Pusha T On Fronting, Responsibility And Kanye (Part 1)
This week rapper Pusha T released his first solo album after years of writing and performing as a duo, with his brother Malice in the Clipse. But he's not all on his own. Pusha is part of Kanye West's conglomerate — the two of them made Yeezus and My Name Is My Name simultaneously — and still works closely with Pharrell, who he's known since they were in high school in Virginia Beach.
In the first part of an interview with Microphone Check hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley, Pusha decries the current state of hip-hop, saying he looked to rap made between 1994 and 1999 for inspiration while making My Name Is My Name: "Hip-hop to me right now is really easy listening. It's very easy listening, like there's nothing abrasive about it. There's no album that I put in my car that makes me roll down the windows — all the windows — and ride past the club line three times before I get out the car. The Purple Tape made me do that."
FRANNIE KELLEY: I remember the first time Ali heard "Numbers on the Boards."
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Oh my god.
PUSHA T: What was that like?
KELLEY: Tell me what you heard!
MUHAMMAD: What did I hear? I don't know, it was just angst, frustration and hooray for hip-hop. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It's a few songs that's the representation of the entire genre. And I was like, "Finally." I don't know, that song's so ignorant. When it come on — that tone, that bass line, the frequency. That pulse. It reminds me of the beginning, like when I first heard Treacherous 3 or something.
PUSHA: That record — I picked it because when I heard the track, it was the closest thing I could get to a RZA beat at the time. I felt like it was an unorthodox beat that required me to really rap. And I figured that's gonna set me apart from what's going on in music, cause I don't believe people are like, really, really rapping. It's polarizing. You hear it and it's gone be like — I don't know how the DJ's gonna mix that in his set – and that was the goal.
MUHAMMAD: I love that record. Yo, I was in Austria two days ago — I just got back yesterday, but my set was two days ago — it was a film festival. And it was the kind of song that — I just try to move it through the periods or whatever. It doesn't — if it's music I'll play it, but the thing I love about that — it doesn't matter. If I'm playing Stevie Wonder, "Signed Sealed Delivered," "Ante Up" — it is the record that sets a tone. It's a great transition record for someone like me that plays a whole bunch of different genres. But it's a wakeup call when it drops.
PUSHA: That definitely was the purpose.
MUHAMMAD: Thank you.
KELLEY: Tell me how you – as a musician you hear beats differently from regular people. First of all, you've said that you rapped over a skeleton of that song, and then Ye put the finishing touches on it.
KELLEY: So what did you hear? What sounds?
PUSHA: Well, that was less of a skeleton. That was pretty much. There may be, like, drum changes. The cuts and things like that that were added to that particular beat. That was pretty much dialed in — what it was when I got it. But that's usually the process. I usually will hear — either it's Ye will give me a beat or a loop or anything and he'll tell me like, "What part of the beat do you like?" Once I pick that part of the beat I'll write to that part. We'll loop that part and I'll just write to that. Once I write to that then I'll give that back to him. Then he'll build around that.
I've never been — I don't think I'm, like, a great A&R, by any means. I don't even know production lingo, in all honesty. And that's from being around the Neptunes, starting out, and Ye. I've never took that time to just be — I sat down in the studio, was like, "Man, yo, I need to learn how to make a beat." And it just didn't work out well. I always leave that in the hands of the producer. All I'm about is just the pen.
MUHAMMAD: It's crazy to hear you say you don't think you're good A&R, cause you pick monster songs.
PUSHA: Yeah, I mean, I think I pick the unorthodox songs. I do believe that. I think that's what I go for. But that's only because – my first record, commercially to the public, was "Grindin'."
People don't want to hear conventional from me ever since that record. No one wants to hear me over some smooth, regular beat, or just into the times. I try to do records sometimes that have a different bounce — maybe it's a Southern bounce or something. And people shoot me all day long.
MUHAMMAD: So when you have a song like "Blocka" — the difference between "Blocka" and "Numbers," what's your approach? Is it you looking for those style of songs? Are you telling the producer, "This is the direction"? Or you just completely let him come with it, and then the music starts talking to you?
PUSHA: The "Blocka" record was presented to me. But I just thought that was an incredible beat. I personally feel that the Chicago sound, and Young Chop, is the sophisticated trap. And I think I can get away with doing that, versus conventional Southern, Atlanta trap. I feel like what he does, and how he incorporates that Chicago sound, lets me get away with toying with the trap feel. But it sort of goes with the intricacies of my lyrics.
