Pete Rock took exception to Diddy's acceptance speech at the 2022 BET Awards. The Bad Boy impresario was being given the Lifetime Achievement Award for his successes in the music industry.
When Diddy thanked R&B star Bobby Brown and declared him "the first Chocolate Boy Wonder," it reminded everyone that Diddy was now using yet another nickname but it also caught Rock's attention. Pete Rock has been known as "The Chocolate Boy Wonder" for over 30 years now, and he didn't take kindly to his fellow Mount Vernon product ignoring that fact.
“You kinda came outta nowhere," Rock wrote on Instagram. "Been in Mt. Vernon since the 1st grade all the way to graduating high school. I came up with the town. My brother Grap Luva taught you dance steps in your garage on dell ave. I touch drum machines and make the beats 4 REAL. You cant erase what i have done in music or try to take my name lol.”
But Pete Rock and Diddy's history is just one element in the musical legacy of Mount Vernon. These two titans of Hip-Hop were a part of a generation that emerged out of the town in Westchester County to become musical forces in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. When you consider how much these individuals' lives and careers became intertwined, it's hard not to appreciate the ups and downs of the history between them.
Heavy D was the first to emerge out of the Money Earnin' Mount Vernon scene. The charismatic emcee bonded with fellow aspiring artists from around the way, like up-and-coming DJ Eddie F.
"Mt. Vernon is small," Eddie F said in 2020. "They knew everybody, even if you didn't hang out with 'em on a day-to-day basis. But Troy was the one who knew everybody and kinda put the group together." Troy brought Heavy D to a party that DJ Eddie F was deejaying, and that was what connected what would become Heavy D & The Boyz. Even before the group came together, Eddie and Heavy had immediate musical chemistry and a singer named Al B. Sure! often joined them during their basement recording sessions.
Aspiring emcee Albert Brown had been a star quarterback for the Mount Vernon High School Knights, but he would reject an athletic scholarship to the University of Iowa to pursue a music career. Dwight Myers (aka Heavy D) had also gone to Mt. Vernon High, and his little cousin Peter Phillips was attending.
"I knew Al from school," Eddie recalled. "Al introduced me to [keyboardist] Nevelle Hodge. We all started making demos together." Al was attempting to be a rapper, and fashioned himself after Slick Rick and Dana Dane. He even came up with his stage name from a Dana Dane line from Dane's hit single "Nightmares":
She said, 'Listen, Dana Dane, I think I have the cure/But I have to hear one more before I'll be sure'"
He would dub himself "Al B. Sure!" as a nod to the Dana Dane lyric. Over time, everyone agreed that Al B. Sure! was better as a singer than as a rapper. But it was Al who called Russell Simmons' Rush Management office to try and secure a meeting with the famed rap exec. Heavy D and Eddie F. drove from Mount Vernon to Manhattan and met with Rush Management VP Andre Harrell. Harrell was impressed with Heavy's personality and persistence, and Harrell let them know that he was leaving Rush Management to launch his own label. And he wanted Heavy D & The Boyz.
Meanwhile, Al B.'s first single, "Off On Your Own," was expected to be a Heavy D track featuring Al B. Sure!, but when Harrell heard the song, he wanted to meet the young singer. Harrell is impressed with Al B. Sure!, and he chose the aspiring artist to participate in a Quincy Jones SONY Innovators competition. Al B. Sure!'s performance landed him a record deal with Warner Bros.
"I try to put as many people on as I could from Mount Vernon," Eddie F told The Madd Hatta Morning Show. "We a small town, we all trying to come up." As such, when Eddie F was tapped to produce a remix for Johnny Gill's "Rub You the Right Way," he brought Pete Rock and Nevelle Hodge along for the session. It got two more Mount Vernon talents on the record industry's radar, and it led to Eddie expanding his own ambitions.
"Even my company, Untouchables, I wound up starting [because] I was trying to get my friends on," Eddie shared tp Madd Hatta. "Pete Rock and Nevelle were supposed to sign with Uptown as producers. After waiting and waiting...a month or two—one day Pete and Nevelle [said] 'Why don't you just manage us?'"
