Pusha T: ‘The Make America Great Again hat is this generation’s Ku Klux hood’

With his gritty tales of drugs and street life, the rapper is widely celebrated – and condemned by his arch rival Drake. But he met his toughest challenge yet when his mentor Kanye West started championing Trump …

‘Kanye and I spoke about insensitivity, where I feel he went wrong’ … Pusha T.
 ‘Kanye and I spoke about insensitivity, where I feel he went wrong’ … Pusha T. Photograph: Fabien Montique

Asurprising piece of trivia surfaced during the three-year wait for a new album by Pusha T. The rapper – whose cocaine-dusted songs detail the paranoia and luxury of his drug-slinging past on the streets of Virginia – apparently wrote the McDonald’s I’m Lovin’ It jingle. The radiant ba-da-ba-ba-baa – originally voiced by Justin Timberlake – that closes the fast food chain’s television ads? Yep, it was the work of an MC best known for dead-eyed tales delivered over steely beats, the artist’s camp confirmed in June 2016.

Others involved in the ad campaign have since claimed the jingle as theirs, but the rap internet was entertained nonetheless. As a couple of anti-obesity campaigners joked, Pusha had finally found something deadlier than drugs to centre his music on. But it also offered a glimpse of a lighter side to a revered hip-hop scowler whose 20-year career has been defined by gritty reality. “I sold more dope than I sold records/you niggas sold records, never sold dope,” he scolded his peers on 2014’s Hold On. He neglected to mention that he helped sell Happy Meals, too.

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We meet for lunch on a hot bright afternoon in central London, where Pusha T’s own sunny side is also in evidence. “I’m the same as when I was doing field day in school, man. I wanna be the best. I gotta win that blue ribbon,” beams Pusha – real name Terrance Thornton – as we sit down, explaining the competitive streak that led to his career-best new album, Daytona, not to mention his recent beef with long-time adversary Drake. He is dressed in black and sports the same bob of braids he has had since his emergence as part of legendary 00s duo Clipse, punctuating his anecdotes with laughter in the same way he pierces his verses with sinus-clearing sneers.

Daytona, he suggests, should reinforce his position “as a force who represents the hip-hop purists”. The album was produced by close collaborator Kanye West in a rustic Wyoming mansion, part of an ambitious plot by the pair’s GOOD Music imprint to record and release five albums by five artists in five weeks. It is a lean thunderbolt of synapse-firing samples and rhymes that retreads Pusha’s hustling days from the chaise longue of a VIP room. Although surrounded by “cocaine concierges” and near-infinite riches, the 41-year-old remains stalked by the suspicion that it could all come crashing down in a moment. “I am just a short stone’s throw from the streets,” he reminds himself on the chilling Santeria, a track dedicated to his former road manager DeVon “Day Day” Pickett, who was stabbed to death in Philadelphia during an altercation outside a bar in 2015.

Pusha T with Kanye West at the Yeezy show, New York Fashion Week, Feb 2016.
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 Pusha T with Kanye West at the Yeezy show, New York Fashion Week, Feb 2016. Photograph: Tracy Bailey Jr./BFA/REX/Shutterstock
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“We were calling it therapy,” Pusha recalls of the making of Daytona. “The goal was to recreate feelings. I dove into a bag of my favourite music: RZA, Scarface, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill. If it didn’t have this feeling, it didn’t make the album.” Working on the album in such a small window of time meant relying on instinct, a creative process that he says felt “unorthodox, disruptive, urgent”. No expense was spared: Pusha and West spent an estimated “$8,000 a day” to stay at the Wyoming resort, “finding the right textures, the right samples” before recording a note of music, while the record’s controversial cover – a photo of Whitney Houston’s bathroom, covered in drug paraphernalia, that infuriated the late singer’s estate – cost $85,000 to license.

And like the rest of the GOOD Music releases that followed it – West’s divisive Ye and his collaborative album with Kid CudiNas’s first new music in six years, and an LP from rising R&B star Teyana Taylor – it was only seven tracks long, countering the bloat of streaming-era rap albums. “It was a practical decision: Kanye wanted to produce all of the albums. Five albums of seven tracks is 35 tracks, that’s do-able.” Not that he has time for long albums. “You’re just trying to cheat your streaming numbers. I’ve yet to hear a really incredible long album. So to hell with that.”

Although the album’s lyrics don’t encompass any of the political activism that has occupied his spare time since his last release (a campaigner for Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, Pusha is a passionate advocate for prison reform and in 2016 appeared with director Ava DuVernay in a debate on the US prison system), it is full of quiet reflections on race and America. “Now we blend in, we chameleons,” he spits on Come Back Baby, a reference to the current wave of black artists achieving “God-level rock star status”, as Pusha puts it.

“I used to sit back and read the back of USA Today. The top grossing tours would be Pink Floyd and the Eagles, and I would wonder when Run DMC would be up there,” Pusha says. “Seeing Jay and Kanye among this … it’s inspiring.” His admiration for West is unfaltering, even at a time where you might suspect their relationship is on the ropes. Three weeks before the release of Daytona, a hand grenade was thrown among West’s fan base, the debris forming a thousand think-pieces. After a string of tweets praising “my brother” Donald Trump and showing off a Make America Great Again hat signed by the president, West remarked in a TMZ interview that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice”.

