As 2 Chainz, Pusha T and Big Sean tear up stadiums across America, Danna Hawley joins Kanye’s crack rap trio for a wild ride from Chicago to New York
“Touring’s fun but it’s fast-paced.” Finis “KY” White, a tall, lanky studio engineer, sits down inside southern rap phenomenon 2 Chainz’s personal tourbus. “We’re in the club for like, 20-30 minutes, then we go and we’re recording, then we drive to the next place and have another show.”
White has spent the last six-and-a-half months on the bus as 2 Chainz’s studio engineer. “Even though we’re out on the road we still have to keep moving, because hip hop moves fast,” he explains. White, 2 Chainz and on-bus producer Jack “Suthernfolk” Brown have labelled the bus’s fully loaded recording studio (complete with stripper pole) “Deuce Mobile”, and often give it a shout-out in recording credits, tagging the city they’re travelling through – “Deuce Mobile Atlanta”, “Deuce Mobile Houston” etc. 2 Chainz also being the king of cameos, Deuce Mobile has been credited on Nicki Minaj’s “Beez In The Trap” and a remix of Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend”, as well as the Drake-featuring “No Lie”, the lead single from 2 Chainz’s forthcoming debut solo album, Based On A T.R.U. Story. Even Kanye West has stepped in the bus booth to record a few verses.
All six feet and five inches of 2 Chainz suddenly emerge from the Deuce Mobile studio, which doubles up as his bedroom, in the back of the bus. Fresh from a nap, the College Park, Georgia, native blinks lethargically behind black big-frame Cazal glasses. He quietly asks his tour partner, Kap 1, “Where are we?”
When 2 Chainz was last awake, the bus was in the parking lot of a 24,000 capacity theatre in Indianapolis. Now the bus is parked 30 miles outside of Chicago, in the back of an amphitheatre that holds nearly 30,000 people. 2 Chainz’s tourbus crew, 13 people deep, have necks adorned in gold and laminated badges for Drake’s Club Paradise tour.
The bus fills with wafts of herb-crusted fish and garlic mashed potatoes, courtesy of Aleem aka Chef, another tourbus resident. Boiling a pot on the bus stove, he tries to find a place to sit a metal bowl full of brussels sprouts. “It’s a tight fit compared to what I’m used to,” he laughs. “I had a restaurant in the same part of town that 2 Chainz lives, and he would come a lot. I used to always joke with him like, ‘Hey, whenever you need me, I got you!’ And then one day he called me and said, ‘Let’s roll.’”
2 Chainz returns to gratefully take a plate from Chef. He’s decked head to toe in couture, including his namesake gold chains, which always rotate. “I realised the value of gold has gone up so I’ve been wearing a lot of gold for the last year and a half.” He points to a luxurious mountain of gold and red that wraps around his wrist. It’s mesmerising. “This vintage Versace is so unique because it looks like a chain wrap but it’s a bracelet. And it has this grenade pin. I really enjoy my Chanel cuff, I have a couple of these. I have a lot of Emilio Pucci, Chanel, Versace, Gucci pieces, and some Christian Lacroix, who actually taught Versace how to make jewellery.”
“There’s so much candy to look at on you,” says a pretty girl sitting on the bus, referring to his gold. “Is that what you call it, candy?” He looks at her with a charming smile and flexes the punchline-style he’s known for as a rapper. “Girl, I’ll make you a diabetic, I know you got that sweet tooth.”
Grinding and timing both play an important role. If it’s not your time, then it’s not your time. I just kept grinding until I guess the timing caught up.
Chainz has got the gift of
the gab, no doubt; so much so he never actually writes any of his verses down: he freestyles all of
his lyrics on the spot. It makes
sense why he was such a successful hustler in the streets back in the day. His first hit with Playaz Circle, 2007‘s “Duffle Bag Boy”, references how his crew stored cash in designer
“I have a bunch of runway pieces,” he continues, going back to his gold collection. “Unique jewellery pieces that are one of one. I’ll bump into another rapper who doesn’t have the same pieces that I have. It’s about separating yourself.”
Whether it’s his wild style or his rapid-fire sense of humour, the 35-year-old has undeniably set himself apart over the last six months. The moment he sets foot onstage as Drake’s opener, his signature ad libs (“2 Chainzzzz”, “Truuuuuu”) are bellowed by everyone in the crowd. After being in the game for over 15 years as one-half of Playaz Circle (under his former moniker, Tity Boi), it’s finally his time.
“‘Griming’ is a word I made up,” Chainz says after the performance, exhaling a blunt in Deuce Mobile. “Grinding and timing both play an important role. If it’s not your time, then it’s not your time. I just kept grinding until I guess the timing caught up.”
