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Smoke DZA and Pete Rock Use Friendship to Their Advantage for ‘Don’t Smoke Rock’ Album

Georgette Cline for XXL
Georgette Cline for XXL

In a year filled with surprises, Smoke DZA has managed to keep rap fans on their toes with a barrage of releases. He’s unleashed multiple full-length projects in 2016, including his latest ode to wrestling, Ringside, as well as George Kush Da Button: Don’t Pass Trump the Blunt, the politically-tinged follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 offering, George Kush Da Button. Now the Kushed God has pulled another rabbit out of the hat by connecting with legendary producer Pete Rock for the collaborative album, Don’t Smoke Rock.

Although the pair’s first official collaboration would be their contribution to “Niggaz 4 Life,” off Funkmaster Flex’s Who You Mad At? Me or Yourself? mixtape, their friendship extends more than a decade, with the Harlem native Smoke and Mt. Vernon rep Rock deeming Don’t Smoke Rock as a body of work that has been years in the making.

“If you want soul, then that’s the place you do,” DZA says in reference to linking up with one of the most revered boardsmen in the history of hip-hop. “Like, If you want burgers, you’re gonna go to Jackson Hole [famed New York burger joint]. You not gonna go to Jackson Hole and get a chicken sandwich.”

But if Smoke DZA or Pete Rock’s track records are any indication of what’s in store, expect nothing less than a hearty heaping of quality raps and rich production on Don’t Smoke Rock. And with a guest list that includes the likes of Rick Ross, Dom Kennedy, Big K.R.I.T, Cam’ron, BJ The Chicago Kid, Wale, Jadakiss and other star talent, the trimmings are more than enough to entice listeners. “Limitless” featuring Dave East only adds to the final product.

Smoke DZA and Pete Rock stopped by the XXL office to touch on their history as friends, what to expect from the album and what they have in store for 2017.

XXL: 2016 is coming to a close. What are two lessons or memories you’ll take with you moving forward into 2017?

Smoke DZA: Creating this album, and getting it out, and going through the process. That was a good memory of 2016.

Pete Rock: The good memories are linking up with Smoke and having this awesome project being done throughout the year, I think that’s the most highlighted thing of the year now that we’re at the tail-end. I’m really excited how that went down in 2016. But as far as people dying, we lost a lot of people this year, so that part of 2016 was widdack, but that’s what I can give you for the memory of 2016.

Is the title Don’t Smoke Rock strictly a play on your names, or is there a deeper meaning or theme?

Pete Rock: A little of both, but it definitely started out as how it would play off of our names, and Smoke [DZA], with his wittiness, came up with the word “don’t.” It sounds simple, but he threw Don’t in front of Smoke Rock. And I kept saying it and kept saying it, [but] I had to get used to it for a while and was like “I don’t know.”

But I kept saying it and I was like, “You know what, this is kind of different for a name of a group” and I was like “You know what, maybe this will work,” and that’s how that happened. And basically, it’s always a theme or a message in it about drugs. We’re stoners, but we feel any drug outside of weed is more harmful, but we don’t promote weed either. But young kids have to grow up and understand the difference between the drugs. We’re not hear to promote it, but we’re hear to basically say when we’re under that influence it’s nothing but relaxation, eating, joking, laughing and having fun.

The album cover art is very reminiscent of G Money and Nino’s style in New Jack City. Was that a conscious effort?

Smoke DZA: I wouldn’t actually pigeonhole those characters cause G Money was a snitch [laughs], but I guess for the aesthetic of their look, Harlem, Uptown early ’90s and ’80s, that’s was the tone that we was setting with the look. When you get the audio, it’s a different feeling, but it’s still nostalgic of that time and style, so we just wanted to make the cover relate with the music.

Pete, you come from Mount Vernon, whereas DZA’s stomping grounds are Harlem. What would you say is the difference, as far as vibes and culture, between the two in your eyes?

