With a new album that features Jim Jones and Papoose, can this legendary hip-hop producer bring New York rap's new generation back to the future?

For the nostalgic hip-hop head that reminiscences over the “golden age,” legendary producer Pete Rock was the orchestrator of the era’s influential, soulful hip-hop sound. His sample-laden, jazz-fused beats, and classic collaboration with MC CL Smooth cemented him among the most in-demand producers in hip-hip. He set the standard for beatmakers and inspired producers to be more creative through his freelance work for artists like Nas, Heavy D and Public Enemy.

After releasing 1992’s Mecca and The Soul Brother and 1994’s The Main Ingredient with CL Smooth, Pete went solo. 1998’s Soul Survivor and 2004’s Soul Survivor 2 enlisted some of the most charismatic lyrists in hip-hop to blend with his signature sound. Recently, he’s kept his name buzzing by producing fan favorites for Ghostface, Jim Jones and Talib Kweli. His third official solo album, NY’s Finest, which drops February 26 on indie label Nature Sounds Records, features the infectious lead single “We Roll” with Jim Jones and Max B, ushering the Pete Rock sound into a new generation. XXLMAG.com caught up with Soul Brother #1 to discuss his new album, innocence lost and why he’s back like he never left.

What you been up since the last album?
Just doing a lot of DJing all around the world and production, things like that.

During your world travels have you been doing a lot of digging?
Of course. Everywhere. Anytime I’m on the road.

Where’re your favorite spots, outside the US to get albums?
Japan and Scandinavia. Certain parts of the US.

What can you get in Japan that you can’t get here?
It’s just that there is certain stuff that was once here is over there now. It’s dry here in New York. There are certain spots that are still wet that you can find me in. As far as Japan goes, they just have a wider variety of stuff. They have a wide variety of rap 12 inches and disco 12 inches.

On NY’s Finest, you collaborate with people like Jim Jones, Papoose, Redman, Slum Village. How did you go about getting the choosing the guests?
That was easy. These are some of my favorite artists and I wanted to hear how they would sound with me. And out of respect, cats got down with me.

Was it difficult to match the artist with your sound?
It was pretty easy for me this go around. I was kind of surprised because I thought I would have to be more involved with coaching them, but nah, not at all. Everybody just did them. You got to let people be themselves to sound dope, so it was a plus for me.

Do you have a favorite collaboration on the album?
The Jim Jones one, definitely. I think that record is dope. That’s one of my favorite joints off the album right now. On that song, Max B came up with the hook and I was really thrown back.

A lot of people didn’t see that collaboration coming.
Well, you got to expect the unexpected fucking with me. I like to hear the difference. It’s dope that people shy away from what they usually do. Do something different. Do something for the hip-hop heads.

You’ve been around 20 years, and through all of it, you’ve maintained a consistent style. Do feel any pressure to change your format?
I don’t feel pressure. I feel it’s a must [to change]. It’s a need not to pigeonhole yourself to what people expect you to sound like. To show people like, “Word? That nigga Pete Rock did that shit? Get the fuck outta here.” I like coming left field on cats. A lot of people don’t know but I did a song on Keyshia Cole’s album on Just Like You. A joint called “Got To Get My Heart Back” [ED. NOTE: Geffen executive Ron Fair is credited as the producer of this Keyshia song.] That’s what I love to do, the unexpected.

Do you think you would make a move towards doing more pop?
Of course. It’s just a matter of getting with the artist and getting a dope writer to convince the artist to do this song or do this beat. Those kind of beats, for me, is easy to do. So I’m like, Okay, let me try a few of these. Because I was always strictly hip-hop and R&B but I got a bunch of them shits too.

Nowadays, hip-hop seems to have more critics than ever. Do you think the music is messed up?
I think that hip-hop is missing a lot of balance right now. There’s a lot of people trying to grasp that Pete Rock sound. They think they got it but they don’t quite have it. My thing is, put the sound back in the music. Put the Pete Rock sound back on the radar. To me, it’s like, why try to be someone else when that someone else is not gone? He’s still here making hot shit. Listen to Keyshia Cole, listen to Ghostface, listen to Styles P album, listen to Jadakiss album, listen to Meth’s album, listen to Raekwon’s album.

Right, people don’t realize some of the stuff you’re doing.
Word, I’m dibbling and dabbling in everything. I feel that’s important to be versatile, and to show people that I can do any kind of fucking song. I can get with the grimiest of the grimiest niggas and do the grimiest beats and go right from that and do some pop shit. It’s like that for me.

How you feel about Kanye calling himself the next Pete Rock?
[Laughs.] I’m not mad at that all. But the only thing that kinda bothers me is that some of these cats talk about me like I’m not here. You know, it’s cool to be the next Pete Rock. That’s cool to put that out there. That was my goal: For everyone to have a sense of your own identity or your own sound, because that’s what I did. If you do the same things I did, then you’re really [just] being Pete Rock himself. If you’re doing something that I’m not doing and you’re passionate about your shit, then you can be the next Pete Rock in another form. That’s all. I feel like that’s a great look for me. I’m still here, I’m still making shit and cats want to be me. Just don’t talk about me like I’m not here.

You’ve done some phenomenal beats throughout your career. What inspires you to approach the boards?
Just having the passion in your heart and loving what you do. And that for me always comes first before anything else. I’m still here making beats at 36 years old and I have such a genre of music; it’s not even funny. From beats from the SP to the MP. It’s real big for me. It’s serious for me. Cats don’t realize how serious it is. They try to compare me to other producers or who does the most work that’s the one with the most beats. No way, Jose. I mean, I’m a choice kind of guy. I pick and choose what artist I want to fuck with, who’s going to make my shit sound dope. Even if it’s a new up and coming artist, as long as I’m there to help coach him through on how to rock on some Pete Rock shit, then everything will be copasetic. But my main goal here is to just basically to try to get cats more unified with this hip-hop thing. Everybody is for self and the business is kind of screwed around because of the rules and regulations that have been broken. There’s just been a loss of innocence with the business side of hip-hop.

Is the format of NY’s Finest similar to the Soul Survivor albums?
In a sense. I got artists on there, different people I did records with. I rhymed on a few more records this time around. I wanted to say a little more. I had a few things to get off my chest. So I definitely participated more. For me, if I had to choose between beats and rhyming, I would definitely pick the music. Rhyming I just do for fun. There’s a lot more people that take it seriously and not to offend anybody or take away from their craft, but if the feeling is there I’ll do it.

With all the dance-based teen rap on the airwaves, it seems like there’s a generation gap in hip-hop now. Do you think your music can reach the young ones?
I think for the young kids, my album will teach them a lot if they’re willing to listen and learn. As far as all the other stuff that’s happening out here, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making records for the kids as long as you don’t mislead them into a world that’s non-belief. Materialistic things come with the game but that’s not the main focus. My album will teach them what the main focus is and how to go about it and how to be passionate it about what you do.