Authenticity is a double-edged sword in the rap game. It’s the only genre where the art of storytelling is examined as closely as the storyteller, where a fickle base will put you out to pasture on reunion tours at the first hint of bullshit. Keep one foot too deep in the game, the same fans won’t let you evolve with the speed necessary to remain relevant.
For 16 years, Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton, has navigated this tightrope with monastic levels of patience. Together with brother Gene “No Malice” Thornton, Pusha formed the Clipse in the early 90s and immediately trademarked a brand of lurid street tales about an urban economy still wracked in the throes of the crack era. With the utmost confident cadence of Kane and the cold heart of G. Rap, Pusha immediately struck a raw nerve. His streets were your streets. The blow was coming on a BMX bike, not a Bentley, and suddenly gangster tales once reserved for New York and Miami were washing over the sprawling Virginia suburbs. But even local heat and the backing of Pharrell Williams – at the time, an up-and-comer from the school of Teddy Riley – couldn’t save their Elektra debut in 1999.
It did, however, pave the way for Lord Willin’, a prized collection of calculated coke rap buoyed by “Grindin’.” A certified heat rock, “Grindin'” found the brothers Thornton spitting summertime street corner tales over a brilliantly sparse Neptunes beat that mesmerized even casual hip-hop fans. It became something bigger than the slang’s original meaning: If you were working hard at anything at the time, you were grindin’. At this point, with the likes of multi-platinum artists like Justin Timberlake eager to shine off of the Clipse authenticity, you’d be forgiven for thinking things would get easier. Ultimately, label strife led to a repeatedly delayed classic, Hell Hath No Fury, and a third and final record together as Clipse, 2009’s Til’ the Casket Drops. Even amongst turmoil – or perhaps fueled by it – Clipse managed to put out three classic mixtapes with the We Got It For Cheap series, pushing product, forever grindin’ as the industry as a whole was imploding. After the Clipse called it quite, Kanye West – a producer on Til the Casket Drops and a notoriously driven artist – signed Pusha to his G.O.O.D. Music imprint, and Pusha has made short work of bodying every guest verse since.
When I call Pusha, he’s in Boston, halfway through a sold-out two night stand with Fabolous. He’s pledged all of his proceeds to the marathon bombing victims. “These people been through a lot up here,” he tells BYT. “I told ‘em last night: ‘I ain’t takin’ nothin’ from nobody. Not up here. We’ll get it later! But right now, you guys take everything y’all can from me. Everything.’ Both nights. That’s the least I could do.”
He’s refreshingly engaging for someone who’s built a career off of stark, sociopathic crime stories. He’s eager to talk about other young rapper’s in the game and what he can do to put them on. He comes off extremely humble for a guy who’s been a constant muse for the Neptunes and Kanye West, the two most in-demand hip-hop producers of the last decade. With one of the most anticipated albums of 2013, My Name is My Name, on deck, we talk Kanye, Paris, working with Chief Keef, and tennis as he prepares for upcoming shows in New York and DC.
You’ve spoken a lot about how Big Daddy Kane is your favorite rapper, but some would argue that you’ve got a career that even he would desire. He had a ten year run, you’re going on 15, and with all the G.O.O.D. Music projects and solo work coming up, it’ll be 20 before you blink. Have you ever thought about why you’ve endured where others haven’t? How you’ve stretched out a hip hop career that only four or five other living peers can really claim?
Ah man! I think about it, and I have come to the conclusion that there are two reasons why I am still relevant today. First, fundamentally, I have not changed one thing about my hip-hop and my process. Number two is because I go outside. And when I say I go outside, it means I’m of the world, I’m in the clubs four times a week, around music and the people. I’m just in the know about the whole hip hop culture. It’s always been about culture in general, not just music. You gotta know about the fashion, about what’s hot and what’s not and just be amongst the people. You have to change with the times in a sense of being hip. Hip hop is hip, and everyone who ever fell off, it’s because they aren’t hip anymore or they got stuck or could not take in the changes that naturally happen with time. That’s one thing I pride myself on.
It seems like the promo machine is picking up steam for My Name Is My Name. You dropped “Numbers on the Boards” out of nowhere, you dropped the list of producers and features. Is the record done? Are you going to surprise us with a drop date now or what?
Yeah, listen, the single’s been been picked. The single’s ready to go, but the single has to go through the “Kanye West” process of production. And, you know, you’ve heard about it, you see it every time with his albums, and at the end of the day, he’s so involved in my project that now I go through the “Kanye West” process of marking off all the boxes before the album drops, the single drops, or the date is released.
So you and Kanye could be putting finishing touches on the record up until the very end and it may not even be finished now?
No, no, no. I just left him with the single. It’s funny, man. I’ll tell you some funny shit. I go to Paris and we go through the album and he’s like, “Man, here’s what I love. Here’s what I don’t love.” And [he tells me] what he himself wants to add production wise. It’s his whole executive producer process. While I’m out there, I’m shooting the video for “Numbers on the Boards”. We go through the whole album, he listens to the lyrics – he listens to everything – and he says to me, “I want you to re-spit this line. I can tell you got a cold.” And I say, “Alright, you know, I really did.” And his biggest thing with me is: “Pusha, your biggest asset is your voice, which is your best instrument. I’d love to have a voice that cuts through music the way that yours cuts through.”
