Ali Shaheed Muhammad
In the second part of an interview with Pusha T, Microphone Check co-host Ali Shaheed Muhammad is dragged into a public battle over which A Tribe Called Quest album is better — Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. Pusha details his frustrations with the music industry in general, and one fashion company in particular, and says his dream for hip-hop is for legacy acts to tour like The Eagles. "I don't think I will ever put any other music before it, so I need to see it all the way through. I need to see it in all of its splendor," he says. When co-host Frannie Kelley tries to end their conversation on a high note, Pusha recalls the making of the last song on his new album, a song that comes from a hard truth: "I don't necessarily want to hear rap anymore that doesn't give me — if we're talking about the streets — we can't just glorify it. We have to tell the whole story."
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: When you say, "All praise to the most high on both sides / I pray to God, I pray for hard," what does that means?
PUSHA T: Man. Wow. It's a very terrible statement. But it's all praise to the most high, meaning God. And meaning that I've prayed for, you know, drugs. Hoping it comes through and me — you know what I'm saying, selling them and so on and so forth.
MUHAMMAD: That's real.
PUSHA: Totally. And that's a prime example of just feeling the beat. I don't even know why. When I can't explain it, I'm like, "That has to stay." When I can't explain why — "All praise to the most high!" — comes out, then that's it. After that, then I just start writing.
MUHAMMAD: Bob Dylan says the most important thing to a song is the first line. The first line is the most important.
PUSHA: I believe it.
MUHAMMAD: A lot of people don't really, they just write to write or just don't really capture that feeling.
MUHAMMAD: Like, you know it. "I don't know why and it just has to stay."
PUSHA: That feeling is everything, man. I'm telling you! And some people can dial in a whole verse. I feel like my true greatness will be when I can dial in my whole verse off of a feeling. I think Tupac probably was like, that great at that. It sounds like he was. I mean, I don't know. But it feels like that. Jimmy Iovine told me one time, "Tupac couldn't write a verse; he could only write a hook."
MUHAMMAD: That's crazy. I didn't know that.
PUSHA: That's what Jimmy Iovine called all of his verses, actually. He was like, "Man, all of his verses were truly just hooks. He could not write a verse."
MUHAMMAD: Yo, that's flipping amazing.
FRANNIE KELLEY: No, that makes sense because it's so long.
PUSHA: But then when you hear them, and then when you just mimic and you don't know the words and you just hear the melodies and all of Pac's bars, it's like, "Wow, wait a minute! That might be right."
MUHAMMAD: I'm just thinking about it, I'm kinda like messed up. I'm like, "Holy..."
PUSHA: But he was dialed into the feeling. That's what I mean. He's dialed into the feeling.
KELLEY: First of all, I noted the Tribe shout-out on "Pain."
PUSHA: Oh, did you?
KELLEY: Ali did not.
PUSHA: Aw man, what? Ahh, come on!
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, sorry. She had to point it out.
PUSHA: That is incredible!
MUHAMMAD: I'm so sorry. Yo, it's a lot of distractions this week.
PUSHA: Oh my ... man!
MUHAMMAD: Damn, Frannie.
KELLEY: I'm sorry, I'm sorry!
PUSHA: Come on! Ahh!
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, it was a lot of distractions.
PUSHA: Aw man.
MUHAMMAD: So, so many. I'm so sorry. It's a lot of distractions this week.
KELLEY: Oh man, I feel guilty. I feel real guilty right now. What is Tribe; what is Tribe for you?
PUSHA: It opened up the colors of hip-hop to me. I was very one-track minded, with hip-hop. Very. I'm G Rap, I'm Rakim, you know. I could only see it one way. Tribe just opened up the colors and let me know like, "Wait a minute, man. This is fresh." You know what I'm saying? It let me know that, like, I didn't have to listen to it in just that capacity, just a street capacity. It was still fly. It was the first, like — man, I remember the Polo Hi Tech jackets. Like, come on, man. It was so many things to me. Tribe was so many things to me. And it really opened up, like, the horizons of hip-hop to me.
