All that get over shit, all that super stupid shit, that shit is done .. we’ve been consistent from day one whether its Clipse or Re-Up Gang you always know what you’re getting, it is what it is. For example, some Tree huggin ass bitch the other day came up the on some “yo, you all nice and stuff but how come you always rhyming about street shit.” I was like, “Tree huggin’ ass bitch please. I rhyme for my niggas on the corner all 20,000 of them. Twenty thousand money making brothers on the corner.”
— Re-Up Gang, “20 K Intro,” We Got it For Cheap Vol. 3, 2008
When brothers Pusha T and Malice (legally known as Terrance and Gene Thorton, respectively), waited out a bitter label dispute with Jive Records, they used the four year hiatus to perfect their vision of the drug trade and modern music industry. Their effort culminated in the late November pre-Christmas 2006 release of the now seminal Hell Hath No Fury. Through HHNF and a trilogy of mixtapes (We Got it For Cheap Vols 1, 2, and 3), Clipse reshaped rap. Rather than sit motionless for nearly a half decade, the Clipse formed the Re-Up Gang with Philly based rappers Sandman and Ab-liva, releasing the aforementioned We Got it For Cheap series. Certainly, mix tapes were not new, as Pusha T admitted in an interview. “These days I’m getting mix tapes with a whole bunch of records, but ain’t nobody really saying anything,” lamented one half of the Clipse. “There’s a whole lot of quantity, but I mean there’s no language on it.” Clipse didn’t invent the mixtape so much as perfect it.
In some ways, Clipse’s experience reflects that of Chicago alt country band Wilco. During Wilco’s major label debacle around the same period the Jeff Tweedy led outfit streamed its now classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot online, building anticipation and embedding the album within its fan base. When it finally did see the light of day, the album proved to be the band’s biggest seller. Likewise, the Clipse saw mixtapes as the best means to promote themselves and maintain their mental health. “We just knew we weren’t getting anywhere fast,” Malice admitted in a 2006 Virginian Pilot article, “so we decided to put out the mixtapes to stay relevant.” Added Pusha, “they helped us keep our sanity . . . Mixtapes will be dropped up until the album comes out.” When Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller debuted his album Blue Slide Park in October 2011, it shot to number one immediately on the back of Miller’s own series of mixtapes.
[Editor’s note: Scoring a number #1 album today does not mean nearly as much in terms of sales as it did ten years ago largely due to changes in the industry and the way listeners now consume music.]
Unlike, floppy haired NPR favorites, Wilco, from 2002 to 2008, the Clipse inhabited a universe constructed on images of Wire-like violence and drug sales replayed on the shores of Virginia Beach and Norfolk, VA. Or as they point out in “Virginia,” off their Neptunes-produced 2002 album Lord Willin’:
I’m from Virginia, where ain’t shit to do but cook (Talk about, what?)
Pack it up, sell it triple-price, fuck the books (Talk about, what?)
Where we re-up, re-locate, re-off them brooks (Talk about, what?)
So when we pull up, it ain’t shit to do but look
It Ain’t Miami Vice
Open the Frigidaire, 25 to life in here
So much white you might think ya Holy Christ is near
Throw on your Louis V millionaires to kill the glare
Ice trays? Nada! All you see is pigeons paired
— Clipse, “Keys Open Doors,” Hell Hath No Fury
Have we talked drugs yet? That’s what they do here; talk the art of the deal and their mastery of such. It sounds simplistic, but Clipse have been the premier drug-dealing soliloquists for some time. Unflinching and unforgiving, Re-Up re-imagine hustler as hero with lyrical ingenuity and deft wordplay. Some may struggle with the joy these boys get from moving weight; it’s an indefensible stance– we all have our faults, and we all have to eat– but the revelry is also what makes it enjoyable. Otherwise, Clipse could just move West and write for scripts for Michael Mann.
