After years of label drama, these Virgina brothers finally have a clean slate on Columbia Records. Can they find success again without The Neptunes?
Over the last five years, more people have heard about Clipse’s label woes than have actually heard Pusha and Malice’s music. It’s a familiar story: The Neptunes’ flagship artists hit it big with 2001’s platinum-selling Lord Willin’, then get sucked into a hell full of label mergers and pushed back release dates before their follow-up can solidify their status. By 2006, they seemed to have reached a tenuous agreement for a new label with Jive Records, but after more delayed release dates, their critically-acclaimed sophomore album Hell Hath No Fury (which received the coveted XXL rating from XXL) came and went with very little marketing push or response from the record buying public. To date, the album has sold just under 200,000 copies, according to SoundScan.
Almost a full year later, the Virginia-bred brothers are now emerging from another period of silence. They've left Jive and Star Trak for a new home at Columbia Records, where they just signed a 50/50 deal for their Re-Up Records. And while the Sony system has been notoriously bad with urban acts in the past, new C.E.O. Rick Rubin and urban president Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua are bringing a new air of credibility and excitement to the label. Pusha and Malice's plan is to release We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3 to the streets in early 2008, followed by a Re-Up Gang album in April (“It’s gonna be like the best mixtape ever in life,” says Pusha of the album that will feature extended family members Ab-Liva and Sandman), followed closely by a new Clipse studio album, which, for the first time, will include production from producers other then The Neptunes. Will the third time be the charm?

At what point did you guys start looking for a new deal? Was it as soon as the album dropped?
Pusha: Yeah. As soon as Hell Hath dropped, we were already in talks with Jive like, “Listen—this aint working for you…

Malice: “This ain’t workin’ for us…

P: “Lets resolve this, man! We’re wasting each others’ time.”

M: Like, they got the album, which is what they wanted. They got it, put it out, they didn’t step up, and I feel like they know that they didn’t do nothing. With all the write ups on the album being so dope, and all the acclaim, people couldn’t understand how the group could not sell nothing.

P: And why the other aspects of publicity didn’t live up to the critical acclaim.

So when it did come time to look for the new deal, what were you looking for?
P: First and foremost, we were looking for people that believed in the Clipse wholeheartedly, respected the rap that we do, and had a history for it. It was more so about securing our future as well.

M: We were contemplating the independent route—that was a big issue for us. Pusha don’t like the independent look, which I feel. After being on a major label, there’s a stigma that comes with that.

It seems like a lot of people are not paying attention to that stigma anymore and just going indie. It does work for a lot of people…
M: Yeah, it does, and it’s a great look, especially if you come straight from the street. But if you on a major label, and have all the best looks, whether the album sold or not, and then you get dropped or released and you go independent, it kinda sets you back a step in terms of appearance.

But aside from it looking better, is there any advantage to being on a major label?
P: Definitely. Everything is a bit more structured for you. Being independent, you’re freehanding everything. So it’s definitely a bit of an easier route. But to me, this new deal we got is the best of both worlds. We were looking to be able to put out as much music as we wanted to. You think back to the earlier days of Master P and No Limit, you of course would put out the P album, you’d put out the Silkk Tha Shocker album, but you also had muthafuckin Mia X, and other muthafuckas me or you don’t know of, but they ended up selling 2 and 300,000 records. At the end of the day, it just built the brand. There was nothing like opening any of those rap magazines and seeing two pages of CDs, and P standing in the middle with both his hands out with funny gold on. You felt like, Damn, this muthafucka got it.

People would buy all those albums too…
P: Yeah, it was cool to know Kane & Abel’s shit…

M: Ehhhh…

P: Or whoever! Even if you didn’t like ’em, you were like, oh shit, that’s the new shit.

So how does it even make sense for Columbia to let you put out music whenever you want?
P: At the end of the day, you have to be very cost effective. Not everything can be produced by the Neptunes for 150-thousand-trillion dollars. You have to find all the diamonds in the rough, and then you gotta line ’em up, then you put ’em out. You can’t really base everything off of radio and shit like that. We just gonna hit the streets real hard, hit the underground real hard, keep the music flowing, and let the cult following that the Clipse has—and that the Re-Up Gang is starting to grow—let them dictate the pace.

M: We definitely are planning to research these records, as opposed to before, we would just put out what we thought was hot, and think the rest of the world was crazy if they didn’t fuck with it. We’re gonna try to research what people like. I’m kinda salty right now about not putting “Nightmares” out as a single, “Trill,”other things. Stuff that we love, but then we hear from diehard fans about what their favorite single choices would have been. We didn’t always choose the ones that would have knocked it out the park,like I feel “Nightmares” would have. “Nightmares” might have been on the radio right now.