His time and grind met up on a few key projects, including work with Kanye West’s GOOD Music collective. “I’m not actually signed to GOOD Music, I’m just an extended family member. But they really look out for me and respect some of my opinions and some of my vision. We bounce ideas off each other without actually being contractual.”
His GOOD debut was an inimitable verse on “Mercy”, which also starred West and two other newly shined GOOD stars, Big Sean and Pusha T. The track’s stylised video features all four artists in a monochrome parking lot in Qatar, decked out in black and leather and shadows. While in Qatar, 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Pusha T took part in the Kanye-directed Cruel Summer, which debuted at Cannes Film Festival this year, and will feature heavily on its soundtrack, GOOD Music’s first label compilation.
Chainz speaks of his GOOD affiliates with respect. “I was a fan of Clipse’s music so I’d seen them on the road a couple times. Pusha (one-half of Clipse) and I were always vibing with each other. Sean, meanwhile, is a fairly new act. I put him on my mixtape T.R.U. Realigion. From day one I liked his vibe, I liked his cockiness, I liked his slang.”
Flash forward to the following night, and a shirtless Sean is onstage at New York’s Summer Jam repeating his catchiest slang – “swerve” – on top of the punishing “Mercy” beat. Not quite as big as the name suggests, Sean’s small frame is nearly swallowed by the stage, but he still has the 50,000-strong crowd in his studded pocket. Summer Jammers lose their shit when Pusha T unexpectedly jumps on the stage for his “Mercy” verse, and Sean and Pusha T cause even more mayhem when they throw down Kanye’s verse together (West was unable to attend). The crowd holds its breath, waiting for 2 Chainz’s verse at the end of the track. Suddenly, he appears in a Yankees jacket and cap, and three humungous gold chains, drawling out “2 Chaaainzzzz’” before dropping the bomb: ��I’m drunk and high at the same time / Drinkin’ champagne on the airplane...” “Mercy” steals the all-night Summer Jam stage; no other performances compare to the roar they receive. No one in the crowd had expected the three of them to be onstage together.
The same feeling pervades the Universal Music offices the next day. “All three of them are coming here?!” an employee is overheard saying. With the three artists, it’s truly bigger than hip hop – each of them have started crossing over into fashion and the pop world. They come from different regions and artistic styles, but somehow, in some way, all three built their way to the top. They are now holding their own without compromise.
Rap icon Pusha T arrives at Universal first, looking about half of his 35 years. He’s wearing his signature “PLAY” cap and an unreleased Givenchy graphic tee. Pusha T put Clipse on hold in 2011 when the other half of the duo (his brother, No Malice) decided to write a memoir. Now a GOOD staple, Pusha’s since been working with Kanye and ATL R&B genius The-Dream on his debut solo album, with a host of unexpected collaborators on the side, including Pixie Lott and Tyler, the Creator.
Sitting on a couch, he holds the poise and presence of a man who has risen above all odds. But he gets this childlike glow when he talks about music. “Some days I’ll be in the studio with Dream and we don’t do nothing but listen to old Tupac. Or listen to old B.I.G. We’ll lose nine hours doing that,” he says, his face alight. “And by the time the end of that night comes, we know exactly where to dial in. Dream is genius at dialing into an emotion and creating that emotion. But when I’m working with Kanye, he’ll have a whole vision in his head, and he’ll expound on it until I find a place where I can write to it. He’ll give that part to me, and I push it back to him when I’m done with it. So there’s the element of surprise with Ye, because I don’t even know where the record will go from there. He gives me the rest of the movie.”
In terms of cinematography and storytelling, Pusha T’s always been the Francis Ford Coppola of rap, a master and revolutionary of the gangster genre. All of Pusha’s work is laced with a coherent narrative and biting imagery. When asked what movie would represent his debut solo album (which is three tracks away from being complete), he improvises an answer without even taking a breath. “My album is nothing but Devil’s Advocate,” he says definitively. “The movie itself, aesthetically, is very beautiful. You have Pacino, Charlize Theron, Keanu. It has a glamour sentiment, with the whole law thing. But when you really look at it, when you’re really dissecting it, it’s really ugly. It’s the harsh reality of things. In the movie, when the beautiful girl takes off her dress, she’s monster-esque underneath. I feel like that’s what my album is. The music bed and the sound bed is so beautiful, but the lyrics bring the harsh reality.”
All of a sudden, Detroit’s Big Sean pops his head through the door. “What up doe?” he says, giving Pusha a handshake. “What’s the word?” Pusha replies. Sean gives hugs to all the ladies in the room before tucking into some chicken and rice. A baby-faced 20-year-old sits beside Sean staring intently at his laptop. “This is Mike Waxx, he co-directed the video for ‘A$$’,” otherwise known as Dance (A$$). The video, featuring Nicki Minaj (and her Googleable ass), has over 44 million views.