When I'm building a project out — like even with this album right here, I went back and said, "Man, I want to build this album from 1994 to '99." I went to all my inspirations — and that was the goal. "Numbers on the Boards" and "Nosetalgia," to me, were records that I was like, "This is the closest I can get to RZA." I hope he likes those records. He actually does like "Numbers," but I hope he likes "Nosetalgia." I told him — I didn't play him "Nosetalgia" — but I had both beats and I was like, "Man, there are two beats that remind me of you in some capacity, and that's why I chose 'em."
There's a record I got on the album with Kelly Rowland. And I sort of wanted people to understand that I got a love for R&B, too. The R&B vibe that most of my fans don't know. People look at me and they like, "It's just street hip-hop. Raps." And I'm like, "Man, do you know that Teddy Riley moved to Virginia Beach and ruined my whole life?" I just thought he was the greatest person ever. I wanted people to know that. And I took the Mase flow, cause that's something else that people don't know. I did this in the same vein that Big would rhyme like Too Short.
Big was the greatest rapper to me. I didn't know he liked Too Short, man. When I heard it I'm like, "Too Short? Big? What are y'all doing?" But it was amazing. That's what I was trying to get across to people in this album. I feel like My Name Is My Name, the title, it's all about me. The artwork — that's why the artwork is so stripped down. It was about minimalism, because we living off of lyrics and beats and songs. That's what we getting across — no filler. There's 12 songs. And I had to fight for 12, cause it's was supposed to be only nine. Ye wanted only nine records.
MUHAMMAD: I understand that.
PUSHA: But I was like, "Man, I need 12!" My win was, "Yeezus got 10 songs, so how you only gonna give me nine?" Then he had to think about it, and be like, "Alright, man." And he just let me get my artist thing off.
MUHAMMAD: I admire and commend your artistry. It's so refined. I think you're supposed to grow as an artist, and you're supposed to be able to look back and go, "Oh, yeah, I could see the growth." Explaining everything — the detail of picking the beats, the amount of songs, the artwork, all that — that's important — even the time period that you were trying to focus on for this record. Just to hear that, it's so inspiring.
PUSHA: See, it was LL. He made a statement — it was a line, and I forgot what song it was, but he said, "This is a beat that you can front to." I believe that.
MUHAMMAD: Oh, yeah, on "Boomin' System."
PUSHA: "Boomin' System," right. And I always felt like, in making this album, that that's what was missing in hip-hop. Hip-hop to me right now is really easy listening. It's very easy listening, like there's nothing abrasive about it. There's no album that I put in my car that makes me roll down the windows — all the windows — and ride past the club line three times before I get out the car. The Purple Tape made me do that. It's things like that that made me front.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, you got me thinking. I'm racing my brain now, going, "Who?"
PUSHA: No. Every album right now is — there are good albums out there, but they're very easy listening.
KELLEY: I'm actually thinking about — Yeezus was the last time. I was in LA when that album dropped. I couldn't really get it until I put it on in the car, and then I was out all the time. Over and over and over. And I started seeing other people do it too, and I was like, "Oh, I get it."
PUSHA: And the thing about that — I don't even consider Yeezus. Like, we were making both of these albums simultaneously, and when he came out with it people — it was either you loved it or you hated it. And everybody pointed their attention towards me. If they didn't like it, they were like, "Pusha. What was you doing? Where was you at while all this was going on?" And I'm like, "Man, you guys don't even get it."
When he first started playing beats and picking sounds and everything, he was like, "Yo, I don't want to be mentioned in the same breath as any rapper. Any rapper." And I was like, "OK." So I knew already where this was going. I already knew the direction in which he was going with that. My thing is, man, I want to be rap god. I was like, "Listen. Divert the unorthodox stuff that you're doing with Yeezus, but give me my hip-hop cadences and feels and so and and so forth. Carve that out for me."
KELLEY: Tell me about that. So when you're picking a beat — or a part of a beat — and then you're thinking about how to write to it, what are you listening for?
PUSHA: To me it's just the knock, man. It's the knock and the groove of the beat. When I start a song, it's the first thought. It's the first thought and the first cadence, because that's the most natural. You know what I'm saying? I feel like people can feel when something is natural. I think they can tell.
MUHAMMAD: Yep, that's long-lasting.
PUSHA: I actually learned that from Pharrell. He was like, "Man, you overthinking things. You can really overthink, as a writer." So I check for the groove and the knock of it and what it makes me feel like and think. And then it may be a melody that I come up with, and then I'll just plug in words, into that melody. And then I'll start the actual process. Cause I feel like you need to be trapped off of how natural it is and how natural it feels to you.
