Though today’s Hip-Hop may feel like a young man’s game, there are a number of veterans setting an example on how to achieve true longevity and parlay musical success into other ventures. The effort one puts forth to establish a consistent identity early on affords the luxury of time in the latter part of their career. Pusha T has been rapping for almost 20 years, starting out in legendary duo Clipse before forging his own solo path. Along the way, he’s rapped on movie soundtracks, pop songs, and EDM records while also composing the iconic McDonald’s jingle. Push also owns 40% of Arby’s “We have the meats!” slogan. More recently, aside from being President of GOOD Music, he formed Heir Wave Music Group. More on that later.
Outside of music, he appeared in the second season of How to Make It In America back in 2011. Push even stepped into the political lane, working on Hillary Clinton‘s campaign back in 2016. His work ethic and staying power are notable. Despite the shifts in music these last few decades, Pusha T has stood firmly within his lane. Luxury drug rap has always had a place, even if it is not always the most visible aspect of Hip-Hop.
The Virginia native revels in not chasing the spotlight but letting the work speak. He does not crave recognition, but if he happens to receive it, he is appreciative. Take DAYTONA‘s Grammy nomination, for example. Despite what the memes from that night may have tried to convey, Terrence LeVarr Thornton holds no bitterness after taking the loss.
“Whoever is making that final decision, it depends on what their taste is. Honestly, it could have been any of us and it ended up being Cardi B. I was like ‘Shit, what can you say to that?’ I was in LA when her album came out, walking to the gym. Four miles there, four miles back. I was definitely listening to it and I understood perfectly well how she got it.”
The 43-year-old actually gave the committee credit. “I will say this, they got it right with that category. It was all explainable; you could explain each and every one to me.” His focus is not on accolades given by others, because he will always celebrate himself anyways.
It is about Pusha T and his fans’ satisfaction at the end of the day. Thus, he appreciated Drake‘s words after receiving his award for “God’s Plan,” where he urged artists to not measure themselves by a trophy or the opinion-based sport. They are winners every time fans open their wallets and spend their hard-earned money on a show. The GOOD Music President agreed. Understandably the last few years have felt especially triumphant for him and his supporters.
“What a hell of a year, true colors exposed/Crowns on these clowns, it’s like you colored their nose/We talking skill sets or popularity polls?/When you speak truth to power, your popularity grows.” Unfortunately, these cold opening lines did not officially see the light of day. Rick Ross ended up removing Pusha T’s “Maybach Music VI” verse from Port of Miami 2, but there is a resounding message that rang true in his performance throughout that year.
He delivered more than enough features in 2019 to compensate for this one pump fake. King Push lyrically sparred with YBN Cordae, Goldlink, Freddie Gibbs, Benny The Butcher, IDK, and Kai Cash. He even reunited with his brother No Malice for a gospel collaboration with Kanye West and Kenny G on JESUS IS KING. There was a certain competitive edge that was present in these tracks that made me recall his visit to the Joe Budden Podcast in 2018.
He spoke about how a lack of presence can allow people to nudge you out of the conversation. It is difficult to recap the 2019 year of rap, specifically guest verses, and not bring up Pusha T. Make no mistake about it, though – he’s still got tunnel vision.
“Right now – I was telling my brother this the other day – I only care about my discography at this point. There’s not a rapper on this Earth that I look at, compare, or even think too much about. For me, it’s about doing this, and doing it to a level where I think I’m adding to my legacy and adding to a really good discography. I wanna make the records and the albums that I wish some of my favorites would have made later in their careers.”
There was a careful earnestness to his voice that indicated how much he has thought about this. It is a heavy task accepting when someone you once saw as great is on the decline. Push added, “I still see them as great, but I always felt like a lot of artists feel they have to sort of change or be governed a bit more as they got further along in their careers. It’s like ‘No, I want to keep the same passion, hunger, and sharpness that I had on my first and second album,’ as long as that is still what I am being exposed to.”
Guest appearances like “Palmolive,” “Cokewhite,” “18 Wheeler,” feel as spirited as the “Mr. Me Too” days, but more improved as time has elapsed. He specifically crafted these 2019 appearances to knock people’s heads off. He was not shy about his output either.
“I destroyed so many lives on that feature run. That was on purpose too. There were joints that didn’t come out or got taken off records–bruh. It is what it is. I was happy with the year-end of that because I felt like a lot of publications had me at the verse of the year.”
