as I will mention below the sound quality is beautiful in itself.

Most of Godfather Don’s music is instrumental hip-hop as deep soundscape, highly introspective dominated by two sonic impulses; speedy and manic, as heard in the delicate, skittery drums and then the broader ponderous weight of other samples, sounds that might be a vibraphone, or an organ (it’s hard to make them out). Added to this the mastery of key hip-hop elements, his drums are especially inventive – very rarely are they pushed to the forefront as you’d expect, usually they’re kind of evasive, hiding out in the recesses - and the quality of the recording of his music, and you have a fine producer; someone to return to, to rediscover.

'Lost Sessions' Pete Rock/InI (Vinyl Digital, 2017)

For a producer whose work has set the foundations for much of the melody-driven, you could use the over-used word ‘orchestral’ here, music that is often cited as the soundtrack to the Golden Era/Golden Age  …

this release, Lost Sessions – of previously unreleased in album format of instrumentals from the same period thereabouts – comes as a surprise. Only two of the tracks, ‘Brazilian Breeze’ and ‘The Life I Live’ resembles this earlier aesthetic. I was even a bit suspicious when listening to this record, wondering if it were some kind of trick (though a very cursory check showed me that yes, here is ‘The Life I Live’ with the vocals, with InI from 1995). Moreover, information in this thread from fans/listeners outlines the context of how/why the music was not released in a general sense, but I haven’t had time to check any of this out. 

My other first reaction on first listen was to feel a bit underwhelmed, but this shifted. Without wanting to sound too ‘wild-eyed’ I think this music encourages us to focus on the hidden elements, the sounds behind the sounds. See, for example, the beautiful ‘Guitar’ that opens the record. The title seems a bit strange until you hear the tiniest, almost imperceptible guitar sound in the background, a miniscule ‘ting’ on irregular repeat, while the bassline plays around. The sounds stop and regroup, changing slightly each time and like many of the songs it ends with a very retro-fade (this adds to the impression of the songs being a little shy as there is no dramatic conclusion, the songs creep out of the room almost).

The second track ‘Aretha’ operates in a similar space. Again, what interests me is the way the key sample is so clipped that it is as if famous singer, the reason for the song, is being silenced and our expectations are being denied. We are not allowed to enjoy her voice, or even recognise the song she is singing. This impression is further backed up by the music’s sharp, harsh quality. Yet, this refusal is welcome, especially in an era when a lot of ‘Soul-based Hip-Hop production’ is so overwhelming, so omnipresent it positively drowns out everything else; the only thing you listen to is the vocal sample and the drums. Too much sugar, it's as if we are over-indulging on sweet food. 

Such an effect can be interesting if it is intentional, a kind of musical attack almost in a total-punk-aesthetic that I link back to Gravediggaz/RZA as if the music is battling against what we expect, but most of the time it feels like the producers are so entranced by the sweetness of the vocal sample they allow it to dominate everything else. Even though the original recordings of these artists in the 60s, say from the classic Motown era were always about the elements working together, both in terms of instrumentation but the singer’s interaction with the backing vocalists in particular. 

The other two tracks that stood out are ‘Flash Back’ and ‘Strung Out.’ Songs paired together possibly for their mood of containment, conveyed by an intense repetition that upends expectations of us being able to hear how sounds, or samples, are used. All this creates an interesting psychological space, not openly aggressive – the drums are there, but not highlighted as the most important element – but still a little manic.

Lost Sessions is different to the earlier instrumentals albums Pete Rock has become known for. This could be levelled as a criticism (this music is simpler, less developed), but there is interest in the way certain songs encourage us to listen to music differently.  ‘Aretha’ reminded me of the more challenging, more intellectual aspects of Nujabes’ production. Not the easy-listening, chilled-out, total-completion side that has become so influential today, but his work that highlighted sounds in isolation. Not surprising, as the two artists worked together in this era, see this writing on ‘Still talking to you.’ 

Related article: 'Center of Attention’ Instrumental, Pete Rock/InI (reissue: Center of Attention, Lost and Found – Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics, Rapster Records/BBE, 2003)

& check out other mentions, writing on Pete Rock via the tags.