Right around this time three years ago, the Clipse were on the verge of releasing Hell Hath No Fury, their terminally delayed follow-up to 2002’s Lord Willin’. Anger–at their label, Jive, for failing to promote them, and at the game, for having forgotten about them–battled anticipation: HHNF was a classic in the making, and by late August, the Clipse knew it. When the record finally came out, it was critically acclaimed and commercially brutalized. Three years, two mixtapes, a new label later, the brothers Malice and Pusha T are trying their luck again, releasing their third album, Till The Casket Drops, in October. Atlantic label boss Rick Rubin is on board, as are a whole slew of guests (Kanye, Cam’ron, Keri Hilson) and producers (stalwarts the Neptunes, plus Timbaland, Scott Storch, the Hitmen, and more)–all unprecedented developments for a group that until now has pretty much kept things in-house. They’ll bring the three singles released so far off Till The Casket Drops and a murderous back catalogue to tonight’s J&R Music Fest in City Hall Park. Last week, we caught up with the two brothers to talk about the duo’s fraught commercial and artistic past, their various beefs with other rappers and critics, and whether Kanye really did get ’em on “Kinda Like A Big Deal.”
Villagevoice: I remember the fall of 2006 so vividly, with you guys on your way to releasing Hell Hath No Fury, and all the anticipation in the room when you’d play shows. You released it, it was a great record, but at the same time, a bitter commercial disappointment. Now here we are, three years later, with the wheels in motion again. Does it feel the same? Different?
Malice: It feels good. I think it feels a lot like the first album. It’s not a bunch of drama. It’s not a bunch of politics involved as far as getting in the way of our production and our creativity and moving forward. The chains are off. There’s really no delays. I think the good thing about it is how the label is moving with a sense of urgency, and I think you’ll find that our spirits are in a better place. Especially compared to Hell Hath No Fury.
V: Have you guys been thinking about 2006 much?
Pusha: Nah, that’s basically water under the bridge to us. You know, at the end of the day, Hell Hath No Fury–there were no surprises with that. We knew what was to come, and we were totally happy with the fans and happy with all the critics for all the critical acclaim that we got. The whole touring schedule behind that whole album has been ridiculous. Like, still–the whole overseas run, you know, it was really a time just to link with our base. And I have to say the fans really stood up, and really supported us. Yeah, you don’t hear it on the radio, but it wasn’t like we weren’t in all of your cities, every day.
V: You guys have taken rap to places where it doesn’t usually show up. For instance, I saw you guys play the Pitchfork Fest out in Chicago a few years ago. What’s it like playing rap shows to audiences that don’t get a lot of that?
Malice: Oh, I think it’s amazing, man, because the passion that you see on the fans’ faces–you know, first it’s the fan you think doesn’t know anything about hip-hop, and then they know all the lyrics to our songs. And it’s not just the commercial albums that we put out–it’s the mixtapes that they know like the back of their hand. So that’s a lot of inspiration right there and a lot of motivation, and it lets you know they’re passionate about the craft that we do. It’s not just like they know the song because they’re hearing the song on the radio. It’s like they go and look for this stuff and track it down until they find it, and then they learn it. To me, that’s a true fan.
V: And that’s still inspiring to you guys, even three years out?
Malice: Definitely. A lot of times you’ll write a record, or write a song, or write lyrics, and you’ll come up with this idea that in your mind is so great, it just gives you chills–you can’t even write it down fast enough. And then you might not think about it, but once you get out there and you perform it in front of people and you see the passion and the excitement on their faces, it re-sparks that same magic that you had when that idea or that thought for the verse popped into your head. And it reminds you of what it is–I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can tell just by looking at you that’s how I felt when I came up with it.’
V: Your new label situation just seems so different. You have so much more support.
Pusha: Yeah, I’d have to say so. The label seems to be in tune with the Clipse, and who the Clipse are, and what the Clipse bring to the table. There’s a level of honesty that they’ve come with, as far as saying, ‘Hey, I do do this,’ and ‘Hey, we don’t do this, but let’s try to make it work.’ As soon as we got to the label they were like, ‘Hey, we don’t have street teams and stuff.’ OK. What do you have to do to get ’em? OK. Let’s go find him. And voila, every city we go into, we’re doing in-stores and we have that street presence that comes along with the music.
Malice: Certain labels will act like they know what’s going on. I’d rather you tell us, ‘This is what we don’t know, this is what we don’t do,’ instead of acting like they do and then dropping the ball.
V: You talk about knowing who the Clipse are. What do you see the answer to that question being in 2009? It’s hard to imagine Keri Hilson on Hell Hath No Fury.
Pusha: Yeah–well, it’s hard to imagine anything even close to upbeat and happy on Hell Hath No Fury. There was nothing celebrational about Hell Hath No Fury at all. You got to remember, these albums, they’re made off of moods. We don’t make albums and make up the feeling behind it. The feeling is just what it is: just where we are in life.
V: If each album represents a specific mood, then what’s the mood now?
Pusha: This is more along the lines of a–it reminds me of Lord Willin’. The carefreeness, the rawness of the music. When you hear the album, you’re gonna be like, ‘woah.’ You’re gonna hear the raw edge from the Clipse, you’re gonna hear the raw edge from the Neptunes–the unorthodox Neptunes. The unstructured Neptunes. That’s more of a Lord Willin’ feel. No pressure, no angry–it’s all street music, but you could tell how linear that Hell Hath No Fury was and how directed, and where it was directed, 100 percent. This is just a wild rollercoaster ride.
