Interview: Pusha T – The Tanning Of America
This is a good interview and if you happen to like it, I highly recommend that you go pick up Steve Stoute’s new book here.
The Tanning Of America touches on a concept called “The Thinnest Slice,” which is defined as “a person, object, or concept that is so authentic that it becomes popular because of this authentic truth.” Pusha T, who grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and came into the game as part of the critically-acclaimed duo Clipse, is a perfect example of this. The talented lyricist is known for intricate wordplay that stays rooted in drug dealer sensibilities and following the hustler’s ethos. However, through opportune circumstances such as growing up and working with The Neptunes, collaborating with Justin Timberlake, and most recently, signing with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, he has managed to reach a huge audience without compromising his gritty lyrical content. Given the unique space he occupies in music, we thought he would be a great person to talk to about race, politics, and how hip-hop culture has changed in the past decade. Pusha also speaks on how being on songs with Justin Timberlake changed his audience, his love for tennis, and the significance of Kanye West’s “30 white bitches” reference on “So Appalled.”
Interview By Brendan Klinkenberg
Have you had a specific tanning moment in your own career?
Yeah, totally. And it was so much of a shock. I can remember specifically, The Knitting Factory in New York City. We had dropped We Got It 4 Cheap Volume 2, I think it was.
We walked out to a sea of suburban white kids who had on everything I probably had on, or something close to it in terms of BAPE shoes, jeans, varsity jackets, and hoodies. It was totally a shock to me because, you have to remember, when I started off with records like “Grindin’,” I think I was in every black ghetto and performed for every black promoter in the United States for at least a year or nine months before the record even popped. These kids were not at my shows.
And then suddenly there was this huge shift?
Yeah. But I think the shift came along with the Internet and blog culture. Because the mixtapes were promoted and critically acclaimed through the Internet, more so than on the street corners or in the mom and pop record stores in the hood. It was more an Internet thing, and I think that gave everyone access to the music we were making.
I came up in the mixtape culture. What I had to do back then was drive to Norfolk State University, which is dead smack in the middle of urban Norfolk, Virginia. Right in the middle of the weed spots. Suburban kids weren’t going there to get that music.
Does it ever throw you off or bother you at all to see an all-white crowd?
No, man. It’s actually a good thing. I love it. I love how it diversifies everything. I love going to my shows and seeing some of everybody at my shows. It makes for a bigger reaction once the show is over. All those kids hit the streets, and they’re all screaming the same thing, but they’re all screaming it in their respective areas. Some kids are going back to the hood, back to high school in the suburbs, and some kids are going to college. Some kids are going to black college, some to white college. I perform everywhere. I perform at all types of colleges.
I actually saw you at Northwestern University last year.
Yeah man, come on. This music isn’t just for black colleges or anything, it’s for everybody.
The reason I asked was because your music deals extensively with poverty and drug dealing. Do you ever want your audience to be able to relate to that more? Or is just respecting the music good enough?
Just respect it. This music, it deals with that, but this is still rap. And there is a whole creative and intellectual side to it, if you ask me. I think that the metaphors and some of the similes and everything, the punchlines; they deal with the streets, but the parallels that draw people to myself and the Clipse, sometimes they come out of left field.
Coming from Virginia, does the racial make-up of the crowds in the South differ from other places?
No. When I’m in the South, like when I perform in Atlanta, the demographic is still the same. There’s a lot that goes into my demographic. It’s part ‘hood, part blog/net-savvy white kids. But then you have the whole streetwear culture—and that’s some of everybody at this point. Everybody wants to put on a fly sneaker. It’s so much so, that also mixes my crowd a lot.
The music pulls from so many different people. In the crowd, there’s definitely that hipster kid and there’s definitely that hustler. It’s just there, and they all come out regardless of where I show up at.
After traveling the world and performing on an international platform, how does being raised in Virginia affect how you see the world?
Wow. I love that I’m really open to all types of different cultures. And I think that has a lot to do with Virginia. Being here is a real melting pot, and especially the area that I’m from. This is a military area, and we have the largest naval base in the U.S. So when you think about it musically, there’s not one thing that I haven’t been exposed to.
