Photograph by: Maxwell Schiano
Pusha T takes over FACT today, with in-depth editorial, exclusive photos and more. Scroll down for our extensive interview, and head here for the rest of his site takeover.
Pusha T is one of the most mercurial figures in the modern rap landscape.
A brilliant wordsmith with charisma to match, he began his unlikely career over 15 years ago as one half of Clipse, alongside his brother Malice. A hit record, ‘Grindin’, followed, as well as a well-received debut album, Lord Willin’. Then – nothing.
Label disputes and a changing market caused Clipse to fall off the map, until a return four years later with a string of incredible mixtapes, the We Got It 4 Cheap series, which led to a brilliant sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury.
Since then, Pusha T (real name Terrence Thornton) has staked out a solo career both as an artist and a behind the scenes figure. He’s written for and appeared alongside some of the biggest names in music, and has released a series of high-quality solo records, each as notable for their scope and design as for the lyrical content within.
The end of 2015 marked massive highs previously unseen in his career. In November, he was announced as the new president of Kanye’s record label, G.O.O.D. Music. He also released perhaps his best solo project yet, the tight 12-track album Darkest Before Dawn, as well as an original short film released on Tidal, King Push.
On the heels of these announcements, I sat down with Pusha to discuss his rise within the industry and the track of his career. How does someone who started as an obscure regional rapper make it as far as Pusha has?
“[Kanye] named me president because my ear is to the streets.”
With you taking over at G.O.O.D. Music, will anything change now that you’re in charge?
Everything I have in mind for G.O.O.D. Music right now is just about tightening the levels of creativity, heightening the fan engagement, just carrying on with tradition of high quality music, and protecting our brand.
I feel like G.O.O.D. Music is the culture of hip-hop all in one, just in regards to it being music, fashion, art, attention to detail. I think all of those different facets speak to a superfan, and it’s about engaging those guys.
G.O.O.D. Music has always seemed to be aesthetically on point as a label. Was there anything you’d have done differently to what Kanye has done?
The only thing I wanna do that I feel like we haven’t capitalized on is the experience. The experience of us as a whole. G.O.O.D. Music doesn’t Voltron too much, simply because we’re all into so many different things. We come to each other’s aid in regards to music when it’s music’s time, but beyond that we’re all touring, we’re all working on different clothing lines, we’ve all got merch deals, we’ve all got sneakers.
You’re still working on stuff with Playclothes?
Playclothes has been my clothing line for the last seven years, and it’s been my brand, but even that gets in the way of time.
In terms of G.O.O.D. Music, it’s an aesthetic thing, but it seems like the music still comes first for you as the driving aspect.
As far as the music and sonics go, are you very involved, or is it more a business thing as president?
Well, I’m super involved with the artists on G.O.O.D. Music, I feel like that’s why Ye appointed me to be president. My rapport with all the artists on G.O.O.D. Music is A1. In regards to the sonics, there’s a wheelhouse that the music goes through to be G.O.O.D. Music. Ultimately we’re looking for that final, Ye, [snaps fingers] “I’m with it”.
Does he still have the overriding say on “this is a G.O.O.D. Music thing”?
Definitely! He is the overriding factor. But you know, this is the brand he’s built, and you never forget that.
It also seems that the way your career has gone, being an artist and entrepreneur has been tied together.
How do you see the relationship of business and art in rap music today?
I feel like it’s a huge thing, and it needs to be capitalized on. There was a time in rap [where] you had to be the highest selling rapper to even be noticed by corporations. Nowadays, the corporate structure recognizes underground artists. You hear these guys’ voices on commercials.
Corporate America, if they’re trying to be progressive, understands that you can’t monetize the work of these artists in the social media age. They don’t always have a million followers, but if you have a base of 500 followers that are really strong, they’re basically lined up for you, that’s as strong.
I used to manage rappers as well, and what I’ve seen is how the industry will show that business side a little bit, more so than other forms of music might, but at the same time they’re still trying to capitalize on a really fervent audience. Do you think that corporations take that enthusiasm to sell to a new audience?