Then, the next day, I come back before I shoot the video, we’re having all these conversations, and now it’s a production thing and we’re going back and forth. Everybody’s in the room, my manager, and Kanye’s like, “You know what? Go shoot your video, man, I got this.” [Laughs] That’s how our differences got settled, like “No, man, I got this. Move.” He basically told me “Get outta my face. Go and shoot your video, and make sure that video’s hot ‘cause the rest of this shit, I got. This is mine now. This is my production part. Now it’s my album.” I said, “‘Ye, I swear to God, you say that to me one more time, I’m turning my back, ‘cause that’s what I’m gonna do.” “Get outta here and go shoot your video!” I said, “I’m turning my back, I promise you. I came back to the studio the next day, we had finished the video shoot a little early, and he said “Yo, I got two beats that I want you to write something to.”
Two new beats?
Yea, two new beats! He said, “You can write something to ‘em or put old verses on, but I wanna hear how your voice does on these beats. And from there, you may have some other stuff to do. But now, get out of here. Now, go.” [Laughs] I was like, “Alright, man.” So he gives my manager the beats on a flash drive, tells me to get out again, and I got out. [Laughs] The process is really crazy, man. It’s really different than what I’ve done, but I can say this: He lets me do the body of my work. He gives me the full scope of what he thinks about it, and when he’s adamant about something then he just is, and that’s just it. I’m a student when it comes to this. When I work with Kanye West, when I work with Pharrell, when I work with The-Dream, when I work with Swizz, I’m a student. I’ve never claimed to be the best song-maker, or best album-maker. I always claimed to be one of the best rappers, you know what I’m sayin’? I think that’s the difference. It’s like, man, if I’m the best rapper, I can wear that. I feel like I can go toe to toe with anybody in that. But when it comes to making records, I have no clue what the production side of life is about, especially the executive producer side of life. So, I back out. I bow out. If I act like I know everything, I see myself losing.
Well, delegation in any sort of business can be the key to success. So, those two new beats could be two new tracks on the record?
Yeah, I started them already, so I believe that they will be. I started them and I loved them.
[Laughs] People will be happy about that, but they’ll be disappointed too. It’s safe to say we have a little bit of a wait on the album.
Yeah, it doesn’t have anything to do with the single though – that’s etched in stone. He just found two colors. I made a list of what’s on my album and gave it to him as we were going through it, and I had one question mark. I put, “Add the missing colors.” For anyone who was listening in the room, after hearing all of this, tell me what I missed and that’s what I’ll do, and he gave me two beats.
Hudson Mohawke, recently signed to G.O.O.D., is one of the album’s producers. Can you talk about the tracks with him and how that transpired?
I mean, Hudson Mohawk is just really dope and, sonically, just think about where I come from: I come from the full-on Neptunes house of production. I come from the full-on sonic takeover of music of that time. When I speak of sonics, I mean just the sounds: Pharrell and Chad’s great drums, great keys, and all of that, but more than anything, I think they brought sounds to the game that were second to none. Also, think about where I live: I’m from Virginia. If you talk about Pharrell and his sonics and Chad and his sonics, I’m also from the Timbaland era, the Timbaland live-up-the-street-from-my-house-as-a-child era, the heyday. So nothing hits me more in production than the sounds, and now I’m in a room with Hudson Mohawke. I’m not putting Hudson in the lane of a Tim or Pharrell and Chad in terms of production. He has growing to do as far as that goes, but sonically he has sounds that are just out of this world. I think that comes from his departure from hip-hop and what he does. I think that’s what made all of those guys dope, because they pull from different places sonically and that’s what caught me with Hudson, man. He’s dope.
So when are you going to be on a Daft Punk record? You’re always out in Paris!
[Laughs] I don’t know man. That’s so funny. I really don’t know. I would love to, and it’s crazy ‘cause I think Pharrell is on their first two singles.
Yeah, I mean they were hot at Coachella and they weren’t even there!
You’ve talked a little about working with your brother, No Malice, on a fourth Clipse record, As God Is My Witness. Is this something you’re speaking seriously about?
Oh man, we speak so seriously about it. We speak so seriously about it and it needs to be said that me and my brother aren’t gonna work together on anything of that world until we’re doing that project. The brand, the Clipse, just means so much to me. I don’t want to tread upon that or do anything in regards to that brand until we got it mastered. I’ll work with my brother on his music, but as far as me and him doing something of the commercial world, I just can’t do that yet.
So when you finally do a record together it’ll be classic Clipse.
You’ve been posting some clips from Virginia artist, Etha, so I was wondering do you keep one foot in the Virginia music scene? You have 500k Twitter followers, nearly 200k on Instagram, and tour around the world as a global enterprise. What’s your involvement on a local level?