Honestly, I always was hip to what was going on in San Francisco, the Texas movement, Master P, and Wu-Tang. I was always hip to everything because this place was such a melting pot. Virginia brings so many cultures here. Internationally as well.
You’ve been working with Pharrell for almost your whole career now, and he seems like someone who has a wide range of influences. Did he make you more open-minded?
Yeah, man. Pharrell and Chad have always been risk takers. Sonically, there was no format or formula to the sounds that they would use or put in these tracks. They would use anything. And in all honesty, it helped me a lot. It helped me to be more open-minded, musically. I’m a rapper. And I tell everybody this. I’m a rapper, but I’m a rapper at heart. I’m not the best A&R. I’m not the best beat-picker. If I like the beat halfway, I can write something all the way beautiful to it. That’s just it.
You’ve been a major figure in hip-hop for a long time now. How would you say the culture has changed in the last decade?
I would say that the biggest change, honestly, is the rate at which people want music. People don’t live with music anymore. They anticipate it, they fiend for it. Then they get it and it’s over, they’re looking for the next new thing.
I remember waiting for the new Outkast albums. They were coming like every two years? You have other artists now that are coming out in the 2000s, and after 2005 these guys are dropping an album every year. And you have to do it. And if you don’t then you have to have that level of music that keeps you relevant. That’s the biggest change. The amount of music that people want and need, and how you have to play that game to stay relevant. People take a lot of quantity over quality to me.
Hip-hop seems to have become a lot more accepting of new people and trends—would you agree?
Yeah, all we need is the story. The funny thing about hip-hop right now is that it’s one big cycle. You can see everything going back to the independent stories. When I was first getting into hip-hop, you had the Bad Boy era. But then you had the Tony Draper’s, the Cash Money’s, the Master P’s, the Hypnotize Minds. The indie story that made you want to love that as well.
And now I’m watching it happen on another whole level, with the Odd Futures, the Kreayshawns, and the ASAP Rockys. And these people are creating their own following, and bringing that following into the game. I’m watching it happen all over again, just in a different way.
Back then, those guys were using their street money and acting as a label. Right now, the outlets are so vast. You don’t have to have a dollar, but if you have a strong Internet following you’re going to have a check written to you for a million dollars from these labels.
A lot of artists have been crossing genres like Drake or even Kanye, how do you feel about that?
I think that just comes along with hip-hop being so international. It crosses so many boundaries and so many lines. When you can incorporate dubstep into your hip-hop record—and that’s the big thing going on in London—it’s almost guaranteed success.
What do you listen to outside of hip-hop?
I’m into reggae, R&B, rock. When rock was good to me—haven’t heard good rock in a minute. The good grunge, the early days: the Nirvana’s, the Pearl Jam’s, that’s what’s really good to me.
Once you did the feature on Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You,” did you start noticing that more white teenagers, girls, etc. started knowing who you are?
Yeah, man, I honestly did. I just noticed how that level of visibility really took us to a new height. I think after that I did McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign [with Justin]. A lot came from the whole Justin thing. As well as just opening his fanbase up to what we were doing.
Pharrell and Chad were doing the Clipse on the street level, Mystikal, who was doing like two million records, Justin, Britney, and Noreaga… There were so many different places, production-wise, that when we came to work with Justin, die-hard fans of Justin had to know who these guys on his record were. And then once they heard the record and could say, “Oh, that’s that record! Those are the guys that are hot right now!” And “Grindin’” had been a top ten record for us. So this just really connected the dots for us.
How did the McDonald’s campaign come about?
I think, just to put it in a nutshell, I think the timing was just perfect for myself, Justin, and McDonald’s. McDonald’s was clearly trying to do a hip-hop-infused campaign. And being that we had just did the “Like I Love You” single and Justin was stepping out on his solo venture from this major pop band, and put these rappers on his song, I think it just made perfect sense for them.
