Despite having a discography as long and impressive as the list of artists singing his praises, hip hop legend Pete Rock’s recipe for success is relatively simple. “Just be passionate, never give up, and love what you do,” he says from his hometown New York. “You’ll prosper from those three things alone.”
Ahead of his and fellow luminary DJ Premier’s Australian tour – the first in the Collusion concert series revolving around collaborative artist performances – Rock is in evergreen form, rattling off current projects at breakneck speed. In addition to the forthcoming third instalment in his acclaimed Soul Survivor album series, there’s an EP with Brooklyn rappers Skyzoo and Torae in the works, ongoing collaboration with De La Soul on their new album, work with emerging Harlem rapper Smoke DZA, and a “couple of movie things” as well as a “big surprise” on the horizon.
“I just feel like people like myself have to keep ourselves connected to what’s going on out there,” Rock says. “I’m very passionate. I love music, I love making music. I love hip hop, I love making hip hop. I keep my ear to the ground.”
It’s that ear that has seen Rock rise to, and remain, at the top of the global hip hop heap for over 20 years. Through pioneering the injection of jazz, funk and soul into the genre, he’s positioned himself as both an influence on, and inspiration to, many of today’s biggest names.
Born Peter Phillips in The Bronx in 1970, the sixth of seven children, Rock was raised in ‘Money Earnin’’ Mount Vernon and got his break from his cousin and scene luminary, the late great Heavy D. As a fresh-faced 16-year-old, Rock emerged supporting Marley Marl in the mix on New York City’s WBLS radio.
Linking with fellow New York rapper CL Smooth in the early 1990s, Rock became a main player in that golden age of quality hip hop. The release of timeless albums like 1992’s Mecca And The Soul Brother featuring single ‘They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)’ – an ode to fallen friend Troy Dixon of Heavy D & the Boyz – garnered Rock a reputation as one of the most talented producers in the game. And that was just the start. Over the course of 11 albums and last year’s 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s Part II mixtape, Rock has generated sales approaching 30 million units. In the studio, meanwhile, he’s produced for and remixed everyone from The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige and TLC to Mick Jagger, Madonna and Lady Gaga. In 2011, he picked up a Grammy for his contribution to Kanye West’s masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and followed it up by producing tracks for West’s and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne LP.
West, someone not particularly known for his modesty, has put it on record, declaring Rock “one of the most legendary producers of all time”. Pharrell Williams, meanwhile, admits he aspires to affect the masses the way Rock has throughout his career. “That’s how you know that you’re a legend, ’cause you can come out at any time … Age is not a factor when you’re a genius,” Williams said in 2008 ahead of Rock’s NY’s Finest release. What’s surprising and refreshing, though, is that for all this worthy praise, Rock remains grounded in a scene where a degree of front is both expected and applauded.
“I started out doing this as a hobby, not knowing that it would be my career later on in life,” he says. “It’s a true blessing from God, and without him it wouldn’t have been possible, and without Heavy D – rest in peace – it wouldn’t have been possible. He noticed my talent at a very young age.”
Rock’s New York roots remain strong, evident both in his enduring love for the New York Knicks and his continued support for the next generation of hip hop artists. In fact, his efforts on that count extend beyond the Big Apple and into the upper echelons of higher education, as a visit to Harvard University late last year demonstrated.
“9th Wonder brought me and DJ Premier on campus to speak to the young students there about our careers, our music and how we got started in the music business and so forth,” he says.
Meanwhile, a trip to Austin’s South By Southwest festival earlier this year provided an opportunity for Rock to assess the strength of up-and-comers. “It was a lot of fun to meet younger guys, young people just wanting to be in the music business. I always try to offer some type of wisdom to the young folks.”
“All this new young talent that’s out here making music – I keep my ear to them.”
It’s a fair bet this new crop is keeping its ears to Pete Rock, too, and while the way youngsters are making, marketing and playing music differs greatly to how it was done back in the day, Rock, an active social media user, is forthright when asked how he’s affected by rapid changes in technology.
“I’m not,” he laughs. “I’ve basically joined the clan of all-new digital equipment. I still collect vinyl and I still use vinyl, but when I’m DJing parties and performing shows, it’s Serato.”
“Now it’s just my laptop that I carry around the world with me to DJ [which] cuts out … the hassle of carrying records everywhere. I actually can’t believe I used to do that. [But] I’m cool with that, you know what I’m saying?”
While the style and methods may have changed over the years, Rock says individuality remains the key to musical expression, whatever gear is being used.
“Everyone has a different feel on how they approach using equipment and making music,” he says. “Me, for instance, I was always used to the natural way – using equipment in the ’90s that was available, like the Akai 950 sampler, or the SP-1200 or the TR-808 drum machine.
“But today has so many different sounds and different equipment that I actually love. I actually go to South By Southwest to see what’s really out there, to go to a Yamaha panel, or … somewhere where they’re talking about something new that’s gonna hit the market.
“Everyone has a different feel for one another. With that said, I stay tuned to what’s going on around me, and I just add my Pete Rock to whatever I’m doing.”
Rumours of a joint album with DJ Premier have been doing the rounds ever since the duo’s one-off show in Japan in 2010, but while that show did inform the evolution of the Collusion tour, Rock is quick to shoot down speculation of a forthcoming album.
“I’m not too sure it’s gonna happen anymore. Premier has his ventures that he does, and me the same. Right now we’re just focusing on doing these shows.”
And what can the masses expect onstage in Australia? Rock is tight-lipped.
“It’s a surprise. We can’t give it away, [but] we’ll have plenty in store for you.”