KELLEY: A lot of people don't know that. That the best rap writers write a melody first. Maybe that's not fair to say across the board, but it feels like it.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, the few that I've been around.
PUSHA: I think that's true.
KELLEY: How do you notate that? Do you write down the melody?
PUSHA: Oh, no. It's just a hum. For me. And I have to write. I see people doing things in their Blackberrys, and I need paper. Lines. Alphabets. I need to see it. It's so elementary, man. People will be like — it's so elementary!
MUHAMMAD: Do you scribble and cross stuff off? Does your paper look crazy?
PUSHA: Oh, man. Yeah, it looks incredibly bad. And if it gets too crazy, then it has to go. Like, I can't look at it anymore. The final of it looks perfectly neat.
KELLEY: What you take into the booth?
PUSHA: Because that's how I have to read it and process it.
KELLEY: And so you take the paper in there? Aren't you worried about the paper making noise?
PUSHA: No, not at all.
KELLEY: Oh, that's a radio news thing. That's a problem for us, not a problem for you guys.
MUHAMMAD: No, that's part of the art.
PUSHA: Have to be natural, man. You keep your chains on. And then you're so into — I mean, I am — I'm so into what I've said — and I've probably said the first four lines forty times, then get into the next four or whatever — that you begin feeling it, and knowing how you hear it, and knowing how you want it relayed and everything. So the paper's just reinforcement for me. You've damn near memorized it just from saying it so much.
MUHAMMAD: What does it mean to you when — Kanye said in his latest BBC interview, he said he had to remind Push that you Push. What does that mean?
PUSHA: I think that — cause we've had conversations, and I think a lot of that had to do with his direction for me. If Kanye had his way, I would make nine of the darkest records every time I dropped an album. Now, my favorite artists are Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G. These guys got "Mo Money, Mo Problems" in their discography. They got "Can I Get A ..." On top of that, I go outside. I go outside, I'm a part of the life. So, "Glaciers of Ice" nine times doesn't necessarily work for me, and where I see myself. He loves that, and he like, "Man, we just gone draw everybody into that, because I feel like those are the best records." And I'm like, "I want to expand and make other joints too."
MUHAMMAD: You think about that from a performance perspective as well?
PUSHA: That was his biggest thing. He was like, "Well, if you got a feature, or something that's singing, how you gonna perform it?" He was thinking from a performance perspective. I personally — you know me, I'm thinking about the CD. CD, car and getting out there in the streets. When he said that — that's what he was thinking, and it's not that I don't know. I love "Keys Open Doors" and Hell Hath No Fury's my favorite album, but I just know I'm more than that. And I'm a part of the world, too.
MUHAMMAD: True artist, it sounds like.
KELLEY: Well, also what you're also saying is they can't go outside. Right?
PUSHA: What do you mean?
KELLEY: Jay and Ye — they can't really be outside. Like you can be outside.
PUSHA: Yeah, but I feel like I have my hand on the pulse of what's going on outside.
KELLEY: Right, you bring something to them as well.
PUSHA: Yeah, for sure.
KELLEY: How important is voice in rap?
PUSHA: Extremely. Extremely, to me. I feel like a lot of fans are drawn in because I'm articulate. It started off like this — when I first got in the game, I put out this "Grindin'" record. People are like, "What is this?" The streets knew. Honestly it took — people think it was a success — it took really nine months to break that record. For nine months I was doing $3,000 shows, with my brother, for every drug dealer in the country. Because they knew what I was saying in these records. Everybody else was like — the beat was captivating, it was dynamic. But they didn't know exactly what we were talking about.
MUHAMMAD: The lifestyle, the culture.
PUSHA: They didn't know anything about the culture. And I'm talking about, literally, somebody would be having a birthday party. The neighborhood hustler would be having a birthday party and he would want to book us. And it would just be his neighborhood, and they would be praising him. And this guy was who he was. But he knew exactly what was going on in this song. And he was exposing people to this. And I did this for nine whole months.
So after that broke and it went national, people began to listen to us, and they understood that we were articulate. We were drawing parallels that have to do with history and so on and so forth in our rhymes. That brought in, like, a college base. So that's why it's like — you go to my shows, and I said "I'm the only one that can mix the hipsters with felons and thugs." My shows are so diverse, but they're listening from two different perspectives, I believe. One's relating, and one is just like, "Man, did he just say that?"
PUSHA: Did this guy just say — I know what he's talking about, but did he just say it with this in regards to this? The fundamentals of hip-hop still play an important role, cause it's about those similes, those metaphors, those parallels. And to some people it's just about, "Man, I'm really relating to the lifestyle."