Justin was also in the campaign as well. We had rap verses that we wrote, and he wasn’t even on that. But I feel like it was just perfect. And Justin being a part of the campaign, it would ease the hip-hop side of things a little bit. It was safe, because Justin was co-signing hip-hop too. Everything was just really perfect at that moment.
What was it like writing raps to something corporate and maybe separate from the music?
For me, I thought it was cool. The thing about it is, I like the fact that we were doing it, because hip-hop gets so pigeonholed. And all our music is really street, but I thought that it was really good that someone would even give us an opportunity to do something like this with the musical background that we had.
I just thought it was dope that something so corporate was even venturing into hip-hop so deep. They could have easily got the “Young MC” rapper of the time. You know what I’m saying? But they came straight to the grit and the grime and the lyricism and they were very driven. They came straight to that aesthetic of hip-hop. They came straight there, to the real, and got it done. That in itself, I was really happy about it.
What was it like working with Justin? Did he seem like someone who knew his stuff rap-wise?
He knew his stuff. He loved the Clipse record. And it didn’t have anything to do with us and the friend factor. It was like, “Wow, you guys did that joint!” He was beatboxing it and telling us how crazy it was and how he loved the record.
Favorite musical mash-up of all-time?
Oh, man. I don’t know the specific song or collaboration, but Public Enemy definitely went rock and incorporated rock sounds and styles into their music. Maybe with Rage Against The Machine, once. But their chaos and rebelliousness had a rock feel mixed into it, and that shit always worked really well to me.
I heard you’re a huge tennis fan. How did you get into that?
You know what? For whatever reason, it was always interesting to watch. I always looked at that shit as combat. I’ve really been watching forever. I’m really a huge tennis fan.
That’s really interesting. I actually played in high school, and I was always the only black kid on the courts.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s just an amazing sport. I actually just left the U.S. Open.
Do you play tennis yourself?
No, man. I’m not any type of good.
Did you get into it as a kid? Or was it later?
As a kid. Totally. Every game system I had, I had tennis for it. Nintendo, I had it.
I feel like people would be surprised to hear that Pusha T is into tennis.
They always are when I’m watching it or Tweeting about what’s going on. The Open really sucked for me. Serena lost and Nadal lost. I’m like, “What the fuck?” Nadal, not only did he lose, but he got destroyed.
It’s just Djokovic, man. He’s good.
The funny thing about it is that the only reason people didn’t kill me is because, for the past two years, I’ve been saying that he’s the only one who scares me. Djokovic is the only one. I wasn’t scared of Federer, or anybody. And he really showed improvement. He really came out there. He’s really awesome.
He’s the only person that can beat Nadal, consistently.
Yeah. I don’t like that. He wins so decisively. You know how someone has your number? I feel like he just has Nadal’s number. That’s going to be the one, that if Nadal has to play him, he’s going to lose to him. And I don’t like that. [Laughs.]
How has working with Kanye influenced your audience?
His audience is so huge. I haven’t put out a release or anything under the G.O.O.D. Music umbrella, or anything that I can say is solely attributed to it. But I’m talking about going overseas and being able to perform in front of 60,000 to 100,000 people. Just me coming out on stage for “Runaway” is amazing. Everybody is going nuts. Everybody is rapping word for word. And I’m like, “Wow. Wait a minute.” It’s so incredible.
How has he influenced who you collaborate with? He works a lot with people outside of hip-hop culture including recently getting Riccardo Tisci to design the cover for Watch The Throne.
Yeah. I would just say that he’s a perfectionist, and it’s on another level. He just showed me a whole different way of working. There’s so many times when I’ve thought that the music was at its height, and I come back in the studio and it’s been redone, and it’s better than what I heard before. And I have to say, “Damn. What made you hear it that way?”
And he’s always getting me to honestly look at everything as unfinished. Look at the verse as unfinished. Until you really, really feel it. And that’s something that I’ve never done. Because even if I love the verse, and feel it’s lacking somewhere I always have a partner to come in and fix it up. His will be as good or better. But you cannot be lazy with Kanye. You cannot.
A line I wanted to ask you about was the “30 white bitches” reference in the chorus of “So Appalled.” What was the significance of them being white in the line?
