On Monday, Vulture began a week-long series of articles looking back at the year 1998. It was 15 years ago when Titanic won an Oscar for Best Picture, Dawson’s Creek debuted on the WB and “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz became the personal anthem of this Harlem-born writer. With Bill Clinton in the White House, Eldridge Cleaver on his deathbed, Gary Coleman beating down bus drivers and Dave Chappelle’s blunted masterpiece Half Baked on the silver screen, 1998 was, as years go, one of the good ones.
The year was also great for music. My personal playlist in that pre-iTunes world consisted of everything from Destiny’s Child hypnotic “No, No, No” to Massive Attack’s futuristic grooves on Mezzanine album to Prince’s sprawling three-disc odds and sods wonderment, Crystal Ball. And one of the best hip-hop discs to came out of anyone’s lab that year was producer Pete Rock’s impressive solo debut, Soul Survivor.
Released the same year as Jay Z’s crossover success Vol 2: Hard Knock Life and OutKast’s stellar Aquemini, Rock’s record just didn’t hit pop fans in the same way. Although LA Times critic Soren Baker called the album a “flawlessly assembled…seamless mix,” it remains underrated in the canon of 1990s hip-hop.
Famous for his jazzy funk productions for Nas (“The World Is Yours”), Run-DMC (“Down With the King”), his own dynamic duo Pete Rock and CL Smooth (“They Reminisce Over You [T.R.O.Y.]”), as well as countless remixes for artists ranging from Public Enemy to Brandy, the then 29-year-old producer had recently broken ties with Elektra Records and set up shop at Loud Records.
As the home to the Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, the Alkaholiks, Raekwon and Big Pun, the label (under the guidance of CEO Steve Rifkind) was known for allowing artists freedom to flex their creative muscles. As one executive explained to me, “The label works for them. We’re not trying to control the artists or tell them what to do. We’re hands off. Our artists go to the studio and do what they do.”
What Pete Rock did with Soul Survivor was somewhat close to what his mentor Marley Marl had done 10 years before when he gathered the Juice Crew collective (Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap, MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté and others) and released In Control: Volume 1. Though Rock didn’t have his own posse of MCs in the next room, that didn’t stop him from assembling a makeshift version that wasn’t too shabby at all.
“When I was looking for collaborators, I was checking for hot voices that could ride the beat,” says Rock. “That’s important. If a rapper can ride the beat, then they’re the bomb.” Soul Survivor included contributions from Method Man, Vinia Mojica, Common, Black Thought and Pete’s older cousin, the late Heavy D.
“My earliest productions were working with Hev in his basement,” Pete Rock told me a few months before Soul Survivor was released. It was a Sunday night, and he and Marley had just finished their old WBLS radio show, Future Flavors. While Marley gave a guided tour to a group of Japanese tourists, Pete and I chilled in the living room.
“I graduated from high school in 1988, and Hev took me on tour with him. I also got to be around Teddy Riley a lot. Watching him warm up on the equipment taught me so much.” Born in the Bronx in 1970, Pete moved to Mount Vernon when he was 7. Already into hip-hop, he began hanging with his older brother’s boys, the Classy Rock Crew, and started scratching records when he was 10.
His homeboy Eric J, down with the Classy clique, turned him on to a deeper knowledge of the art form, giving Pete mix-tapes featuring various DJ battles and shows. “He gave me some Afrika Bambaataa tapes that I took home and listened to for hours.”
Luckily, music was already a big part of his family’s life. “My pops was a DJ back in Jamaica, and he had a huge record collection. When I first started deejaying, I would raid my pop’s stash.” Digging in his daddy’s crates, Pete first began choosing records based on the album art.
“My favorite cover was for the James Brown Hell album,” he said. “Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly was another one I really liked.” In addition, he also discovered jazz artists Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, whose bebop sensibilities became a part of his beat making.
Still, if Pete had to cite one favorite artist, it would always come back to James Brown. After hearing Brown’s music, he became such a fan that his mother took him to a nightclub in Mount Vernon called the Leftbank to see the Godfather of Soul when he was still a kid.
“I was only 10 years old, so Mom had to beg and plead with the bouncers to let me in. But we not only got in, we also got to go backstage and get an autograph. I don’t know where it is now, but that was the biggest inspiration ever.” On Soul Survivor, he sampled Brown’s “Revolution of the Mind” for an instrumental co-produced by MF Doom, and “Da Two” featured a “Funky President” break with CL Smooth on the mic.
In addition to music, Pete also began getting heavy into comic books as a kid. Going every week to the spinning metal racks in the back of a local stationary store, he bought Power Man/Iron Fist, Daredevil, Thor and The Amazing Spider-Man. “I always wanted to meet Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, but I never did.” While making Soul Survivor, he often flipped through his massive comic book collection for inspiration.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much comic books and hip-hop is connected. I think of my music like it’s a visual picture [in a comic]. I try to make beats that sound like action.” The year before Soul Survivor was released, Pete Rock met Method Man—another big comic book collector—in Los Angeles when they both co-starred in Erykah Badu’s video for “Next Lifetime.”
“We talked at the shoot, and we both wanted to work together. I promised to do a beat for his joint and he promised to do drop some hot rhymes on mine. It was simple. To me, Wu-Tang reminded me of the Juice Crew. RZA sounded like no one else, and what they did caught my ear like crazy.”
One rapper Pete Rock would’ve loved to have on Soul Survivor was his friend the Notorious BIG. Although Rock has always said that Puffy stole the “Juicy” beat from him, he stayed cool with Biggie. “People started calling my house at six o’clock that Sunday morning to tell me about what happened to Big,” Rock recalls.
“I thought the first person was fooling around, but then I turned on the news. I had made some stuff for him, but it never happened. We wanted to work together, but we never got the chance.”
At the time of the disc was released on November 10, 1998, rap music was going through yet another transformation. Pete Rock was still a brilliant producer, but regular rap radio had moved on to “It’s All About the Benjamins” and the latest from Timberland and Swizz Beatz. Unfortunately, commercial stations were over the sound that was too close to underground.
Fifteen years after its release, Pete Rock’s splendid Soul Survivor remains one of the best albums you’ve probably never heard.