Sure, the analogy between the music industry and the drug game has been played out countless times. Still, the reality of twenty first century economic life continues to be increasing specialization. Cable channels devoted to narrower and narrower interests, a fractured viewing public that increasingly pursues its own idiosyncratic favorites, and the rise of a highly segmented internet marketplace all mean that specialization provides the key for success. One must hone the one thing they do well, and do it magnificently. As Sean Fennessay acknowledges in his 2002 review of We Got if 4 Cheap Vol. 1, no rapper or group rivaled the drug flows of the Clipse.
While one can never be sure the extent of their involvement or knowledge, the 2009 arrest of former manager Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez for the operation of a 10 million dollar plus drug ring suggests Clipse knew something about “the game.” In fact, from 2001 to 2011, law enforcement authorities busted “at least nine drug rings in Hampton Roads worth $20 million or more,” reported a recent Virginian Pilot article. “A 10th was worth almost $10 million,” noted journalist Tim McGlone (Tim McGlone, “20 Million Drug Rings,” Virginian Pilot, October 2, 2011). Granted the Clipse may be overly fascinated with the drug trade, but, as DEA officials admitted this fall, during this past decade Mid-Atlantic urban areas have been inundated with narcotics. Thus, the Clipse simply found itself within a narrative that essentially wrote itself. Moreover, they represented a burgeoning set of urban circumstances as drug trafficking concentrated itself in the cities of Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and D.C. among others.
Now it needs to be noted that in terms of drug epidemics, crack (or as the Clipse opine, “The News call it crack, I call it diet Coke”) and cocaine really haven’t been the point of focus in recent years. As evidenced by cultural productions like television’s Breaking Bad or the critically acclaimed novel American Rust, meth addiction and the pervasive reach of prescription drugs serve as the new American drug threat. Rural and suburban areas now occupy top spots among drug interdiction and law enforcement agencies. Predictably, poverty remains a primary factor as 90% of the counties with “persistent poverty” are rural. In April of 2011, the Obama administration announced a new initiative to fight prescription drug addiction, pointing out that deaths from this more recent affliction and crystal meth exceeded that of crack in the 1980s and heroin in the 1970s combined.” Though rural locales differ greatly from inner city neighborhoods, the New York Times described the dysfunction caused by prescription drug addiction squarely within the urban paradigm:
The pattern playing out here bears an eerie resemblance to some blighted cities of the 1980s: a generation of young people who were raised by their grandparents because their parents were addicts, and now they are addicts themselves.
Politicians have confronted this epidemic much differently than in the 1980s and 1990s, when the prison system exploded or, as one commentator noted, “we couldn’t lock crack dealers and users up fast enough and keep them locked up long enough.” Drug legislation passed during the same period and the sentences doled out to offenders have taken decades to unwind. Moreover, the argument could be made that this legislation and enforcement caused more problems than it solved. Instead, in response to prescription drugs and meth, politicians in several states have created drug courts (Georgia for example) in an effort to bring users to treatment rather than incarceration. In general, the tenor has been of criminal justice reform (even among some conservatives) not wholesale imprisonment.
Certainly, race must play some role here, right? Suburban white voters from the 1970s on viewed the inner city as a darkened space, a dystopia inhabited by drug users and angry minorities. When crack exploded in the 1980s, legislating over the top anti-drug laws that disproportionately affected blacks and Latinos seemed painfully predictable. Yet, writers like senior Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggest that this response isn’t only racial in nature. “The problems of big inner-cities are visible in a way that the problems of the suburbs, exurbs, and rurals are not,” Coates pointed out. “Moreover, big media tends to make its home in cities like Washington and New York where large numbers of African-Americans live.” Others, like the Economist blog on American politics conceded Coates’ points regarding media attention but differ on the issue of race:
I wonder, if we were in the midst of a second crack epidemic affecting poor blacks and Latinos in inner cities rather than a meth and prescription-drug problem in white, rural America, whether quite so many politicians would be lining up to keep users and small-time dealers out of jail. And of course, it’s an American tradition to see the rural heartland and its residents as “real America,” and cities as dens of iniquity.
