Pusha T On His Controversial New Album 'Daytona'

May 27, 2018
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, let's go back to 2002 for a minute when the song "Grindin'" by the rap duo Clipse was one of the biggest hits of the year. Billboard named it one of the 100 greatest hip-hop songs of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRINDIN'")

CLIPSE: (Rapping) From ghetto to ghetto, to backyard to yard, I sell it whip on whip. It's off the hard. I'm the neighborhood Pusha...

MARTIN: Clipse was comprised of Terrence Thornton and his brother, Gene. As a group, they were lauded and, at times, criticized for what became their signature, emotionally gripping narratives about the drug trade. Fast-forward to the present, Terrence Thornton, better known as Pusha T, has gone solo. He is president of Kanye West's record label, Good Music. He's made a name for himself as a political activist, and he has a new album that just dropped Friday. It's called "Daytona."

And here's where it gets even more interesting. Within hours of Pusha T's new album coming out, the rapper Drake delivered a single of his own responding to a track he interpreted as an insult or a diss track. The two have been trading insults on social media to the point where it's been a trending topic in the U.S. all weekend.

Have you followed all this so far? Anyway, with all of that, there is an album, and we talked about it with Pusha T on Friday.

Mr. Terrence Thornton, Pusha T, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PUSHA T: How you doing?

MARTIN: What do you prefer that I call you, by the way?

PUSHA T: You know what? Let's go with Pusha T for NPR.

MARTIN: OK.

PUSHA T: Call me Pusha.

MARTIN: Pusha, OK.

PUSHA T: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, let me start with the beginnings. Is there something in the water in Virginia Beach? That first song of yours was produced by Pharrell Williams, who...

PUSHA T: Yes.

MARTIN: ...People know as one of the biggest names in music. His song "Happy" has spawned music videos from all over the world. Missy Elliott - you all from Virginia Beach.

What was going on down there that all of you came out of that space?

PUSHA T: During that time, I would have to say that the 757 - that's what we call it - the Hampton Roads area - it was just a hotbed and a melting pot of a whole bunch of different influences. You had the military, so you brought a lot of different musical influences there. You had the beach that made it attractive for out-of-towners to come. A lot of New York influences. Ultimately, Teddy Riley, super-producer extraordinaire - he came to Virginia Beach. You know, and that was our first sighting of, like, oh, wait a minute. You can really make it in the music industry?

MARTIN: So was it like a kind of a Motown situation? Did his place become kind of a hangout for people who wanted to learn the business, try things or...

PUSHA T: (Laughter) Well, it wasn't really a hangout. We used to get chased off the grounds all the time. What happened was his studio was right next to Pharrell's high school. And Pharrell won a talent show that he judged. And that's how we began to get access into what it was called, FutureRecords.

MARTIN: Wow, what a great story.

PUSHA T: You know, what a lot of people don't understand is that everything else is basically homegrown. I actually lived one mile from Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, who were The Neptunes, maybe a mile and a half from Timbaland. Missy Elliott was across town. We all lived very, very, very close.

MARTIN: How did you and your brother decide on your sound - like, what was going to be your message? How did that come about?

PUSHA T: Me and my brother are known for lyric-driven hip-hop. The hip-hop that we grew up on basically told the stories of what was going on outside at the time. That's how we learned, and those are the rules that we followed. You know, when you talk about the, you know, late-'80s, early-'90s, mid-'90s in Virginia, you know, beautiful place, but there was also a pretty big drug culture there as well.

MARTIN: Well, the thing, as I said earlier, that people noted about the work at the time and still do is that you told the good, the bad and the ugly. I mean, that there were aspects of, like, the fame and the glory but also the fact that there was no good ending to this - right? - and the emotional toll.

PUSHA T: Yeah.

MARTIN: That was something that was really - I think really fresh and new - the emotional toll. It was very honest, you know? It wasn't all outward-directed. It was very inner-directed, too. You know what I mean?

PUSHA T: Right, right. For sure. I mean, you know, when you're telling the story, you have to tell the whole story. Rap music, hip-hop culture is usually about truth.

MARTIN: Well, let's play something from the new album that kind of speaks to that.

PUSHA T: Let's get into "The Games We Play."

MARTIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMES WE PLAY")

PUSHA T: (Rapping) Drug dealer Benzes with gold digger in 'em. In elevator condos, on everything I love. This ain't a wave or a phase 'cause all that [expletive] fades. This lifestyle's forever when you made. They tweet about the length I made 'em wait...

You know, "Daytona," as an album, man, it's definitely a masterpiece body of work produced from top to bottom by Kanye West. I think me and Kanye have a musical marriage that has really, really - you know, I feel on this project, we really showed how strong it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMES WE PLAY")

PUSHA T: (Rapping) Play amongst the stars like the roof in the Wraith. Get the table next to mine, make our bottle servers race. These are the games we play. We are the names they say. This is the drug money your ex-[expletive] claim he makes. To all of my young...

MARTIN: Why do you think you two work so well together?

PUSHA T: I feel like we work well together because I feel like he's a fan first of me and my lyricism. You know, he's genius-level at production, and he knows how I sound best.

