Several things sound familiar about Clipse. Virginia Beach brothers Terrence and Gene Thornton—aka Pusha T and Malice—have experienced major-label ineptitude.
Their latest, Hell Hath No Fury, sat through years of label delay, even thought it was one of the most critically anticipated (and now critically acclaimed) albums of this decade. A familiarity with the crack trade colors their lyrics, much like those of often laughable Billboard Top 100 hip-hop acts Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and T.I. And they exclusively employ the stunning production of hitmakers the Neptunes.
But Clipse is different: Their tough talk displays a sense of conscience and internal struggle with sin, setting the group apart from their peers. And Fury's production work incorporates harp glissandos, steel drums and cat meows in pursuit of an infectiously absurd combination of pop hooks and trunk-rattling bass. They've also made the best of their unfortunate situation with Jive Records: Label mergers led to Clipse being handled by a group of people with no idea how to market cold, unflinching rhymes and off-kilter beats, but they've managed to release two mixtapes on their own label while voicing their fairly uncompromising opinions of Jive on their own album.
Sure, the trappings—tales of Louis Vuitton sunglasses, women, expensive cars, paper cuts from counting too much money—seem familiar, but this is more than another rehashed formula: It's a glimmer of hope for the often one-dimensional world of the 21st-century rap antihero. The Independent caught Pusha T on his day off in Orlando.
INDEPENDENT: The album is extremely diverse, musically. Was all that established before you put your rhymes on?
PUSHA T: Musically, that's a Pharrell and Chad [Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes] thing. All we are are A&Rs. When we're in that studio, the Clipse are just our own A&R. All we do is "yea" or "nay" it. They create. I think it's fair to say that those guys get the opportunity to be experimental as hell when it comes to us. They honestly get to try shit when it comes to the Clipse.
Because you're willing to work with whatever they give you? You have absolute faith in them and vice versa?
Yeah. I think a lot of people see the Neptunes as chart-toppers, as hitmaking producers. I mean, I look at them like that as well—the proof is in the pudding. But at the same time, we don't go into it saying, "Hey, let's make a hit!" We go into it saying, "Yo, let's change the game." And everything that changes the game isn't a hit. But it damn sure changes the game. If you lay all the CDs that came out last year on a table, even the ones that the Neptunes had some production hand in, I think it's safe to say that we totally went upstream when everyone was going downstream.
The Clipse records range from dark stuff to songs that are bright and poppy. What strikes me about this is how different it is from a lot of mainstream "drug hip-hop," which is mostly very one-dimensional in the production. It's very cartoonish because of that, all one color.
Oh, yeah. They definitely are using the Crayola box that only has eight crayons. They're definitely not using the 64-color box with the sharpener on the bottom.
A lot of mainstream rappers who talk a lot about the drug trade and the trappings that come with it—their message seems to be "I'm rich and I'm tough." And when you get to that point, it really doesn't seem like you're saying anything. What I get from a lot of your songs is that you guys struggle with both sides of this issue, where your characters say, "I know what I'm doing is wrong, but this is how I make my money."
It's more realistic. It's always more realistic to get a 360-degree perspective of a sitation. The more intelligent you get, the older you get, the more conscious you are of life—you're not just going to be able to take "I'm rich, I'm rich, I sell bricks."
You can't just do that—there has to be something that comes with it. Is there any downside? In our writing process, that's how we try to grasp our fanbase, like, "Yo, it's real out here." People feel reality. They can feel honesty and they can feel reality in the lyrics, and that's what locks people in, for me.
More than reality, some of the characters on your album seem to struggle with a sense of guilt.
Oh, yeah—reality, guilt. You have to assume a sense of guilt. Wrongdoing always comes with guilt.
There's a lot of references in your lyrics to HBO series The Wire. What's interesting about that show is the diversity of characters and how they are all related to and affected by the "war on drugs." Have you seen similar effects in your city from the drug trade?
Well, my city is a resort town. And the things that transpired, they got handled very quickly as far as getting drugs under control. They're not gonna let [Virginia Beach] look like [Baltimore]. I think what has attracted people to The Wire is that anyone who's been to Baltimore can honestly say, "Damn, it really looks like this. It's '07 and it's still like open-air [trafficking]." You can't say that about Virginia.
How much of the life that your characters talk about do you see still in Virginia Beach?
Oh, you see a lot of it. I live in Virginia Beach. My area is called Hampton Roads, and my area is seven cities: Virginia Beach, Hampton, Norfolk, Newport News, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Portsmouth. All those cities are within 15 minutes of each other. It can get beautiful, but after it gets beautiful, it can get ugly.
Why do you think the drug dealer as a type of hero in popular rap music is so appealing to mainstream America?
I look at the game and album sales and all that, and I can only blame album sales on how good a particular system is. I don't know. The streets always want something to relate to. This is commonplace in the streets; drugs are commonplace in society. And honestly, everything that is ever gonna be hot and be hot for a long time starts in the streets. The streets set the trends. Mainstream America and suburbia, they get they style and they little swagger from what happens in the streets. All the way up to the music ... from shoes to music.
Regarding the story with your label and the problems you've had with them—the mixtapes that you've released were done so during all the problems with Jive, right?
So while you were able to work around the system in that way, still being able to release music, you're still not able to make money off those mixtapes, right?
No, you're not legally allowed to make money off those tapes. The Clipse never made money off those tapes, but at that point in time us putting out those tapes was a) a source of therapy, and b) it was survival in a sense of trying to make sure that the fans heard us and stayed abreast of what it is we do.
Do you get more pleasure working that way, working with beats that are already established and being able to just write lyrics?
Well, I'm pretty sure that when a label situation is a great situation for you, when the label is working hand in hand with you and you guys are all working for one common cause, I'm pretty sure that's a great situation. When everyone is knowledgeable about what it is that you do, who you are as an individual and what you mean to the rap game ... I'm pretty sure that's always a great marriage.
But you haven't had that experience, is what you're saying?
No, no, no, I definitely haven't had that experience yet. With Jive it wasn't like that.
It's kind of interesting hearing a lot of stuff on the record and the mixtapes that criticizes Jive directly. I can't immediately think of any artist that is currently in the position to be able to blatantly say Fuck you on a record to the very people who are putting out that same record.
At that point, everybody had been hearing about the drama and chaos and shortcomings. You just have to capitalize off of everything. If you don't feel like the promotion is up to par, then you have to speak out on it. And what better way to speak out on it than on record to make sure it's heard?
How have they responded to your expressions on the record?
At this point, the album's out already. So I don't have any more qualms with Jive. I could care less about it because right now it's about me, about touring and getting out there with the fans. I'm not worried about anyone's video or radio promotional budgets. I'm calm now, and I'm happy.
Clipse plays Cat's Cradle with Kaze and Free Bass 808 Thursday, March 29 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $18-$20.