Pete Rock: There’s a difference. Harlem is very Black. And I’m not saying Mt. Vernon ain’t Black, Mt. Vernon is very Black also but it has White folks also [laughs]. Today you see more White folks in Harlem, but back in the ’80s and ’90s, you didn’t see that so now that’s the difference to me. And then culturally, it’s where hip-hop started in it’s very beginnings, right along with the Bronx, but it happened in the Bronx first, originally, you know. It’s all New York City, so it’s all a A-plus for me.

Could you point to any differences as far as style or slang that y’all was on?

Pete Rock: Maybe the slang. Definitely. Mt. Vernon took all the fly slang from Harlem cats. I don’t have an ego or anything about that we just give respect where respect is due. We love Harlem ’cause it’s Black and it’s more historical, a lot of great things happened and a lot of great people are from Harlem.

What makes a Mt. Vernon dude and a Harlem cat connect and gel like the two of you have to the point where y’all decide to do a whole album?

Pete Rock: It started from me working with a guy named Jonny Shipes [founder of Cinematic Music Group], who was doing some things for me. I met Smoke DZA while I was working with Shipes and we just kinda clicked and hit it off. [Smoke DZA] used to help me carry my records in the parties and stuff and I would invite him to come to the parties to chill and have a good time, and then we kind of nurtured it from there.

He was already a cool dude, so that’s a plus. Your person has to be good, and from there, we did what god called us to do with each other. It went from helping me carry my crates in the party, and at that time he was 18, 19, helping me out, he was young Smoke DZA. And now he’s 32 and we got this album that we made together and I feel it’s the ultimate, ultimate hip-hop album of 2016.

Pete, you produced the track “Unfuckwitable,” which features Roc Marciano and Domo Genesis on DZA’s last project, Don’t Pass Trump the Blunt. Was that your first time working with DZA or does your history run more deep?

Pete Rock: It runs a little more deep than that, and our friendship runs a little deeper than that also,but yeah, that was one of my favorite joints. It’s actually a bonus cut on Don’t Smoke Rock right now, that “Unfuckwittable” joint, and then Tha Dogg Pound joint, so we got two bonus cuts for Don’t Smoke Rock. The packaged edition of the album will have those two extra songs.

What would you say is your favorite quality about DZA as an MC, and on the other hand, DZA, what sticks out to you the most about Pete Rock’s production style?

Pete Rock: Just the way he raps, just what he talks about, how he raps. Just everything about his talent is A-plus, so that’s what attracts me. And I’m also a believer in working with the underprivileged. If you’re not quite there and you need help with your talent, I can only suggest advice on what you should do to get people’s attention.

Smoke DZA: He’s versatile. I fuck with Pete because he’s gonna give me the exact feeling I’m looking for as far as production, and not to mention, he’s the legendary Pete Rock.

Pete, how did you approach this album from a production standpoint?

Pete Rock: Certain records I would let it just be known, like, “Yo, I think you should use this?” and then the rest would be up to them. I would just have a whole bunch of beats and just sit down and [have them] pick which ones they liked, and it was as simple as that. And that’s the approach we took. And I like Smoke’s work ethic. He’s very fast in the studio, and that’s what also has me excited about working with him, his speed.

What are your favorite collaborative albums of all time, other than this one?

Smoke DZA: My favorite album by a rapper/producer tandem, I guess I would say Snoop and Dre. There it go, Doggystyle. Snoop and Dre.

Pete Rock: I would have to see Royce and [DJ] Premier, [PRhyme], because… you got a super producer, DJ Premier, and you’ve got Royce da 5’9, who kills lyrics. So with that together, it only makes a great pot of stew, man, you know what I’m saying? It’s just a witty, witty project that people look forward to when you know it’s gonna be 100 percent real.

Don’t Smoke Rock features a lot of guest appearances, including heavyweights like Rick Ross, Cam’ron, Jadakiss, Big KRIT and others. How did you manage to pull all of those artists together to be apart of this project?