Much like with the Grammy’s, Pusha T was happy to simply be in the conversation, but he did not need an article to tell him what he did. It was more about the understanding that listeners had. “Whether you’re the top or just to be mentioned in the best verse category for year-end, I’m cool with that; cause I know I killed that. To be in that mix, it’s like ‘Oh, you knew too.’ Even if I wasn’t number one, I still treated it like I was.”
How could he possibly not feel on top of the world when he also received arguably the greatest news of all? The proud husband announced back in December that he and his wife Virginia Williams were expecting their first child together. It wasn’t just any statement, but a leaked verse on Kanye’s “Follow God” beat. Pusha T confirmed with me that they were having a boy, and the name selection process would commence soon. Just this week, we were introduced to Nigel Brixx Thornton. I might be a bit envious of that middle name.
“That announcement was fire. The verse was fire, and it didn’t get enough praise as it should have,” he humorously jabbed. As far as preparing for his son to join the family in the midst of COVID-19 slowing the world down, it has been smooth sailing.
“It’s been pretty cool, man. We’ve been spending a lot of time together, doing a lot of things baby-oriented and nursery-oriented. It’s been calm. It’s been relaxing.” These times, despite the unfortunate circumstances, have been a novelty for the guy who travels over 250 days per year–on the family side, the music side and the personal side.
“There’s never been a time where I’ve had this much time off. It feels good to not feel like I’m in a rat race. I think it’s really playing into everything I needed to sort of reboot, look at the game for what it is, and assess before I go back and attack it again. I’m not a vacation person necessarily. Every time I go on one it’s always stressful because I feel like I’m losing time. This is the only time I feel like I’m not racing the clock.”
This forced break has opened up his schedule to work on his own music, listen to new music and podcasts, and tune into the VERZUZ battles. He confirmed that the rumors are true; he is working with the dynamic producer, Madlib.
“There’s something that I’m working on–we’re working on. He’s funneling me all different types of chops, samples, and stuff. We’re taking our time. I’m crafting and writing to some of them. That’s a bucket list thing for me. The fact that we’re in contact and everything is good, I see that happening. I can’t put a date on it, but I’m definitely on it.”
This is great news for those who recall when Pusha T revealed he had another album coming less than a year after DAYTONA’s release. When he stopped by the JBP, he was actually supposed to be working with Ye on it–who is also locked in on new music, he confirmed. I certainly didn’t forget about his announcement, and quickly put him on the hot seat. He was not phased.
“Music is a timely thing for me. I’m just in a different space than then. We were just coming off DAYTONA and I was like ‘I’mma come right back, I got joints.’ Then it’s like, I sort of felt like once I got out of that time and after everything with DAYTONA, I was just in a whole other mode. Records I liked that may have been passive or in a good feeling that I was in, I wasn’t in that feeling so I wouldn’t put that out. The feature run really showed what I was on. It was so competitive with me after that. It was like ‘Man, let me just show them there are no rappers left to me. Let me make sure all these features were flawless. I don’t got time to make a record to be fun-loving at this moment because I didn’t want anybody to think I was on that time.”
As far as another feature run goes, the chances seem slim to none. “There are very few people I want to work with. There are some I’d entertain today, just because I have a rapport with them. Other than that, no. These requests were coming in and I’m like ‘Imma knock all this shit out.’ In the place that I’m in now, I don’t want to be dealing with other artists. I want to focus on the album.”
While this may be an issue for any other artist’s hive today, Pusha T does not have the typical fanbase. They came up the same way he did. Lyricism and crafting the right album were foundational in that era. He references legendary duo OutKast as an example.
“I used to listen to OutKast albums for a real two years. I would have to listen for two years and wait for them to drop a new one, but they’re really great albums. I used to have to really wait on them to perfect it, or until they thought something was great. Period. That’s how I’m doing the rest of my career. I am going to literally make perfection as I know it every single time. I’m not rushing it. This is the luxury of just being in a comfortable space. This is how I have to do it. I feel like my fans aren’t going to take any less from me–they don’t want it rushed. My fans will listen to ‘The Games We Play’ until I come out with a new ‘The Games We Play.'”
