It was fated to be commercial kryptonite. This was 1999. Cash Money, Nelly and Eminem consumed all available oxygen and durags. What was left over went to DMX, whose Cujo bark and sample-free Swizz Beats curb stomp commanded an archetype that might’ve otherwise been filled by Clipse. Even the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the grimiest to ever despoil a microphone, leveraged a rainbow sherbet-bright Neptunes beat and a Kelis hook into “Got Your Money,” the only Top 40 hit of his solo career.
The Clipse were having none of that. No orange sunshine or Pharrell hooks factored into their recipe. They aspired towards the raw and uncut, audio dope anesthetizing eardrums with ruthless efficiency. They were somehow ahead of their time and behind it—emerging several years after the heyday of the hardcore East Coast rap group, but a half-decade too early for the snow-capped summit of coke rap.
As a result, Elektra never let the first full-length, Exclusive Audio Footage, out of the vaults. Even though they boasted the aegis of the hottest producers in the world, Chairwoman Sylvia Rhone opted to focus on the label’s principal breadwinners, Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott. The latter’s Virginia Beach friends and neighbors were deemed excess baggage.
Besides, the siren call of the streets shrieked like a smoke alarm. It’s unclear exactly how much weight Pusha T and Malice moved through the 26-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, but judging from their lyrics, interviews, and secondhand rumor, it’s a miracle that they avoided the fate of their manager, Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez, who was later sentenced to 32 years for running a $20 million heroin, weed, and cocaine ring out of the back of the Virginia Beach nightclub, Encore. A life of crime eluded their parents—who were by the brothers’ accounts hardworking and honorable people—but by Malice’s own admission, their grandmother was like Madame Queen in Hoodlum, a fiercely independent underworld impresario.
After Elektra relinquished them, the brothers conspired in VA to conquer an innately hostile industry, lord willing. By virtue of geography, they were natural outsiders. Despite their South Bronx birth, they’d spent most of their lives below the Mason-Dixon, an impossibly fertile creative terrain, but one that was only just beginning to make its mark on the hip-hop world.
The brother’s informal education came during summer trips back to the cradle of hip-hop. As soon as Pusha hopped off the train to inform his cousins that Run-DMC was the greatest group in the world, they’d quickly steer him towards the transformative smoothness of Rakim. A sister who worked in a Harlem record store mailed the brothers UTFO, Roxanne Shante, and Big Daddy Kane records to ensure that they didn’t fall behind. So they came up on DJ Red Alert’s “Rap Attack” and Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z and Large Professor, Kool G Rap and KRS-One and the Juice Crew.
A half-decade senior, Malice started rapping first. His Def Dual Productions crew doubled as a gang. 12 of them, six pairs of two; their chief interests were rapping and beating people up. Timbaland made their beats. Yes, that Timbaland. Teddy Riley and Wreckx-N-Effect had recently rolled into Virginia Beach to scoop up the burgeoning talent—in addition to flexing in foreign cars, putting TVs in MPVs, and throwing basketball tournaments. It offered motivation to a nascent scene that had never witnessed industry success firsthand. Before long, Pharrell wrote “Rumpshaker.”
Serendipity helped forge the covalent bond between the Clipse and Neptunes. Room only opened up after Timbaland dipped from the local scene to work with Jodeci. Even though Gene and Terrence Thornton and Pharrell and Chad Hugo grew up within minutes of each other, zoning laws had sent them to separate schools.
Malice started living up to his alias at the age of 15. His parents discovered his street pharmaceutical streak when a local news camera crew, attempting to expose the rough neighborhoods of Virginia Beach, caught him distributing on the corner, hoodie all the way up. They issued him an ultimatum: stop slanging or step out. That was the last time he lived under their roof. By age 18, he was married with a child and enlisted in the United States Army.
When he returned home, the allure of the streets already threatened to take his little brother under. A preternatural savvy and intellect helped save them. So did two older cousins, veterans of the dope game, who already cast a terrifying shadow from Portsmouth to Norfolk.
“At the time, the drug culture was so heavy where I lived. It was just what the kids did. That was the mischief,” Pusha T told Complex. “At that time you needed to show and prove. You needed money. You wanted to live, see things, do things…have things. That was the only way to do it.”
Well, unless you happened to collaborate with the greatest production duo to ever make a Triton talk. By the middle of his high school years, Pusha T skipped school daily to meet his brother and the future Skateboard P at Chad Hugo’s house. They’d commandeer the place until 3 p.m. when Hugo’s mother returned home. Until then, it was a rapping, production, and songwriting boot camp with Pusha mostly there to soak up game. Finally, one afternoon he got bored and decided to write his own song, “Thief in the Night.” Props came immediately and the gears started churning in Pharrell’s head. He insisted they be a group like Kane and Abel, a popular sibling duo on No Limit.
“Nobody’s done anything like this before,” Pharrell vowed (as remembered by Pusha).
A year at Norfolk State and a semester or two at Tidewater Community College followed. When Pusha wasn’t in the streets or at school, he honed his craft or headed up to New York to hawk his demo to uninterested major labels. Everything changed when Noreaga’s “Superthug” introduced the Neptunes galactic brawl to the masses in 1998. Almost immediately, the Virginia Beach pair became frantically pursued hitmakers, who in turn attempted to usher their best friends and secret weapons into a game that ostensibly had no room for them.
After their deal dissolved, there was little acrimony or tension, merely a redoubling of the necessity to show and prove.