Everybody wants the sauce, man. Everybody wanna be cool, man. This is the age and the era of the cool kid. This is the age and the era of knowing what’s hot first makes you that guy. Even in a corporate structure, if you’re trying to be progressive, you got the young guy in there. You’re even looking twice at the mail room kid, if he’s got that swag and look like he knows something.
You want the guy with the ear to the streets, or who’s watching YouTube videos with 300 views.
Exactly. And you know, my biggest thing to new artists and creatives, is to basically know your worth. Times are different now. Creatives are so independent now. When I was coming up, me and Pharrell and Chad would get into a car, drive to NYC, take a meeting with the label head, who ended up being the mailroom clerk. And if that mailroom clerk was dope, and he really understood what it was, we’d still take that meeting. We’d get fooled into the meeting, but he’d take that music to the VP he’s trying to impress, or the A&R he’s trying to impress. That’s how it happened for me.
Nowadays, these kids are online, they shoot their own videos, they’re putting out their music systematically, they are consistent, they’ve got two, three, 400,000 followers, or 50,000 followers. But 50,000 kids never knew who I was coming up!
It’s interesting the way G.O.O.D. Music has worked with artists like Hudson Mohawke. I remember hearing him play in college, playing Clipse bootlegs and remixes.
And now he’s working with you all. Today, it’s entirely possible for a fan or artist like him to work his way up to work with you guys.
That’s because we’re listening. We are listening.
So how do you find artists like that? Do you listen to other people or do you have your ear to the street?
Well, my manager has a forum account [laughs], he comments on forums.
On KTT [KanyeToThe, the popular internet rap forum]?
[Laughs] Yeah. You know.
That’s honestly where a lot of things are found.
Listen – we feverishly scour SoundCloud. It’s nothing at like three, four, five in the morning for, like, Timbaland to hit me or my manager on group chat and say, “Y’all don’t know about this!” or “You don’t know who this kid is!” And it’ll be either, “Damn, how’d you find him or her?!” or “You late, that’s stale food”.
I knew A$AP Yams pretty well, and he was one of those guys.
G.O.A.T., G.O.A.T. level.
He dug hard. I was wondering if that was a tradition that continues on in G.O.O.D. Music, or in labels in general.
That’s another thing. I feel like [Ye] named me president because my ear is to the streets. He knows I can tell him, or send him links to what’s going on. Whether we disagree or not. Even if I don’t like it, he can see a perspective from Pusha T on why I don’t like it. And it’s an educated perspective. Why I don’t believe it will make it, why I believe we should sign something.
Not everything turns into a deal. Shit, man, we were so early on Chief Keef. Out in Chicago like, “I think we should sign him.” It’s a wave, it’s an energy, it lives in its space. And you let it live and mature, but under your umbrella. It didn’t turn into that. We got a hell of a song out of it, ‘I Don’t Like’, but not everything is always gonna turn into a deal. It’s cool though, and it worked out well for everyone.
With a new artist like Chief Keef, are you looking for something that’s gonna be a big hit, or are you looking for something that’s going to push G.O.O.D. Music forward long term?
I’m looking for something that’s self-contained. It’s not waiting on Pusha T, or Kanye West, or Big Sean to get on the records. In its own world, its own space, they know exactly who they are.
That strikes me the way your new record has gone down, and your past records as well. You don’t overwhelm the listener with 20-plus tracks on the album. It seems like a lot of quality control. So when you are putting a record together, what is your process?
As far as putting an album together, I try to determine what the theme or a feeling is, at all costs. I see the whole movie before we even look.
“I’m from an East Coast wave, and I’m living through a Southern wave.”
Do you see yourself as a director or auteur?
Yeah. Even with this cast of characters. This album was the most interesting to me.
Yeah, credits-wise, it’s interesting. Like, Zaytoven and Jill Scott are on the last track together.
I think you’ll look at the credits and think, “He’s got a cast of fucking hitmakers, chart-toppers. Culturally relevant, right now.” But then you’ll listen to the album and be like, “Damn, Pusha T made Metro Boomin come into the world of Pusha T.” You’ll hear Puff and be like, “Damn, Puff is so far beyond Triple C [‘Crutches, Crosses, Caskets’] or ‘Keep Dealin’, Timbaland is so far beyond ‘Untouchable’.”
