Happy 15th Anniversary to Pete Rock’s second studio album Soul Survivor II, originally released May 11, 2004.
Whether it’s been a collaborative album or an instrumental affair, every return of Pete Rock has been epic for me. While growing up in the ‘90s, I was entertained by two universes. On one hand, I was captivated by the Marvel universe, created by Stan Lee and his partner Jack Kirby. And on the other, hip-hop music that expressed what I was living in my neighborhood.
By 1992, I was running to my closest store almost weekly to add to my growing comic book collection, picking up Daredevil, Punisher, and Nomad comics etched by Marvel artists like John Romita Jr., Mark McKenna, and Klaus Janson. Apart from flipping through the pages of the new comics, I would sometimes simultaneously record songs from groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Main Source as they played on local radio.
As an adolescent trying to cope with the harshness of West Baltimore, I found an escape in the fantasy world of superheroes and the reality embedded between the lines of my favorite rap lyrics. By that summer, much like knowing who my favorite comic heroes were, I had also identified Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” from their debut full-length album Mecca And The Soul Brother (1992) as my official theme song.
Through the years Rock would create an acclaimed body of work that I personally regard as my life soundtrack. And what’s even more dope, he happens to be just as much, if not even more, of a Marvel comics fan as I am.
By the Spring of 2004, I had received what every service member who is ready to call an end to their volunteer duty anxiously awaits: a DD-214. This is the official government form that documents your service and makes your impending separation official. Headed back to Baltimore, I had a new album by one of my favorite artists, with a track list that read like one of my favorite Marvel series. In the early ‘70s, the staff at Marvel began a collaboration piece headlined by another famous Pete, Peter Parker/Spider-Man, entitled Marvel-Team-Up. Each issue would feature Spider-Man paired with another hero or super team for an action-packed episode. Pete Rock’s return for Soul Survivor II served up just as much excitement.
Soul Survivor II stands as an intriguing microcosm of Rock’s entire prolific career, which is distinguished by, among other qualities, the diversity of his musical endeavors. He seemed to easily transition from composing groundbreaking LPs that helped define hip-hop, while providing beats for hardcore rap acts like Public Enemy and the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige. The LP opens with the spoken word poetry delivered by Def Poet Black Ice on “Truth Is,” and also featuring a solo from then R&B newcomer and Mavis Staples-esque Leela James for the song “No Fear.”
Like the famous web-slinger’s mashups, the Chocolate Boy Wonder’s tag-teams have been nothing short of brilliant. Focusing almost solely on the production duties, Rock remained behind the boards for most of the Soul Survivor sequel, offering a few hooks like “Just Do It,” his triumph over mundane raps and beats with the polysyllabic rhyme specialist Pharoahe Monch. For their versatile collaboration, Monch brags “Brace yourself for the awesome in rare / Pete Rock, Pharoahe in your atmos / I'mma survive the desert of Queens like cactus / maxin' in the cut with a vaccine for wackness.”
Another of Rock’s vocal appearances appears on the hook of “One MC, One DJ” with the Virginia rap veteran Skillz, where he offers “ Yo, this goes out to DJs and MCs / unlock real hip-hop, Rock holds the key / magnificent, Skillz on the mic sound tight / gotta hit the stage then release the rage / New York to VA we crash the gate /Pete Rock and Mad Skillz collaborate.”
“Give it to Ya” saw Pete supply one of the smoothest beats of his arsenal to Little Brother, who were still a new group in the genre and whose name was a homage to Rock’s early work along with his contemporaries of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Powered by a Gladys Knight and the Pips sample of “A Dozen Roses,” Phonte and Big Pooh further solidified themselves as successors of the hip-hop soul movement. Rock sped up the pace to resemble a war chant for the Detroit-based Slum Village song entitled “Da Villa.”
Pete’s only actual verse on the LP came alongside his fellow super-producer, the late great J Dilla, for a friendly battle between two double-threats. Not even the three reunions with his original partner C.L. Smooth would pull verses from Soul Brother #1, but their chemistry still seemed unfeigned. “It’s a Love Thing” captures the soulful magic that saw the duo create classic records like “Lots of Lovin’” and “I Got a Love” for their first two LPs. C.L. effortlessly paints the picture of an urban goddess with the rhymes “You're beautiful, the way you wear that, share that / had many ladies, but nothing can compare to that / smile, that style that drives men wild / that ring could have Big Daddy walkin' down the aisle.” Later, the two invite Talib Kweli to form a brief but fitting trio for the song “Fly Till I Die” and close the LP over a Jackson 5 sample for “Appreciate.” The combination of Rock’s signature funk with C.L.’s smooth, ladies man lyrics served as a reminder that the two were perhaps the most talented rapper/producer duo in all of hip-hop.
Rock of course would go on to amass one of the most revered bodies of work within the culture and proved himself to be extraordinarily gifted in making music for a wide range of artists. His musical IQ blurred the realms of fantasy and reality for me because samples like The Natural Four’s “Try Love Again” and Otis Clay’s “Holding on to a Dying Love” were mind-boggling. My obsession with comics dwindled in my teenage years and early 20’s, so I focused in on the reality raps by artist like Rah Digga, Freddie Foxxx, and M.O.P. who often sought out Pete’s production.
Soul Survivor II contends with its predecessor Soul Survivor, which was top tier in the class of 1998, but stands as a separate testament to Rock’s seemingly never-ending mastery of leveraging yesterday’s soul to make modern hip-hop marvels. During the stints where I drifted away from the world of fantasy, the appetite was still filled, as Pete’s contributions to hip-hop proved his talent to be otherworldly, as if his profound musical intellect was conceived by the vivid imagination of Stan Lee himself, among the other super heroes of his Marvel universe.