It only made sense to ask Pusha T what he deems his personal favorite album, having so much self-awareness and clarity. He quickly answered 2006’s Hell Hath No Fury. His response to the follow-up question “Why?” came as no shock either.
“It’s one of the best Hip-Hop albums ever made. I mean, it came out in 2006. It was the best album of 2006. Hov dropped Kingdom Come in 2006. Man, Hell Hath No Fury is light years beyond everything that dropped that year. That was upper echelon Neptunes production and Clipse rap. Next level. That album really solidified our fanbase and us in the space of Internet fanfare and Internet rap. It’s that album and the We Got It For Cheap mixtape that has really held and laid the foundation for Clipse and my solo fanfare. Just a real sentimental, important, and trying time but it made for the best music.”
Hindsight is 20/20, and rappers tend to be some of their own biggest critics. Pusha T is no different, stating his biggest mistake was not making “Nightmares” one of that album’s singles. Being a guy who does not chase them, that regret may sting a bit more, but that has never been his game.
In terms of today, he firmly declared Lil Baby’s My Turn as the best album of 2020 thus far. For those curious, he wasn’t a huge fan of Dark Lane Demo Tapes. Neither assertion came as a shock, as he made his fandom clear from the moment Baby burst onto the scene around 2018, praising him in multiple interviews. As far as Drake goes, the relationship (or lack thereof) goes without saying. He has proven able to compartmentalize and assess the music, though, with the last songs he’s gone on record showing approval being “Mob Ties” and “Jaded.” More on R&B Later.
Where some artists feel the pressure to keep up or adapt to the sound, Push knows his place. Removing himself from the sphere of fan influence, he is able to admire what this new generation of rappers, specifically the rising Atlanta sensation, bring to the game without trying to seize an opportunity.
“Authentic rap, man. It’s something that you just can’t deny. It’s weird because people will look at me, take my rap style, and think I can’t like other things. It’s so crazy ’cause it’s like, I’m a person who grew up on all types of rap, first of all. Second of all, what those guys do isn’t something that I want to try to do. It’s just something that I like.”
It was refreshing hearing that he took exception to the way listeners attempt to put artists in reductive boxes. “People really try to pigeonhole you in regard to what you do and that’s wrong. Man, the Clipse is definitely what people would call ‘lyric-driven rap artists.’ They have no clue Malice would get in his truck and listen to Three Six Mafia all day like it was Reasonable Doubt. If you ask him what it was, he would say ‘Aw man, because you can tell they mean what they’re saying. Did you hear that line? He meant what he said.’ That’s what pulls you into certain artists.”
Real recognize real. He had similar feelings for his first Heir Wave Music Group signee, Kahri 1k. “There was a certain authenticity to him and the way he raps. He says a lot of things to me that are honest–almost too honest. I’m like, ‘Damn, man, do you even want to say this on a record?’ Things that I winced at don’t even make him flinch, so I let him do what he does.”
Push may not be what the majority of the younger generation wants to hear, and he accepts that. His calculated demeanor has allowed him to become aware of what exactly they do seek in music.
“I think Kahri speaks to what Mobb Deep used to call the ‘dun language.’ I took the interpretation of that as really speaking to the streets, and them having a whole language with those who can relate to it. I feel like what Kahri does is the ‘dun language’ for this generation. This is how they receive and digest information.”
Upon listening to his latest release The Ghost of Pecan Acres, I would agree. His use of yearning melodies, cadence-switches, and uptempo trap production allows him to fit in, while his story cuts through. “He’s 19. I was finding somebody who I felt was true to themself and spoke the language of the youth today. He has pain music, man, and I thought it was really good. We’re working hard at pushing that.”
I got the chance to speak with Kahri as well. Being born in the projects and the hardships of growing up in the hood of Petersburg drive him to strive for success. “It’s an everyday struggle seeing everything, having to overcome everything, and still being in the process of overcoming everything. My way out is my music.”
Kahri began taking music more seriously after his first run-in with the law in 2014. An unfortunate series of events forced him to look in the mirror, tap into the intelligent young man he knew was in there, and make something of himself. This was his chosen recourse.
Under Pusha T, Kahri’s career has seen a huge shift in just six months. He is excited about all there is to learn under such an established individual. He knows his purpose and carries that understanding into the booth with every line he spits.
