Renewed 'Fury'

March 2, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

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 my nieces!".

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

 

 

 

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