MUHAMMAD: Do you go in more so with the intent to talk specifically to maybe someone who can relate to the lifestyle? Or is it, you're cognizant of — I got these other people who want to take an interest into peeking in?
PUSHA: Nah, I talk specifically to the lifestyle and those who can relate to it. And I feel like, where the creativity comes in, is where you draw the parallels that everybody can relate to. That's where it's creative for me. I feel like it works best that way.
Sometimes I'll write — me and my brother, we had a clique called The Re-Up Gang. It was four of us, and we would write and we'd put out these mixtapes. Sometimes we'd be like, "Man, nobody's gonna understand that." And we would call that sacrificing for the greater good. Because if they don't understand it, it would be like when I didn't understand something on the Reasonable Doubt album, and I found out in '99 what he actually said in '96, and I was like, "Wait a minute! That's what that was about?" And then you gotta listen to it, and you like, "Oh my god!" When it smacks you later, it's greater. We call that sacrificing for the greater good, cause once it honestly hits you, man, people think you're such a genius. That's how — everybody we looked up to, it hit us like that. Man, when Rakim was deciphered — was broken down for me, and I realized it later as I got older? You couldn't tell me! Or Kane? You couldn't tell me!
MUHAMMAD: So can you give us an insider's perspective of your mind based on that? From your music being more — I mean, the people who are from the culture, they understand there's more than the surface. What you talking about and the images, how you articulate the lifestyle and the culture, what some would call the underworld — to me it's just oppression in America. From not really having, and having to create. Are you cognizant of trying to make it so that it's — the other people, they get deeper than what's on the surface?
PUSHA: It's funny, man. I try to make sure that everybody understands. I've even found myself, as a solo artist, explaining in my raps more. Because I feel like, as part of the Clipse, I was the more brash, more arrogant one. Just make colorful verses. My older brother — my brother's five years older than me — we call him the voice of reason. He's the more conscious side of it. So as a solo artist now it's like — I find myself trying to explain more, and explain the perspective of my mentality, or the mentality I'm trying to convey.
MUHAMMAD: Is that a responsible thing, to try and really push the music — no pun intended — beyond what is on the surface?
PUSHA: Yeah, well I mean — it's being responsible, and it's also, I feel like, really trying to lock the listener in. I don't ever want anyone to hear my music and look at it as just gratuitous violence, or hustling and money-getting — I try to tell the perspective of the woman, the man, the mind, why. I mean, I found myself even talking about my parents' 35-year marriage that ended in divorce, and how that affects me.
I don't like to put this on music, because I feel like music gets a very, very bad rap in regards to — I feel like music is the only entertainment field that has to be so responsible.
PUSHA: I never understood that. I never understood why movies don't have to be as responsible, or the responsibility stops with Rated R. I feel like music, you gotta — you put the sticker on it, you make the clean version, then you're explaining yourself and then you have to do charities to offset what you just said. No one else has to do this! Mind you, and then you come under fire — you come under so much fire for your lyrics and your content!
MUHAMMAD: It's true.
KELLEY: I don't think it's right, but I think I understand it a little bit because music is so much more intimate. Because it's in your ear, you feel like it's in your head. The fact that rap gets more heat than other genres is obviously racism, but there's so many personal stories. And so when you're listening, are you the "I"? Or are you the person that's being acted upon? Music moves us further, emotionally, I feel like, than movies.
PUSHA: I don't know if that's true. Then when a tragedy happens and they blame it on a movie. When a tragedy happens and someone goes crazy in the movie theater, and we have deaths — mass. I don't know that. I'm a bit removed, too, because I've never — I can't say that music ever made me do anything.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, music never made me do anything. Not that I can think of.
PUSHA: Anything. But maybe it's because of how I was brought up. It never made me do it. It never made me do anything. To get into that is a bit much. I just feel like I explain myself more, I'm trying to be more conscious about it, simply. Just enlightening my fans and letting them know to lock into me because I'm speaking real with them, more than anything.
MUHAMMAD: I think we feel that though. Do you miss having a partner like your brother?
PUSHA: It makes it so much easier. My brother made it so much easier.
MUHAMMAD: Is he ever around when you were working on this? Or do you just bring him in?