Conveniently, Kahri lives just blocks away from the studio. He can grab his Chik Fil-A with BBQ sauce, lay down tracks for hours, then come back home to catch a nap or play Call of Duty: Warzone. He is hoping to come right back with another project at the end of this month.
Heir Wave Music Group as a whole is Pusha T’s brainchild. The aim is to strengthen the musical presence of the Mid-Atlantic region. The exec feels that there has been a “chitlin’ circuit” missing from his home, the 757, up through Richmond, D.C., Baltimore, and even up to Philadelphia. He acknowledged how getting hot in New York City gives you access to a large part of the East Coast. The same occurs when an artist pops in the South, but arguably on a larger scale today than any other region.
“If Yo Gotti finds an artist that’s popping in Memphis, he gets Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and we are still welcoming it here in the Mid-Atlantic. This region never had its own circuit so that if an artist comes out of here, there’s those few cities and few states to support it first. We’ve always been at the mercy of record labels and radio–and not even hometown radio. I remember coming out and praying that Funk Flex would put bombs on ‘Grindin’.’ Heir Wave Music Group, outside of the artists we have, is creating an infrastructure so that artists from this region can thrive and flourish without having to go outside of their region.”
Though the lyricist boasts about Virginia being one of the top music hubs, rightfully so, he acknowledges being behind the eight ball in terms of coming together in this way. Houston, The Bay, and Atlanta all took it upon themselves to build their own empires. As everyone gravitated toward New York, the mecca of rap, the opportunities were scarce.
“When rap was hot and very strong in New York, those other places weren’t getting played. 8 Ball and MJG weren’t getting played in NY. Then music turned to the South, but by the time music turned to the South, they already had it going. All those guys had the story of selling a million out of the trunk. Never was that the case in our region.”
Heir Wave Music Group differs from classic label Re-Up Gang Records as the latter was made out of necessity. They needed housing and distribution for their music, but the goal was not as intense as it is with HWMG. It was the breeding ground. “The connections I have to have with artists, radio, and club promoters–it’s a community. It’s creating a whole community, and not just for rappers.”
Pusha T is a long-documented, massive R&B fan. It won’t be shocking if he takes on another R&B act over time, given his ability to identify rappers who can succeed in today’s climate. Take GOOD Music signee 070 Shake, for example. In the meantime, he satisfies his love for the genre within his headphones or watching VERZUZ battles. We shared a favorite in Ne-Yo vs Johnta Austin.
“The most shocking, or rather, enlightening one was Johnta Austin vs. Ne-Yo, man. I had no idea he wrote one of my favorite records. I’m heavy into R&B, and Aaliyah has the record ‘I Don’t Wanna.’ I DM’d Johnta on the side like ‘Yo, I’m so sorry man. I’ve been giving the credit for this record to somebody else. I have very credible sources who told me someone else wrote it.”
He enjoyed all the battles overall, specifically the fact we can keep a celebratory spirit around the music during these times. “Tim and Swizz have really done their thing with that. Everyone who is competing in it too. It just goes to show you people make certain types of music, but are fans of all types of music that puts you in certain moods.”
Real men do appreciate R&B, but who would’ve predicted that the same man who made “Exodus 23:1” would get off to “I Don’t Wanna?” Range. Though a resident of the “older generation” of music, Pusha T likes the current state of R&B. Similar to rap, he sees it as progressive. He knows the purists will feel a certain type of way, but he pledged a long time ago to always keep an open mind when it came to music. He keeps up with everything and never gets caught up in what things used to be.
“When I think about all the people that were great in rap or music, the only thing that cut them short was when they began to have an attitude. There are guys that I thought were geniuses, but when you look at it, they only really had four good years. After the fourth year, music changed and they didn’t update their operating system. That’s something I never wanted to hinder rap music. I feel like every other genre is so open to new styles and subgenres. The rap community seems to be stuck in their ways. Purist mentalities that are just not too open to change.”
Lyrical rap may not appeal to everyone, and the content may not resonate, but Pusha T’s hustle and open-mindedness are admirable. The goal is to reach a place of true comfort. The ability to have your hand in multiple pots, build an empire for the future, and still perform at a high level on your own terms. It’s the beauty of patience. Hard work yields the gift of setting your own pace. Pusha T is now racing against himself. He can sprint when he wants to, and jog just the same. Along the way, he plans to expand his roster and give back to the community that made him.