SO, JUST WHEN did Pete Phillips realize he might have a career as a hip-hop producer?
"After the 'pause button' era," he says jovially. "I was around 14 and I was pausing beats and stuff. At 15, I started learning how to use a drum machine. The first project I did by myself, I was 16 when I worked with Groove B Chill. [Soon after] I was co-producing for Heavy D and getting a lot of cool producing credits."
Under a different name, it should be noted: Pete Rock.
"Then, boom, I started doing remixes and stuff, all right at the same time."
That would be 1991, when Pete Rock's horn-heavy remix of Public Enemy's "Shut 'Em Down" announced a major new force. In "Ego Trip's Book of Rap Lists," "Shut 'Em Down" is crowned hip-hop's greatest remix, and Pete Rock one of the 10 most influential hip-hop producers of all time.
"It's been a while," says Rock, 34, thinking back to his major league debut. "Sometimes I look back and think, wow, that was hip for the time."
And what a time it was. Just a few months after, Pete Rock and rapper C.L. Smooth announced their own arrival with an EP, "All Souled Out," soon followed by a pair of hip-hop classics, 1992's "Mecca and the Soul Brother" and 1994's "The Main Ingredient." Those albums, and particularly the classic track "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," earned the duo a place in the hip-hop pantheon. Sadly, they never enjoyed commensurate commercial success, and after an acrimonious battle with their label, Elektra, and some reported personality clashes, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth went their separate ways at the end of 1995.
It was Rock who would maintain the higher profile through his production and remix work with such artists as Run-DMC ("Down With the King"), Naughty by Nature ("Hip Hop Hooray"), EPMD ("Rampage"), Nas ("The World Is Yours"), House of Pain ("Jump Around") and others. Rock also worked with Brand Nubian, Das EFX, Lords of the Underground and Notorious B.I.G. ("Juicy"). It was all music that sounded good coming out of a radio, appropriate since that's where Rock got his start, and his inspiration, at 15.
That's because Rock's uncle, Dwight Myers -- aka Heavy D -- was good friends with Marlon Williams -- aka Marley Marl, one of old-school hip-hop's first, and finest, producers. Credited with pioneering sampled drums and bass loops, Marley Marl also operated the Cold Chillin' label in the late '80s, with such crucial acts as Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, Kool G Rap and MC Shan.
But earlier in the decade, Marley Marl hosted "In Control," a hugely popular and influential rap show on New York's WBLS-FM, and that's where young Pete (still Phillips then) hooked up with him. Heavy D "took me to Marley Marl's house first and then later to 'BLS," Rock said. "They were working together, and I was just hanging out with them. And I knew something was going on, because I was around one of my favorite producers, one that I really listened to a lot back in the day, in '84, '85, '86."
"Then Marley's DJ, Kevy Kev, got in a car accident and he needed a fill-in," Rock recalls. "Next thing you know, he liked me and kept me, and that's how I built my name Pete Rock in New York, from being on the radio. And from that, I got into producing, again actually from working with Marley Marl because a lot of other producers looked up to him and listened to him."
If Rock was increasingly noticeable producing others peoples' tracks -- as well as through his mix tapes and DJ parties -- he became even more visible after partnering with fellow Mount Vernon, N.Y., native Corey Penn, aka C.L. Smooth. The self-proclaimed "Chocolate Boy Wonder" and "Caramel King" really came into their own with "Mecca and the Soul Brother," perhaps the only 80-minute album in hip-hop history that doesn't feel bloated. Besides Smooth's sharp, smart lyrics, the album derived its power from Rock's distinctive production techniques, a spare meld of rock-solid drums and cymbals beats, cavernous bass and taut horn loops. Even the generally-to-be-dreaded interludes were stellar, as Rock used snippets of '60s jazz funk classics by Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Eddie Harris and Les McCann. It's not surprising that horn loops became Rock's signature effect.
"I think it came from listening to a lot of jazz," he explains. "My father was playing a lot of jazz music around me and kind of instilling it in me, telling me about artists like Miles Davis and Tom Scott," he said. "Those things inspired me to try to do things that nobody ever really did. It was done, but it wasn't really stressed."
In the liner notes to last year's "Best of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth," critic Charlie Braxton compared three of hip-hop's pivotal producer-DJs to three legendary saxophonists. Rock mentor Marley Marl was analogous to Coleman Hawkins "because he single-handedly changed the way we listen to hip-hop by popularizing the use of sampled drum tracks." DJ Premier was like Charlie Parker "because of the way he chops up multiple samples to form his own rhythms and complex melodies." As for Rock, Braxton called him "the John Coltrane of the crew, because, like the late great saxophone giant, he dared to dig deeper into the musical lexicon to bring new excogitation to hip-hop."
