Over the past decade, the Clipse have established themselves as one of hip hop’s most respected and recognizable duos. And while Malice and Pusha T’s unbreakable bond as real-life brothers drives their success, they are empowered by the undying support of their international fan base.
The Clipse’s first two releases — Lord Willin’ (2002) and Hell Hath No Fury (2006) — have garnered massive critical acclaim, with the latter earning Top 10 rankings in year-end lists compiled by Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and SPIN Magazine. On November 10, 2009, the Clipse will release their third studio effort, Till the Casket Drops, from their new home: Columbia Records.
During a promotional radio tour for Till the Casket Drops, Gene “Malice” Thornton managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on “Kinda Like a Big Deal,” his chemistry with Pusha T, and the need for “articulate hip hop.”
In the early stages of your career, you and your brother, Pusha T, would drive to New York and shop your demos to all the labels. As unknown, unsigned talents at the time, what obstacles did you encounter on the path to success?
Trying to shop our music for Clipse, it was very, very easy. I wish I could give you the hard luck story, but we shopped it at a few places and before we knew it, we had a deal. It happened kind of fast, which, I guess, we paid for later with all the hiatuses we had to take. That experience was good for Clipse. It was quick.
The biggest obstacle would be once you get in the door is to find the exact suits that are as passionate about your music as you are. We know we got the product. “Here it is; it’s hot. We did what we’re supposed to do. We’re giving it to you.” Then you need that rollout to be successful. You can’t afford to have people dragging their feet or say they would get to it when they get to it. You know what I’m saying? Everything works on a timeline, especially when you get that momentum going. You want everything to roll out properly but some things are out of your hands as the artist. Especially in this game – you got to know how to be flexible and roll with it.
It’s fairly well-known that your career has had its share of ups and downs: your first album, Exclusive Audio Footage, was shelved, and you had your fair share of difficulties with Jive Records. What lessons did you and Pusha T learn from these experiences – especially when it came to promoting your music?
We just had to learn you can’t sit back and wait, which brought about the We Got It 4 Cheap series, the mixtape series Vol. 1, 2 and 3, the Play Clothes mixtape, even the Play Clothes clothing line. You can’t just sit and wait ‘til people are ready to start rockin’ and hope that it will work for you. You got to come up with the ideas, other solutions and other plans of attack. I think one thing that I can definitely say about Clipse is, even with what most people would call drawbacks or setbacks or whatever, it didn’t make or break us. We were cool before the music. We’re going to be fine after the music. A lot of people probably would’ve jumped off a building, but we maintained. We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket, man.
That’s just been our attitude from the beginning. We were fine. Everybody wants to hear our records. We were blessed. Even with all the drawbacks, we were able to tour. We haven’t stopped touring since we started. We’d be overseas a lot just having good music. You know what I’m saying? If you put out a good product, people are going to want you. They’d want to hear from you. Our fans 100% kept us alive.
To date, all of your albums have generated a substantial deal of critical acclaim as opposed to commercial success. Does that ever bother you?
You got to love what you do. You got to be passionate about what you do, man. We love what we do regardless whatever comes out of it. At the end of the day when we put that album out, we know that that’s how we would have had it done. You don’t say, “I wish I did this. I wish I did that.” No. Every time we put out an album, it’s what we intended. It’s how we wanted it to be. If you don’t get nothing else, you get a good night’s rest. You know what I’m saying? We’re very happy and satisfied with that and we deem it all a plus.
You have often described your music as “articulate hip hop.” What does that particular phrase mean to you?
I think it’s a thinking man’s hip hop. If I had to sum it up, that’s how I would describe it – a thinking man’s hip hop. It’s not just without thought – you put some words together that rhyme and have a little jingle and melody with it or whatever. It’s thought out, man. It’s real. It’s true to life. It’s things that we’ve been through. You get our complete views on different situations that we’ve been through. You know what I’m saying? It’s great to be creative and make it entertaining at the same time. It’s true. It’s real.
One thing that you have become known for is your endless supply of witty rhymes. What elements do you think make-up the perfect verse?
I think that the perfect verse should relate to a definite point in time. Like when I listen to a track, I listen to the beat or whatever and then I go to a place that it really originates from. When I was here, I did this. When I was this age, I did that. Or the other day, this happened. And the listener can identify with and go, “Oh man, that’s real. That’s serious. You can’t just come up with that without having lived it.” To me, that’s very important. You know what I’m saying? That’s where I get my motivation from. Once you got something to say, especially with the kind of hip hop that we do, then I think the magic and the gem come right along with it as you’re creating it.
As one-half of the Clipse, you have had the pleasure and – to some degree – the rare opportunity to work with someone who’s really close to you: your brother, Pusha T. Do you and your brother ever feel pressured to compete against each other for the illest rhyme?
No, but we definitely have a set standard. Since we’re brothers, we basically come from the same school. So when you come to the table, we never write together. We don’t try to come up with these rhymes. We discuss the beat. We discuss the topic. We just lay it down. When we come to the table, it always seems to come together. It’s just a level of integrity that comes every time.
