Happy 20th Anniversary to Pete Rock’s debut solo album Soul Survivor, originally released November 10, 1998.
Part of the fun of being a hip-hop fan in the ‘90s was having a reliable list of musical heroes that never disappointed in making quality music. One of the most frequent names on that shortlist was the Chocolate Boy Wonder, a.k.a. Pete Rock. Like many, Soul Brother #1 almost single-handedly supplied my entire life’s soundtrack by crafting a brilliant catalog which now spans nearly three decades. Fortunately for me, Pete Rock’s individual and collaborative works of art were released during pivotal stages of my life and are an integral thread that helps intertwine my most intimate memories.
As an adolescent originally falling in love with hip-hop, Mecca And The Soul Brother (1992) was practically assigned to me by my older brother as mandatory curriculum to best understand our cultural expression. Years later as a young adult, PeteStrumentals (2001) served as my musical therapy during the early years of my Army enlistment and during my Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment.
In between those two stages when my friends and I were coming of age as teens in the late ‘90s, our growing pains were soothed with the snares and soul sampling that Pete used for his 1998 solo debut Soul Survivor. Just in time for our driving test and first cars, my crew was set for weekend mall-hopping and afterschool cruising with a 17-track strong list of headbanging beats, which featured verses from many of our favorite emcees.
With the separation from his musical partner C.L. Smooth, Pete was under additional scrutiny, but with arguably hip-hop’s highest IQ, Pete showed his skill set to be greater than merely elite beat making. Soul Survivor is nearly perfect in its orchestration and stood out in 1998 as one of the year’s most masterful compilation albums. Pete’s hard-earned reputation attracted big name artists from around the globe as the dust settled from hip-hop’s bicoastal rap beef.
Soul Survivor was led by the single “Tru Master” which featured arguably the fiercest lyrical assassin of the Wu-Tang Clan, Inspectah Deck, who was partnered with Tha Dogg Pound’s top gunner Kurupt. Pete supplied a well delivered verse, along with one of the best beats in his acclaimed arsenal. The song’s hook read like an industry proclamation statement that became one of the most memorable lines of the decade, “We had the base pound speakers / shell toed Adidas / original rap with new school leaders / graffiti art names and fat gold chains / shock the world cousin / cause hip hop remains.”
The track list reads like an all-star lineup of any true rap fan’s dream collaborations. During a time when Wu-Tang were heavy fan favorites, Soul Survivor became one of the first projects that paired the Clansmen with production that wasn’t either the sole creation or minimally overseen by RZA. “Half Man, Half Amazing” featuring Method Man was like a crossover comic staring Marvel’s Johnny Blaze the Ghost Rider and the Daredevil. The beat, which is credited to Pete Rock’s brother Grap Luva, sets the adrenaline pumping pace for the two rap gods who exchange bars to showcase their superpowers. Pete leads off the epic back-and-forth with his lines, “Float on this magnificent track, wise intelligent / all-star Jamerican, yes, the rap vet / reinforce your threat, who got the money to bet / against the #1 holdin’ down the position.” Method Man comes in strong, as expected, delivering the fiery bars, “Style blazin’ / Iron Lung on this collaboration / money for the takin', I ain't sweatin' confrontation / with P.R.-ah, we be the men’s of tomorrow / Master, license to kill / bringin' the horror to ya house like Amityville.”
Continuing with the Loud/RCA label reunion, Pete served up a sinister beat, tailored for Mobb Deep co-founder Prodigy’s dark street narrative. “The Game” was the newest installment of frequent collaborators Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Prodigy who originally teamed on “Right Back at You” on Mobb Deep’s The Infamous (1995).
Another highlight of the star-studded LP was “Truly Yours ‘98” which saw one of the greatest of all-time Kool G. Rap return his signature polysyllabic cadence to the updated version of a song he made famous almost a decade earlier on the groundbreaking LP Road to the Riches (1989). “Truly Yours ‘98” also featured Large Professor, another acclaimed dual rapper/producer who assisted Pete in paying homage to the production guru Marley Marl, who’s original “Truly Yours” helped inspire Large Pro’s 1992 hit single for Nas, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.”
Just when Soul Survivor is well on its way to greatness, Pete breaks from the high-profile guest features to prove he was indeed the man of the hour. “#1 Soul Brother” underlines Pete’s range of craftsmanship on one hand and accentuates his rhyme delivery simultaneously. Drawing inspiration from the god Rakim, Pete declares, “I take seven ill drums put 'em in a line / and add seven more snares to make it combine / it'll take seven horns before I start to rhyme / now that twenty-one beats made up at the same time.”
“Da Two” gave fans a brief reunion between Pete and his fellow Mount Vernon, NY native C.L. Smooth, who as partners in rhyme became household names with their impeccable two-album, one-EP catalog from earlier in the decade. Creative differences kept the two from building a more extensive body of work to contend with DJ Premier and Guru, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, or even André 3000 and Big Boi for the top spot among rap’s all-time dynamic duos. Pete would go on however to help further define the sound of east coast production and become synonymous with the art of the remix. Songs like “Massive (Hold Tight)” featuring reggae star Beenie Man and Pete’s cousin Heavy D only helped expand the Soul Brother’s resume and increase confidence in fans who believed there was no musical feat the Boy Wonder couldn’t conquer.
Pete’s noted contributions that helped shape and elevate the culture, including indisputable classics like “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” and Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘em Down” (Remix) put Soul Survivor on the list of most anticipated projects of 1998, while the star-studded cast propelled it to must-have status. Although it seemed that Pete already won over audiences, Soul Survivor’s nearly perfect execution is what makes it one of the jewels of Pete’s lifetime of musical accomplishments.
Like Pete’s other work, Soul Survivor’s beats are etched into the memories of my late teen years, when I got my first job as an eleventh grade student and it stayed in rotation well into my senior year. During the time when my friends and I anxiously ripped through CD packaging to see if albums had at least one song produced by our most reliable soundsmith, we could now celebrate with a full-length project by a super producer who arranged some of the best lyrics over his superior beats.