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Studio Sessions | Pete Rock shares over 25 years of The Notorious B.I.G., J. Dilla and Heavy D stories

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” legendary hip hop producer Pete Rock discusses making ‘Petestrumentals 3,’ his bond with Heavy D, and more.

Pete Rock Getty Images

For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.

Pete Rock has produced classic records for legends like Nas, Common, AZ, and The Notorious B.I.G., with the latter being so amazed by how the producer made beats, Biggie had to see it for himself.

I made a beat in front of [The Notorious B.I.G.], then he asked me, he’s like, ‘Yo, I want to see how you make beats.’ I was just like, ‘Alright.’ Then, I made the song called ‘In the Flesh’ that’s on The Main Ingredient in front of him,” he told REVOLT.

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Pete Rock discusses making Petestrumentals 3 with all live instruments, a lost video of him and J. Dilla, and his bond with Heavy D. Read below!

Your legacy in hip hop extends for decades. What were those early Mountain Vernon sessions like with Heavy D in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s?

Those were like family sessions, and those sessions were nothing but fun and games, and laughing and carrying on, and making music, man. That’s all that was. It was like a family gathering where we had talent and were able to execute our talent. When Heavy was signed, that’s when the ball started rolling for everyone.

What was his creative process in the studio?

He was a very serious worker. He was very ambitious. I thought the work was fun because I was into it, I like to work. I like making beats and getting songs done. I think of hooks, scratches, and all kinds of crazy stuff like that. Heavy was very into what he did in the studio. He never really got tired and it was nice when we spent the night the whole night ‘til the next day and wake up working.

The 20th anniversary of the Fantastic, Volume One album by Slum Village recently passed. One of my favorite joints is “Once Upon a Time” that you and J. Dilla worked on. What was it like working together with him?

We were two humble brothers excited to be in each other’s presence. That’s a great scene. My brother got to see that. T3 and everybody got to see that, and it was amazing. Some of it is actually on video. The video is Dilla picking me up from the airport. This guy named Bo Bo Lamb has the video but he won’t give it up...

Did you and Dilla nerd out on any production equipment or techniques?

He used to be like, “Yo, man, you could look through my whole collection of records.” He was telling me like, “Yo, let’s do some songs.” He wanted to do some songs and we did some joints. We didn’t only just do “Once Upon a Time,” we did like two other joints or three other joints if I can remember.

Any unreleased gems recorded in your infamous basement?

Erick Sermon and I used to do stuff in my basement. We got some unreleased stuff that we did, but it’s just us doing some practice shit in the basement. We weren’t really seriously recording it. I wasn’t really set up with the soundproof for the mic, so it’s a pretty raw sound, but it’s still good. I would have to find a way to get the lyrics a little bit cleaner than what they sound like.

You’re known for your sampling skills, but your latest album Petestrumentals 3 was your first album using only live instrumentation with your band The Soul Brothers. What made you decide to do that?

I felt like I’m at a point in my career where I can do anything I want to do, and with musical independence. I took on this idea and I thought it was a great idea because I got really great musicians that could pull it off. Shout out to The Soul Brothers and shout out to Daru Jones, MonoNeon, BigYuki, Marcus Machado, Jermaine Holmes, Chris McBride, and Yannick, the whole group is awesome. I’m ready to pull off anything I can. All I did really was send them 25 of my beats and told them, “Yo, look, listen to these and tell me how close you can get.” Then, we started to experiment and do what we do.

How different was it making this sort of production?

It wasn’t much of a difference. I only had to make sure that I was present and making sure that I wanted to get what I wanted to get out of the band, and ask them to come as close as possible to the beats that they hear that I sent them. After that, it’s as easy as cake.

Are there songs you wanted to sample that you were able to recreate?

Well, I can mention the songs, but I rather not because people could really detect what it is if they know for themselves what it is. I like to interpret other people’s music that I was inspired by growing up as a kid into who I am today and I always wanted to do that. I always wanted to have a band where I’m directing the band, and now I got that.