KELLEY: There's something about the cleanliness of the sound that I hear on this album that I can also hear in Low End Theory, in particular, and Midnight Marauders. But then also, there's the visuals around Low End Theory, the simplicity. The decisions, and they stick to the decision. That's there, too.
PUSHA: Are you familiar with the big Twitter argument that we had?
PUSHA: Oh my gosh. It was the Low End Theory — I have to ask you!
PUSHA: Low End Theory versus Midnight Marauders.
KELLEY: Oh, there it is. The eternal question.
MUHAMMAD: No, I didn't hear about this.
PUSHA: Oh, man!
MUHAMMAD: So, what was the verdict?
PUSHA: I mean, I rolled with Marauders. I rolled with Marauders, Common rolled with Low End Theory, then came back and said, "I think you might have been right with Marauders." Listen. He ain't admit that, though. Not in a open forum. I said, "Well, you gotta do it on Twitter! You gotta talk it." I think Busta rolled with Low End Theory, man.
MUHAMMAD: I could see that.
PUSHA: But then he started naming — wait a minute: He tried to put "Scenario (Remix)" on. You can't do that!
MUHAMMAD: You can't do that.
PUSHA: My point to you is, you can't add a record that wasn't on the album to your discography.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. That was way later, sorry.
PUSHA: Like, chill! But alright, I'm sorry.
KELLEY: I feel like I go Low End when I was younger, but now I would go Midnight.
MUHAMMAD: I'm happy to be in the room. What can I say?
PUSHA: Oh really? You're not gonna answer?
KELLEY: You're not gonna choose between your children?
MUHAMMAD: Come on! I'm like, why are you asking me that?
KELLEY: Because he asked Tip!
PUSHA: I asked everybody! And Tip went Low End on me, too.
PUSHA: He went Low End Theory, I was like ...
MUHAMMAD: He did? He answered that question?
PUSHA: Yes, he did! I mean, we pulled up tracks. I'm like, "so you're saying that ..."
MUHAMMAD: I know why. I'll just say because Low End was like — man, we're not here to talk about that. We're here to talk about My Name Is My Name.
KELLEY: We're here to talk about hip-hop.
PUSHA: This is true.
MUHAMMAD: I'll just say I understand why he said that because that was like the open, that was — how do I explain this? I don't know if I can put words to the feeling of finally —
PUSHA: Do you agree with him?
MUHAMMAD: He's like, "Yo, cut to the chase."
PUSHA: I just want to know, do you agree with him?
MUHAMMAD: I cannot answer that question. That's a tough one. That's a tough one. It really is, because there were so many different things happening on that.
KELLEY: This leads into a question for me, actually. You talk about you make music for hip-hop culture, for this hip-hop s—-. What is that? What is that now?
PUSHA: Man. I think the culture is everything that us as the youth that came up on "The Message" and so on and so forth. Everything we're into. It's the music, it's the breakin', it's the fashion. It's everything. It's the slang, it's the lingo. I make music to keep that going.
As an artist right now, my biggest thing is a) I want to see hip-hop become one of the genres that tour like The Eagles. That's my biggest thing. Like, me being in hip-hop for 11 years? I want to see who's gonna be the first touring act and the first act that I'm going to see on the back of USA Today and say, "This year's biggest earners for touring." I want to see that. That's my biggest thing. And I feel like by being in the know and being a part of the culture and being a part of growing with hip-hop — this is going to be one of the first years that I feel like — and I sort of feel like Jay Z is sort of starting that — where you can see the older hip-hop veterans don't look down upon what's coming up, what's new. You know what I'm saying?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, yeah.
PUSHA: And I feel like that's why all my favorites from back in the day left the game, why they got out the game. Because they were like, "Oh, I don't like where this is going. That's it. I'm off it." I feel like we're seeing that it doesn't have to be that. We can grow with it.
MUHAMMAD: It's like having a vasectomy.
PUSHA: Yo, come on!