V: I remember when Road to Till the Casket Drops came out, and Pitchfork reviewed it, and the reviewer said that you guys should make some songs that weren’t coke-rap, basically–girl songs, he said. And you guys wrote a great response on your blog, saying “Since when was making a successful club/girl record a measure of a rapper’s talent?” And yet here we are nine months later, and you have records out that could definitely be in the club.
Pusha: Yeah, and I think we’ve always done songs that could be in the club. I mean we made “When the Last Time.” We made “Grindin.” We made “Wamp Wamp.” It just all depends on how it’s presented. And at the end of the day, it wasn’t probably for him to say. Like, what you mean? We make what the fuck we want to make. Not because you say ‘Yo, you should make some girl records’–why? On a mixtape! Like, who the hell is he? Matter of fact, before the Clipse, since when did people even start reviewing mixtapes like such, except in the official bootleg column of XXL? Before the Clipse, I don’t even know if they were doing that. Were they?
Pusha: –Hell no! Hell no they weren’t doing that type of shit! So I mean, it’s not for him to say. He ain’t never done that before in his life, probably.
V: Done what before in his life?
Pusha: Reviewing a mixtape. And reviewing it on a such a high criteria of albums. People didn’t start doing that shit until probably the We Got It For Cheap series–except for, like I said, that one column of XXL magazine.
V: It seems like everyone has an idea of what a Clipse song should be like. I feel like you guys get that more than anybody.
Malice: I think it was the impact that we had–the way it grabbed people when we came out, and that’s what they loved, and so that’s what it has to be, and the songs have to be with the Neptunes, you know what I’m saying? We can work with any producer, and do what it is that needs to be done lyrically, to any beat, but I think it’s like a good thing–once you get that, it’s like you don’t want no changes. And I can actually identify with that.
V: Well let’s not exaggerate here–one of the three songs you have out right now is “Kind of Like a Big Deal,” with Kanye, which no one would mistake for a girl song. Is there a story behind that? Had you wanted to work with Kanye for a while?
Pusha: Naw, honestly man, it was as simple as finding a beat and sending it to him and telling him we wanted him on it. He was far away somewhere and I got in contact with him, and he was like, “Well, send it to me, I’ll have it back to you in three hours.”
V: And did he?
Pusha: Four. About four, probably. Same thing.
V: There are some people who feel like he got you on that song.
Malice: Well he definitely has a fan base. [Laughs] We got our fans, too. But listen, I think the record is great. If they say anybody got us on anything, who better than Kanye? I like Kanye’s music.
Pusha: Yeah. I’ll go for that.
V: And a song with Cam’ron is still coming. Can you guys let go any info about that?
Pusha: I like to say this is the New York record of all records. You know how, like–living in Virginia, coming to New York and listening to HOT97 and hearing “Who Shot Ya?” was always the greatest thing to me. I always thought that hearing that type of record on HOT97 and having the freedom to play that type of record was a great thing. And I think that we made one of those hardcore rap records with someone like Cam’ron and it can be played all day and it has that same type of hardcore feel.
V: So that’s a song I’m going to be hearing coming out of everybody’s car window in two months.
Malice: Oh, definitely.
Pusha: Definitely. Definitely! Definitely!! I’m talking ’bout, you give me that hardcore record, you give me the “The Benjamins” before it was, you know, popular “Benjamins”–this record is amongst that of just greatness, and New York-ness. You know what I’m saying? East Coast hardcore rap.
V: You were talking about this earlier, about how Clipse used to be its own universe–you guys, Re-Up, Pharrell. But you’re out in the world right now. Pusha, you were on a song with Chester French. And you hopped on that “Maybach Music” remix with Baby, which makes me wonder if your beef with those guys is basically over?
Malice: Yeah, that thing is dead. It’s definitely dead. I think the streets and the press made it to be more than really what is was.
V: Well I did see you guys play Webster Hall back in May—
V: –and when you did “What Happened to That Boy,” you said that Clipse were the only people who mattered on that song. That was three months ago.
Pusha: Nah, nothing was really happening. You know, at the end of the day—
Malice: Spirit of competition, man! That’s it.
Pusha: Yeah, it’s just that competitive rap whatchamacallit. And that could never be with Baby anyway.
Pusha: So it’s not that. It wasn’t about that. The whole situation was just about rap. Everything we ever did, even the mixtape jabs and all of that, it was all about just, ‘Hey, yo, alright, you say this in an interview,’ or whatever the case may be–we weren’t really into interviewing about it. We would go straight to the mixtapes. Just the spirit of competition, period. And once that’s not being played, then I don’t–like, we don’t really care too much to interview-talk it. It’d be different if it was like, ‘OK, you make a song, we make a song, then we talk about it, boom boom boom.’ But that’s not happening. So there’s no need for it. It’s not competitive.
V: You guys are in an interesting spot–the record industry is deep trouble. Nobody gets promotion or sells that well anymore. And yet here you are, with Columbia behind your record, Rick Rubin producing, a whole A-list of production talent and guests. Seems like something like this could almost never happen again–do you feel like it’s now or never?
Pusha: I don’t think it’s now or never. I think everybody’s conforming to the new music industry. All the producers are going to come down, all the video guys are going to come down, all the record labels are going to come down, as far as numbers and money. And it’s still gonna keep working, just on a smaller scale. And we’re gonna think of different ways to promote and so on and so forth–you mentioned the viral stuff, and the blogs and all of that shit. I think guys like Rick Ross have really capitalized off of selling themselves and putting out the music and all the videos virally, which still enhances the persona and still keeps the interest of the fans. Things are just different. Things are just changing. But I don’t think it’s now or never. And I don’t think it’s over. There’s just a different way you have to go about doing it now.