One does wonder. After all, though the effects of meth have been devastating, the moral panic that accompanied 1980s crack use seems at best muted. While county Sheriff’s and police forces like those in American Rust struggle to address these concerns, the media as Coates noted, seems asleep at the wheel. Did violent urban crack episodes of the 1980s fit media stereotypes in ways that the crank epidemic doesn’t? Is the idea of freshly scrubbed white teens binging on prescription drugs too boring or insidious for network news? If these were Black and Latino kids, wouldn’t unscrupulous “civic” and political leaders be banging on about decency and the need to “clean up our streets”?
Do albums like Hell Hath No Fury obscure this more complex reality? Perhaps, but the fact of the matter seems to be that while rural and suburban areas have struggled with crystal meth and prescription drugs, smaller mid-size cities like Virginia Beach have served as hubs for new crack/cocaine distribution patterns. For each the results prove brutal, but so far, no one has come forward with an album depicting the life of a rural meth dealer. In contrast, the Clipse represent the finest bottle of a fairly large wine collection of drug rap.
Making Adam Smith Proud
“When you see millions, there are many chamillions
You’re not a gunna, for real, you’re just a runna
Haters I spot you from a far, and I’m the deer hunter
They be thinking nice car, nice crib
I be thinking, how long will these niggaz let me live
I understand, cause people need things
And they will take it from you, and take you from your seedlings”
— Clipse, “Nightmares,” Hell Hath No Fury
In season two of The Wire, Stringer Bell, right hand man of incarcerated Baltimore drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, attempts to impart shards of economic wisdom culled from his business class at the local community college. In an attempt to disguise a long inferior product, Bell employs branding, changing the product’s name in hopes of renewing “market” interest. He even goes so far as to explain the economic theory supporting his new initiative to his cohort of street soldiers. Needless to say, the lecture provides mixed results. Still, few businesses appear to be as friendly to neoliberal corporate governance as the drug trade. Sudhir Venkatesh and others have documented the increasingly corporate structure of street gangs. Of course, this does not mean all the workers are happy. When D’Angelo Barksdale, nephew of the aforementioned Avon, overhears his underlings debating who invented chicken McNuggets and how rich that person must be, Barksdale unleashes a bitter sermon on labor relations in a corporate structure:
Now you think Ronald McDonald gonna go down to the basement and say, “Hey Mr. Nugget – you the bomb. We sellin’ chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I’m gonna write my clowney ass name on this fat-ass check for you.” Shit. Man, the nigga who invented them things? Still working in the basement for regular wage, thinking of some shit to make the fries taste better or some shit like that. Believe.
Likewise, in Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner illustrate how the drug business depends heavily on a lumpen proletariat of lower income employees, mostly male, who live with their mothers and make what amounts to minimum wage—the very workers DeAngelo Barksdale and Stringer Bell attempt to educate on the nuances of capitalist economics. The Economist in recent years has reiterated these findings. Peter Moskos, a sociologist who also served one year as a Baltimore police officer in its notorious Eastern District concurs but also notes it continues to draw new employees. “Apart from the low pay and the high risk of getting murdered, drug-dealing is not a bad job,” notes Moskos. “You hang out with your friends. People ‘respect’ (ie, fear) you. You project glamour. You get laid.” Unfortunately, as Moskos also points out, it tends to make drug dealers unemployable. “To survive on the street, you learn to react violently and pre-emptively to the slightest challenge,” argues the Economist. “This is a useful trait for a drug-dealer, but, oddly, managers at Starbucks do not value it.”
