Hip-hop loves its Horatio Alger tales and the definitive, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps image is that of the plucky kid carrying crates for a famous DJ — until the day he finally makes it on his own. In the case of Pete Rock and Smoke DZA, it really happened. Back in the late ‘90s, Pete Rock was an established producer and DJ — known well beyond the five boroughs — respected by hip-hop heads for his work with Heavy D, Nas, Common and C.L. Smooth, among countless others. Smoke DZA was just a kid from Harlem wanting to get put on. “This was before I was 21, so I used to carry Pete’s crates to get in the club. Smoke weed with him and just chill,” DZA remembers. “The progression of Smoke DZA happened to pass by his desk one day and he hit me like, ‘Nigga! Yo wassup?! Man!’”
It’s the day before Thanksgiving at a nondescript café in Midtown, and the place is buzzing with tourists as Pete Rock and Smoke DZA sit side-by-side at a table. Next to the producer is a bag with the distinct markings of Magnolia Bakery; he made a stop for chocolate cheesecake before the interview. “He was around and we became friends too,” says Rock, jumping in to finish DZA’s story. “He would offer his help to bring vinyl to parties. I used to carry mad crates.” Rock laughs, pausing to emphasize the weight of the crates: “The least I could do is do an album with him.”
Nearly 12 years later, the clubs they frequented — Nell’s, Zanzibar, Latin Quarter — are closed-down relics, but the duo’s relationship has survived. On December 2, they’re releasing their collaborative album Don’t Smoke Rock (Babygrande Records). “I feel like this project is needed in the game,” explains Rock. “It’s what’s missing in hip-hop. Not to knock any other artists or anyone but it’s important to make good music, music that can touch the soul and uplift. Certain music I hear today; not a lot of it does that. This is the missing link to make people feel good again.” The 13-track album is wholly produced by Rock. Guest features include New York City staples like Cam’ron and The Lox along with mainstream rappers Rick Ross and Mac Miller.
The two came up with a list of dream collaborations and opened up their respective Rolodexes. For DZA, Rick Ross was at the top of his wish list while Rock wanted Cam’ron. “We put our heads together. I had my contacts and vice-versa,” says Rock.
Guest vocals were largely submitted virtually but Rock and DZA were in the studio at Pro Town USA for the entirety of their work. “We were directly looking at Madison Square Garden,” remembers DZA. Bathed in New York City pride, the two enjoyed a simpatico back-and-forth: Rock with the beats and DZA whipped up the rhymes. “We would see people going to Knicks games and concerts,” adds Rock.
“What shocked me is how fast he was,” Rock muses on the rapper’s ability to flip a song. DZA agrees. “We got to really vibe.” Creative differences and warring egos can often derail collaborative albums like this, but the two say that there was never conflict.
“We just wanted to make some dope shit. We had no angle,” says DZA. “We shook hands [and worked]. We’re so in sync, once he gave me the beat, I already knew what he wanted me to do. We never had no creative clashes or no shit like that.”
The two lead singles, ”Limitless” with Harlem’s upstart Dave East, and “Black Superhero Car” with Rick Ross, show the sonic range of the project. The former, fits well into a modern, yet nostalgic hip-hop milieu while the latter could easily sit comfortably among Maybach Music Group’s repertoire.
The two plan to tour to promote Don’t Smoke Rock and are already working on its follow-up. Much of that is because Pete Rock and Smoke DZA actually fuck with each other. They’re friends and music is a good excuse to hang out. “I’m still a fan. My fan shit ain’t never go away,” says DZA. “I go to him for life advice. PR always there for me. I always text or call and he has the best advice.”
The relationship has proved beneficial for the veteran too and keeps his ear to what’s going on in the zeitgeist. “It helps me stay tuned to what’s going on now,” says Rock. “He’s younger but he has the soul of a vet.”