By Dana Scott. Harvard University has always had an open door to Hip Hop. Dating back to the eighties, the world’s most revered academic institution has welcomed venerable hip hop artists from all subgenres of rap music including KRS-One, Paris, Genius/GZA, Lil B, Kanye West, DJ Whoo Kid, and 9th Wonder as a fellow professor to name a few. Nas was even awarded their prestigious W.E.B. DuBois Medal late last year, and has a fellowship with his namesake there. And let’s not forget that the most celebrated printed Hip Hop publication in the culture’s history, The Source, was burgeoned in a dorm room there back in 1988.
This past Thursday, Pusha T spen an hour of his time inside the Harvard–Yenching Library to discuss the creative process of his latest album King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, his lengthy recording career, race and politics in the rap game and for young blacks in America, and other important facts about the changes in the rap game since he started “grindin” with his on their seminal debut Lord Willin’ in 2002. Here are eight of the most important takeaways from this Harvard discussion with the Virginian.
Why Timbaland & Pusha T Made Collaboration Debut Just Last Year
Pusha T has been a lifelong friend to production legend Timbaland, yet they never actually shared time to record music together. The Clipse where originally signed to Elektra in 1997, and a deal spearheaded by their in-house production team of, Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes. Yet Pharrell, Timbaland, No Malice, and Pusha T go way back to the days of catching the school bus from their neighboring childhood homes. The G.O.O.D. Music president details the irony of them finally working together for his sophomore solo album.
“Timbaland has a studio in Virginia, and like the greatest man of all because he lets me record there for free. I’ve never experienced that in my life (Laughs). Tim and my brother are both five years older than me. When I was like seven or eight years old, my brother and Timbaland were in middle school and they had a rap group. But by principle you can definitely call it a gang because Timbaland was the deejay for like twenty guys in this group. I used to ride my bike over to Timbaland’s house with my brother, and we’d stay over and they’d be rapping and doing what they do. And [his] parents would kick me out their house because I would be dancing making too much noise. But it wasn’t until 2015 that I worked with Timbaland on music ever. Ever! I’m watching him be the man with music and production, being behind Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and I’m watching, and still never worked with him. I’m was still working with Pharrell, and we’re all from the same thing. But I wouldn’t change a thing about that.”
Discovering A Tribe Called Quest Expanded Pusha T’s Music Acumen
Many rap listeners point to the lurid soundscapes, smart record sampling, and their evolving musical tastes in the eccentric, lighthearted rap songs with ghetto appeal. Q-Tip production savvy and his late partner-in-rhyme Phife Dawg parallels synergy between Kanye West’s Tribe-influenced eccentric beats and Pusha T’s hardcore lyricism. The two compliment each other and blend well for their collaborations on bangers like “Runaway,” or “Numbers On The Boards,” or “M.P.A.” He even went as far to enlist G.O.O.D. Music and A Tribe Called Quest founder/producer Q-Tip to produce “F.l.F.A” on King Push. “I had tunnel vision growing up. If you weren’t talking about the streets or something that I couldn’t go outside to see, then I wasn’t trying to hear it. Tribe was so dope production-wise. They took it me out of that bubble. They showed me that there’s different colors in this rap game.
Lyricism Will Always Be Hip Hop’s Reset Button
“Lyrics, somebody want lyrics?” That rhetorical question from KRS-One, an MC that Pusha T considers as one of his all-time favorites, once asked in his 1993 song “Return Of The Boom Bap.” But like any other musical genre, styles and production sounds become formulaic towards reaching commercial appeal. But as level of production and songwriting gets to its lowest common denominator, lyricism is a turnkey attribute for winning respect and appeal in the fickle rap audience that quickly gets tired from the same ol’ thing. Pusha T cites that he doesn’t have the ability nor the desire to dumb himself down to make records that appeal to a wider audience, strictly reaching and speaking for the purists to revel and cite an artist’s lyrical prowess for being on a higher level.
“I represent an uncompromising love of lyricism. And I’m going to carry that flag, and that I should carry. I don’t think lyricism in Hip Hop goes out of style. Not everybody, but some people love the fundamentals of Hip Hop like the cypher rhymes, catching punchlines a week or two later. That’s the Hip Hop that I grew up, and that’s the Hip Hop that I love. I really don’t know any other way, or even practice or even try to learn the new “swag” or trap, but I love it and enjoy. As far as I fit, going into the new generation, it’s my job and duty to help the new creatives and artists come through. Lyric-driven Hip Hop is needed because it’s stimulating and you learn from it. It’s like a puzzle. I personally don’t know how to rap without a message. Fans need to get to that when they want it.”
Pusha T Music: Brought To You In Part By Public Enemy
Pusha T has consistently spitting hustler slang in his poetic stanzas to assert his street knowledge. But as a Virginia Beach resident, he grew up seeing the hard lines of racial tension against his fellow young black neighbors bestowed upon them at the hands of police. In 2016, he refuses to witness and turn the other cheek about how ain’t a damn thing changed for more than twenty-five years. The 1989 Greek Fest riots in Virginia Beach, which Public Enemy showed damning video segments of the city’s local police striking force against black college students in their “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” video are what Pusha T cites as an inspiration source for how he approaches songwriting.