I told Timbaland, “What I really want is all the Jay-Z B-sides you never did. I don’t want the club tracks, I want the B-sides.” Puff was like, “What are you looking for?” “‘My Downfall’. I want everything comparable to ‘My Downfall’.” And then we’ll get through a record or two and he’s like, “You know, we got to make something lighthearted,” and I’m like, “Yeah, we’ll get to it…” [Laughs]
The other Timbaland track, with Ab-Liva, that’s the dirtiest thing I’ve heard from either of you in quite some time. And I don’t know if that was the Virginia side of things coming out or not.
Well, he was on a mission too. Tim was on a mission. He was like, “I wanna show everybody I am hip-hop, and I need you to help me do that. You’re gonna rap over this shit, and show them I am the king of hip-hop. I want them to know I am DJing and beatboxing Tim, and I know how to do that and turn it on that 2015 wave, and I am who this is.”
I was at the film screening for King Push, and there’s so much drug and religious imagery coinciding, I wondered if that was an intentional nod to what you and your brother are doing now?
Not really. That’s just life. That’s just the way it worked out. But, not to get off the subject, but speaking of the film, and speaking of our process, we found Kid Art [the director of King Push], we were stalking Kid Art forever. I told him that at the screening the other night because I never said this to him. I mean, more speaking of the way we find talent and so forth. We’d been watching his videos. I love his videos, even if we weren’t into the music of it. It catches your eye. And this is all a scavenger hunt. Creativity, fam. You get with these guys. You find out you love their stuff, and you find out they did it for a thousand bucks. And then you give them a treatment and they come back with these grandiose ideas. Then Jay-Z gives you $100,000 and says, “Premiere it on Tidal,” so you give them the $100,000 and they’ve never worked with that. They did everything under the sun to make that shit perfect, and I love them for that.
How do you think things have gone since Clipse broke up to now? How do you see your career arc? Because you are probably in your third wave as an artist I’d say.
Third wave! Who even knew there was an artist that could do that? People don’t even get to do that! It’s true.
How have you stuck around?
Keeping your hand on the pulse. I’ve made it my business to look – I’m such a historian, and such a fan of rap music. My first goal was like, “Damn, I want to see rappers on the back of USA Today at the end of the year for the highest-grossing tours next to the Eagles and Pink Floyd, and that’s how I’m gonna rate rap’s success.” We got a little closer with the Jay-Z and Watch The Throne tours, so that’s already done.
In a lot of ways rap music has replaced rock music as the “global sound”.
Yeah, and now I just look at all my greats and I think now, everyone I thought coming that was great only had it for a year, or only like a five-year period. Truth of the matter, my greats didn’t last long, because they didn’t embrace new ideas, they didn’t embrace what was next.
Do you think they wanted to stay underground?
Hell no, because they were winning, but they couldn’t see new waves coming.
Who would you consider as those greats?
I don’t wanna kill ’em. I don’t wanna kill ’em. But I just look at it like this. Later 80s, early 90s, golden era of rap. What was their run like? Five years? And I’m talking greatness. Five. They didn’t embrace – the funny thing about that is – they didn’t embrace the wave that was homegrown. The wave that was next to them. I’m from an East Coast wave, and I’m living through a Southern wave.
Growing up in Virginia you’re trapped in between both sounds.
Right, exactly. But what I’m saying is even professionally, my career has lived through waves. Not a wave of somebody else from my side. Like, OK, music is totally different now, from where it started when I started making it. And some of those guys didn’t live through that, because they didn’t live through the waves that were next-door to them. Because they weren’t perceptive. And it’s not even change, because I don’t feel like I’ve changed, it’s just accepting what’s new. And sometimes if you don’t accept change, and what’s going on outside, that shit is poisonous.
“Everybody knows I love Virginia, but I sorta feel like you begin to beat a dead horse.”
When Clipse originally broke it was really being about where you’re from, and Virginia, and while the themes haven’t changed so much over time, that has been emphasized less. Is that because regionalism is less important now?
Yeah, it’s not. [pauses] It’s not as important to me. Nobody loves Virginia more than me. I made a record called ‘Virginia’. Everything I’ve done has been about Virginia.