I look at the Virginia music scene as something that can be great. Etha is just an artist that I lyrically feel. I like what he articulates, and that’s just the bottom line. I ran across him… See, people fail to realize I really do listen to music. I didn’t know Etha was from Virginia when I heard him. It was late and someone hit me on Twitter and said, “Pusha, I bet you ain’t heard nothin’ like this,” and I was like, “Who the hell’s talkin’ to me?” [Laughs] It just stuck out, maybe because it was late, but I said, “Wow this is good,” and I found out he was from Virginia, and I was like,”Oh shit, this kid is from Virginia.” I just heard more, and there’s a producer from Virginia, I’m sure everybody knows, by the name of Nottz. I called him up. I said Nottz, “There’s this kid who I really like lyrically, really.” Then I went and ate with Etha. I came home one time and we were talking about rap, local rap, local rap scene, what’s what to me, what I don’t like, what I do like. I said, “In all honesty, I spoke to Nottz about you and I just wanna get you guys in the studio together and just see what comes about. If something comes of it, hey, or if nothing comes of it, whatever, no harm no foul, but I wanna get you around somebody who’s of seniority in production.” I believed the sound would work together. I’ve been running around doin’ my thing and they’ve had conversations, but I don’t know how the studio has come about. But you look at his drive and you say, “OK, even if that didn’t happen, I’ll get a text from him and it’s some music.” I’m like, “The guy is still working and that’s what I’m talking about.”
Local guys will hit me on Twitter and have something negative to say about me in regards to the area and “How come you ain’t putting no local rappers on?” I think they’ve forgotten I’ve been on G.O.O.D. for three years and I don’t even have an album out, but hey, I’m gonna let that slide. [Laughs] So I go to their Soundcloud or whatever their music page is and I’ll see they haven’t updated any of that since last April. That’s not my type of drive. In all honesty, like I said, the kid works. It’s not necessarily what people would think. People say “Aw man, this kid ain’t talking a whole bunch of street tales” and so on and so forth, but I understand lyricism in all aspects and I think people need to understand that. Even though he doesn’t talk that, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what he does and I do. M. Watts is also from home. With most artists, I get caught up in an artist’s story. So when I listen to M. Watts, I just know, man. If we talkin’ about the party I just know what he’s talkin’ about and I know that’s real. I know exactly where he’s coming from. So, my opinion on an artist, people need to understand how I look at it. I look at it from a lot of different aspects.
If you see me Tweet out my homeboy Young Money Yawn: He’s a kid from Berkeley, a bit unorthodox and conversational when he raps, but it’s the reality of it that makes me Tweet it. I’m drawn to the reality of it, that’s all. I don’t want people to ever get it twisted. I’ve been looked at as a rap snob. That’s not true! Not everything has gotta be super lyrical for me, or super street for me, those are two examples of guys who I like for different reasons. That’s how I look at a lot of music. That’s why I can do records with Future. My critics beat me up until they hear it four times, then they’re like, “Oh my God, T it’s my favorite record!” Oh really, you like Future now? [Laughs].
Well looking at your track record for finding talent, you brought that Chief Keef record to Kanye with the Young Chop beat, “I Don’t Like” –
And at the time Young Chop and Keef weren’t feeling that remix, but now it’s transpired into a creative relationship.
Listen, man, Young Chop was in Paris with me, Chief Keef was in Paris with me. What happened with that whole thing – I was trying to really find Keef. I didn’t know who the hell this kid was! I just clicked on it on World Star, and just, the authenticity – that’s the most authentic movement in hip-hop today. I don’t care what anyone says. That’s the most authentic. And when it speaks authentically to me, that’s a win. I’m gonna tell you who else! Shy Glizzy, he speaks to me authentically. It’s like, maaaaan, I like this, so I took a trip up there and we hung out for a couple days. I was tellin’ him little things I think, givin’ him game on the game. He’s been running around doing his thing, it’s just good energy. It’s like, man, I want kids who are authentic, whatever it is that they do. I want them to get it! They’re from around the way, I want you to get it!
Yeah, between him, Fat Trel, and many others the scene is popping here.
OK, couple things before we go, first let’s talk movies: “Scarface” or “Heat”?
NFL or tennis?
Tennis! 100 percent, are you crazy?! [Laughs]
Nadal or Djokovic?
Nadal is fresher than Djokovic, but Djokovic scares me. Nadal is my favorite player, but, Djokovic, fuckin’, is just a fuckin’ robot and I hate it. He’s so good, and I never hated someone for being so good – like people used to hate the Lakers when they were so awesome? And your favorite team could not dominate them? Nadal is my favorite but he just cannot DOMINATE Djokovic like I wish he would. [Laughs]
You should cover the US Open for someone in August.
I would love it.
OK, “The Wire” or “The Sopranos”?
Aw, “The Wire”.
Figured that with the whole My Name is My Name thing. OK, food: T & T, Roscoes, or Sylvias?
Definitely TNT! But see, it’s different though, man: Sylvia’s is a full service situation, Roscoe’s specializes with the chicken thing, but TNT is my fried crab. It’s the best. If I’m gonna have a horrible day of eating I’m gonna waste it on that.
RG3 or Mike Vick?
Mike Vick! Kiddin’ me? [Laughs]
You’ve mentioned them both in lyrics though!
They’re both great but Mike Vick is just, c’mon, I’m very, very sensitive about Mike Vick.