As the lead MC of rap trio Brand Nubian, Maxwell Dixon a.k.a. Grand Puba was instrumental in making his group’s 1990 debut One For All a classic. A rarity, Puba walked the fine line between Native Tongues sensibility and more militant lyricism. Coupled with his smooth-as-buttah delivery and scorer’s aura, Puba’s righteous teachings didn’t just get heads nodding in approval—listeners walked away with life lessons learned about knowledge of self. Now, with Retroactive, his first solo venture in five years, Puba is back on his deen and by enlisting the likes of Large Professor, Q-Tip, and Kid Capri on production, he truly takes it back to the halcyon days.
XXL: With record sales down, what do you want out of this record—material to tour with, a segue into a Brand Nubian joint?
Grand Puba: Well, first and foremost, we always tour, so that’s really not it. It’s just to make a good album. Remember what we do—music is most important to us. As far as getting money, even when we had classic joints and albums, we ain’t really receive much off of that royalty-wise anyway because of samples and labels and shit like that, so we always basically made our money off of tours. We never really stopped working so we could really concentrate on just doing what we doing and loving what we doing and not really chase the dollar.
XXL: In an interview with Unkut, former Elektra A&R Dante Ross said of you, “He’s the world’s greatest underachiever. He was an amazing rapper and there really was a point when he was like ‘the dude’ – he really was ‘The Man’ – he really could’ve had a lengthy little run.” How do you feel about that?
Grand Puba: That’s his perspective. I can dig it, but at the same time, I’m a revolutionary. Both together is not really a good mix—it’s gonna end up somewhere in the middle. If I had kinda just went one way, then he’s right. I could’ve probably been, you know, one of the biggest there is. But the politics and the things I choose to talk about on certain songs, I knew that would be a limitation. I’m happy with that because it’s my duty first—I’m a civilized person. So basically, you can’t have both. I think if I’d had stuck to ‘party, bullshit, have fun, hoes, get money,’ I could’ve been where Dante thought I could’ve been, but it’s just the balance that I chose when I got into this game. I want to try to reach people and help people at the same—it was really that. I ain’t mad at that at all because a lot of time my pay comes from dudes like, ‘Yo, I just came out.’ ‘Yo, you held me down through my bid.’ ‘Yo, I got through college listening to you.’ ‘You got me wanting to get the knowledge of self.’ So I get paid in other ways, you know what I mean?
XXL: Dante also said you invented swag.
Grand Puba: I invented swag? [laughs] Okay, well, that’s what he feels. I mean I was just doing me so it’s really hard to say I set out to be the ‘swag’ man. I got that from the forefathers, the ones who started me. When I first used to hear them, that’s what they used to talk about—how ‘fresh, fly, and bold, that’s what makes the Krush so cold.’ That comes with the game.
XXL: Busta, Meth & Red, and even Sadat X, and others have also dropped albums recently. What do you think of this ‘90s revival in hip-hop?
Grand Puba: A revival? I guess you can kinda say that. That was the point in time when it was real good and I’m glad to be a part of that era. It’s something that’s missed by those who might be a little older—in their late twenties, thirties—so there’s always a place for it. It takes you back to whatever you were doing back then.
XXL: Do you feel like it’s necessary to go back to the essence of the game because maybe hip-hip has gone too far away from it?
Grand Puba: I wouldn’t say that because things change, nothing stays the same. But the more it changes, the more it does stay the same. Old ideas were once new ideas, and vice versa. It’s a cycle like everything else. It just comes back around. Where else can you go from the foundation of it? You can’t go but so far unless you rhymin’ in telepathy, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] It’s not like the dialect changes. It’s basically the same thing—putting words together that rhyme to beats. That’s the foundation—that’s the meat of it right there. You can’t go too far away from that. You might change the sounds a little bit. And even the sounds now—like a lot of the synth and keyboard sounds you hear right now in rap—they sayin’ it’s new but that’s not true because in the early ‘80s, that’s how Funky Four broke out. It’s the same thing, just a different kind. We went too sample-heavy, now we back to the keyboards and loopin’. It’s a mixture of everything so nothing really that’s being done is new.
XXL: As long as you’ve been in the game, are there any legendary beats you turned down?
Grand Puba: I can’t really think of none. I know there was a couple of beats that was gonna go platinum or gold that I tried to get clearance for and Dante said he couldn’t clear.
XXL: How about any high profile collaborations you did that were never released?
Grand Puba: The biggest one was probably the “Let’s Get It On” song with me, Biggie, Tupac, and Heavy D. That was never released. That was a crazy, crazy record. I mean it came out later on, but there was supposed to be a video for that and everything. That was a monster right there.
XXL: What was it like working with Big and Pac on the same record?
Grand Puba: Yo it was love! Everybody was on their thing, you know what I’m saying? It was just a good vibe—it’s just a bunch of good MCs rhyming together. It don’t get no better than that. Everybody’s confident in themselves, self-esteem is high, everything was fly, man.
XXL: Compared to a number of your peers, do you feel like you or Brand Nubian has been overlooked by some, such as VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors?
Grand Puba: Nah, nah, [VH1] was just talking about having us on there for an upcoming show where they do a new school act, then an old school one, but our name came up in the hat. It’s in the hat. That doesn’t bother me, man, but I think a lot of things with Brand Nubian was a lot of politics because of what we stood for. We had that problem, even with MTV. Fab 5 Freddy did our first video, “Wake Up,” and he was working with MTV at the time. They wouldn’t play it because they said it was offensive. We had the devil as blond haired, blue eyed in the video, so the only way they would play it was if we edited that part out of the video completely. It’s all politics, but I don’t mind. It kinda makes me feel good in a way, you know, because whenever they say you doing something wrong, it makes you feel you’re doing something right.- Devin Chanda