MARTIN: Well, you know I'm going to ask because you're no stranger to politics. During the 2016 presidential election, you joined a number of high-profile hip-hop artists in supporting Hillary Clinton. She even hosted a contest to meet you. Well, now at the same time, of course, you know, Kanye, your close collaborator - you would say your boy...

PUSHA T: Right, my boy.

MARTIN: ...Has caused a lot of controversy with his comments about President Trump. And so tell me - what is...

PUSHA T: What do you want to know, the dynamic?

MARTIN: You know, I want to know what's the dynamic? And how do you understand where he is?

PUSHA T: Well, I don't (laughter) - I don't understand where he is in his political views. This is one of many things that we disagree on, you know, wholeheartedly. And it's fine. You know, I feel like that's another reason why we work together. I'm also the president of his company for that same reason. I bring other aspects. I bring other point of views to the table all the time. But you know, that's something that we're not going to see eye-to-eye on.

MARTIN: Well, let me play from - let me play a song off the new album, "What Would Meek Do?" At it features Kanye West, so here it is.

PUSHA T: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT WOULD MEEK DO?")

KANYE WEST: (Rapping) Everything Ye say cause a new debate. You see, he been out-of-touch. He could not relate. His hallway too long, [expletive] too bad. Got a surrogate his kid, get two dads. I be thinking, what would 2Pac do? You be thinking, what New Kids On The Block do? If you ain't driving while black, do they stop you? Will MAGA hats let me slide like a drive-through?

PUSHA T: All right.

MARTIN: OK, help me out here.

PUSHA T: Right.

MARTIN: What is going on here?

PUSHA T: He's posing the question, if you ain't driving while black, will they stop you or will they let me off because I have on a MAGA hat - let me slide like a drive-through? For him, it's just a hat. That's how he looks at it. For me, you know, I tell them that hat represents everything that's wrong. You know, he'll argue with me and say, man, I'm giving the hat too much power. And I'll tell him, hey, man, the hat is the new KKK hood to me.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I've got a couple of questions. First of all, how do you think you've changed since those early days? You have a very sophisticated life now. You have multiple responsibilities, and you're still functioning as an artist. How do you think you have changed?

PUSHA T: Yeah, the maturation of Pusha T - like, you know, it's no longer just Pusha T, the young, brash rapper. It's Pusha T, the executive. You know, when you asked me - what should I call you? - I started to say Mr. Thornton because I sort of liked that. But you know (laughter) because I'm in album mode, we're going to go with Pusha T. But you know, on the executive end, I feel like this is my calling, and this is how you're supposed to mature in the rap game and be helpful in pushing the culture forward in the young artists as well.

MARTIN: The final cut on this album, "Daytona," is "Infrared." I want to play a little bit. And there will be a lot of bleeping in this, so let me just - (laughter) we'll work around it...

PUSHA T: Yeah, let's work around it.

MARTIN: ...To get to the message. OK, here it is.

PUSHA T: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFRARED")

PUSHA T: (Rapping) The game's [expletive] up. [Expletive] beats is banging. Your hooks did it. The lyric penning equal the Trumps winning. The bigger question is how the Russians did it. It was written like Nas, but it came from Quentin. At the mercy of a game where the culture's missing. When the CEO's blinded by the glow, it's different.

MARTIN: There's a lot going on here. Woo.

PUSHA T: Oh, I was rapping along. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Yes, you were. Who were you talking to here?

PUSHA T: This was in response to a Drake record that came out a little while ago called "Two Birds One Stone," where he questioned my authenticity to the streets. And you know, people have been waiting, you know, for me to reply back to that, so on and so forth. And you know, when you think about it, that's not a conversation I really feel like I want to have. But since he posed the question, I just spoke my truth in regards to it and how I see him because, you know, they're not even allegations - you know, there are real ghostwriting, you know, proof that, you know, he doesn't write his rhymes.

So when I say the lyric penning is equal to Trump's winning - you know, like Trump stole the election. He cheated. The bigger question is how the Russians did it. It was written like Nas, but it came from Quentin, which is a ghostwriter. In hip-hop, man, it's what you do. Like, people call you out and you wear it, and you know, you come back with your rebuttal.

MARTIN: It just seems funny to me because there's so much else going on in the world. Is this really worth your time? (Laughter).

PUSHA T: Oh, I mean, there is a competitive artistic, you know, quality to the game. And it's fine. It's - you know, it's not a big deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMES WE PLAY")

PUSHA T: (Rapping) We can bet a hundred thousand with my safe hold. My numbers looking like a bank code.

MARTIN: That is Pusha T, Terrence Thornton. We are talking about his latest album, "Daytona."

PUSHA T: Right.

MARTIN: He joined us from our studios in New York City. Pusha T, Mr. Thornton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PUSHA T: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMES WE PLAY")

PUSHA T: (Rapping) With Ye back chopping. The cars and the women come with options. Caviar facials remove the toxins. This ain't for the conscious. The is for the mud-made monsters who grew up on legends out of Yonkers influenced by [expletive] straight out of Compton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.