The thing is, and I hate to ever speak for him because I don’t know where his mind was when he wrote that, but I could honestly say that he is so pro-black, that I’m pretty sure he loves the dichotomy of it. I think he knows that people like me see him as really pro-black, and he would say with me looking at him in a certain light, and other people looking at him in a certain light, and him saying that there’s 30 white bitches in his presence, by his choice—he loves the opposites, and how people see him versus what he would say. That’s probably why it’s so powerful and why it means anything. ‘Cause if it was Lenny Kravitz saying it, you wouldn’t care.
Would you personally date outside your race? If you’re bringing home a girl you’re planning to marry, would your parents care if she was white or Asian or whatever?
No, my parents wouldn’t care. Or, let me say this: they wouldn’t openly care. My parents are older, I don’t think they’d really care. They would only care about my happiness.
Who has been your favorite artist or artists to collaborate with in your career? Do you have one?
Man, the most fun I have, honestly, is making street music, freestyles, and mixtapes. So, with that being said, it’s a Re-Up Gang thing for me. Me, my brother, and Liva. The We Got It 4 Cheap series is just as important, and any of the Re-Up Gang material, as any full-length album the Clipse has put out. Or anything I choose to put out as a solo artist.
How did you reach out to Kaws to do your album cover for Til The Casket Drops? What made you comfortable and want to reach out to an artist like him?
Ah, man. I found out Kaws had an iPod full of Clipse music! I was like, “What?! I have a closet full of Original Fake!” And ever since then we have been kicking it. You can definitely find me in Brooklyn, checking him out at his workplace.
Anyone else on your list to work with, outside of hip-hop, that you haven’t already collaborated with?
Outside of hip-hop? Yo, I would love to get Adele to sing a hook for me. Her music is so strong, man. I haven’t heard that strong of emotion in a song since… I don’t even know what to reference back to. It’s like a whole other level of passion.
What do you think of Jay-Z’s statement that “Hip-hop has done more than any leader, politician, or anyone to improve race relations.”
That is so true. That’s probably one of his truest statements. Ridiculously true.
Have you noticed any instances of tanning coming directly through hip-hop?
Listen, in all honesty, there’s no better gauge of something like that than at a Jay-Z show. There is absolutely no crowd that is more diverse than that. And I’m talking race, age, and people who just have very different musical influences. There’s no crowd more diverse than that, if you ask me.
A recent Gallup/USA Today poll found that many Americans feel that Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equity has been achieved. What do you think?
Ah, boy. I would say that some aspects of what he wanted to happen, have happened. And I would say that America is definitely a much better place than it was. But I do feel like there’s just some things you can’t put a blanket on and say we fixed racial equality in America. I don’t know if it will ever be like that because it’s so individual-based. It depends on who that individual is, and who’s in that position of power. You can’t really say that. But we’ve definitely come a long way. We’ve definitely reached some of the aspects that Martin Luther King wanted to achieve. I think it’s a work in progress, every day.
I’ve heard that when Obama was elected, a lot of teenagers and those younger, didn’t see his win as a big deal like older people did. They just figured the best candidate would get the job regardless of race. Do you think that’s a sign of progress?
Yeah, totally. And I think that’s cool, and I don’t know if it goes with the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” How could you not understand the importance of it? If you don’t know the importance of it, can you really know where we’ve come from as a nation? You need to know where we’ve come from to really, really appreciate it. It’s definitely a big deal.
So what’s coming up next for you and your career? You’ve got the album coming out, and the Def Jam deal?
Yeah, man. Just signed the Def Jam deal, and we’re dropping the Fear of God 2 EP. Also got the full length album coming out on G.O.O.D./Def Jam Music. And in the meantime, I’m just going to work on that album and put out music for the streets. That’s it. That’s my focus. It’s so funny you asked, I just got off a phone call with people trying to book me for shows, and I was like, “Nah, I’ll pass.” I’ll really pass, because I really need the time to feed and service the streets. Can’t keep servicing them with old music. Then I can go back out.