Mount Vernon, New York, is the neighborhood Pete Rock represents, and Marley Marl on WBLS gave the DJ his first big break in the late '80s. In 1992, Pete Rock and rapper C. L. Smooth released Mecca and the Soul Brother, a record that changed the direction of hiphop. Between 1993 and 1996, rappers from coast to coast primarily imitated the asymmetrical, fast, Bird-like (as in Charlie Parker), stuttering style of Das EFX; and producers imitated the thick beats, soaring harmonies, and heavy horn arrangements invented by Pete Rock, who eventually became the third greatest and most influential beat builder in hiphop's 30-year history—number one is RZA, two is DJ Premier, and fourth is the late Jay Dee.

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But of the three leading producers, none seems more at home in hiphop than Pete Rock. In his famous remixes and original productions, he can be heard in the background not saying anything in particular, but simply expressing, with the sorts of moans and groans that come out of man who is eating a delicious meal ("mmm, it's so lovely"), his pleasure directed not only at the music he has prepared, but at the very condition of hiphop itself—its beat structures, its sudden ruptures, echoic effects, growling bass lines.

To this day, Pete Rock's productions have two essential properties: a beat that is as hard as reinforced concrete—the metal of a high hat, the gravel of a snare drum, the cement of a bass drum and bass line; and looped samples (horn, piano, violin) that are fixed to this hard beat like ornamental molds (honeysuckle molding, fret patterns) running on a building's façade. With Pete Rock, architectural metaphors abound; he describes the area where he works, makes, and "theorizes the bang," as "the basement."

Granted, Pete Rock's fame was at its highest in the mid '90s, and while current mainstream acts like Lil Jon and 50 Cent don't turn to him for beats, Rock is still very active and creative. And as his most recent CD, Soul Survivor II, makes apparent, the technology he uses has changed and improved the quality of his recordings, but the substance of his work (its style and themes) has remained the same. Here is a short list of what I rate as Pete Rock's highest achievements.

1. "The World Is Yours" (1994): Pete Rock produced this track for Nas's classic Illmatic, which featured production from the era's best beatsmiths—Large Professor, Q-Tip, DJ Premier. Composed of a jazz piano loop and a hard boom-bap beat, "The World Is Yours" refers to T La Rock & Jazzy Jay's "It's Yours," the first single distributed by the founders of Def Jam, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. Since the beginning of his career, Pete Rock has always had a profound sense of hiphop history.

2. "They Reminisce Over You (TROY)" (1992): Pete Rock is the reason why Parisian DJ Cam called hiphop the most beautiful music in the world; and "They Reminisce Over You (TROY)" stands as Pete Rock's most beautiful work. Against a background of echoed horns and chants that rise and fade like clouds in a sad dream, C. L. Smooth recalls the life of a close friend who died. These days, a song like this, with an adult theme (dealing with loss), would be doomed to the underground.

3. "Down with the King" (1993): This pounding track, with its Gregorian-like chants and bells, revived Run-D.M.C.'s career. After "Down with the King," Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay fell way off creatively.

4. "Da Two" (1998): In 1994, C. L. Smooth and Pete Rock unexpectedly parted ways. Though C. L. Smooth went on to make one excellent record with Japan's DJ Krush, Only the Strong Survive, for the most part he vanished from the scene. In 1998, he made an impressive return with "Da Two," the sweetest and saddest track on Pete Rock's Soul Survivor.

5. "This Is What They Meant" (2003): For the underground rapper Grand Agent, Pete Rock makes a track whose beauty is almost unearthly. The rolling bass line, the sharp kick of the snare drum, the ghostly guitar licks are perfectly fused by the producer whom Method Man described as "the chocolate boy wonder."

charles@thestranger.com