MUHAMMAD: I'm just saying, in terms of the way that the older generation — they treat what comes after is like, "Well, have a vasectomy." Because it's like you're killing the lifeline of what preceded before you, which is so important. And that's just so damaging. It's so damaging because then the next generation has to pretty much figure things out for themselves. And that's what it becomes, and then you become even more upset because there was no one before —
PUSHA: There was no guidance.
MUHAMMAD: Exactly — to help me figure it out. I think it's the worst thing you can do in any position as a human being. You gotta be able to look beyond yourself.
PUSHA: Yes. I'm just gonna add to that by saying I feel like lyricism and lyric-driven hip-hop — that does not go out of style. So I feel like I'm gonna do my part because I'm gonna keep those fundamentals in play, with every year that hip-hop grows. I don't care what the new trend is. As long as I can incorporate that, man, I feel like I'm doing my job.
MUHAMMAD: In terms of the fashion aspect of hip-hop, you have a store. Is that true?
PUSHA: Yeah. I got two stores, and a clothing line, for the past five years.
MUHAMMAD: What inspired that?
PUSHA: Well, the clothing line is called Play Cloths. And it honestly was inspired by the We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape era, with the Re-Up Gang. We were going through a terrible time with the record label. We had just been moved over to Jive, we were arguing back and forth. We weren't putting out any music — this is before Hell Hath No Fury — and we put out those mixtapes.
And luckily, early on, the Clipse were embraced by Nigo, from A Bathing Ape and that streetwear line. So, I would go do these shows. It would be 500 kids, man. We Got It 4 Cheap is just Internet frenzy, college frenzy. 500 kids in there and I walk in and they'd be like, "Wait a minute, you got on the General jacket — 101 Varsity!" Or whatever. Now mind you, I'm just getting this stuff free. I wasn't into it like that, you know what I'm saying? I liked the clothes, but I wasn't into the Hypebeast-ness of it.
KELLEY: It was just what you were wearing.
PUSHA: Yeah, you know what I'm saying? And we had been embraced early on by him, so it was all good. That birthed BBC. Mind you, all of these people are just this close to us. So it's not real, I'm supporting my homeboy.
Once I saw the kids taking notice like that, I was like, "Man, I should really start a line." And what happened was there's a warehouse in Virginia. These kids, they were responsible for a couple of lines: Azurem, and Shmack, which was a streetwear/skate line. And the owners would let me come to their warehouse after work and keep all the staff. And with that, I would bring all my clothes. We'd make a whole mood board of just clothes, pictures. I remember playing, I think it was either "Heaven & Hell" or "Can It All Be So Simple," showing them the Snow Beach era of Polo, you know, just things like that.
These kids are young, graphic kids. Just brought all that together and we decided to do a line. It was great because these guys were used to doing commercial chain stores, and we built it out on a boutique level, my line out on a boutique level. And it was good for them to just see that aspect, and the owners to see that aspect of the culture and see where it was going. And now, they're like, "Wait a minute. This is what it's about."
The stores were built two years after that. One is called Cream, it's in Norfolk, Va., and one is in the mall. And that is more just streetwear, the origins of streetwear: Stussy, The Hundreds, Ice Cream, things like that. The other one's called Creme as well, spelled C-R-E-M-E, and that is high-end: Versace, Marcelo Burlon, MCM, the Tier Zero Nike account. Things like that.
MUHAMMAD: Is that as challenging of a business as the music industry? Or do you find it easier to direct?
PUSHA: It's easier to direct. It is. The only problem is acquiring accounts sometimes. And that's when you're dealing with the higher end stuff, because some accounts don't want to be next to other accounts. And I found myself taking it very personal. Like, I was denied for a Givenchy account.
PUSHA: Like, now.
KELLEY: That seems strange.
PUSHA: Those who know, know — the type of support that they've gotten from me.
KELLEY: The number of times you've mentioned them on track.
MUHAMMAD: Does that make you go, "Alright, F you." And now we're going to do our —
PUSHA: I just sold all of it. I did. I did.
MUHAMMAD: Was there an attempt to have a conversation to kind of like, fix their way of thinking? Or was it just kind of like, "Oh word? Alright, cool."