Columbia and Sony have been notoriously bad with urban acts, and the new Rick Rubin regime hasn’t really had a chance to prove themselves yet. What makes you think this situation will be better than Jive?
M: Rick Rubin, himself, is an artist, so he understands the plight of the artist, as far as being creative. We all know his track record, being a legend in the game. It’s really good to come up under him, even though we haven’t even sold one record yet. We’ve been with a lot of labels, man…

P: Every label stinks.

M: Yeah, that’s the way I feel. No label is different from another. But I just feel like Hip-Hop and Rick Rubin…first of all, they’re fans of the Clipse, so that’s an interest right there that we haven’t had anywhere else. So they’re already one step ahead of everybody else. It’s just a good vibe right now. The numbers on that contract, that’s almost enough…they playing fair.

P: I think its safe to say that every label has the resources to make anything pop. It’s just where you fall in their priority list. I know Hip-Hop and them haven’t proven themselves in the sense of Sony and in the Clipse, but they’re definitely lining everything up for a major role out. And that’s it. It’s just that new energy, that hunger.

It seems like it would have been a logical option for you to go to Interscope with Star Trak for the new deal. Was that ever discussed?
M: There was no 50/50 deal over there. That’s it. The best deal is the best deal, and this is about the Clipse establishing themselves as more than just artists. And that came with the Sony deal.

P: It was fitting for all of us. When we talk about the Clipse, we mean the Re-Up Gang too. These are two guys [Ab-Liva and Sanman] who've been riding with us for a very long time. So of course we were weighing the deals for us, but theres a whole other side to this.

So have you had a chance to get in the studio with any non-Neptunes producers yet?
P: Everything we’ve done so far! Dame Grease. A lot of different dudes. Dame Grease is definitely sticking out to me so far.

So I assume you’re a fan of the old Ruff Ryders sound he was doing in the late ’90s?
P: Hell yes!

M: Definitely. Riot music.

P: I was actually in the studio with him, and he was going through his whole hard drive. We got two crazy joints. He’s definitely come with anthems. That’s the one word to describe them.

This must be exciting for you to finally work with other people.
P: Yeah, totally. It’s been hard as well. Not with somebody like Dame, but you got other producers who give you CDs on top of CDs, and it’s like 40 beats up there! Now, theres a smash in that 40…but it’s like number 28. You gotta listen, and that shit gets so tedious. That’s something that we’ve never ever done. Having to listen to 28 beats before you get to a banger? And it’s like, why the fuck that ain’t number one? ’Cause they don’t even know!

M: We’ve been really spoiled. With the Neptunes tracks, they just come with that heat. I feel like now, with these new tracks, I’m really digging deep, lyrically. It’s turning out even better. I have to work harder at finding myself over the beat. The songs that we have now are incredible. Lyrically…I don’t know what these rappers gonna do.

Have you got in the studio with Danja or Timbaland yet?
P: Nah, but we supposed to find out when that’s gonna happen real soon.

What makes you wanna work with them?
P: They got it! They make that original sounding shit.

M: And it was only a matter of time til we crossed their path, with everybody being from Virginia and everybody knowing each other. I think the track Tim comes with is gonna be real special. Something serious.

How is working with the Neptunes gonna be different now? They obviously aren’t going to open up the whole catalog for you since you’re not on Star Trak.
P: Pharrell just called me the other day, talking about he got three records right now. That’s just how it comes with them, and that’s how it’s always been. I don’t know what he has in mind in terms of his creative process, you just get a call like, “Yo, this is what it is.” I don’t see much changing, we’re just not doing it exclusively with them.

M: I think the stage has been set for everybody to want to bring out their best work. We’ve been through so much, and the dumb shit is over with, and this album here, I’m sure Pharrell and Timbaland and all the producers, the stage has been set for people to come and give it their best.

It’s been a full year since people have heard from you. What can we expect to hear you address on the new material?
P: This is the first time I think I’ve had a clear head in writing an album. I have a whole carefree outlook in writing.

M: Lord Willin’ was like that, at least for me…

P: Yeah, Lord Willin’ was like that. But Hell Hath No Fury was just like…couldn’t nothing be sweet on that album. Couldn’t nothing even be comical. This time, even though it’s street music, I think you can hear a sense of lightheartedness in it.

M: You know what the fans didn’t get yet? They seen our first album, they seen us come out. But they didn’t get to catch us in our glory. They didn’t get those verses. We started out writing that way, like, boom, we over the hump, we broke through, it’s an official brand, the Clipse, people fuckin’ with it, now its time to get out there and do what we do. Instead, they got a bunch of anger, a bunch of aggression. They got the Clipse caught up in a bad label situation. That’s what they got. But now, like Pusha said, it’s a clear head. The label woes are gonna be to a minimum. A clean slate—what’s better than that?