Pete Rock: Well, me and Smoke DZA have existing relationships with people in the business and he comes from a side where I may not know certain younger cats and he does and vice versa and we kind of put it together and kind of executed that, you know what I’m saying, and we just kind of put our heads together and brought cats to the table.

One standout from the album is “Black Superhero Car” with Rick Ross. How did that song come about?

Smoke DZA: It came about from PR saying, “Yo, what’s the No. 1 artist you wanna work with? It doesn’t matter how big they are or if you think you can’t get ’em, I’ma get ’em.” And at the top of my list was Rozay and when I told him that, he was like “Ah, man, that’s easy. Don’t worry ’bout it,” pulled out his phone so I just saw him texting and he was like “Yeah, I told him about it, he said send it to him.” And then the next week, we got the vocals in our emails and was like, “Wow, that easy, that quick,” from the Bawse himself.

What made you get Ross on that particular track?

Smoke DZA: I mean, I never worked with him before, that’s one, so it was just something I wanted to check off his list. And two, I really just admire his style, I admire that he’s a lyricist and he don’t get enough credit for that and just everything about Rozay, on some artist shit, I admire so I wanted to have him on the album and be able spar with him and hopefully get a visual done, which is happening soon. Brushing shoulders with existing greats, ’cause I believe he’s that.

Another highlight track is “Milestone,” which features BJ The Chicago Kid, Jadakiss and Styles P. How did that track come about?

Smoke DZA: Well, shit, that was another one. I really, really look up to The Lox. I didn’t get Sheek on this, but I would’ve got him if I felt like people would’ve tolerated a six-minute [laughs]. I would’ve done that just to be like “I got The Lox on my shit.” As lyricists, they are hands down my favorite rap group so I wasn’t not gonna have em on my biggest album ever, feel me? We all cool, Kiss always showed me love, Styles always shows me love, and it just came about.

I hit Styles up, he was like, “Send me the song.” He sent it back to me maybe two days later, and PR hit ‘Kiss and we fucking put the full-court press on ‘Kiss, like “We need this verse, I can’t not have you on this album.” And that was my first time working with ‘Kiss so that was big for me too ’cause these niggas basically taught me how to rap, so to have them on my shit, that shit meant the world to me. And BJ is a good friend of mine and one of the most talented and best R&B/soul stars on the planet right now, so I wanted to have him involved as well.

What was the song y’all recorded for the album that made y’all feel that your work was done and you were ready to present Don’t Smoke Rock to the public?

Smoke DZA: Me and Pete thought we was done like four times before we was really done because we just kept making the record better. It was easier to formulate and get people in the same room and get it done. But I think the last record that came together was “Until Then” with Mac Miller. I think after we got Mac’s verse and we completed that, we felt like “All right, this is it right here.”

The lead single “Limitless” features Dave East. How did that track come about?

Smoke DZA: Well, Dave, that’s another good friend of mine. I’ve known for quite some time. He’s out here killing shit and he’s from my part of town and I’ve always loved to embrace the cats on my side, new cats period, and work with ’em cause that’s how you stay alive. But East, I really, really like East’s shit. I did shit for Black Rose, I did unreleased shit that’s not out, but I needed to have him a part of my shit, so that’s how that worked out. Plus Wayno [East’s manager], that’s my brother, we came up since we was kids, so there was a lot of variables in getting Dave on the album.

What about that song stuck out to the point the two of you decided to make it a lead single?

Smoke DZA: We don’t got a single. Me or Pete didn’t wanna create this album and be like “single,” because when you say single, people, like, live up to the expectation of whatever record you’re pushing. So we wanted to make a body of work, something that could live beyond a single So I don’t think we have a single, we have records that’s just good. We’ve got great records, we’ve got a great body of work.

What are your individual plans for 2017 or some things you have in store that the fans can look out for?

Smoke DZA: Well, there’s a Don’t Smoke Rock Tour, that’s what’s next for both us. So y’all just keep y’all eyes peeled out for the tape ’cause we’re gonna hit every part of this fucking world.

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