While the album included production from heavyweights Teddy Riley and Marley Marl, Untouchables would handle most of the production on Heavy D & The Boyz's platinum-selling sophomore album Big Tyme, with Al B. Sure! guesting on the hit single "Somebody For Me," which prominently featured Nevelle's keys. And Pete Rock would get some of his first major production credits on album tracks like "Let It Flow" and "Mood For Love."
Sean Combs had grown up in Mount Vernon since he was in junior high, though he was born in Harlem.
"I remember the simple things about Mount Vernon: grass, trees, and being able to play baseball," Diddy would tell Oprah years later. "In Harlem, there was no Little League, no front yard with grass. But the neighborhood was multicultural, so that broadened my horizons."
Combs was a teenager who'd been in Mount Vernon since he was 12 years old when Heavy D became the biggest star in town. And Combs had been watching the Heavster's rise. He'd also been actually watching the Heavster: Combs would wait on Heavy D's favorite pizza parlor for a chance to meet "The King of Mount Vernon." He finally ran into Heavy D himself, and he brashly told the rap star that he wanted to be his manager.
"I was telling him I really, really wanna be down with you and Uptown," Diddy recalled to Apple Music. Heavy promised Combs a meeting, but it took Sean coming to Heavy D's house for the sit-down to actually happen. Heavy D's clout with Harrell got Sean Combs a meeting with the Uptown president. Combs spent a year and a half at Howard University, and made a name for himself as a party promoter. He eventually left school entirely and settled in as an intern at Uptown Records, working directly under Andre Harrell.
Harrell had just signed an R&B quartet out of North Carolina, who'd given an impromptu performance to Heavy D and G-Whiz of The Boyz. Calling themselves Jodeci, the group had a rough sound, and Uptown decided to have Al B. Sure! mentor the act, particularly group member DeVante Swing, who was an aspiring writer/producer who'd penned their demo. Al B. Sure! and his partner, fellow Mount Vernon product Kyle West, helped shape DeVante into a more polished craftsman. Al B. Sure!, West and DeVante produced Jodeci's debut album Forever My Lady, and Al B. Sure! famously co-wrote the album's popular title track. "Forever My Lady" became a source of major controversy within the group because of its opening lyric. Al wrote the song in tribute to his then-girlfriend, model Kim Porter, having his son. Engineer Paul Logus recalled how MCA told Uptown to remove the track out of fear that it would send a bad message to young listeners.
"You sing, “so you’re having my baby” and you’re 17? Really?" he told OkayPlayer last year. "That was a testament to how mature Al was with everything. He was writing all this mature stuff because he was a grown man. He was having kids. He was having a baby. He was already a successful artist. I think Benny Medina might have been his manager then. Al would be like, Get Benny on the phone. We need to talk about this. They’re thinking about taking my song off the record.'”
But it was the remix of another album single, the hit "Come and Talk To Me" that really set the stage for the emergence of Sean "Puffy" Combs. Puffy had been managing Jodeci under Harrell's watchful eye, and Puff got the opportunity to remix Jodeci's hit single. The "Come and Talk To Me" remix would help push the single to No. 11 on the Billboard 200 and the song helped announce new jack swing's transition into the more long-running sound of Hip-Hop soul. It was Puff's then-girlfriend, stylist Misa Hylton, who dressed the group in street-oriented gear; crafting a Hip-Hop driven image for the R&B quartet.
"Al was the man creating somewhat of a light blueprint for Puffy," Logus said in 2021. "Towards the end of that record was when Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs came around. I’d never seen him before that. Jodeci went from being a bunch of crazy, giggly kids to being even more serious and being styled by the newly emerged Puff Daddy. He started them with the baggy clothes and pants. He made them all wear the same thing. They never had worn all the same thing before. He gave them an image makeover which was very revolutionary, I think."
I was telling him 'I really, really wanna be down with you and Uptown'..."
