Photo by Jaimie Sanchez
“I just have to say that—you don’t crucify people who didn’t lie to you,” Pusha T pauses for a moment, leaning back in a leather chair, a sly smile coming across his face. “And I sort of feel like people tried to crucify Meek, but he didn’t lie.”
Pusha T may have just taken office as G.O.O.D. Music president, but he’s already talking like a politician. “I listen to both, I listen to Meek music, I listen to Drake music,” he continues. Push is careful when he speaks, thoughtful and clear with every point he wants to make. “I just feel like the principles of 2002 aren’t the principles of 2015.”
The 38-year-old is of course, addressing the conversation that dominated the rap world this past summer—you know, when Meek Mill suggested Drake was using a ghostwriter, which led to Drake essentially ending Meek Mill’s bid for pop stardom. Considering Push is one of the most brilliant lyricists the rap game has ever seen, a veteran of coke rap standardbearers The Clipse—his rap duo with his brother Malice (now No Malice)—who continues to rap as sharp as ever nearly two decades into his career, his opinion on this manner carries a bit of weight. “I just watched how people handled it,” he says. “I think this is an example of where people are in the world, who the critics are, and so on and so forth.”
But Pusha T isn’t here to talk to me just about some rap beef from a few months ago; he’s sitting in one of the VICE conference rooms explaining his upcoming music and musing about his long career of reinventing the rules and sound of rap while still staying true to its lyrical history. During our hour and 15-minute conversation, we’ll touch on his upcoming record King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude (out December 18), his next record King Push (which he says will release in the spring), why he was selected to be the face of G.O.O.D. Music, what it was like growing up in Virginia, what it’s like to have all your friends go to jail, flying back and forth to Hawaii to record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, why he believes Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury is the best rap album ever, how he views himself as the ultimate blogger, and more.
This is just what an icon like Pusha T does. “While every song got a rapper dance,” he spits on “M.F.T.R.,” the third track on Darkest Before Dawn. “YUUGH, I’m drug money like Dapper Dan.”
Noisey: So you have an album. It's real. It’s actually real.
Pusha T: Yeah. A real thing. Yeah. [Laughs] The title is Darkest Before Dawn. It’s the prelude to King Push.
So, what we have here is like a compilation of ten of the hardest records that I've compiled from like, Sean Combs, Kanye, Timbaland, Q-Tip, Boy 1da, Baauer, Mano, Nasheen Maira. I have been recording so much. I didn't want to break up that [King Push] body of work. I feel like I had the producers doing things they weren't usually known for, and a little bit out of their wheelhouse.
What do you mean?
When you working with Timbaland, or you working with Puff, I mean, these guys are known for pop records, club-driven records. But my favorite things from them were the B-cuts Timb mighta did for Jay Z, or Puff orchestrating the Hitmen in regards to “Who Shot Ya” or “My Downfall.” So I think that, personally, I got the darkest moments out of everybody I work with, and I didn't want to break that up. I wanted to give the fans that body of work. That's the music I love, and I feel like that's what my fans truly love from me, so instead of having those moments throughout King Push, I was like, let's just separate the game
The new single “Untouchable” is definitely in that vein.
Sparse, minimal production, super lyric-driven. Man it's so many jewels on this album. My friends are telling me that they feel like this album is better lyrically than the other one, than My Name Is My Name. And I don't be knowing about that, but. [Laughs.] That kind of debate is good, I guess, so I’m happy.
What’s the story behind “Untouchable” and the Biggie sample?
“Untouchable,” man. “Untouchable” came from a conversation with Timb. People don't really know our history. As a kid, Timbaland was the DJ and producer for my brother, coming up in eighth grade. Timbaland was the DJ for a, a crew called DDP, which was Def Dual Productions. And of course in school they just called them a gang, but really they were two-man MC groups, and he was the DJ for all of them, producer, DJ, whatever. So, let's say if they're 13, 14 at the time, I'm nine or eight-years-old. And I've known Timbaland since I've been nine or eight years-old. Like, I literally had to know him because for my brother to be able to participate in the group, he had to take me with him. We would ride our bikes to Timbaland's house, and they'd be making music and I'd be upstairs dancing, and his dad would scream at me because I'm making noise upstairs, and eventually it'd just get too much and they'd put us out. But that's our real history. That’s our history before anything ever capped off for anybody.
And I've never worked with Timb in my life. I've worked out of his studio over the years. But as far as doing a record with Timbaland, I have never done it. I reached out to him one day, I was like, "Yo, I need some music," and he was like, “OK. Give me a few days, I got you.” And he called me up, like 4:30 in the morning one morning, and was like, just screaming in my phone that he is the hip-hop. “I am the hip-hop! King Timbo! I am the hip-hop! I am the maestro! I don't care who doing music for you right now.” I was literally in my bed.
