Who says you can't teach old dogs new tricks? For the 36-year-old Peter Phillips, aka Pete Rock — the producer known for pioneering New York hip-hop's golden era — it's not that he can't learn new tricks; it's just the old ones sound better. “I'm not mad at producers who use handclaps and snaps on everything,” Rock says diplomatically before adding, “but that's just not me. That's not Pete Rock.” It's true. With a love of plush horns and animated drum breaks, Rock was always “more interested in making something real, something soulful.” But in an age where cheap presets trump rich samples, is there any place for the producer who prefers soul to Soulja Boy? Pete Rock thinks so.
Having begun producing in the mid-'80s during the height of electro-rap, the veteran beatsmith is no stranger to the minimalist tendencies of hip-hop today. At an early age, the Chocolate Boy Wonder made a clear choice to break from hip-hop's sparse drum machine aesthetic. For Rock, the robotlike music “flowed through [his] body” but never “really stuck” to him. “My problem with that type of music is that it always sounded mechanical, it always sounded effortless, and it was usually all about money,” he says. “I'm a real dude, and I value the art of my music, so I wanted to make something that sounded like that.” And so he did, and after unleashing a bevy of sample-drenched arrangements for tag-team partner, C.L. Smooth, Rock rose to prominence in the midst of hip-hop's formative years, providing sonic backdrops for Public Enemy, Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. In 2001, Rock released the critically acclaimed, Petestrumentals (BBE, 2001), an instrumental album that was equally meditative as it was lively. For Rock, that album was governed by a formula that he feels was inherently a “New York thing.” It was a formula the producer couldn't abandon for NY's Finest (Nature Sounds, 2008), the producer's latest production/MCing outing, which features a posse of NY-minded rappers such as Jim Jones, Papoose and Redman.
STREET AND SOUL
Rock's studio formula, a bipartite mélange, self-described as “part-street, part soulful,” was conceived as a teen in the midst of the Reagan years. Informed by his father — a Jamaican DJ with an immense record collection — Rock sought to imitate the music that he felt pumping through his veins. The influences were vast, from Johnny Mathis to the Doobie Brothers, but one thing that remained throughout was soulfulness. “Soul” as defined by the self-proclaimed Soul Brother No. 1 is a musical characteristic that “takes over your body and sticks to you. It's a force,” Rock says. He first experienced it with hip-hop when listening to KRS-One and productions by his early mentor, Marley Marl — music that despite its reliance on technology managed to capture the essence of the human soul.
But the other element in Rock's formula is street savvy. Rock's ability to re-create the energy of New York's streets earned the producer recurrent dap from his core audience of hardened urbanites. A native of Mount Vernon — the predominately black and West Indian community that lies just north of the Bronx — Rock learned from the characters that populated his community. Feeding into their taste for steep bluesy melodies and concrete, hard cadences, Rock would drive around Mount Vernon with fresh productions, conducting impromptu listening sessions. “If people on the street feel it, then it's good,” he says of his unorthodox hot-or-not rating system. A tastemaker for New York's infamous brand of razor-sharp boom-bap, the OG producer has recently become a liaison for artists like Ghostface Killah, Talib Kweli and The LOX.
NY's Finest is Rock's attempt to do the same. With an emphasis on forgotten samples, chopped and spliced to make new grooves, the album marks Rock's latest attempt at bridging the gap between soul and hip-hop. But unlike previous releases, this one was made entirely on Rock's MPC2000XL, a machine that Rock calls “the upgraded SP-1200.” With his new MPC swing, some exclusive Stax sampling rights and borrowed ears from engineering wizard Young Guru, it's fair to say this old dog's learned a few new tricks.
FEELING THE FREQUENCIES
The 15 tracks that comprise NY's Finest were created in between Rock's 2001 solo effort, Petestrumentals (BBE) and late 2007. For the prolific PR, they represent his favorite few among the several hundred he's created since purchasing the MPC in 2001. Unlike Petestrumentals, made entirely with his prized SP-1200, this release strays from filtered, ethereal washes and aims for a pristine, distinctly MPC sound. For the forward-thinking producer, that was an intentional decision.
“When I started putting this record together, I found myself listening to [hip-hop] radio a lot more. I wanted to get a better sense of today's sound so I could hopefully mix that with my own. It's important, especially when you're associated with a certain era, to update your sound.” Chief among Rock's observations about today's hip-hop is the attention it pays to the higher frequencies. For Rock, this resulted in the music's newfound presence. “Hip-hop today sounds bright, like it's right in your ear. It's clean.” Rock sees the change as, in part, attributable to the Akai MPC's predominance in the world of bits and bytes.