Speaking of excogitation (don't worry, we had to look it up, too), as if "Mecca and the Soul Brother" didn't already have enough props, it included a true hip-hop classic, one of the most moving tracks in the genre's history: "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)." It was an elegy for a fallen friend, Heavy D dancer-rapper Trouble T-Roy, accidentally killed while engaging in backstage horseplay while on tour with Kid N' Play. But the track is as much tribute to the redemption of memory and the importance of family. "They Reminisce Over You" may well have been hip-hop's first eulogy -- long before eulogies became a hip-hop cliche -- and it quickly became, and remains, a standard at hip-hop memorials. Much of its power comes from Rock's use of a spectral horn line taken from a Jefferson Airplane cover on jazz artist Tom Scott's 1967 album, "The Honeysuckle Breeze."
"At the time T-Roy had passed away, it made me feel crazy, and I felt really sad inside," Rock recalls. "I was at home, and I picked up this jazz album in my collection and listened to it. I listened to the whole album, and there were a lot of things on there that grabbed me. But this one song took my soul, a song called 'Today.' "
The mid-'90s was a time of great hip-hop songs. Among 1995's commercial crossovers were tracks such as Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," Notorious B.I.G.'s "One More Chance" and "Big Poppa," Tupac's "Dear Mama," Dr. Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringin'," Naughty By Nature's "Feel Me Flow" and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "1st of Tha Month." And hip-hop heads can list dozens of underground classics.
According to Rock, "what stands out is the songs we had in that era were very powerful, and today people are still talking about them, which is great. That's what I want. When I'm creating music, I want people to say 10, 15 years from now, I still love this [expletive]. . . . This [expletive] is still [expletive] smooth. Damn, living that era was great, and now I know how people feel when they say how the '70s was the best time to live."
As Rock hears it, today's best songs can still be great, but there are too few of them being heard on radio because of ever-constricting playlists. "In the old days people would ache to hear [a great song] again," Rock explains, recalling how he'd stick with a station hoping to hear a variety of hits. "Today's music, they flush it down your throat. I get tired of hearing [the same songs] five minutes apart, all day, every day. It gets kind of nerve-racking."
What's also troubling, he adds, is that "some of the music that you hear today, there's no soul in it, and I don't mean samples. Even when you're doing something live with no samples, there's no soul in it. All you hear is beats slapped together, and you can tell that people are just doing it for the money and not for the passion."
Which may explain why Rock's 1998 solo debut was titled "Soul Survivor," and featured such guests as Black Thought of the Roots, MC Eight, various members of the Wu-Tang Clan as well as old partner C.L. Smooth. Rock followed up with 2001's instrumental collection, "Petestrumentals," and earlier this year released "Soul Survivor II" with guests Dead Prez, Pharoahe Monch, Little Brother, Talib Kweli, Wu-Tang's RZA and GZA and, once again, C.L. Smooth. There had also been rumors of a Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth reunion album next year, particularly after the duo toured together in late 2003 and earlier this year, but that red-hot possibility, and the underlying relationship, seems cooled again.
As for Rock's own prospects, they are picking up again, he reports.
"You can go through your ups and downs in this game, like everybody does," Rock says. "There was a time in my life where I had a down period. I got over it and started doing music and putting it back out there myself, then there was complications with being in the group [with Smooth] and stuff like that. Now I'm starting to work at a better pace, putting more music out. I'm working on a new project already, making an album with a new artist named Rock Marciano, who's part of a new group called the UN. We're branching off and doing an album together, and I'm working on 'Soul Survivor III.' "
And Rock's doing something he's done little of over the years: touring, appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club with former Lost Boyz member Mr. Cheeks and Truth Hurts. Rock has known Mr. Cheeks since he produced the Lost Boyz's 1995 single, "The Yearn." He's produced three tracks for Mr. Cheek's third solo album, "Ladies and Ghettomen" (due out Sept. 13), including the first single, "It's Alright," featuring Truth Hurts.
Most of his touring, Rock says, has been overseas, where there's "more respect for the music, the craft, the art. They love hip-hop. Over here it seems the love is less, the materialism is more. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I love houses and cars and jewelry, but not when you make it your life. There's other things that's going on out here."
PETE ROCK -- Appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club with Mr. Cheeks and Truth Hurts. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Pete Rock, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)