How did you respond?
I don’t even know why I woke up. But I did. So I got up, and he’s like, "Man, I'ma send you this file." And “Untouchable” was the name. He was like, "Man, you gotta do this one." I feel like when producers get with me they have something to prove. I've worked with all of the greats; I've made great music with each and every producer that I've worked with. I feel like I've made a stamp in some way, shape or form, whether it's Pharrell and Chad with “Grindin,” whether it's Kanye with “Numbers on the Board,” and the stuff we done for “New God Flow,” so I feel like every producer feel like they want to get that off with me. “Untouchable,” I feel like was his moment. I feel like it's my moment, but his energy, you think it's his.
You hear that beat—that's a Pusha T beat.
That’s Timb's gift. When we talk, he talks in regards to how someone sounds or how I'm gonna sound over the beat. Or, you know, what he thinks my voice does to a particular beat. So it's dope when you're working with someone who's that meticulous.
There’s been a lot of discussion this year about lyrical hip-hop versus turn up music and the whole, uh, ghostwriting thing. As someone who just watched it all develop from the sidelines, what did you think?
Me, personally, I have sort of... given up hope in regards to my—well, I don't wanna say I've given up hope. I'm gonna say that I don't put my rap principles on everybody. It’s funny to me because I'm an MC that's been put under scrutiny my whole career for my content. “Oh it's so drug-riddled.” Like we created coke rap genre. Like, you know, G-Rap didn't even exist! [Laughs.] But we’ve given Pusha T the coke rap genre.
Man, the times have totally changed. The times are changing, and I'm watching, and I'm watching these guys have these issues and these debates, it's just, I don't know. I don't know what to actually think of it. I just feel like the principles of 2002 aren't the principles of 2015. You know? I listen to both, I listen to both Meek music, I listen to Drake music, both, you know. I don't know, I just watched how people handled it, and I watched how the media handled it, and I just have to say that—you don't crucify people who didn't lie to you. And I sort of feel like people tried to crucify Meek, but he didn't lie. You crucify people that lie to you; you don't crucify the person that doesn't lie to you, so. I think that is an example of where people are in the world, who the critics are, and so on and so forth.
When I think of turn up music, I go back to 2012 when I did a record with Future called “Pain.” And I put it out, and I got panned because people were like—why are you dealing with Future, what is wrong with you, Pusha T, are you crazy?! They were going crazy. Fast forward, every backpacker, every hipster, every critic has his cup of lean. And they understand every word Future says, verbatim. That is the curse of being early. You gotta be early. Man, but that's the only thing I know how to do. I'm not gonna not be early. I'm not waiting for people to catch up, I don't care. I’m the ultimate blogger. [Laughs.]
It goes back to what you were saying—the principles of 2002 aren’t the same as the principles of 2015.
Yeah. You'll get washed if you think that way. And, and, you gotta remember, all of my favorites, all my favorite artists, all of ‘em—yeah. All of the greats, all of my real greats from yesteryear, they all died because they didn't embrace, and they couldn't adapt, and they stayed in their bubble.
How important is the term “authenticity” to you in music?
Well, I'm not gonna let it be my issue. But I mean, yeah, I came up on rap that I feel like—I believed my rappers, you know what I'm saying? [Laughs.] So I believed my rappers. I just sorta think that that’s the allure of being a fan of the music and a fan of the artist. I never was into it. I mean, I look at it like, boom, I heard the Biggie version of “Queen Bitch” for Lil Kim, that, you know, that's aight, cool, I'll live with that, that's it. [Laughs] Like I wasn't hearing references for my favorite rappers.
Changing subjects, yesterday was the five-year anniversary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Yeah, man. One of my favorite albums. It was crazy when I saw it was five years old. I’m very thankful for that time. Super thankful for Kanye reaching out. Forever grateful. I'm also thankful for my skymiles getting up from flying to Hawaii every third day. Man, I was flying to Hawaii every week.
Really? Couldn't you just stay out there?
No, cause I had shows, I had things to do.
That's a long commute, man.
Yeah. So I would literally every week. Man, I was grabbin’ so many miles. And, you know, when you working with Kanye, like, it's an unlimited budget thing. So whatever he wants goes when, you know, when you dealing with these albums. So if I wanted to go home, then I just had to go home. Then I had to go back, you'd just say, yo I gotta go home, and he’d be like, “OK, cool.” And you'd just fly. Just fly all over the world. I was, you know, flying from Virginia to Hawaii. Every day.