The Clipse, at least on album, never lament their profession. Instead they flash its accoutrements. Songs like “Ride Around Shining” and “Hello New World” serve as only two prominent examples. The above quoted “Nightmares” and “Momma I’m So Sorry” are the only songs with any real remorse and even in “Nightmares,” Clipse clearly understands the human desire for stuff: “I understand, people need things.” Sure, on “We Got if for Cheap” (off of Hell, not the mixtapes) Malice raps to his brother “If ever I had millions, never would you push blow, never.” Still, that may simply mean Pusha would get a job in management but not necessarily sever from the trade itself.
When the subject turns to gender, one can imagine where Clipse land. Predictably, the role of women on Hell Hath No Fury proves anemic. Even when Pusha does apologize to his mother for “airing family business” and failing to fully respect the mother of his child, his contributions to their lives remains purely economic:
Even my baby mama, I can’t look you in the face
‘Cause I can’t do enough, you a symbol of God’s grace
So I place you in the flower bed, porcelain shower heads
Throughout the house and keep the younguns’ mouths fed
And when I’m gone, I hope it is said
I gave structure to the youth by the example I lead
— “Momma I’m So Sorry,” Hell Hath No Fury
Pusha and Malice’s misogynistic rhymes spill into nearly every track, but in moments Clipse also admits in some ways everyone is in on the game, especially the ladies:
The glitter chill got ya mind seein’ milli mill’s
I’m seven figga, the bigger you thought the little real
See I don’t blame ya, cashmere’s what you feel
Picturing the fortune, you just tryna spin the wheel
— “Dirty Money,” Hell Hath No Fury
Nonetheless, one might argue expecting a drug rap album to feature nuanced female characters capable of displaying agency is akin to being upset over racist jokes in Pulp Fiction: these people are criminals, expecting them to be moral paragons is foolish. None of this excuses the Clipse for their sexism, but if one plays the part, one plays the part.
Today, though certainly regrettable, misogyny must still not be all that offensive. Clipse’s fan base or at least that identified by media sources and the band itself, consists of a diverse set of sub culture archetypes. A Hampton Roads entertainment writer described a 2006 Clipse crowd as “quirky” and “diverse” pointing out every sub groups present, “one saw teenage skaters, buppie girls in chic baby doll dresses, emo-band types, model-worthy blondes and hip-hop youths in expensive sneakers and chains.” (Malcolm Venable, “VA Beach’s Clipse Hypes Crowd at NorVa after a Late Start,” Virginian Pilot, December 24, 2006) They were even asked to play the Playboy Mansion’s 2010 NYE party, which even seemed to take Pusha by surprise. “When I heard about it,” he said, “I was like, ‘Wow, what do the people at the Playboy Mansion know about the Clipse?’” Yet, he also acknowledged their wide appeal: “But I’m never shocked by how vast and diverse our audience is.” (Malcolm Venable, “Duo Leaves Controversy in Rear View,” Virginian Pilot, Dec 8, 2009) Wilco probably couldn’t say the same.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. In 2010, the Clipse broke up (at the very least put themselves on a long hiatus as Pusha pursued solo plans). Sales of their third album Till the Casket Drops (2009) failed to capture the same level of Clipse that Lord Willin’ hinted at, and Hell Hath No Fury enthusiastically confirmed. Unlike their previous efforts, the Clipse failed to employ the Neptunes production squad.
I remember getting Hell Hath No Fury for Christmas in 2006 from my dad who still bought CD’s. The first time I listened to it, I knew it was socially irredeemable, but also really really great. The record emerged simultaneously with real shifts in drug use and trafficking. It tells us nothing about the Walter Whites and Jesse Pinkmans of the meth world, but it does capture a different if well travelled milieu, one familiar enough to draw a diverse fan base. Unlike Biggie and Tupac, Clipse expressed little remorse for their actions; they knew karmically they were screwed but that was part of the game. Is it great holiday music? Only in the sense that every faith would denounce it. Happy Holidays to your and yours—put a little Clipse in your cheer, but only after the kids are in bed.