Interview with Pete Rock, Kyoto, May 6, 2008
Pioneering hip-hop producer Pete Rock DJ'd for over two hours at a jam-packed all-night concert at Lab Tribe in Kyoto. The following day, he appeared at Jet Set, the leading indie record store in Kyoto and a must-visit place for any aspiring DJ. After signing some autographs, he dug through the crates there for about an hour, purchasing seven or so analog records. I talked to him in the midst of this activity. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
NM: What differences do you find between the hip-hop scenes in Japan and the US?
Pete Rock: There’s more appreciation for it here that I don’t find back in the US, that I find here. It’s plain and blatant as possible that they love it more than the US. They care for it more. It’s been abused back home in the US, so it’s not the same anymore.
NM: It’s less commercial here than in the US.
PR: Not only less commercial, but the roots of hip-hop...Japan likes the roots of it, from when it first started, the beginnings of it, when it was real. (In the US) now, it’s a big money scheme, all the commercial rappers, and all the people that have started doing that.
NM: You get that in Japan too.
PR: Yeah, yeah, but not as much. In Japan, I don’t really hear that. I don’t live here, but when I come here, I’m always hearing the real hip-hop. I don’t hear anything else but that.
NM: Who are your favorite DJs here?
PR: I like DJ Muro, a good friend of mine. I like Toshi, I like Honda. There’s a few guys, you know what I mean? But Muro stands out to me because of his record collection, and his choice of music, the things that he puts together and how he does it.
NM Sometimes people say that the Japanese have appropriated an African-American art form and say they're faking it and it's not authentic. What about the Japanese scene might bother you?
PR: I love Japan. The people embrace me here. I don't see anything negative at all; I'm not bothered by it at all. I never have been. It's not that they're faking it. It's that they're heavily, heavily inspired it. I think they just love it so much that they wanna do it themselves, that's all.
NM: What do you think of the sound of Japanese hip-hop that might be different from what you might hear in the US?
PR: It's more underground. It's less commercialized. That's the difference. But it's all good to me. There's a few things that I like. Steph Pockets (a Philadelphia-based female rapper who comes to Japan often), I think she's great. I did a remix for Fumi, a Japanese singer; she was pretty good. I haven't had a chance to explore more Japanese artists so far, but all of them that I've heard sound heavily inspired by the US.
NM: Could you describe how you go about making a track?
PR: It depends - sometimes I start with the sample, sometimes I start with the drums. It's looping and chopping mixed together. I use prerecorded tracks, but I do use live instruments. I use the Rhodes, I play the bass guitar, I make all my bass lines up in my head. I incorporate that with the samples. I have no genre restrictions. Not at all. Whatever sounds good.
NM: How do the tracks you use have an impact on how the MCs rap over it? Sometimes I hear MCs come up with lyrics and the producer comes back with the track.
PR: Sometimes it's like that, but a lot of the time it's the beat first. They have to hear something that intrigues them to write what they write, you know what I'm sayin'? Sometimes you need the beat to bring it out of you. Vice-versa, but more sense the beat.
NM: So when you work with an MC, do you first give them a minimal track and then add to it if they like it?
PR: I usually give them the beat, finished, and I add stuff later. But if they like the basic beat, then it's a go.
NM: What do you do to make a track more rappable? What would be something you wouldn't do because you know it would make it more difficult for the rappers?
PR: I would just give them the beat, Plain Jane as it is. I don't want to give them too much sound that would throw them off. Sometimes certain sounds throw off certain rappers. All they want to do is hear the plain beat so they can write what they want to write, and later on, I add my elements. It's like baking a cake, you know, I'm waiting for the cake to cool, and then I add the frosting.
NM: By Plain Jane, you mean the bass and the snare?
PR: No - just the sample and drums, together. That's it.
NM: What's something one shouldn't do while making a track?
PR: There's no real rules to it. People make beats the way they want to these days. There's no real rules to making music. There's no restrictions really. It's just anything goes now. Cuz today, cats are rhymin' to anything, you know what I'm sayin'?
NM: Do you think most rappers are trying to rhyme to the bass line or rhyme to the drum?
PR: Rhyme to the rhythm of the drums. It's the drums, that's what they always rhyme to. Kick and snare, and high-hat.
NM: So you don't think they're listening to the bass line?
PR: Some artists do, some artists listen to all kinds of things, but I don't know what drives them. All I know is that the drums are the number one rhythm.
NM: What's the difference between mixing live in a club rather than for a record?
PR: When I'm DJing and scratching, I do the same thing in the studio. There's no real difference in it, except you're not playing the whole record in the studio, you're just taking bits and pieces and samples of scratches.
NM: Whenever I go to a club, I really hear a LOT of bass. The bass is booming out of the sound systems of these clubs. Whereas if I'm in a car or listening to an iPod, you hear more middle frequencies than the big bass. Would that effect the way you DJ?
PR: Umm, in a club, it has to be felt. People want to be able to feel the boom in a club, you know what I'm sayin'? That's what the club is for, to play loud music. And that's the difference between listening to an iPod and being in a club. In a club, you don't hear all the elements that you should hear, but in an iPod you do, because it's right plugged into your ears.
NM: I'd also think that the whole idea of segueing would be quite important in a club because you have to keep people dancing.
PR: So you have to play the right records at the right time. Making people dance is easy once you're a DJ. Just gotta play the right records and have a good time.
NM: I'm assuming that the best way to segue, having listened to your show, is to make sure you have some sort of instrumental track, with the same beat that you can connect to the next track, or use the bass drum to connect...is that what you're doing, or is there something else you're doing?
PR: No, I'm just cutting and scratching and making sure all the records I play is at the same tempo, same speed. I have a knowledge of music so I know what to play. I know how to do it.
NM: How has technology changed the way you do things?
PR: I like the change in technology. I think Serato's great. I think all the digital stuff that they're doing for DJs and producers is great. But I'm an analog person, so I like the analog sound and the raw sound of analog.
NM: I think that's about all I wanted to ask. ..I do think that the Japanese hip-hop sound is a different sound than the American sound.
PR: It is, it is. But it's a good difference. They love it more here. You know, it's been abused back home. Now, everybody's doing it for the money and not for the love of the music. You can hear it because their concepts are weak. They're not doing it for the audience no more, they're doing it for themselves - which, I feel, is pretty selfish. If you were blessed to be in this rat game--it's a great opportunity to be in this game, so you should do right by it, you know what I'm sayin'? But a lot of kids is bumming it and do wrong, or do whatever they feel, which is not, like, to me, the best hip-hop I've heard. Like myself and Premiere, and lot of these guys, are still loving this, you know what I'm sayin'? We just keep representing, you know, the right way.