How has your beat production process been affected by the pandemic?

It hasn’t changed at all other than me making 1,000 beats a day. There isn’t any shit else to do, but that’s about it.

Now that you have this band, are you going to do live recreations more?

Of course, but the recreations will sound like samples because I’m getting old pieces of equipment I’m finding in garage sales and I’m getting musicians that know how to play them really well.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the first PeteStrumentals. Are there any artists that you couldn’t get this go-round after sending them beats?

I don’t think so, not really. I think those were beats that I just picked out of my archives. They weren’t beats that I had specifically for any artist to listen to or none of that. When I was making beats and stuff for artists, they would just get beat tapes or CDs or something like that, and then pick the beats from what they wanted.

You and CL Smooth are one of the greatest duos in hip hop history. What was your dynamic like making music?

It was just fun. We were making music to match the aura of who we were and how we grew up in the ‘hood. That’s basically what we reflected with Mecca and Soul Brother and All Souled Out, which are our first two recordings that we did. Mecca was the first album and Main Ingredient was the second album. Everything, in the beginning, is always fun because we were about the talent and the work that we were doing.

Where was Mecca and the Soul Brother recorded?

Mecca and the Soul Brother was recorded at Greene Street Recording Studios in Soho in Manhattan.

How would certain songs come about?

It was really like, “Yo, you like this beat? Write to it.” After he writes to it, he will let me hear what he wrote, and then if I liked it, I would be like, “Yo, this shit match.” Or I’d say, “Change this part or that part.” That’s how we rolled. It was like the beats already made you feel a certain way. So, when he was writing to it, it all made sense.

What do you need in the studio to make some of your best beats?

I need nothing but my brain and my hands (laughs). That’s it, man.

How has your equipment in the studio evolved over the years?

I don’t use the SP as much, but I got a billion beats on that machine. I’m on the MPC now and I’ve been on like three different MPCs and I like the MPC.

You came from the era of mainly saving your production on disks and tapes, which could’ve lead to them being lost and destroyed. Have you ever had that issue?

I’ve lost a bunch of beats as far as making the beat, and having a power outage and having to make it over, or making a beat and forgetting to save it, and I just turn off the drum machine by accident. I’ve done stuff like that.

Did any of your songs have to be recreated?

AZ’s “Rather Unique.” When I was touching up the beat in the studio, the assistant engineer hit the power strip by accident and turned the whole beat off and I had to do it all over again.

What would you say is the most impressive thing you’ve seen in the studio?

Most impressive? Probably me doing scratches. As far as MCs go, Biggie is incredible, Nas is incredible. I loved to see how those dudes had it together already with composition books full of raps. That’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen when it came to the writers.

I remember a story you told about Biggie wanting to see how you made beats. What was that moment like?

I made a beat in front of him, then he asked me, he’s like, “Yo, I want to see how you make beats.” I was just like, “Alright.” Then, I made the song called “In the Flesh” that’s on The Main Ingredient in front of him.

Were you teaching him how to make it or just showing it?

No, I wasn’t teaching him that. He just was watching.

2021 is the 25th anniversary of “The Bitch in Yoo” song by Common that you produced. How did that come about?

He just called me up to ask if I had something for this record he wanted to do about Ice Cube. He was really upset about it, you know what I’m saying? I’ve never seen him like that. We went in with the mindset of laying it back down and shooting back at Cube. We laid it down in the studio.

Another one you did was Raekwon and Ghostface’s “R.A.G.U.” What was your thought process making that beat?

I made it like I had the Wu-Tang Clan in mind and they’re my favorite rap group. So, I just wanted to keep that sound and aura of who they are.

What was your most memorable studio moment?

Probably Run-DMC because of Jam Master Jay and how closely we worked together on that song “Down with the King.”

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