A lot of people when they write albums – not that it’s a bad thing, it’s just bad for us – would do 20 or 30 songs and scale back to what they think is hot. We don’t do that; we don’t go by that format. Everything we write, we say we’re going to use it. It ain’t like, “Take this off. There’s no place for that.” Everything we write, we hand-craft each and every song. That’s just what we do. It’s that level of integrity that comes with it every time.
When you and Pusha T flow between your separate distinct zones, what roles do the two of you play, when it comes to the management of the group?
As a group, we are pretty much hands-on with everything. Pusha T handles a lot of things. But when there’s a roadblock or there’s a problem and something’s not getting done, nobody wants to talk to Malice. They just don’t want to hear from me. I’m that dude that as long as it’s running smooth, I can bear with you. But when it stops, the name of the game is, “Don’t let it get to Malice.”
Gotcha! [laughing] As the most visible member of the group, you have used the Internet and various websites to promote the Clipse. Why do you think it’s important to maintain an online presence and stay in touch with your fans through digital channels?
Intimacy. The fans definitely get closer to you. We personally are not big sports fans. But when I hear about a player that never received the ring, his mom is battling cancer and this is his last time, when I hear the story behind it then I’m interested in that game. You know what I’m saying? You might even hear music that you thought was okay and never really paid attention to it until you go and see that person live – then you fall in love with it. I think the more the connection, the more you know about the artist inside and know his heart, it makes you appreciate why he does what he does. That’s pretty much my standpoint on it. And the visibility is always necessary in this game.
Although your forthcoming album, Till the Casket Drops, stands as your third studio release, it will be the first with Sony under the Columbia Records imprint. In what ways will this album be a classic Clipse album and in what ways have you grown and evolved?
I think we’re in the best of both worlds because, like I said, we definitely have a strong following, a real strong fan base of people that knew the Clipse. They knew “The Funeral” and “Got Caught Dealin’” – [from the unreleased debut album, Exclusive Audio Footage] – some of the first songs we ever put out. The fact that those fans are still with us speaks to our strong following. We got a lot of notoriety.
People say that we are underrated. I think that left us in a good position to go out there and grab the new fan and have a clean slate, a first slate. We’re known to a lot but there are still a lot of people to reach. There is still a place to strive for, a place to achieve. We definitely have it in us to make good music so we’re in a good place. We’re definitely in a good place.
What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to hip hop?
Our greatest contribution to hip hop – I definitely would say the food for thought. We talk about real things. People know if you’re lying. They can definitely count on us. In this day and age where a lot of people feel that hip hop just took a turn for the worse, we still hold up the flag of genuine, lyric-driven hip hop. I think all hip hop has its place. I don’t think people should say hip hop’s changing and it’s not good no more. I think it’s still very good. We still hold true to the basic fundamentals that a lot of people know, love and even miss.
“Kinda Like A Big Deal” serves as the buzz track for the Till The Casket Drops. Why do you think that was the perfect lead-in for this particular album?
“Kinda Like A Big Deal” is Kanye West, one of the biggest names in hop hop, and the return of the Clipse. It was never intended to be a major single, but we have a real rapport with Kanye. The song just kind of carried itself. I think it’s a perfect lead-off for the album though, just because the beat is so raw, so street, and produced by DJ Khalil. It’s just a dope street record.
Your first two albums, Lord Willin’ and Hell Hath No Fury, were produced solely by the Neptunes, who have been an instrumental part of your career. What prompted you to let more people jump on board the production-side of things?
I just think it was real interesting to see other producers, how they see us. They were fans of the Clipse. We met with a lot of producers just to get their input on where they thought we should go. There are a lot of producers that enjoy what it is we’re doing and were like, “Man, if I can work with the Clipse, I’d do this. I’d do that.” So it was interesting to see what else was available to us and what would add flavor to the album. It was cool to really work with these guys. These guys are producers, not just beatmakers. They come with the whole theme and the whole look. We really appreciated it. Then come the Neptunes again. They’ll hear the music and they have the competitive vibe. We brought out the fire in everybody.
There’s a lot of buzz online about a book that you have in the works. What details can you share?
Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked. It is the title of my book. This book is a phenomenal! When I read this myself, I get chills. It’s basically about my life with the Clipse. It gives you a great, in-depth view of the industry and my personal life at home with me and my family, the effect hip hop has had on my life. I think it will be very beneficial and very helpful to anybody trying to get into this business.
Why did you select those particular words to be used in the title?
Because it’s just the lowest of the low. I really get into the lowest point of my life. Those words are about as low as you can get – wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. As much as you think you’re in Fendi and Gucci and Prada, and as much as you think you’re driving the hottest Porsche, you can really be at your lowest with all those things. I also have a website, maliceoftheclipse.com, and five true-to-life blogs. If you sit and watch those blogs, like a movie, you’ll see the direction the book is going to. It will let you know the inside of the relationship between me and my brother, Pharell, my wife, and my kids, and hip hop. It is just extraordinary.
For more information on the Clipse, visit the duo’s official website.