- Diddy recalling his first meeting Heavy D at a pizza parlor
It was also through Heavy D that Pete Rock was beginning to make a name. Rock was Heavy D's younger cousin, and he'd teamed with Mt. Vernon emcee Corey "C.L. Smooth" Wise to form a duo. “That’s family," Rock told COMPLEX. "That’s where I got my start. [Heavy D] is my cousin. This is where it all began, ever since I was nine, ten years old. I’ve been DJing since I learned how to scratch at seven years old. My cousin Floyd, Hev’s older brother [taught me how to scratch]."
By 1991, Rock was emerging as a producer. His work with DJ Eddie F led to remixing projects for the likes of Public Enemy, and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth landed a record deal with Elektra. They dropped their debut EP All Souled Out in 1991, and set to work on their debut album Mecca & The Soul Brother. Rock would also produce a large portion of Blue Funk, the fourth album from Heavy D & The Boyz. On the album's final track, a young emcee from Brooklyn named Biggie Smalls made his first appearance, alongside established stars like Busta Rhymes and Gang Starr.
Biggie was the latest prospective signee from Sean Combs (aka "Puffy"), who was now managing Heavy D, and Pete Rock was producing Heavy's latest album. But changes were coming: Puff would be fired from Uptown Records later in 1993. But Combs would land on his feet; launching his own label, Bad Boy Entertainment, and signing a lucrative distribution deal with Clive Davis.
Puff would be prescient enough to take Biggie with him to Bad Boy, and after the release of "Juicy" in the summer of 1994, Bad Boy and Biggie looked like the newest Hip-Hop success story. In a 2004 interview with Wax Poetics, Rock has long claimed that "Juicy," the breakthrough single from The Notorious B.I.G., was largely his creation.
“I did the original version, didn’t get credit for it,” he said at the time. “They came to my house, heard the beat going on the drum machine, it’s the same story. You come downstairs at my crib, you hear music. He heard that shit and the next thing you know it comes out. They had me do a remix, but I tell people, and I will fight it to the end, that I did the original version of that. I’m not mad at anybody, I just want the correct credit.”
The controversy surrounding "Juicy" has never been completely resolved, but Rock has said that it's a non-issue.
“When it first happened to me, I was upset about it,” he told HipHopDX in 2020. “But then after a while, what I learned about the music business, publishing rights and everything like that, I got over it. It wasn’t no big deal after awhile. My thing was working with Biggie more. Why was I not working with him more? He came over to my house and picked out five or six beats. I always thought I was going to get that call like, ‘Yo Pete, we ready,’ and then he passed.”
Nonetheless, after the 2022 BET Awards, the history between Pete Rock and Sean Combs has once again become a talking point. Combs' declaration that Bobby Brown was the "first Chocolate Boy Wonder" rubbed Rock wrong, and when one considers the respective legacies and histories between these two men, there's a lot to unpack.
“Erasure is a real thing,” Pete Rock wrote on Instagram the day after the show. "We doing this to each other now?”
“Everyone in hip hop knows who the chocolate boy wunda is,” Rock also wrote. “You brought biggie to the basement only to diss me later and not use me on any of his projects. You cut me out the ‘One More Chance’ video when BIG himself invited me. You got to where you wanted to be then s######. My gift is from GOD the almighty mister puffy smh i made those hits 4real. There is no comparison dude. I been here before you. Don't let me go in on you cuz its a lot there.”
Jodeci. The Notorious B.I.G. The LOX. Soul IV Real. Mary J. Blige. Donell Jones. Monifah. Tevin Campbell. Ma$e.
Those artists were all produced or mentored by legends from Mount Vernon. When one considers how much great music artists like Pete Rock, Heavy D, Eddie F., Sean Combs, Kyle West and Al B. Sure! have created and produced for others, it's evident that Mount Vernon, N.Y. has a rich history. So many legends have come from there. In celebrating his big night, Combs remembered that legacy. Albeit with one, very glaring, omission.