Mr. Al Pete is all about community. While he admits that he’s somewhat of a witness and observer in this life, his latest and fifth full-length, Mister Peterson’s Neighborhood features stories that are wholly personal, intimate even, with themes and appeal that are equally universal. Over the course of the album’s nine-tracks, Al delivers a sonic memoir of his life. The cut “Young Me,” featuring C. Frere, Lefty Gunz, and A.M.P., is a shout out to youth, the collective rhymed lyrics admonishing, warning, but ultimately encouraging, the previous lives that lead us to the present. “Ice Man” celebrates the two classic clothing stores near Regency Mall: Ice Man and Mr. Kicks, that offered sharp styles for a generation of locals.

If there’s a recurring theme and narrative in Neighborhood, it’s a strong sense of identity: past, present; even future.

“That’s the goal I’m shooting for,” Al explains. “I want to give my real life to people and understand where I come from. Everything on that album is real; there’s no fiction. Even on ‘Check Respect,’ where I got wrote up by my boss.”

Of an album with many strong tracks, “Check Respect” is an undoubted standout. Opening with a spoken word intro where Al explains that, compared to hustling on the streets, the hardest gig in life is, “being faithful and working legit. Try that shit.” Carried along by a strong piano and electric bass riff, thick drums popping underneath, Al describes the experience of dealing with personal feelings in a very public environment: his day-to-day job. The lyrics and Al’s lilting cadence, lyrical style tell the story of wanting respect, but knowing when to bite your lip and not tell the world to, “fuck off.”

“The title came of the album came to me in 2016. I had recorded a couple of songs but didn’t really get too deep into until mid-2017. It’s been manifesting for about two years,” he explains. All the tracks on Neighborhood are interchangeable, but listened to in sequence play out like a concept album. The music is, by definition, progressive: broad-minded, forward thinking, and radical. Yet according to Al, the “concept album” that developed was coincidental, a byproduct of time, circumstance, and collaboration.

“I feel like anything I do in music is somehow conceptual. This wasn’t really a concept album but it sounded like that after we’d finished. I really wanted to release it and let it grow with the people. When Notsucal and I put it together it just flowed and now it seems like [a concept album].”

Al and Notsucal are the executive producers of Neighborhood. Notsucal has produced the bulk of Al’s previous full-lengths, including Al’s previous release, 2014’s G3.5. Their collaborative team is a subset of Al’s overall intent to work with others, to remove any insular qualities from his admittedly “outsider” worldview. In the past, his albums have featured the likes of Paten Locke, T.W.A.N., Tough Junkie, J.D. Walton, DX, Willie Evans, Jr., Ill Clinton, and Takara Houston. Along with his ever-present collabs with Notsucal, Mister Peterson’s Neighborhood DJ Burn adds his own colorful mixology to the tracks “For My Neighbors,” “Ice Man,” and “The Golden Life.” The latter cut also features D’Angelo Green from The Cats Downstairs adding some tasteful trumpet work.

The instrumentation, arrangements, and production of Neighborhood recall the sounds of ‘70s Stax and Motown deep cuts; an aesthetic which knows that sometimes the B-sides are greater than, and more timeless than, the “hits.” Neighborhood also dips into a sound of the ‘70s soul-jazz and spiritual-jazz releases of Blue Note and Strata-East; especially on “Family Hurts” and “The Golden Life.”

Al’s music isn’t retro or anachronistic; it’s more like a familiar “home.” You know the song but have forgotten where you first heard and then experience the comforting epiphany that it really doesn’t give a damn where you did. Yet, Al explains, other than Green’s trumpet, this rapturous and “alive” quality was created with samples.  

Photo: Cole LoCurto

In addition to Notsucal, he gives much credit to Paul Lapinski, chief engineer at MPS Studios in Riverside, who mixed and mastered the album. “He’s a top shooter,” says Al, citing Lapinski’s expertise and sonic approach as key to Neighborhood’s bubbling grooves and bright production. A well-known and crucial figure in the local and greater music industry at large, Lapinski has worked with — among others — Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Yellowcard, Alicia Keys, Fishbone, Young Cash, and Ludacris.

Al tracked his vocals at his own at MPN Studios and brought the finished takes to Notsucal and Lapinski. The samples on the album sound surgically extracted; a bass line thumps clear and deep, any “dirt” in a drum beat only adds to the realness of the reproduction. Al explains that he, DJ Burn and Notsucal routinely dig deep into the crates in used record stores and anywhere they can find old LPs, hunting for obscure and effective vinyl snippets to sample and morph. The production on Neighborhood plays this out. There are no sampled “standards,” no familiar beats or breaks that have become standards in hip hop production, The trio’s points of reference are so obscure that they come full circle and suddenly sound familiar.

“I’d love to have more actual musicians on my albums,” he says, adding with a laugh. “But honestly, I can’t seem to find any musicians that aren’t going to waste my time!”

In conversation, Mr. Al Pete is both confident and self-effacing. He knows his place in the hip-hop scene and is also humble and assured enough to not feel the need to rattle off his resume. Along with his work as an MC, he’s an equally known DJ (“Those two approaches surely influence one another”), podcaster, blogger; even actor.

Held at 1904 Music Hall, his fifth anniversary Fly Socks and Tees event, titled #SPREADLOVEFEE, featured Al and guests rocking a full house. “Fly Socks and Tees came about because my business partner, MJ Baker, wanted to throw a birthday party for me. But I was like, ‘Ehhh…just give me a cake,” he laughs. “So then she suggested we just throw a party, asking people to wear the kind of dope shirts and socks that I like to wear, and also what they like to wear.” Since then, Fly Socks and Tees has evolved into a much-anticipated annual celebration for local hip-hop artists and fans.

“The whole event is unlike any other club vibe. Most clubs are either too dressy or too laid back and laid-down. So this is more of a fun, be-yourself type event. Although people get so excited about this thing that they’ll now order clothes online to wear at the show.”

Al says he’d expand his skills at freelance writing; along with his blog, his writing has been featured in the pages of Void. Years after originally attending college, he’s back in school, pursuing his BA in Commercial Communications.

Photo: Cole LoCurto

Now he’s setting his sights on starting up a media company, one that is in line with his sense of community, of using his lyrics and music and entrepreneurial skills, to give a shout-out to others in the neighborhood. He did something similar with The Groove Suite, the podcast he developed with Sosha Thumper, where they gave a voice to lesser-known Neo soul, R&B, and hip hop artists.

“But I’d like to go wider than that. I’d like to form some type of media union for Duval hip-hop. We have a great scene but I feel like sometimes we get blown off the national radar. If I have to step back so other local musicians can step in the spotlight and be highlighted? I would gladly do that.”

Whether working with top-shelf Duval artists, or intending to raise others up to center stage, Mr. Al Pete’s refrains in his music and life are the same: being himself, and maybe helping others be themselves, as well.

“It’s like being a kid in the playpen. It’s the difference between being an only child and being a kid that has multiple siblings and multiple friends,” he says, explaining that he’s always felt like an “outsider” in music, possibly from his position of being a writer, observing the world from a distance. Yet he also knows that there are times when the group is surely greater than the individual. “I’m surely a social introvert but I’ve made effort to work on this. But I enjoy when people play together, build something together, and you become this family. I would love to share that and create this conglomerate, where I can try to share a certain feeling in the music and they can share the same thing with me. I’d like to continue that type of sharing for years to come.”

This profile originally appeared in Void Magazine’s October 2018 issue.