PUSHA: No. They sent me this really nice email that said, "No." And I was like, "This can't be. No." I couldn't take that. I couldn't accept that. I wasn't asking for anything. I have other brands that are top-tier, too. You know?
KELLEY: Didn't seem crazy.
PUSHA: Yeah, I wasn't asking to like, take your brand and put it — my brand isn't in the store that I was asking them to be a part of. My brand isn't even in there, at all. So yeah, I took it personal. Maybe I shouldn't have. But I definitely did.
KELLEY: What kind of frustrations do you have? I mean, I think a lot of people probably look at your life and be like, "You get to travel all the time."
PUSHA: I don't like traveling.
KELLEY: OK, so that's a frustration.
PUSHA: I don't. I actually don't.
KELLEY: Or say, "You get to meet famous people and get free drinks backstage and stuff."
PUSHA: I'm trying to stop drinking, actually.
PUSHA: I don't have — my frustrations, they all come from just being an artist. And they come from dealing with the politics of the record business. I've been in this game for so long now that I feel like it's not even about spending all the money on my marketing and so on and so forth. I think we all just have to come to an understanding about how to roll out a project. I feel like people are afraid to speak open and honestly. And with that, things get lost in this game. And I'm not that type of person. Like, with how things work today, virally and the lack of video shows, all of that. I feel like a manicured, timely, grass-roots campaign can work for me just like the $2 million that they may spend on your project, marketing it.
KELLEY: I can tell you from the journalists' side of things, all the different things that people try out and the different iterations of the various premiere plans or packaging or whatever, it makes my life harder. And it means I don't get to pay as much attention to a smaller, worthy project. I'm not sure really what people are trying to say all the time, either.
PUSHA: It's a bit much. I mean, that's the frustrating side to me. Like, we're in an age where information and everything is so obtainable. It's so accessible, man. And I think it's just moreso about just locking in and sticking with a plan and sticking with your core and your base. It's not too many of us that are really trying to do that.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, it's interesting to hear at this stage — what is this, like your seventh record?
PUSHA: No. Three records as the Clipse. I mean, we got numerous mixtapes; a crew album on Koch; another street album that was done through Decon for myself, solo-wise. So yeah, I've been around.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, and you've been successful. And to hear that, still — that this is the conversation that you're having — it's disheartening. And I say that because Tribe used to go through the same thing. You would hear it in our records, our frustration. After proving yourself, you go around the world and you help people make millions of dollars and you still continue to establish yourself. And acknowledging your ground, your base, all the time, and making sure that you service the people who are going to be there every time. And you pay so much attention to that, which continues to show what the campaign is about, when you focus on it wholly, and you still don't get that faith from the backers.
PUSHA: Yeah, 100 percent.
MUHAMMAD: It's frustrating hearing that that's what you're dealing with at this stage.
PUSHA: Very, very frustrating. And it still happens, man. You still go through these things.
MUHAMMAD: So what drives you, then? And motivates you to keep making music?
PUSHA: My music helps so many people. I mean, just in my circle, family, the fans themselves. Man. I love writing. I love performing. I love seeing people, you know what I'm saying? As much as I hate getting on planes every day, when I get there, when I get on stage and get to be in front of my fans, it all goes away. And I'm talking about my frustrations for the whole day go away.
So I don't complain about it because this business serves its purpose for me. You gotta find other outlets to keep things moving so you don't go crazy. That's why I love my stores, I love Play Cloths. And it's just other ventures. I'm about to take tennis lessons, yo.
MUHAMMAD: That's pretty dope. Let me know if you want to play, I keep my racket in the trunk of my car.
MUHAMMAD: I'm not that good. It's just a good exercise.
KELLEY: No, stop. Where is this gonna happen? Because I am gonna send a videographer.
MUHAMMAD: We can go to Fort Greene Park, that's where I play in the summertime.
KELLEY: OK, perfect.
PUSHA: As an artist, don't let the business make you bitter or anything like that. Then you have to leave, because you don't want to sit with that right here. You don't want to sit with that on your heart, man. You gotta leave it alone.
MUHAMMAD: Did you dream of becoming an MC as a kid?