The “Runaway” verse was my first time that I probably was made to rewrite a verse. And every other time I've been like, if I rewrote a verse it's because I just felt like, oh I thought of another idea. But Kanye literally made me rewrite this verse. He wanted more, you know, more arrogance. The verse and the song came from a conversation. We were just talking about relationships—just the attitude of it, the reality of relationships and music business relationships, and how outsiders have a perspective about a relationship when they just don't know. Like, you don't know what this life is like.
What do you mean?
You know, your mother. Or an outside girlfriend who has like a banker boyfriend and shit. Like, they don't know. So it just started there, and then the content just started, you know, it just came from the verses. And the content came from the conversations, and it was just attitude, man. When you're talking to your friends, you have real, uh, honest conversation. I feel like some of the arrogance in the verse was me just having a convo, like, “Man, I don't give a fuck! I bought this shit! And I buy this shit and I don't care what you talkin’ about!” Like, that shit came across in the verse as well. That was the beginning—just that whole Dark Twisted time, man. It was, man, Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean, Pete Rock, so much music. RZA. These were my first G.O.O.D. Music sessions with like, the GOATs. You know, GOATs of production, I mean, Ye is GOAT enough. Then you have talented musicians, and other producers, and everybody coming through, and it was just focused, super focused man, ain't shit to do in Hawaii. Not for me anyway. And I think we made the best album of that time, man. It’s only been five years and I don't know if there's an album better than Dark Twisted. I feel like I tried with My Name is My Name. But it still wasn't as...I think My Name Is My Name was beats and raps. I think that Dark Twisted was the albums that I loved to buy as a kid, like orchestrated, movie soundtrack-esque, like I didn't get all of that in my joint.
Somebody once described it as like a prog-rock album, with all the guitars and shit.
[Laughs.] Yeah, like you got all of that extra shit, extra greatness that, it's just extra sauce that he was putting on that shit. But he killed it.
Talk to me about being president of G.O.O.D. Music. How did it happen?
A conversation, man. I was getting off a plane, I was coming home, and my phone rings, it was Ye. And as soon as I seen it, I was like oh, yeah, this has to be good. So I answer, and he was like, “Hey man, what do you think about being the president of G.O.O.D. Music?” And I was like—what does that entail? And he was like, you know, I just feel like you have a good perspective on what's going on in the world and culture.
Everything we've just been talking about.
Yeah. And he was like, you’d be pretty spot on. You just in it, man, whether it's internet, you're just in all of those mixes. And I feel like the point at which you're in it could be beneficial to everybody if we just, you know, focused up, just carried on with the tradition of putting out good music. You know, dialing into the business of it, but still keeping the high quality output. High quality output. And just, you know, just the level of it, man.
One thing G.O.O.D. Music has been really great at is keeping the fans engaged. And I feel like that has a lot to do with us being culturally relevant out here. Whether it's music, the sneakers, or whatever you have to say about whatever it is, I mean, we're in the mix of it. People believe it. I feel like everything that we do culturally is synonymous with myself or, or Kanye. I think we've walked people through our mistakes. Shit. I mean people get to see a lot, you know. Especially with him, he'll let you in on mistakes and everything. I'ma try to hide mine. But I think even the flaws help people dial and keep the fans engaged, and keep the belief going that we're gonna continue to put out the high quality of whatever it is.
You’ve entered a stage where you’re a bit of an elder statesman for rap music. What would you go back to tell your 19-year-old self?
I was having too much fun at 19. Rap for me at 19 I was really doing something with my brother, who I love to death, and my best friends, who I love to death. Can you just imagine how much got lost within that time? Like, we didn't care about anything. It was like getting up, and going over to your friend's house to play basketball everyday. We didn't think about anything. It was absolutely nothing that I thought about on a business capacity. I just happened to be with guys who loved me that much to never like steal from me. [Laughs.] Now we had other issues, business-wise, like when I went through the hiatus after Lord Willin’, four years, the label drama—and that was straight passion. Pharrell and Chad wanted their group with them when they went to another label.
I believe that they felt that they had done so much outside work with, and made so much money for the label we were at that they felt entitled to have their group back. But at the same time, you know, business prevails, and the label didn't see it as such. It has to make sense for them. Like, if you just sold damn near a million records, why would I just let you go? [Laughs.] At the time I was like, get the fuck out of here, I hate you all. I was banned from the label, I was blackin’ out. But I was blackin’ out off of loyalty. That's just what you do. That’s how we act. It’s just funny how everything 360s. All of those were 19-year-old decisions. Everything, from all of us. And I don't even know if I'd change it, because I had so much fun during those times. I don't know if I would’ve had as much fun if I had been so focused.
Now kids come right out of the gate and have business models when they’re 19.
