East Coast weather during April and May is notoriously shitty: quickly forming patches of warm and cold; extended periods of rain; a terrible allergy season. Things even out by the summer, but for now, it’s totally unpredictable. It’s been cloudy and overcast the entire week before Clipse’s May 13 performance at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia, sun and showers replacing one another but neither holding out long enough. Frustrating, yes, but you couldn’t ask for more poetic conditions.
In 2002, Gene and Terrence Thornton, who go by Malice and Pusha, respectively, were one of rap’s hottest commodities. Their debut single, the cocaine-selling anthem “Grindin’,” was a Neptunes-produced bomb that spawned too many imitators (“Tipsy,” most shamelessly) and helped glide its accompanying album, Lord Willin’, to near-platinum sales. The following year, Clipse struck again with an appearance on Baby’s “What Happened to That Boy?” an equally innovative if more subdued track whose birdcall and Patty Cake clapping became the backbone for countless freestyles. It was all coming together.
Then the storm moved in.
Malice and Pusha were working on the follow-up to Lord Willin’ when their record label, Arista, got eaten up by Jive in a merger. Jive, home to artists such as Usher, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, seemed to have little idea what the hell to do with a hardcore rap duo whose biggest success was an ode to drug dealers. So Clipse waited. And wondered.
By 2005, with Hell Hath No Fury — the follow-up in question — indefinitely delayed, the boys from Virginia Beach decided they’d had enough. They teamed with DJ Clinton Sparks and called on a couple of friends: Liva, who appeared on Lord Willin‘s “Cot Damn,” and Sandman, who Pusha had discovered on a DVD. The foursome christened themselves Re-Up Gang and dropped a pair of incredibly good album-like mixtapes, We Got It 4 Cheap, Vols. 1 and 2, that imagined vivid heart-on-sleeve hustling poured over a gripping soundtrack of handpicked beats. Praise from both critics and fans rolled in like tidal waves, and suddenly, the Clipse boys were back.
Now, with a spot opening for Ice Cube on a recent promo tour, a great new single (“Mr. Me Too”), a third installment of We Got It 4 Cheap on the way, and a projected release for their second album, the dark clouds finally appear to be parting for a ray or two. Could it be that the Thornton brothers actually get to see a silver lining this time?
There was a lot of animosity and frustration with Jive. What’s the current situation?
Malice: We have our own situation with Jive called Re-Up Gang Records. That’s what Hell Hath No Fury is coming out on later this summer.
How did the tour with Ice Cube come about? Did he come at you guys like a fan?
Pusha: We’re co-managed by Tony Draper [founder of Suave House Records], and he sort of spearheaded the whole thing. He put us in touch with Cube and we just clicked. Cube was totally into the Clipse movement. He was going on his promo tour, and he was starting on the West. We had everything settled with Jive, and our promo tour was starting on the West [too]. We were like, “Why don’t we just link onto the tour?” It was a great look. We did the whole West Coast.
What’s the response been like out West?
Pusha: It’s been crazy. People know us from the Lord Willin’ album, but as far as the mixtapes, we have a heavy Internet presence, with the distribution through Mixunit.com. So those type of junkies were at the shows as well.
When the mixtapes came out last year, that was the first time I saw outlets such as Pitchfork and Village Voice pick up on Clipse. What did you think about that?
Pusha: It made me understand that people were definitely looking for us. I felt like, especially with the critics, it woke a lot of them up, in terms of, “Damn, this is what we’re missing in hip-hop.” I don’t think since Lord Willin’ there’s been anybody as focused or lyrically intricate as we are.
I want to get into that, because to me, one of the great things you guys do is the wordplay. You mentioned in an interview that a lot of rappers are using basic colors, how they’re not using all the shades. What do you mean by that?
Pusha: It’s just an analogy. As a kid, you always wanted the 64-box of crayons. Those were like six dollars, seven dollars [laughs], and our parents weren’t spending six dollars or seven dollars on crayons. I compare it to the rap game, ’cause it’s like, “Damn, these guys are just saying the same basic, clichéd things.” They’re talking about the same street situations. They’re not painting pictures. That’s one of the fundamentals of hip-hop.
Where does that love of words come from?
Malice: It’s articulate hip-hop.
Pusha: Yeah. That’s all we ever liked. The Rakims, the BDPs, the Kool G. Raps. Big Daddy Kane.
Is there anyone out now who you think has that kind of emcee ability?
Pusha: Yeah. That’s about it.
Where does the name Clipse come from? I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about that.
Malice: It means “full eclipse.” Fat Joe had a crew called the Full Eclipse Crew, like gun clips. We didn’t want to get confused with that. So we shortened it to Clipse, as in throwing shade on the industry.
It’s been four years since Lord Willin’ came out. When did you actually start working on the follow-up to it?
Pusha: We probably started the year after [Lord Willin’ came out], like middle of ’03.
So you’ve got about three years of working on that album. Or did you go back and scrap old stuff?
Malice: Oh, yeah, we kept the album current, revamped it. We were at a different place than we were before, right after the first album. It was a brighter side then, but it’s gotten much darker. You can hear more aggression and frustration.