I’m fun, that’s what I do. I love enjoying life, I love girls, I love partying. I love that shit but I also need to be serious, take care of business
Pusha explains why Sean’s formula works so well. “To me, Sean’s everything that’s going on right now with
the youth. He’s fresh, he’s into
the good time, he’s into the party. But his music’s about uplifting and doing better. And it’s really honest.”
As a rapper, Big Sean is brash, colourful, bold – almost cartoonishly so. But his flamboyant sunglasses hide his intense focus: he sees a lot more than he lets on. “I want to change the world, I want to inspire people,” Sean says earnestly, in a sharp change from the party-loving rapper who stepped out from under Kanye’s wing five years ago. “I want to make music that people can live to, music that influences culture, that influences the way people think. I never looked at my music in that way before now. I’m still having fun with it because I’m fun, that’s what I do. I love enjoying life, I love girls, I love partying. I love that shit but I also need to be serious, take care of business and take care of my family.”
The night before, the 24-year-old brought his mom out on the Summer Jam stage, thanking her for everything in front of the crowd. “My mom’s one of the realest Gs I know,” he says, “so it was an honour to bring her out. She really built self-belief within me. She gave me certain books to read that really helped instil that ideal of creating your own environment. Once I realised that you can create your own world through your imagination, I just took advantage of it.” Sean finishes his meal with a pensive look on his face. “I don’t take this for granted. I appreciate everyday. I try to take out time and meditate and just be in tune with myself.”
2 Chainz appears unannounced, arriving late after recording a basketball talk-show on ESPN (he played ball for Alabama State University back in the day). Everyone’s energy goes up a few notches. His hypeman Roc appropriately says that the best two words to describe 2 Chainz are: “Turnt up.”
Sean stands up and passes 2 Chainz a pair of gold vintage glasses in a zebra-fur case. “I wanted to show you these – I thought about you when I got them,” he says. Chainz tries them on, and it looks like the glasses were made for him. Sean smiles and says, “You know what man, you can keep them.”
If I had to put Chainz, his whole being, into something else – other than just a human – he’s like the biggest party ever
Beyond GOOD and couture taste, many shared traits bind the trio – notably strength of character. All three men radiate with the type of confidence that can only be gained from hardship, from struggle. 2 Chainz has been providing for his family from a young age – “paying light bills since I was 14” – and has been “a convicted felon since I was 15,” due to hustling. One look at Pusha T’s latest music video, “Exodus 23:1”, which has well over a million views, gives a vision of the streets he came from, back in Norfolk, Virginia. Pusha raps sitting on the front handlebars of a bike, riding through dark, gritty shots. It’s a rawness hip hop has been missing for years. As Pusha says on “Trouble on My Mind”, his track with Tyler, the Creator: “Who else could put the hipsters with felons and thugs / And paint a perfect picture of what sellin’
Removing his custom-made leather vest, Sean talks about his background. “I was talking to my homey in the D, my boy Gumbo, and he told me, ‘Man, the hood loves you. Just because you showed us how far you could actually go.’ I proved to everyone in my hood that you could make it on another level. We all came from the same place.”
Sean’s putting on a black suit and tie to wear to an election dinner with Obama and Clinton, where he finds out Bon Jovi is performing. “I’m really just doing this for my mom,” he admits. “I’m only gonna stay there for an hour. She’s gonna stay longer.” His assistant, who has been packing up Sean’s jewellery in velvet-lined cases, asks, “Do you want to wear sweats on the plane or do you want to wear pants? I’ll pack those on top.” There’s buying-your-mom-a-car success (which Sean did last year) and then there’s not-packing-your-own-suitcases success. Sean’s debut album title Finally Famous springs to mind when news surfaces that he’s going on NBC’s breakfast television show, Today, the following week, with Justin Bieber.
Waiting for the elevator to go down, the doors open and 90s rap star Ma$e is standing inside. All four artists high-five each other and the trio pile into the elevator, laughing. The doors open two floors below. A girl wearing loose colour-print pants is waiting in the hallway. She looks inside and drawls, “2 Chainnzzzzz”, with a giggle. He instantly answers back “Truuuu”. As the doors close he jokes, “What you got on there girl, your pajamas?” The whole elevator busts up laughing.
“If I had to put Chainz, his whole being, into something else – other than just a human – he’s like the biggest party ever,” Pusha laughs. “When I was young, my parents used to have card games and kids weren’t allowed to be there. Mind you, they’d be drinking and cursing and going crazy. But Chainz is the person that opens the door for that house. Like...” Pusha motions someone holding a door open to let people in. “He’s that guy.”
2 Chainz looks media-tired but still makes a few last Universal employees laugh before he leaves the building. Living proof of a statement he’d made a couple days earlier: “I try to be the same, all the time. At my funeral I want the consensus to be that I pretty much always treated people the same. If I can see people smile, I’m good.”
Photography by Sandy Kim