PUSHA: Not at all.
PUSHA: Not at all. Like, I had no desire.
KELLEY: Did you want to be Teddy Riley?
PUSHA: I just wanted to be his friend. His friends had MPVs, I wanted a MPV! Purple ones, with TVs! I tell everybody, I wasn't rapping at all. I wasn't rapping at all. My brother was a rapper. He was known for rapping, around the area. His DJ and producer was Timbaland, at the time. And this is middle school, 8th, 9th grade. So, I'm in 4th grade. As he gets older and Tim starts branching out — I think he went to work with Jodeci, that whole camp — me and my homegirl, my childhood friend, she introduces me to Pharrell. Pharrell likes her. I'm not rapping at all. Me and Pharrell just start hanging out. He likes her and starts hanging out with her best friend.
KELLEY: That makes sense.
PUSHA: You know what I'm saying? Then weeks later, he says, "Yo, wait a minute.Your brother's Gene? Rapping Gene from the Beach?" And I was like, "Yeah." And he's like, "Yo, you gotta get him to come to the studio!" And I'm like, "Nah, man. My brother, he works with dude." And he's like, "No, but I know, you just gotta get him to come!" And this is all over a course of years, but I still wasn't rapping. Always around it, though. So then when I did hook them up and they got in the studio, that was just the everyday occurrence. I was like, "Man, I'mma write me a verse. Watch." And it happened just like that.
KELLEY: Classic little brother moves.
PUSHA: Yeah, totally. Totally. I never took the initiative to write. He took the initiative to just recently write a book. I would never take the initiative to do things like that. Like, "Write raps? Why?" It's being around him and being the little brother — that's where the rules came from. "Okay, that's wack, that's not wack." I learned all of that. Then you get in the studio with my brother and these other guys who produce, and they're showing you structure.
MUHAMMAD: So you didn't have a dream to become an MC?
MUHAMMAD: Do you have a dream now?
PUSHA: Wow. That's a very tough question. I do dream to make it in this industry to the point where I can help others and begin to really carve out where I feel like hip-hop should be. I truly want to see hip-hop be — I feel like it's the youngest genre. Is that correct?
PUSHA: Yeah. I mean, with it being the youngest genre, I want to see it be as big as all these other genres that are praised. I will never — my generation — I don't think I will ever put any other music before it, so I need to see it all the way through. I need to see it in all of its splendor. I see rock bands — I just saw Foreigner on Queen Latifah today. And I'm just like, "Man."
MUHAMMAD: A lot of people, actually, they're not around. The crazy thing — some of these pioneers, they're no longer here. Which, I don't know what that says about the challenges; this is our culture, it's our lifestyle. And it came from not having opportunity and oppression and city government legislatures. All these things that just made it impossible for us to take the next step from what our parents and our grandparents were trying to build. We took a dive. So we created an artform where we're talking about it, but at the same time, we become victims of the very thing that gave us the spirit. So there's a lot of pioneers, they not here because the lifestyle, the culture, just sucked 'em up.
PUSHA: Took 'em under.?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, so I think that may be one of the reasons. And there wasn't any organization like it is now. Like, you can really see what can happen. Look at what Jay's doing, what Kanye's doing. I guess it's evolving to becoming stablized and empowered.
PUSHA: It is, but it bothers me that I think — hip-hop has been here for 40 years. I feel like we're only at the second level of moguls. I feel like I'm Russell, Lyor, Rick Rubin. And then after that? It's like, Jay Z and Puff.
MUHAMMAD: Right. And that's it.
PUSHA: That's it. It stops. That can't be. You know what I'm saying? And I want to be a part of the growth of that. So then there's another set. Not to discredit the indie CEOs and so on and so forth that sold numerous records and the Master P eras, and even Cash Money with Baby and Slim. But I feel like that's still not the level that I'm talking.
MUHAMMAD: I feel you.
PUSHA: I feel like I want to see more Rubin, Lyor, Russell, Puffy, Jay Z era. We need to keep those, but I don't want just those two just to be the only ones. We need more.
MUHAMMAD: I like your dream. I like your dream. I like it.