You can hear that on the mixtapes, too. How do you guys approach the writing on those? Did you pick the instrumentals out or did Clinton Sparks bring them to you?
Malice: We picked every beat. This is the easiest job Clinton ever had in his life [laughs].
Pusha: When we decided to do the series, we made a conscious decision to show everybody what we think hip-hop is. When we did Vol. 1, that was more of a history lesson, like, “We have to bring you into our world.” That’s why we did records like “Queen Bitch.” It was the nostalgia of back then. Vol. 2 was competition. It was like, “Okay, this is what’s hot right now? We way better than that.”
Did you ever think with the way you hit those beats so hard that somebody might get offended, like, “I took your beat and just killed it”?
Malice: That was the point.
Pusha: It’s not personal. There were some real good beats at that particular time. On Vol. 3, we havin’ the hardest time pickin’ out the beats.
Is it true with the mixtapes that you guys don’t make any money off them?
But Clinton Sparks, or any deejay that’s got their name on it, are they making money from it? How do you feel about that?
Pusha: I’m sure he’s definitely made money on it.
Malice: But that’s neither here nor there. We did it for therapy and for survival.
Pusha: And relevance. It definitely wasn’t about a dollar.
How did you first get hooked up with Pharrell?
Malice: We had a mutual friend, back in Virginia Beach. I was known for rhyming, and Pharrell and Chad [Hugo] were known for making music. We used to go over Chad’s house — Pusha, myself, Chad, Pharrell — we’d be up in Chad’s attic making music. We used to drive to New York and shop demos to all the labels, trying to land a deal. Eventually we landed our first deal with Elektra, and it’s like, once you get a taste of this, you don’t know how to do anything else. This is all we know.
It seems like a lot of people believe in what you do, but then you have situations, like what happened with Jive, where you just sit on the shelf. How frustrating is that?
Pusha: It just makes you go at it harder. There are no more mishaps. And if there are, it’s just gonna be that we lost the fight, ’cause we gonna fight for everything that comes up. It’s like, “You don’t got a marketing plan? We got one.” “You don’t like the record? We leak the record.” It’s not a problem.
You mentioned earlier getting your kind of hip-hop out there. What kind of hip-hop are you making?
Malice: I think we’ve pinpointed exactly what we feel is missing, which is more lyrically driven songs. We take time and we handcraft our lyrics. We think about what we say and how we put it together. It’s three-dimensional. It goes back to the days when everybody was good, not just a few people.
What’s the new record gonna reflect?
Pusha: Everybody has to pay on this record. It’s emotional, to me, but it’s also competitive. A lot of shit is said on this record, and it’s like, “Take it how you wanna take it.” Knowing the competition out here, they’ll be afraid of it.
What do you mean by afraid of it?
Pusha: You can’t really compete with this.
Malice: The bar’s been raised.
Pusha: There’s nothing silly about it, there’s nothing far-fetched about it. It’s just the truth, as far as it being dope. There’s no comparison.
Do you think you go too hard sometimes, that it’s created problems with marketing?
Malice: I don’t think it gets any harder than “Grindin’,” and that was just straight raw and minimal, no hook, just talking about cocaine.
Pusha: That’s been our claim to fame. We don’t follow the rules. Even with [single] “Me Too,” man. Thirty-two bars before the hook.
You can’t even describe that beat.
Pusha: We take the unorthodox way. Like, we’re on Jive and we speak about the situation with Jive. It is what it is.
You hear a lot of stories about Pharrell, like the two-million-dollar beat. What’s it really like working with him?
Malice: We tend to bring the best out of the Neptunes. When they make a beat for us, they can’t use any of the same sounds they used on a Snoop Dogg record or a Jay-Z record. When we build, it’s totally original. Like with “Grindin'” and “Me Too,” the way it just interrupts radio and goes totally left. That’s our chemistry together.
With “Mr. Me Too” and some of the mixtape tracks, you’re saying things and it’s like, “Who is that about?” Are you addressing anything in particular?
Malice: The company [Jive], of course. That’s just as blatant as it gets. And just, you know, other emcees that
Pusha: Harness the ghost of the Clipse
Pusha: It’s just a great way to come back. It harps on everything we’ve been through. It’s also saying, “Dog, there is no group that could go through this type of shit and still be fucking crazy.” To still be hot in the sense that your peers know it. There’s not one rapper right now that doesn’t know what the fuck is going on. They know. That’s why I say the shit I do. You hear how we’re comin’ and it’s like, “Oh, shit.”
Malice: I know if I wasn’t a part of the Clipse or Re-Up Gang, I’d be scared myself [laughs]. And to be gone and hear your fans like, “I know it’s gonna happen, I know it’s gonna happen,” and keep believing
Pusha: Fuck us being hot, that just goes to show you how wack music is. I don’t think Kane could’ve stopped for four years in the midst of Rakim and Kool G. Rap making records.
Malice: We’ve been gone for four years, and it’s like we’re right where we left off.
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