“The main difference I noticed when I switched from the SP to MPC was the MPC has a thin, clean sound. The SP's gonna give you that raw, gritty hip-hop feel. The SP just makes your sound fat.” For the erudite E-mu scholar, one who admits to once downgrading sampling rates for the sake of increasing sample time, adapting to Akai's model was a mixed blessing. While it gave the producer a superfluous three minutes of high-rate sample time, it also meant parting from his signature bandpass filters that yielded famous horn lines like the opener for “T.R.O.Y.” “It's a tradeoff; you gotta give up some of that boom-bap-buh-boom-buh-boom-bap,” Rock says as he breaks into a deep-voiced beatbox pattern. But, in response to the MPC's less warm, slightly dead sound, the producer implemented two strategies that preserved the boom in his boom-bap.
“Before I sample anything into the MPC, I always EQ my sounds first,” Rock says. “I just use an old GLI Pro mixer that I got hooked up to the sampler. It's not a great mixer, but it has three basic bands that I can equalize on. If you want your sound to be heavy on the MPC, you need to EQ. For kicks, I have [tape] markers that I leave on the EQ knobs. The markers give me a range that are gonna make the kick boom. I have the same type of markers for the hi-hat and the snare. Every time I sample anything, I use those markers as a reference.”
On Rock's lead single, “Til I Retire” — the producer's three-round lyrical knockout atop a tough beat that flirts with Southern minimalism — the difference shows. The kick, hat and snare/clap each occupy distinct frequencies, and though Rock peppers the mix with scratches; a dampened, reverberating horn stab; and futuristic analog tones, the textured sounds never compete with each other, resulting in an overall brightness hitherto unknown in Rock's compositions. While part of the solution is Rock's “pre-Q“ strategy, another part of Rock's new brightness can be attributed to his newly acquired engineer and Roc-A-Fella affiliate, Young Guru.
ENTER YOUNG GURU
“The main difference in working with a cat like Young Guru versus some of the other engineers I've worked with is [that] he actually knows my music,” Rock says. “He's like a true hip-hop head. So rather than me having to explain what things are supposed to sound like, he just gets it!” To Young Guru, a longtime Pete Rock enthusiast, grasping Rock's mixes was second nature.
“Being the age that I am, , I'm obviously going to know his sound,” Guru says. “I used to study him when I listened to his music, and so when I came in to work [on NY's Finest], it didn't take eight years for me to get familiar. I knew what he was going for.”
One of Guru's key techniques for emulating Rock's brand of '90s New York street-hop was replicating the sound of the SP-1200 with outboard gear and plug-ins. For tracks like “PJs,” a syrup-thick, bass-driven track featuring Raekwon and Masta Killa, Guru used one of Pro Tools' factory bit-distorter plug-ins to bring out the crunchy warmth of the RZA-esque track. “You gotta understand, the SP-1200 is a 12-bit sampler that samples at a rate of 22 kHz,” Guru says. “I used those parameters as a reference point and crunched it up like it would've sounded going through that machine. I know that machine; nothing's gonna sound exactly like that machine, but the parameters can be replicated. The track already sounded like an old Wu-Tang joint, so my job was to just finish what Rock started. I reduced the bass line to 12 bits and brought the sample rate down to 22 kHz. I also colored it with some of the API 2500's harmonic settings.”
One difference between “PJs” and most of Guru's concoctions is the subtlety of the drums. Accustomed to mixing street bangers for Roc-A-Fella acts like Jay-Z, Freeway and Beanie Sigel, Guru took a different approach here. “Whereas I usually try to get the drums more knocking, the bass was the driving element here, so I just let the drums sit in the mix once the bass sounded right,” he says. “Producers pay a lot of attention to their drums, but I've learned sometimes it's not the drum that drives the song.”
When Guru was focusing on the drums, however, he relied primarily on his API/Empirical Labs' Distressor compression combination. “I never read the manual on the API until recently. When I did, I learned some of the proper preset settings. You can pretty much copy any old compression unit on the API,” Guru says, referring to the unit's two primary settings: “feed back” for old-style or “feed forward” for newer models. “I ran all the drums through there and really got that snap from the snare. I also copied some of the tape-compression settings to get the feeling of the original recordings that Rock might have sampled from.” In combination with the onboard equalizers and compressors from Manhattan Center's Neve VR mixing console, which Guru mixed on, “there wasn't much more to do,” Guru says.
