Since its heyday in the late '80s, when albums by Ice-T, Boogie Down
Productions and N.W.A played like journalistic dispatches from the streets,
gangsta rap has devolved into the most cliched form of hip-hop -- a
simplistic excuse to brag about drug dealing and violence. Just listen to 50
Cent. But last year, two releases breathed new life into this stagnant genre
with immediacy and inspired artistry.
One was "Fishscale" by Ghostface Killah. The other, even more impressive
disc was "Hell Hath No Fury," the long-awaited second album by Virginia
Beach brothers Terrence and Gene Thornton, aka Pusha T and Malice. Recording
as the Clipse, they burst onto the scene in 2002 with "Lord Willin'," a Top
10 hit produced by longtime friends the Neptunes. But the wait for the
follow-up dragged on more than four years as the pair became mired in
problems with its label, Jive.
"At the time, it was like a fairy tale," Terrence/Pusha T says of the
debut. "We had amazing buzz when we came out with the album, but we just
didn't know that the industry could work like this. The term 'label merger'
didn't mean anything to me at the time; it was like, 'Who cares?' On top of
that, you had them merging in the midst of us being on the road with 50
Cent, being in Europe with Jay-Z and being on tour with Nelly. We really
didn't feel or understand it until we got back home and made up a marketing
plan for the second album during a meeting with [former label head] L.A.
Reid. Then, a week later, we heard that he got escorted out of the building!
"From that point on, it was a downward spiral. ... Time just started
passing, and we just got really upset."
The Clipse maintained its rep through a series of mix tapes, the sort of
underground, D.I.Y. releases that the major labels have recently demonized.
("Let's just be clear: People know you because of the mix tapes and what
you're doing regionally," Pusha T says. "Mix tapes don't hurt anybody.")
Finally, with the label situation resolved, the group went back into the
studio with Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo.
"Working with the Neptunes is a good thing, because we're actually their
crash test dummies," Pusha T says. "The other artists that they work with
just want something similar to the last hit they made, but we're always
trying to make a movie with our music, and we pride ourselves on going left
when everyone else goes right. With the Clipse and the Neptunes working
together, nobody's thinking Top 10; we're thinking the most sonically,
innovative music and making something that matches the mood of the lyrics."
"Hell Hath No Fury" was not only the Neptunes' most adventurous
production in years, it took the Thornton brothers' lyrics to a new level,
chronicling the underground world of crime and drugs with a novelist's eye
for detail, including poignant insights and moments of considerable humor.
"The black Martha Stewart / Let me show you how to do it," the duo
raps. "Break pies to pieces / Make cocaine quiches / Money piles high as
Fans generally credit Malice with the more emotional raps and his brother
with the funnier lines, and Pusha T doesn't disagree. "I feel that my
brother is amazing and shares some very introspective, deep things. The
parallels he draws are amazing, and they're serious. My lyrics are a little
less formulated and a little more rebellious."
The two write separately and only combine their rhymes in the studio, and
they rarely change each other's work. "There have definitely been times
where we go back and forth, sparring all through the writing day," Pusha T
says. "We pull everything out of each other by challenging each other. But
if anything, I'm going to look to him; he doesn't do too much looking to me.
He's five years older than me, and he has always been into rap, so he
brought me into it."
As for the simplistic charge that any rap song about drug dealing
glorifies crime, Pusha T has a considered response. "I feel like the
fundamentals or rules that we play by are to always add color, always add
emotion and to give you a 360-degree perspective of what's going on. Too
many rappers don't do that; a lot of people are just glorifying it and
saying what they think sounds good or what sounds flamboyant but, it's just
not true. I think the listener gravitates towards what you feel, and you
feel something in this music.
"We have always liked MCs where we could feel the truth in their raps. I
love what Common, Kanye [West], Lupe [Fiasco], Dead Prez and the Roots do,
because it's real." And if the brothers have so far rapped mostly about the
drug world that surrounded them growing up, Pusha T believes they could go
anywhere in the future. "I think it's going to be a growth -- progress from
here to there, and good music all along the way."
REASONS FOR LIVING
Though the Autumn Defense will always be overshadowed by that other local
band that benefits from the talents of bassist and vocalist John Stirratt
and guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist Pat Sansone, the group deserves the
attention of fans of smart, passionate pop, as evidenced by the recent
release of its third, self-titled album.
Produced by Brad Jones, "The Autumn Defense" marks a departure from the
bright, sunny, '70s AM-radio sounds that marked the 2001 debut, "The Green
Hour," or even the slightly more subdued vibe of 2003's "Circles." A quiet,
reflective and heartbreakingly sad mood permeates many of the 13 tracks
here, though the arrangements are no less inviting, Sansone and Stirratt
still sound great when they sing in Simon and Garfunkel unison, and the disc
does the folkie, ork-pop tradition of Nick Drake proud.
The Autumn Defense, which is rounded out by drummer Greg Wieczorek, pedal
steel player John Pirruccello and horn player Steve Tyska, will perform
Saturday at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage, following opening sets by the
Singleman Affair and Ferraby Lionheart, starting at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15.
Call (773) 929-5959.
As for Sansone and Stirratt's other band, Wilco is set to release "Sky
Blue Sky," the follow-up to 2004's "A Ghost is Born," on May 15. It's
reportedly a pretty hard-rocking affair -- which might explain why the
Autumn Defense took the quiet route this time to balance things out.
THE CLIPSE; LOW B OF HOLLERTRONIX
• 11:30 tonight
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets, $25
• (773) 549-0203