“We never felt defeated at that time,” Pusha T remembered. “Music was so fun and totally new to me. At the time, we just knew we had to get back in the studio and keep creating,”
A couple years elapsed and their benefactors, the Neptunes, found themselves with a label deal at Arista. Only one conceivable option existed for their Star Trak debut. The time was finally right for Lord Willin’; the goal was for the Neptunes to kill every producer and the Clipse to crucify every rapper; Jesus was finally ready to cruise in the coupe on the cover, waving his stigmata wounds to the world. The year was 2002.
It’s almost criminal that we’ve made it this far without mentioning “Grindin’.” Without “Grindin,” it’s possible that the Clipse became a permanent afterthought; the early ‘00s equivalent of the Whoridas’, the Bay Area duo, who dropped a spate of classic singles only to become a footnote in rap history. The beat is inevitably tattooed in your brain, the crunching cavernous drums platonically constructed for banging on lunchroom tables to soundtrack cyphers. All negative space and metallic sheen. De Stijl meets The Wire. Let P tell it: the world was about to feel something they had never felt before. The avant-garde never got that sinister; chronicles of the drug game that even John Cage could grind to. Nothing before or since has anything sounded so effortlessly futuristic.
As soon as Pharrell invented it, he frantically called the Thornton Brothers: “If you don’t get over here in 15 minutes, I’m going to give this beat to Jay-Z.” Pusha claims they made it to the lab in 13 flat. At first, Malice didn’t understand the beat, which instantiated the old Clement Greenberg axiom: everything original looks ugly at first. The elder Thornton swore that it needed something else. Pharrell replied, “I’m telling you this is it! Just trust me on this one!” Let that be a lesson.
It was so visionary that the Clipse had to write to it twice. Malice compared going in on that instrumental to playing Double Dutch. They were so authentic that police staked out the video shoot. Prophetically, “Grindin’” took nine months to gestate. During that aperture, the Clipse played $1500 to $3000 shows for seemingly every drug dealer in America. Cash delivered in brown paper bags. The audiences were sometimes as small as a regional kingpin and 50 of his closest friends. In Milwaukee, they had to wear bulletproof vests to perform. Four and a half might get you in the game, but protection costs extra.
In the Arista executive boardroom, LA Reid happened to pick up a copy of a trade magazine and noted that “Grindin’” had been holding steady on urban radio without any promotion. In Pusha T’s retelling, Reid threatened to fire his staff if they couldn’t turn it into a national phenomenon. Within weeks, it climbed the charts to reach #30 in the summer of 2002. It dominated BET’s 106 & Park countdown, where it became one of the favorite rap songs of a 15-year old Compton kid named Kendrick Duckworth.
“That’s a great memory. Just off the fact how much we beat on the table making that beat and freestyling at school. That was probably one of the best memories,” Kendrick Lamar told Complex in a list of his 25 favorite rap albums—which included Lord Willin’. “I came home from school one day and seen the “Grindin’” video and I was like, what is this? This is crazy!”
It’s relentless from the opening seconds. Pusha immediately declares, “we ain’t the same, I’m into ‘caine and guns.” He’s reminiscing on watching Miami Vice at age eight, rooting for the villain. Malice is confessing to the sins of their grandmother, who distributed “yay she had flown in from the Bahamas.” The genius lies in their tightly constructed webs of allusions and cryptic slang, fraternal chemistry, meticulous internal rhyme schemes and the crushing biblical sense of consequences that shrouds them, and ultimately shadows Malice’s future born-again conversation. He would later ask “how many people were killed to our music?” You don’t want to know that answer.
You can guess from listening to “Virginia,” a state pride anthem thinly disguised as lethal murder music, where the OJ Trial only registered with a passing smirk. Pusha and Malice rap as though their facial expressions are frozen in a permanent sneer. The former sets it off by rapping “In my ‘home sweet home,’ I keep chrome next to my bones/alters my walk to limpin’/since I love the feel/I guess I’m passionately pimpin.” It was the greatest intro since Prodigy started “Keep It Thoro” with “I break bread, ribs, and hundred dollar bills.”
The whole album is similarly snarling and vicious. The Thorntons rap like the Salamanca Cousins from Breaking Bad come to life. The Neptunes combine Bourbon Street brass with extraterrestrial 31st century bass and synth sounds swiped from the same eternal alien knowledge that built the Pyramids. “Cot Damn” was theoretically written for the come up in a Scarface reboot that never happened. “I’m Not You” found them teaming with the Lox over tropical steel drums to create a punchline rap burner that you would’ve expected to hear on a classic DJ Clue tape.
By dint of their Virginia heritage, they anticipated the Southern rap takeover, but their Bronx roots somehow made them the last great ‘90s New York rap group. They artfully sustain the white line lineage of Kool G Rap, Raekwon and Ghostface, but simultaneously presage the classic trap of Jeezy, Gucci, T.I. You can see their lucid narrative vision inherited in Kendrick Lamar. Tyler, the Creator has long hailed them as his favorite rap group, and uses Lord Willin’ and its sequel Hell Hath No Fury as platonic ideal.
Drug music was never this musical or this menacing. There’s something innately regional to it too. These are dope boy dirges constructed for the concrete blocks limning the boardwalk of Virginia Beach, universal in their appeal but full of mean-spirited couplets only fully understood by those singing lullabies to the fallen. This was always funeral music, the funkiest ever divined. Even the lord couldn’t help but ride out to it.