PUSHA: No, he's never around while I'm working. If a verse is — if I'm impressed, and I'm like, "Yo, man, you gotta hear this." But, no. Other than that, no. You know what? When we worked on his album – he put out an album earlier this year called Hear Ye Him. It debuted Number 11 on the Billboard Gospel charts. He called me. He was like, "Yeah, I want you on this song." And I was like, "Alright, no problem." So he was like, "I'm only giving you eight bars, and here's my verse." He says this incredible verse to me, and it just brought me back to Clipse days, where I'm like, "Man, how am I gonna outdo this? You've said it, you're in pocket — you're so in pocket before — I haven't even heard the beat yet!" That competitive nature. Then he was like, "I'm only giving you eight bars." So you can't even outdo him in eight — I couldn't outdo him in eight. It brought me back to that.
MUHAMMAD: Did he bring out the best in you?
PUSHA: Totally. Because there's an unspoken rule of — a bar that you can't fall under. And he knows when I'm cheating. Or he knows — "You didn't care about the last two lines cause you know I'm coming after you. You didn't care. You need to go back in." He definitely brought out the best in me. Definitely.
MUHAMMAD: Is there anyone else that pushes you that way — to make you go back if it's something that --
PUSHA: Man, Kanye. Kanye more than any other producer I've ever worked with. And I've worked with at least four of the super producers, that carry the title. He's the only one.
KELLEY: Name the other three.
MUHAMMAD: Did you ever feel like, "Yo, this is it, just trust me on this." Like you really had to stand your ground?
PUSHA: Yeah. I was wrong though. I did write it numerous times, and the last one was it. I thought it was it two before then. Man, it's been a lot. Even with the "I Don't Like" verse. That verse is really 16 bars long. I think he edited it down to maybe eight or 10 bars.
MUHAMMAD: How does that make you feel in terms of your approach and working with people? I'll give you an example. I know it's my job as the producer to just listen to it and to be like, "That's great" or "No, that's not exactly it." And also wanting to respect the space of the writer and the artist and the vision that they have. Especially up against someone like Kanye, and you, obviously proving yourself, how does that transform what the next experience is going to be? With the producer or just on your own working with other people?
PUSHA: I definitely go into the studio knowing I have to give it 150%, knowing that he's about to hear it. And I go in with that mentality. There's no lax — especially if I love it, and I'm adamant about the record and the beat and everything. I'm like, "I gotta nail this because I don't even want him to pick my rhymes apart. At all." It makes you a better writer.
Because, first of all, as a writer, you have a huge ego. You think that every line means something to everybody the same way it means to you. And that's not true. And I learned that with that example, the "Don't Like" verse. I got these incredible lines that I just feel are so street-oriented and heavy in the streets — now, mind you, I did put it out, the unedited version, and you got the guys on Twitter who are like, "Man, if you don't have the unedited version, I don't even want to hear from you! Cause you ain't down! Cause the unedited version is everything! Why Kanye do you like that?"
Ye — his edit is the one that everybody's singing in the clubs for the whole summer. I look at him and I say, "You're thinking for the betterment of the song." And you gotta fall back as an artist. I didn't come in as a writer that found producers, I came in under producers. So I've always respected the actual production process and producers in general. I say all the time, when I get with certain producers, I turn into a total student. You just have to, even now. I've been in the game this long, but I don't hear. I don't hear everything that you guys hear. I don't. I really don't.
KELLEY: It's a different occupation.
KELLEY: With writers — non-musician writers — you have an editor that you trust. And when you have an editor that you trust, you try harder, you take more risks and you're better.
KELLEY: I was totally distracted by you bringing up "Runaway" already. Can you talk about the performance? Did you know that that was --
PUSHA: A breakout moment? Yeah. Everything was so grand, from the lighting, to Rushka Bergman from Italian Vogue styling me for the thing, I'm like, "What is going on right now?"
KELLEY: Oh, your pink on pink?
PUSHA: Yeah, my salmon-colored blazer. Let's call it salmon, please. It was just over the top. To share the stage, and to share the platform with Ye — it was really dope. It was the juxtapose, that he was on a MPC singing, rapping, and then having me on this record and on the stage with him. I knew it was gonna make an impact.
KELLEY: There's something about the tonal quality of your voice that is going to grit up most production, right?
KELLEY: And I feel like that was one of the reasons that that song hit so hard, because it was so many things at the same time. Do you think about your voice as an instrument?
PUSHA: I don't at all.
KELLEY: What about with ad-libs?
PUSHA: Ever. I never do.
KELLEY: What about "Yuck"?
PUSHA: That's just me being cocky, thinking I said something disgusting. Yuck. But no, he reminds me, like, "Yo man, your voice is this track." And I'm like, "OK." When the beats get more and more stripped down, that's probably him taking out things because he wants it to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut through.
MUHAMMAD: That's crazy cause your voice is so commanding and powerful.
PUSHA: I have never even acknowledged it like that.