KELLEY: Grow the industry.
PUSHA: I'm really good friends with Tony Draper from Suave House Records. He's a very, very insightful individual. And with all that he's been around, that he's seen, the ups and the downs of the industry, it's always been built and the foundation of it was always a grass-roots thing, for even his success. I feel like that. I feel like it should be that way. And then it just grows and builds, and as longs as those steps are being made, it will ultimately explode at the top, or whatever. But it's like, we gotta keep pushing that. We have to keep pushing that.
KELLEY: It is hard. It just is. But there's enough people that love it, and there's enough people that respond to high-quality, undeniable-level quality. And that's what builds it, I think, these days.
PUSHA: I'm watching it and I think the cycle's coming back around.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. When you said that, I was like, "Man. We just took a major hit for a decade, at least."
PUSHA: Yeah. But look at it, it's coming back around.
MUHAMMAD: Even you said, "There's no music to roll your windows down and bump it to." So yeah, it's an interesting cycle.
KELLEY: I want to go out on a slightly higher note. So maybe you could tell us the story of one of the songs on My Name Is My Name. What's your favorite?
MUHAMMAD: Take that, talking about favorites.
PUSHA: Wow, you said a higher note. I think I would have to say that my favorite record on the album is called "S.N.I.T.C.H."
KELLEY: The Pharrell joint.
PUSHA: The acronym "S.N.I.T.C.H." Which stands for, "Sorry, N-word, I'm Tryna Come Home." It's the truest story on the album. Essentially, I got a phone call from a friend of mine in jail telling me that it would be our last time speaking because he made the decision to cooperate with the police. And he couldn't take being in jail and doing time anymore, you know? "I'm just telling you we not gon' speak because I know how you feel and I can't do it no more." So, there goes your higher note.
KELLEY: But that's how you end the album, right?
KELLEY: That was your move. It's a big move.
PUSHA: Yeah. I got the call and I actually called Pharrell and I was like, "Listen. Tell me am I analyzing this right." And I told him the conversation, and he was like, "Yeah, that's his gift. That's his gift to you, but it's a song." And I said, "No, that's a terrible song." He was like, "No. It may be a terrible song, but it's a true song and you know what happens when you write those type of records. It's gon' be that pain, it's gon' be amazing."
So, he was like, "Well, listen. Just think about it." And at the time I was asking him, I said, "Listen. The only thing I'm missing on my album is a 'Long Kiss Goodnight' or a 'You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)' type of beat.
PUSHA: So he was like, "I'mma just work on the beat and you just think about it, because you need one of those stories anyway, from what you told me." I said, "OK."
He calls me two weeks later and I'm at SXSW on the street. He was like, "Sorry, N-word, I'm Tryna Come Home." I was like, "What you mean?" He was like, "No, that's the title of it." I was like, "OK, OK. I like it, I like it." He was like, "Nah, you don't feel me." He said, "It's the acronym for 'snitch', man." I was like, "Oh, yeah. You the G.O.A.T. You are the G.O.A.T." He was like, "Am I the G.O.A.T.?" "You are the G.O.A.T.! You the G.O.A.T.!"
It's my favorite record. My favorite record. The story records aren't usually my favorite records, but this was one of them. It really hit home. I've been saying to people, I don't necessarily want to hear rap anymore that doesn't give me — if we're talking about the streets — we can't just glorify it. We have to tell the whole story.
And I'm saying I can't listen to raps that don't acknowledge that cooperating and informants are — like your crew that you've told me so many jewels and diamonds and Ferraris and so on and so forth about, nobody went to jail and nobody cooperated? I can't listen to that anymore. It hits home too much.
So, the third verse of it, I was talking to everybody. All rappers, all boys who be out here, you know, everybody glorifies the lifestyle. And it's like, everybody glorifies it, but nobody has ever put themselves that close to their man, or admitting, my man who can call me, and to tell me he's never gonna call me again, and I gotta do what I gotta do and that's just it.
MUHAMMAD: Raise the bar on honesty.
PUSHA: Yeah. We got to. You have to know that story. You have to.