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Pete Rock - Underground Classics

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Artist: Pete Rock

Album: Underground Classics

Label: Rapster

Review date: Oct. 11, 2006

Pete Rock is a throwback to a time that nostalgic hip-hop connoisseurs tend to consider as the genre’s golden era. Rock worked the turntables for Marley Marl’s influential New York radio show and began recording with his lyrical sidekick, C.L. Smooth, in the period between 1988 and 1992, a span when rappers were intelligent, talent abounded, and the only thing sharper than the beats were the angles of the artists’ flattop haircuts. In the time since the release of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s The Main Ingredient in 1994 – one of this golden era’s last gasps before Tupac and Biggie spilled their pulp across the airwaves – Pete Rock has continued producing, often providing original tracks and remixes for older, more mature rappers, the majority of whom are close to Rock’s age and are coolly complemented by the fine pacing and sweet tones of his percussion. Underground Classics, Rock’s most recent full-length, is a catalogue of these efforts, and include a few unreleased originals with INI, Rock’s erstwhile project with his brother, Grap Luva.

In the mid-1980s, Marley Marl (Pete Rock’s employer and artistic progenitor) developed a method of crafting beats that has, in the subsequent decades, remained a mainstay of hip-hop production. This novel technique was not sui generis; in fact, by today's standards it sounds redundantly simple – he applied samples to drumbeats. The success of Marley Marl and Pete Rock seemed to defy the linear logic of modern popular culture: As James Brown’s funky drummer snared Kurtis Blow’s giddy drum machine, the most contemporary of beats quickly became those that borrowed most heavily from soul songs recorded nearly a generation earlier. Marley Marl’s and, later, Pete Rock’s obsession with the records of yore blazed a trail for the flanks of backward-looking hip-hop artists of the 1990s and today. One need only hear the opening bars of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.,” a swooning saxophone riff culled from a Tom Scott record, to realize Rock’s fascination with discovering the gems hidden in dormant record stacks. (And, by extension, one need only hear the opening bars of “T.R.O.Y.” to realize that it is a matter of time before an industrious producer recycles that sample again.)

Pete Rock has not altered his style tremendously since emerging more than 15 years ago. The sample is still his medium of choice, and Rock has maintained his preference for pith, usually harnessing one musical phrase, two bars in length, and repeating it from a song’s beginning to end. Although Rock may no longer be the most technically intriguing producer, he has remained relevant because of his judicious sampling. Rock has an uncanny ear for grooves that, in hip hop’s concise format, efficiently connote whatever attitudes a song intends. Pete Rock has succeeded in avoiding anachronism – no small feat given hip hop’s fickleness – because of the expressiveness of his beats. Few other producers communicate as effectively as Rock, and it is one reason why his remixes continue to fascinate. Rock’s beats not only present a new context for a rapper’s verses, summoning latent meanings and rhythms in the original vocals, but provide a new dimension. Most producers remix as an act of substitution. Pete Rock, rather, approaches the remix as supplementation.

The most likely attraction on Underground Classics is “Back on the Block,” a new Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth collaboration. While it's entertaining, it should go without saying that it falls short of their more iconic material. No, the songs that are most deserving of attention are the two remixes that follow. Pete Rock reworks “The Milita” by Gang Starr and “You Can’t Stop the Prophet” by Jeru the Damaja. The remixes are interesting turns, firstly, because both Gang Starr and Jeru were acts associated with DJ Premier, Rock’s historical and artistic peer. Rock’s take on “The Militia,” originally produced by Premier in 1998, is an awesome synthesis of the two producers’ hallmarks, with Rock’s elegant piano underscoring Premier’s original record scratching. Rock’s remix of “The Militia” exchanges some of the jaggedness of Premier’s cut-and-paste method for an even continuity, instilling a touch of class where, before, there was primarily chauvinism. The Jeru remix, on the other hand, is profound in its muscular bass and discrete snare cracks. Jeru, already a confident rapper, speaks with a bit more swagger with the Rock behind him.

As these two remixes show, from his position behind the boards, Pete Rock still produces beats that can enhance his rapping partners, as well as stand on their own. Underground Classics is another example of Rock’s consistently solid work.

By Ben Yaster

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