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“We disagree on plenty of shit,” Pusha admits. “Of course I disagree with what he said then.” Was he angry? “Well, when he did TMZ, I flew to Wyoming the next day [to confront him]. We spoke about insensitivity. The actual messaging. Where I felt he went wrong. You can’t even paraphrase about situations and issues that are so personal to people. When it comes to death and real-life people and persecution and things where families have been divided, you have to be more careful.” Was he frustrated that his album release, and the other album releases to follow in GOOD Music’s summer rollout, were likely to be eclipsed by West’s comments? “It’s not about me being frustrated. He’s opinionated, I’m opinionated. He’s a guy who runs off feelings. It always comes back to the music.”

West has since claimed that his comments were taken out of context, and Pusha has some sympathy with this. “I feel like the keywords in what he said were so strong and powerful, that it doesn’t let you get into the nuances, the underlying perspective. Or even wanna hear how he’s thinking,” he explains. “I told him that if you’re really trying to get a point across, you have to be mindful a little bit about what’s gonna tick people off, so you can get to your end goal.” He blames the outburst for the muted critical reception afforded to the Ye album (Pitchfork called it “undoubtedly a low point” in his career). “People are a bit scared to embrace Ye now. Fine, whatever bro. That comes along with saying the controversial shit.” West’s opinions, he points out, haven’t softened his own stance on the current Oval Office incumbent. “The Make America Great Again hat is this generation’s Ku Klux hood. When was America so great anyways? Name that time period?”

Despite the storm clouds, Daytona was instantly hailed as a classic, his best work since Hell Hath No Fury by Clipse, the rap group he formed with older brother Gene, who was then known as Malice. As well as making a street star of Pusha, Clipse also introduced America to fellow Virginia Beach resident Pharrell Williams, whose Neptunes production team provided the stark, menacing beats underpinning their drug-hustle fairytales. Williams calls Pusha at one point during our interview and the pair end someone’s career while Pusha takes bites of softshell crab. “That new artist who got a little hype then became non-responsive? Tell him to get the fuck outta here! Waste of my fucking time!” says Pusha down the phone.

Pusha T with his brother Gene AKA Malice in Clipse, 2006.
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 Pusha T with his brother Gene AKA Malice in Clipse, 2006. Photograph: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Malice and Pusha were born in the Bronx, but moved to Virginia when Pusha was aged two, returning to New York each summer to visit their grandmother, where they mingled with locals and got their first taste of hip-hop. As they grew older, Malice began writing raps, which Pusha attempted to emulate, eventually teaming up as teens to become Clipse. By the time Pusha was 19, they had signed to Elektra Records. After a couple of false starts, the pair began winning fans in all sorts of unexpected places. “It’s two guys from Virginia, and it’s very abstract. There’s no bass there. When I listen to it, I kick myself,” said the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, praising their “amazing minimalism”. Timberlake leaned on the pair’s authenticity for his pivot to R&B, featuring them on his debut solo single, Like I Love You.

The fact they were now regular faces on MTV didn’t dull their edge, though: enraged by a standoff with record label Jive Records, 2003’s Hell Hath No Fury found them “mad, angry and pissed the fuck off”, as Pusha put it. The group eventually disbanded: Malice changed his name to No Malice and stepped away from rap, deterred by a federal investigation into Clipse’s circle that eventually landed their manager, Anthony Gonzales, in prison for 32 years on drug-trafficking charges. Pusha charged ahead into a solo career: a couple of critically acclaimed mixtapes and albums followed, as well as scene-stealing guest spots on West’s Runaway and Future’s Move That Dope.

“I’ve still got the same appetite now that I did then,” he insists. “It’s about competing with the times, not just living in the times. I don’t wanna just exist. I want to win. I want to be timeless. The real competition is with time, not with people.” Tell that to Drake. This summer, the long-simmering feud between Pusha and the Canadian superstar spilled over into a couple of vicious diss tracks, sparked by Drake’s Two Birds One Stone, on which he admonished Pusha for inflating his “drug dealer stories”. A track on Daytona, the smoky Infrared, fired back at Drake’s use of ghostwriters. Drake brought Pusha’s fiancee, Virginia Williams, into it. Pusha responded with nuclear ferocity, exposing in three brutal minutes, on the track The Story of Adidon, his rival’s “secret” child and a photoshoot in which he posed in blackface makeup. It was the only rap beef in history to have ended with an MC forced to post on social media a grovelling clarification written on his iPhone Notes app: the photograph, Drake explained, dated from a pre-fame acting project that represented “how African Americans were once wrongfully portrayed in entertainment”.

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“He said what he said, I said what I said, now it’s done. It stayed how it was supposed to stay, just words,” grins Pusha. “It was definitely good for hip-hop. What has been more energetic than this?” On Drake’s new album, Scorpion, he addresses Pusha’s revelations about his child with the lyrics: “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid.” Will he give it a listen? “Hell yeah! I gotta have something to compare Daytona to, don’t I?” he says.

His publicist beckons – our time is up. Tonight, he flies to Oslo, where he will perform with Eminem. Then it is back to his home in Virginia, true to his lyric on Daytona, a stone’s throw from the streets where it all began. Next week, work could begin on another set of impulsively created GOOD Music releases. “Kanye’s been calling me every day like, ‘We gotta go back in!’ When I’m back, I’m gonna call him and check his temperature. I’m already on to the next thing. He’s got stuff he wants me to hear, I’ve got stuff I want him to hear. Our excitement meter is all the way up right now.”

Pusha wants to keep working while the energy is this good, while he and his accomplices are still on this creative buzz. In other words, to quote a popular fast food chain: he’s loving it.

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