We meet the rapper to talk about embracing the unconventional on his latest, brilliant record and feeling that London energy
“I feel like this is the part of my career that I’m in, you gotta start helping to propel others. That’s a part of pushing the hip hop culture forward.” Sat comfortably in grey trackies a few hours before his show in Brixton, Pusha T reflects on entering the autumn of his career. The former Clipse MC is still finding peak after peak in his own music, and having been handed the crown as president of GOOD Music, he’s mindful of his new responsibilities. “Man, we got to make sure it stays around. We can’t shun new, young (artists), we need to embrace the evolving energy. A lot of the greats that I loved, they didn’t do that. I feel that’s why their lifespans were five years, four albums.”
Darkest Before Dawn is the prelude to his upcoming third album King Push. Released in December last year, it’s a project that enlists names such as Timbaland, Kehlani, Boi-1da, and Jill Scott, but is as true to his craft as anything from Clipse’s We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series from a decade ago. It’s the layers in his lyrics that make his records timeless, and he admires the empires built by moguls such as Puff, Dr Dre, Russell Simmons and Jay Z. “There’s definitely something to take from them – Jay Z especially, from an artist’s standpoint,” he says. “He never lacks passion to me. That gives me hope that I can juggle the rapping and the business side of it.”
We met Pusha in Brixton on his Darkest Before Dawn tour to talk about his latest record, J Dilla, his visit to the White House to discuss prison reform, and his love of garage.
Could you take us through the process of making Darkest Before Dawn?
Pusha T: Darkest Before Dawn was a project that was made in the purest form of hip hop. I had access to some of music’s greatest producers in the world, and what I wanted to do was make an album full of music that was all the B-sides of all the greats. When I was with Puff I could have said, ‘Puff, man, we need to make “Mo Money Mo Problems”,’ but instead I said, ‘I want to make “Who Shot Ya” and “My Downfall”.’
I told Timbaland, ‘Man, I love your beats, but, I would really like all the files that Jay would’ve did that wasn’t his lead single.’ Because they make me rap different. Everything was so unconventional. It’s just about pushing myself at this point of my career – I’m making music that makes me happy. This is the music that’s fun to me. I feel like I have a fanbase for it, (and) my base understands me. They want it one way and if we gain some more, if they’re loud enough and they yell loud enough and they bring some more people into our game, then you’re all welcome. Darkest Before Dawn is my favourite solo body of work, including my mixtapes. But it falls short of Hell Hath No Fury.
Hell Hath No Fury’s tenth anniversary is coming up...
Pusha T: Yessss. I’ll probably cry on that day.
On ‘Intro’ you say, ‘The only great I ain’t made better was J Dilla’. What’s the one Dilla beat you wih you could’ve had for yourself?
Pusha T: Oh, man. Certain rappers, when it comes to Dilla, and everything that came with him, we just missed it. Like, we missed the boat. Everybody who got a chance to really dial in and be part of the working process with him, should be very, very grateful. Can you imagine having the access – especially at the GOOD Music house, with Kanye West curating everything under the sun – but (can you imagine having access to) a Dilla drum?
What did it mean to you to be invited to the White House with your rap peers to discuss prison reform?
Pusha T: The meeting meant so much, man. I told the president I’d have never been to the White House – I live in Virginia, I did not go on that field trip. Then to talk about prison reform, it was so monumental to me because I’m grown up, man. My fans, my people, my family, they’ve watched me grow up from a reckless soul to somebody who actually cares about consequences.
I got invited to go watch the president’s documentary of when he visited prison, and I’m looking at the families and the kids who are in jail for all this time. I’m just, like, reflecting on this, back in those times when all of those laws were being implemented and executed. Man, we had no clue that you were conspiring against us. All the shit is coming out now and, like, we just out there, we’re young, we were intelligent man, but sometimes you’re too smart for your own good. You rationalise all the wrong that you’re doing because you’re not doing something that you guys considered ‘super wrong’, like, ‘We ain’t killin’ nobody! We just out here trying to get some money!’ We were preyed on. We were preyed on in regards to that prison system. To be able to come into the White House, and then for him to ask us for our help and recognise our influence, it was just really dope.
You once said, ‘The only time I’m nervous is when I’m playing to a crowd that’s not my crowd.’ How can you tell when it is and isn’t your crowd?
Pusha T: See what’s happening in music right now – I’m sorry, what’s happening in corporate America right now – is you have corporations and businesses. And then you have them hiring young, energetic people who are in the know on the marketing side, who know Pusha T is a pretty hardcore street rapper. You got people who know that my crowd is very Pitchfork – very cutting edge, niche – as well as street people, as well as all those different layers. But sometimes I’ll be doing something for University of Miami alumni and, like, (laughs) the synergies are weird. I know why I was picked for that, because I know the person who picked me for that. But they weren’t thinking in all-encompassing terms.
So you just went through with it?
Pusha T: Totally. You just gotta give it your all. You gotta make sure you give them the energy, man.
“I’ve been coming over here since Kelis in ’97. So I’m coming out here and we’re going to the club, to Chinawhite and they’re fucking playing these great-ass records. But you can’t put a face to it, and then you ask somebody about it” — Pusha T on UK garage
How does the energy in London compare with back home?
Pusha T: London energy is so strong. They’re so passionate about the music, it’s been like that since I been coming over here. And it’s not just rap, the R&B element is something I gravitated to when I first got over here.
Do you listen to garage?
Pusha T: Yes! Listen, when I first started coming over here, garage was like, it was the first thing, and it was so hard for me because I got over here and it was so underground. Mind you, I’ve been coming over here since Kelis in ’97. So I’m coming out here and we’re going to the club, to Chinawhite, and they’re fucking playing these great-ass records. But you can’t put a face to it, and then you ask somebody about it.
At this time it was so underground, so they were like, ‘Oh, I don’t really know. The name is this, I don’t really know who they are, but they are from such-and-such place.’ They could tell me areas they were from. I’m just like, ‘Fuck, that’s like the greatest thing.’ I came back and was telling everybody. I was like, ‘Pharrell, London garage is like...’, because at this point they were just strict producing; it wasn’t about his artistry or him travelling so much. That made me respect London so much because, like, this sort of reminds me of how my parents owned these old records where these women were great songstresses. You could maybe not attach a face to it, but the greatness was so strong. That’s what it reminded me of: just an organic, pure, passionate love for music.