That hip-hop producers Pete Rock and DJ Premier remain among the most musically and culturally important in hip-hop's lifespan isn't up for debate—only celebration.
Pete and Primo have separately amassed two of the most venerable and sizable discographies in music: They've composed originals and remixes for everyone from Branford Marsalis and Michael Jackson to Christina Aguilera and D'Angelo. As for hip-hop artists, most of the majors over the last 20 years have had at least one classic track from Premier or Pete Rock, probably both. If it weren't for DJ Premier's trademark scratch collages or how Pete Rock's drums land like giant, lead-filled raindrops, we'd have missed an awful lot of hip-hop's "golden years." We'd be unable to debate whether Gang Starr—Guru the rapper and Primo the producer—or Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth was the best producer/ emcee duo of all time.
Even though both producers have been honored multiple times for their work, one of their most obvious disciples, Durham's 9th Wonder—whose sound assemblage is a tandem of Premier's relayed sample-chops and Pete Rock's lust for pointy drums and soul-packed backdrops—will be gathering a dozen-plus Triangle artists Saturday to perform songs by these behemoths of beat. What's more, the two stars themselves will be watching those who have, for decades, been listening. We talked with five area artists (two of whom will perform Saturday) whose careers have been influenced by Pete and Primo.
I started off as a jazz musician, and at the same time I really loved hip-hop. I always had the desire to fuse the two worlds together. Pete Rock and DJ Premier were two people that did it pretty well. Pete Rock's horns, DJ Premier's signature sound, the way he chopped up samples and rhythms—they were, to me, very jazz-influenced.
When DJ Premier worked with Christina Aguilera, it was off the wall because it was unusual for a traditional hip-hop producer to work with a pop artist. Now it's totally common, but DJ Premier broke new ground with that song. He's one of those producers that can keep his signature sound but at the same time find the exact sound that his artists need.
The idea of the fullness of a hip-hop beat is something that really stands out to me when I think about Pete Rock. Before Pete Rock came along, hip-hop music was lacking deep soul and a hard, hard bass line. Most of the hip-hop beats were directed more around jazz bass lines, not soul bass lines. The first Pete Rock beat I remember was the Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth song "The Creator." It was so strange that I didn't like it at first. It wasn't what I was used to, but each time I saw the video I saw how they were trying to approach hip-hop. I was like, "Holy shit!" When I started making beats, I knew that if I could get anywhere close to the Pete Rock remix of Public Enemy's "Shut Em Down," then I'd be doing all right.
Even though Premier produced all of the Gang Starr stuff, a Gang Starr beat wasn't necessarily a DJ Premier beat. Premier balanced his career well between how he produced for Gang Starr versus how he produced for other artists. He was capable of reserving sounds for certain artists. A Gang Starr beat wasn't a Group Home beat, just like a Group Home beat wasn't a Jeru the Damaja beat, also just like a Jeru the Damaja beat wasn't a Freddie Foxxx beat. He's prolific in that manner.
Premier's a loudmouth. I've always appreciated the fact that, when shit ain't right in hip-hop, he's always the one to speak up about it. It says a lot about his professionalism and how he's always tried to preserve the art and culture of hip-hop. How a nigga can produce a Christina Aguilera song and still keep it hood is beyond. Only Premier could do something like that, man.
One of the first records that I remember him having anything to do with was Heavy D's "Mood for Love," from his 1989 Big Tyme album. Pete Rock did that beat. The EP he and C.L. Smooth put out in 1991—I was in the 9th grade, and I was in love with it. Anything I would see with Pete Rock's name, I would buy. That's the ill thing about that era: If you were a hip-hop DJ and you saw anything that had Pete Rock or DJ Premier's name on it, you would buy it whether you knew who the rapper was or not.
Another unique thing about those two is that, during that time, whenever Primo would do a mix, Pete Rock would do a remix or vice versa. Take Jeru the Damaja's "Can't Stop the Prophet": Primo did that first, then Pete Rock did the remix. Same thing with Das EFX's "Real Hip-Hop."
Pete Rock made people step their game up in terms of records that they were using to sample. And when you think about Primo, he'd take about three seconds of a record, loop it and make a classic. A prime example is the beat for Bahamadia's "True Honey Buns," which is only about two seconds of an Ohio Players record. Two seconds—that's what I call creative.
I came up rockin' the Jeru the Damaja album that was produced by DJ Premier, The Sun Rises in the East. DJ Premier brought emcees to life. The first Premier song I heard was Gang Starr's "Words I Manifest," which was around the era of pro-black intelligence. I remember the video, where Guru had the ministry and was at the podium speaking. That was my introduction. Around that time, I was trying to create my definition of what hip-hop was, but I knew that what DJ Premier was doing was hip-hop. I didn't need anyone to explain it to me.
Pete Rock was someone that I was immediately up on from his work with C.L. Smooth. Of course, "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)" comes to mind. If I had to take one record and give it to an alien and explain to it what hip-hop was, I'd give it that one as an example.
Their style of production is something that's always going to have a place in my music. I'm trying to expand where I'm headed, but people like 9th Wonder and Irv Ford and Khrysis are still carrying on the tradition of sampling at a time when the industry is looking down on it because it costs money to clear samples. It's still important to me to always have that sound that's undeniably hip-hop.
I was a little kid when I first heard "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" on the radio. That was the first song to ever send chills down my spine. I was hypnotized by it, and I remember picking out each of the song's sounds in my head. Through the years, I kept listening to Pete Rock, and I started figuring out a lot of his techniques. He crushed it with the horns and the filters. No one was really filtering and using breaks like that before Pete came along. After the mid-'90s, you started noticing that producers were using filtered verses with unfiltered hooks and horn staffs. Pete started all that shit. It all comes from him.
DJ Premier is where the whole idea of [beat] chopping became involved. He's the king of the basic boom-bap, where it sounds both simple and complex at the same time. He really brought the deejaying aspect into production. Of course, he was a DJ first, but Premier is the one that made me get up and say, "OK, I think I can do this."
A Salute to Pete Rock and DJ Premier—featuring Skyzoo, Tyler Woods, Big Remo, Kaze, Thee Tom Hardy, Rapsody, Actual Proof, Cesar Comanche, Edgar Allan Floe, The Presidents, Jozeemo, K. Hill and music by The Family Dollar Band—rolls at the Cat's Cradle Saturday, Dec. 12. Tickets are $18-$20 for a 9 p.m. start. Presenter 9th Wonder hosts a midnight after-party.