Pusha T, born Terrence Thornton in 1977, was in one of the best hip-hop groups of the new millennium, Clipse, a duo he formed with his older brother Gene "No Malice" Thornton in Virginia Beach. That the group is no longer active after Gene's conversion to Christianity frustrates Thornton, but he's moved on with a well-received 2013 solo album, "My Name is My Name" (G.O.O.D. Music).
With Clipse, the Thorntons fashioned a trio of musical novels on seemingly narrow theme: cocaine-dealing. But the albums, particularly the 2006 masterpiece "Hell Hath No Fury," are only superficially about drugs. They're about the people who sell drugs, and why they do it. The duo's story-telling skills combined with the sparse, ominous production of the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo) creates a cold-sweat world in which even the live-for-the-moment thrills are tinged by paranoia.
With his solo album, Pusha T reprises some of that ominous feel but also broadens his musical scope to include more atmospheric and playful touches while collaborating with Kanye West, the Dream and his boyhood friend Williams, among others.
In a wide-ranging interview, Thornton recounted the path to the new album and his thoughts about a potential reunion with his brother in Clipse. Here are a few excerpts:
Q: What was in the water in southeast Virgina in the '90s that enabled hip-hop artists like you, your brother, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Missy Elliot and others to develop?
A: I credit Virginia Beach being a military town, and me having a gumbo of different musical influences. I was a heavy fan of Houston music before it hit, of Bay area music. I learned all of this from going to school and meeting kids who had moved here from other parts of the country. We had mom and pop stores that catered to the military guys, and they would put their rims on their Galants, and put huge-ass house speakers in that trunk and they'd rattle with all the tools they'd put in back. In terms of production, Missy, Pharrell, Tim (Tim Mosley, aka Timbaland) had no limits, they listened and they saw like I saw. We drew from the same well — an abundance of influences. And I 100 percent blame Teddy Riley. He moved to Virginia from Harlem, and he was at a talent show, and Pharrell and them were discovered there. We would go to Teddy Riley's studio every day, rap for him, play our music, Pharrell wrote his verse for (Wreckx-N-Effect's 1992 Riley-produced hit) 'Rump Shaker.' And Guy would buy a black Ferrari and drive it around town. I thought that was only on 'Magnum PI.' It led me to know that music was a real way to make a living. I didn't know music was a real industry until Teddy Riley showed me. My brother was always a rapper, writer, a notebook-having guy. He had a crew of rappers, the principal at our high school called it a gang. Tim was the DJ for 20 sets of guys like Pharrell and my brother. They would all be rapping on Virginia Beach. Teddy was really inspirational in all of that.
Q: Detractors might say you make "drug albums," but they're more like character studies with all these layers. How did you develop that approach?
A: Anybody can get on a track: 'A brick costs $42,000 today, we don't play no games, we just spray.' We could do this all day. It takes a more introspective viewpoint to sit here and talk about the science of it. I'm talking about how it's dog eat dog, the level of loyalty you have with these people, because it's a team, and when it breaks down, what happens to your life. The competitive nature of these guys in the street, that vie for the biggest prize or the hottest girl. It's all about ego. Even the girl has a deeper agenda, the way she juggles the guys, plays one off the other. The gamesmanship. You have to delve deep into the mentality and conscience of the person living this life. The selfishness. You have to admit some (stuff). On 'My Name is my Name' I felt I was admitting some (stuff) about myself. People, especially rappers, don't want to admit they're wrong. But I felt like I was giving up an argument about a certain lifestyle. Everybody talks about 'I got rich, I got business,' but nobody tells the story about a friend giving state's evidence like I do in "S.N.I.T.C.H." It happens to all of us, nobody wants to touch it. Pharrell made me touch it, and it turned out to be an amazing record. That's the difference between us and other rappers. We take shots. A lot of rappers want you to believe they're bullet proof, that nothing bad happens to them. 'We're just rich.' But a part of me is about showing you where I took my shots, where I lost battles.
Q: On your solo album, you do some stretching musically. I'm guessing the Kelly Rowland track ("Let Me Love You") is not something you would've considered doing in Clipse. What led you there now?
A: I have another role to play now that I'm not in a duo. I probably wouldn't have done that in Clipse. In a duo, you write 16 or 24 bars, I get to be who I am selfishly, knowing there is a different dynamic working opposite me, creating the roller coaster of the song. When you are a solo artist you don't have that crutch, so I gotta dig deeper and be more personally open. I talk about I feel about my brother and his transition in music in a song like '40 Acres.' I talk about my parents' divorce, and how that may affect other relationships with me, though I never thought it would. I have to give you the lifestyle, the drug dealer lifestyle, but I also can do something like the Kelly Rowland record and channel Ma$e, another facet of who I am as solo artist. When you listen to 'Hell Hath no Fury' and 'My Name is My Name,' you can tell I'm a Jay Z fan. But you may not know I'm also really into Ma$e. It's a way of opening myself up and saying I'm a fan too of these other styles of rapping that maybe aren't as sophisticated.
Q: Does the next wave of hip-hop artists share those standards?
A: I'm hearing introspective (stuff) from guys like Kendrick (Lamar). I'm hearing younger guys telling their story. It's moving. Kendrick killed the nostalgia record. 'You want to tell me about your pops?' He's been through something, and I can feel that. But a lot of guys today don't want to go that deep. Breaking into a cold sweat? They don't want you to see that or smell that. It's not cool. But that's what makes you a person.
Q: You've given interviews talking about how your brother has turned down opportunities to do a Clipse tour and make a new album with you. Is it frustrating for you?
A: My brother is the happiest he has ever been. I'm ecstatic. I'm willing to do this whenever he's ready. The frustration you hear in some of my interviews about this is that my older brother, there is nothing he tells me 'no' for. Nothing. He has never told me 'no' for the past 36 years. He did press for me if I didn't feel like doing it. As a child -- he's five years older -- there is nothing I could get from him if I asked him for it. My frustration is that I feel like my brother's reluctance has a lot to do with the problems we had with the record industry getting our music out in Clipse. It hasn't been the smoothest run for us. My brother has evolved, become a better person. I would much rather have that go on, without the bumps in the road. I don't want him to feel like he's been slighted. When I say in '40 Acres,' 'My better half chose a better path, applaud him,' I mean it. But I keep the hope going. We talk about it (a Clipse reunion), we talk about everything. I'm spoiled, bro, and that's my problem.
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
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