Guru credits Rock's source material and method of working as inspirational for the whole process. Seeing the producer's concentrated ability to work within a single machine, entirely from samples, reminded the mix master of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's sophomore album cover. “When I got to Rock's home [studio], it looked exactly like the photo from The Main Ingredient. He was still working in the same environment: He recorded most of his vocals for this album in that room, not in a booth, just standing up next to the mic, going into a Focusrite [Octo Pre] preamp.” Guru insists this type of vocal recording gives the album “that raw, basement-tape feeling.”
Guru, who also produces, was equally impressed with Rock's ability to self-contain his sound before the mixing phase. “Watching Pete's mind at work is crazy,” he says. “He would sample three different records and get it sounding like a mixed, single record. I've never really seen a producer do that and work so quickly. Sometimes he'd make beats on the spot, as many as three or four a day, and to his credit, each of them was already mixed within the machine.” That made it easy for Guru to focus on creative rather than corrective engineering.
HAPPY MEDIUM MIXING
Rock, who is now becoming more comfortable mixing his records from his home studio with a newly added Digi 002 setup, appreciated Guru's ability to not overmix in the final stages. Both the producer and engineer agreed that today's mixes tend to sound squashed — usually the result of too much compression at different phases. “You got the producer adding compression, the engineer adding compression and then the mastering guy adding compression. At the end, it sounds like a loud, squashed track. I don't know where this comes from, but people today just like loudness, not dynamics,” notes Guru. Rock sees it as the producers' growing estrangement from the mixing process. Because of that, engineers — especially those who don't have an ear for hip-hop music — don't know which direction to take the final mix. Rock cites his Ghostface Killah collabo, “Be Easy,” as proof. “They kinda did too much to it. They were taking out kicks and maybe didn't focus enough on the horns,” the producer notes when referring to one of the few tracks that he wishes could be remixed. “Me and Ghost's people are cool, and we've resolved the issue, but it just goes to show you the producer should always be present during the mixing phase.” Guru agrees, noting Rock's involvement as crucial to his decision-making.
Regarding his overall production savvy, Rock's learned a lot from listening again to music that predates hip-hop. Having secured a partnership with the soul flagship, Stax, Rock has acquired several multitracks from some of the label's rarer sessions. By having the ability to solo, mute and sample tracks within Pro Tools' interface, Rock's taken a closer listen to techniques in the age of analog production. In many ways, that has expanded his compositional vocabulary. “Producers from the Stax era paid a lot of attention to stuff like hooks, choruses, building bridges and drum breaks. When you listen to it track by track, you start to learn how to break away from the loops and add to the dynamics. I'm trying to bring that to hip-hop producers.” On “The Best Kept Secret,” a track featuring New York's Lords of the Underground, Rock uses a marching band-like brass section to conjure up the feeling of a well-conducted 20-piece orchestra. Here, the beat conductor demonstrates his growing understanding of song forms, creating several crescendos from stacked samples that play the same melody, eventually inviting a decrescendo, and then the hook erupts into a roaring climax — a climax few producers could reach even with live instrumentation.
For Rock, these are the type of dynamics that are missing from hip-hop today. “Everyone wants to sound this one particular way. It's like they don't realize that's the curse of hip-hop; once you start sounding like everyone else, your timer starts ticking…faster and faster. Eventually, you're not in it anymore.” Though Rock promises his basic elements — street and soul — will always remain present, he's vowed that he will continue to think progressively about his production. “It's easy for me to feel nostalgic about music — like me and Preme might just sit back in D&D and complain some days — but I can't stop. I really love what I do too much to stop. Hip-hop music has always been about changing and evolving. I've always been dedicated to that. The industry can pigeonhole me all it wants, but I'm at a point where I just need to be making music, and that's what keeps me going; that's why I'm not stopping.”
Akai MPC2000XL sampling workstation
Alesis Monitor One MK2 monitors
API 2500 stereo compressor
Apple Power Mac G5 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools 7, Digi 002 interface
E-mu SP-1200 sampler
Empirical Labs Distressor compressor/limiter
Fender Rhodes keyboard
Focusrite Octo Pre preamp
Genelec 1031 monitors
JBL LSR325P monitors
Neve VR console
Røde NT1000 condenser mic
Sony C-800G mic
Technics SL-1200 turntable