Virginia didn’t even break the ‘Grindin’ record for me, in all honesty. It’s cool, it’s no hard feelings. But we also had that time, you have to remember. Clipse came out 2002, and it had already started changing. But we were still caught in the wave that Virginia is still a hotbed. If you listen about every rap album from 91 to 97, Mase is talkin about “now I’m ’bout to spend a week down in Virginia Beach”. I’m seeing Raekwon all the time. Every car in the ‘C.R.E.A.M’ video, those are Norfolk cars, they’re from Norfolk.
Yeah, and people forget that Missy and Timbaland were based down there too.
Yeah. And the drug culture brought all of New York’s energy to our place. But what I’m saying is, there was a lot more to talk about. We had a run. We had our run. We can’t just keep acting like it’s still the place to go. It is what it is. We had our run, now we just gotta be dope. It ain’t just about saying, “Virginia, Virginia, Virginia Virginia Virginia”. Everybody knows I love Virginia, but I sorta feel like you begin to beat a dead horse.
You didn’t want to stagnate as an artist.
Yeah, why? Why would you do that? Just be nice. Now we gotta be nice. And it gotta be about the nation, the world. I’m trying to take over the world. I think we did our stamp in Virginia. We’ve given the blueprint. Still looking for talent out there. Kids be on my social media and I’m like, “Let me hear that shit. Let’s see what it is.” I had a session the other day with all these new – not new, but up-and-coming artists. D.R.A.M., Gabe Niles, new producers. And Rob Ulsh. Rob Ulsh is the engineer from Virginia that worked with Teddy Riley, Neptunes, all of that shit.
So I had a session with them the other day just to say, “I ain’t been home in a minute and want to meet y’all, but also number two, to meet Rob. You don’t know him but he’s one of the greats of this shit. Y’all should come over and record, when I’m here or not here, and let this be a collective thing, that everybody moving got something going on, so let’s keep it moving.”
I’m forever trying to push what we got going on, but there’s a way you got to do it so it doesn’t look biased. Because people will tune you out.
You’re not gonna fuck with people from Virginia just because they’re from Virginia, they’ve got to bring something to the table.
So in your own words, how did you get from there to here?
I’m super happy about my career. I’ve come up with so many different revelations about how things worked out. And I’m beginning to just see how it’s all revealing itself to me. I remember coming out in 2002 with a record called ‘Grindin’. It took nine months to work, man. People don’t know that. So it took nine months to work. And once it took nine months to work, I was doing shows across the country from every drug dealer in the world. Because they understood what I was talking about. $2000 shows, all over the country. By the time I was done with that, ‘Grindin’ was a phenomenon.
Boom. I go on hiatus for four years. I get a young, up-and-coming booking agent, fresh out of college. And he starts having me do shows that are hipster-oriented, Pitchfork festivals, 300, maybe 400-person room gigs, rammed out. And I would curse him out every evening telling him, “You don’t know who my fan is, you don’t know who my fan is”. I was stuck, I didn’t know times had changed in the four years I was on hiatus.
Those were the kids listening to your music.
Exactly, and I didn’t know. I just knew what got me here. That was the maturation of the Clipse. Like, “Oh, shit.” And I happened to see that same booking agent – we’re not in business anymore – at 1 Oak [nightclub in NYC] and he was like, “Push, do you remember cursing me out every week on the phone? What do you think now?” And I was like, “Jason, you were so right about everything you did. I didn’t see it then.” And to me, the Clipse were the first internet darlings, and he was a part of that. I had tunnel vision. All of that spiraled into my streetwear. The internet, the streetwear… I caught up. I got entrenched in it all. That helped my cachet of just being a tastemaker.
Just paying attention a little more to what’s going on around you?
Right, just what’s going on. And this is all due to my career having so many peaks and valleys, and things wouldn’t have went south, who knows if there would have been a We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series, who knows if I would have been at the Knitting Factory like, “Holy shit, these kids know these Bape clothes I got on, I have to start my own clothing line!” Who knows?
I’m ecstatic about where my career is, and it all happened for a reason. It’s the wildest thing, and this revelation just slapped me in the face, just recently.