Listen, I was tellin’ an aspiring rapper the other day—you know, I have a real issue with aspiring rappers who don't have their shit together today. Like, man, do you realize, when I was getting on, I really got in a car and drove to New York City to somebody who I thought was an executive but who probably was a mail boy? And then they fooled me all the way on the drive to get there, for us, a collective of people who put out some great shit. Myself, Chad, Pharrell, my brother, like, we would drive and go up there, and then they would take whatever we gave ‘em, and then take it to who the real man was if they could even get that close to that person. And then that's how it would start.
That's really how your first deal happened? You just drove up with some random dude?
We did numerous drives. Numerous. We drove up off of a whim of, you know, somebody was connected, or some young kid who was like, “Yo, aw this shit is sorta hot.” But they didn't have no juice. We were Virginians, young in the game, and we met people in New York, and were like, “You work at the label, you can send us a letter with the letterhead? We on our fuckin’ way!” That’s how shit was going down.
Kids today really have it together. They're shooting their own videos, they're creating their own followings, they are just meticulous about how they get their shit out there, and create these fans—they're touring. Literally. It's 200, 300 kids in places. They're doing everything on their own. I just look at that, and I'm not really into aspiring artists who don't have that level of drive. I had to drive to New York and do whatever the fuck we had to do, get fooled by record labels fooled 90 times. That's what you had to do.
What are your goals in the next year?
Man, listen. King Push comes out in the spring. I got shit up there that people ain't heard in 18 years. Like real shit. Like I got things that like are going to like—
What kind of things? What does that mean?
Features. You know, just things. Just things. [Laughs.] And I didn't want to break that up. It got to a point, to what you’re asking, you know… you gotta, you gotta make the album now, and so now you gotta order this shit out, you gotta put this here, you gotta put that in, because you gotta make the album work. So, I took everything I love, and I feel like the people love, my people love, and I feel like that's what they should have.
Looking back at how Clipse kind of reinvented itself with the internet, was there ever a moment you had doubts and wondered about the future?
Nah, man. We were doing so much other shit, man. We put out the hardest mixtape series with We Got It 4 Cheap. It was so weird at that time. We were like in our egos, and our feelings about how our label shit was going on, and then just being egomaniacs, we were just like, man, fuck this shit, we got points to prove. It was too much going on, man. But we survived it. We survived it.
What were some of the lessons learned?
Oh man, you know I just feel like everybody I came into the music game with, they're, everybody is in jail now.
Pusha T’s manager: We always asked him if he can remake that music you heard on those tapes, and he's always like, I can't. He says, “If you love me, as a friend, then you don't want me to make that music again, because I'd have to be this close to jail.”
Pusha T: You can look at all of them—they're all gone. Like they're all gone.
What’s it like to watch that happen?
It's just crazy, man. It's a blessing but it's also a headache. A lot of ‘em, I won't ever speak to again. I don’t know... It just, that whole time period fucked up a whole, you know. Musically, we stayed boxin’. [Laughs.] But everything else, it's tough. Tough road, man. Not everybody made it through.
Even though you say you can’t recreate those feelings because you’re not in the same place in your art, your music still feels consistent.
Certain people who can remember that, and remember those pieces of music, they may feel a little slighted just because I don't think it's as in depth as it was. Hell Hath No Fury, to me, it's the best rap album. I don't care what nobody says. I say all the time, I cannot make that album in particular again. You can try, you can shoot, you can yuugh. But it don't—that don't just happen like that man.
And I feel like everybody was in a particular space at that time too. You had Pharrell who was in a space as well, who at this time probably owned 40 percent of the charts, right? And then Chad. Like I was saying earlier, producers get they rocks off on some rap shit with us. So when we were making records like that, he’s like, this is everything he needs. He didn't feel right putting out “Slave 4 U” with Britney without having "Keys Open Doors." You can't recreate that drive, or that drive from a great motherfucker like himself. Pharrell and Chad are great, and at that time I feel like they were super great. We was just pushing each other at the time. I was a super motivator to them, I believe. Because I was finding myself musically, and I was also finding what I wasn’t following. We all loved DJ Premier, and we were fans, and we were going out to the clubs hearing beats and Pharrell was like, man, I gotta beat that. When we found records like that—let’s say “Grindin’”—we felt it was gonna go down in history just as an iconic record. And it did. We could make records that had like a certain brightness to it. We were in love with our Premiers and shit for being muddy hip-hop joints, whatever, but I was like, oh no, we got a new swag, and this is the new swag is what we gonna do. That's how "Ride Around Shinin" comes around, we were getting a little bit more industrial. It was that level of pushing each other.
Eric Sundermann is Noisey's editor-in-chief. Follow him on Twitter.