“First of all, just the police brutality and the murders, I’m in tuned with what’s going on or whatever. It’s like all these different instances are back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. So I try to rap in real time, ya know? There’s no way that this couldn’t be addressed. Now, part two of that is I wasn’t necessarily liking like the stance of rappers who known to be conscious. It was a bit too passive for me. I’m from Virginia Beach. When you think about where I’m from and I think about rap in general, it takes me directly to the Greek Fest riots of 1989. They were like hosing kids where I’m from. That is the angle and that’s the level of angst, the level of aggression when those types of situations happen, and it wasn’t just the Greek Fest riots because there was a lot of other stuff going on there, too, that Public Enemy was going crazy about.
But they rapped with a certain conviction. I felt like these days and times with murders of young black kids unarmed and dying, it was a bit too much. And I wasn’t getting the energy that I was looking for from many artists who I felt were a bit passive. As an artist, you have to speak for people who aren’t going to speak up. Like a line to open up one of my songs goes “I can’t turn the other cheek/They’re just testing my patience, they’re just testing my reach.” They may be boiling on the inside, and you never know. It can turn into Baltimore real quick.”
Cocaine Rap Can Be As Cerebral as Conscious Rap
Categorization of rap artist’s music incurs the stratification of intelligence levels of rap artists to the rap audience. Many who consider specific segments of Hip Hop to be cerebrally vacant compared to others forms of artistry, or who only subscribe to certain brands of rap music. Pusha T proves that in all forms of rap music (i.e. turning up to trap sounds and lean-induced sounds of Future and bando-dwelling drug deals detailed by Migos versus the doing your political research homework to the consciousness of Immortal Technique) each have some sophistication in their music. Perhaps it may not be from the same school of thought of songwriting, but each artist speaks to the core of the streets for respect in Hip Hop and reflect the urban experience regardless. He even claimed that the music of The Clipse should be considered “conscious” because it is “the truth.” “It’s sophisticated street Hip Hop. I speak from the perspective of the street guys. At the same time, it’s a 360-degree view. It’s all aspects, the mentality behind it. This is not neglecting any aspect. I feel like as far as rap really today, that’s not done on too many levels.”
Pusha T Still Reps Clipse Despite No Reunion In Sight
After the release of Til The Casket Drops in 2009, Malice decided to change his image and give his life to Jesus Christ rather than give listeners more tales of cooking coke in the kitchen and pitching weight to the streets. As part of being a born-again Christian, he changed his name to “No Malice” and left the Clipse. In the years since the breakup, devout fans of the duo have been yearning for a breakup. According to Pusha T, they had a “good run” and the fans shouldn’t hold their breath. Yet on “F.I.F.A” off Darkest Before Dawn, he claims that his older brother, who he calls “The Voice Of Reason,” was his inspiration to be his “brother’s keeper” and have the group live on through his music. “I know what I bring to the table. I have to use what was I think was great about him because we can’t disappoint a Clipse fan.”
VA Still Searching For Signature Sound, Even With Pharrell & Timbaland’s Contributions
Over the past 25 years, there has been a substantial success rate amongst various artists coming from the DMV (Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia) region of the U.S., including Wrecks N Effect back in the early 90s, Timbaland and Missy Elliott, Mad Skillz, producer/rapper Nottz, Oddisee, Wale, N*E*R*D and the Clipse during their heyday. But Pusha T still believes that many artists are overlooked, or even overlooking themselves to unify for a signature sound that defines in the region from which he hails.
“I feel like [all the other regions] have a particular sound. But I don’t think the DMV has a sound. You have the Timbaland sound, you have The Neptunes sound, you have what Missy does, you got guys like Teddy Riley, who was with Wrecks-N-Effect but he was from Harlem with that New Jack Swing sound, and that was all on Virginia Boulevard, for real. But I think we don’t have a one particular sound. When you look at Atlanta, you can pigeonhole a sound there. With New York, you could at one time with the West Coast sound, the Houston sound, the Bay Area sound, and you think of those places musically compared to what comes out of the DMV area, I think we are fighting ourselves. I mean, I was there when Tim was competing with Pharrell, and Pharrell competing with Tim. On top of that, the D.C. area has the go-go sound, but there’s a lot going on that’s undefined in that concentrated area.”
Rap Music’s Progression Relies on Intergenerational Gap Bridging
Curmudgeons of the culture often get left behind sounding like grumpy old men barking about “kids these days.” There are few artists who have been able to withstand the rapid changes in the rap industry, which ages in dog years. Those who have aged well musically, like Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, E-40, Kanye West, and Snoop Dogg, or DJ Quik have a penchant for giving respect to their roots while showing love to hip hop’s latest upstarts and contemporaries. Pusha T explained the means of progression of these artists, and the genre at large, for the years to come.
“I was like a rap fanatic, but when I think about it, all of my greats only had like two or three albums. Except for Jay Z, but I’m talking about the forefathers that really shape and molded my mentality as far as rap goes. Watching my brother admire these people, watching my younger brother and sisters because I’m the youngest of four. But they never tried to reach out to the next generation coming up. I can remember watching them, and then coming into the game where those we saying ‘Aww man, that’s wack, and that new stuff is not what we used to do.” I don’t think that’s the attitude to have. I feel everybody who’s great today, and is still here today, took from what was young, and put their spin on it, tried to help them out, and keep it progressive.’