Virtually alone under a 30-foot ceiling in Toronto mega-club Circa, Malice looks up, sufficiently impressed.
“Damn, this is the kind of spot I’d like,” the elder half of rap duo Clipse (pictured, top) muses as his younger brother and rhyme partner, Pusha, bounces through the room with a camcorder. “But just imagine the legal issues.”
The moment – captured Friday a few hours before thousands filled the club to see the drug-rap kingpins flex the lyrical muscle that’s made their albums and mixtapes cult classics far beyond their Virginia Beach home – could be a metaphor for the group’s career, constantly held in check by industry drama that’s followed it for most of a decade.
Most recently, Clipse, along with their Re-Up Gang Records sidecar rider Ab-Liva, released a holiday mixtape entitled Road To Till The Casket Drops , a simultaneous promotion for their new Play Cloths clothing line and get-me-over for fans anticipating the group’s thusly titled third studio album, which they hope will be out sometime in the first half of 2009.
Released with the help of fashion magnate Marc Ecko’s Complex Magazine, the recording marks somewhat of a departure from the rapid-fire cocaine metaphors and gritty dealer imagery that made everything from their 2002 debut Lord Willin’ through the three-part We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series a musical equivalent of HBO’s The Wire in terms of the size of the movement it helped create.
Malice poses with a fan at Livestock.
That’s why there’s a huge lineup when they head over to Spadina urban wear hotspot Livestock for an autograph signing, even as a Circa employee refers to Clipse as a he, an admission she’s decidedly unfamiliar with the name.
But the clothing line means more.
After years of trendsetting not only on mics but in stores by being among the first (thanks in part to longtime producer Pharrell Williams) to wear the likes of Ice Cream and BAPE brands, they’re clearly moving away from the street bangers which built their credibility and helped fuel feuds with much bigger rappers, most notably and recently, Lil’ Wayne.
Now, it seems, the game has changed.
“I think it only makes sense for Clipse to get involved in the fashion game seeing as I would say we’ve spearheaded a lot of the good fashion movements,” Malice, whose real name is Gene Thronton, says while perched on one of Circa’s countless bars. “Playcloths is good, we can’t keep it in stock. It’s only fitting.”
Maybe, but recognizing the group’s street credibility and penchant for breaking styles, some might be inclined to wonder what took so long.
“Everything comes in due time and with all of the industry setbacks we’ve had I would say our focus has always been on the albums and mixtapes and we just thought we would try our hand in something other than the music and open up different avenues and different doors for the Clipse – just try to get that dollar,” Malice adds.
But in spite of the boasting and bravado that comes with promoting oneself in the rap game, financial stability and industry support, or rather, a lack thereof, have defined the group’s career.
BMG’s 2002 acquisition of Arista Records and subsequent dissolve into Jive Records derailed Clipse’s follow up to Lord Willin’ – Hell Hath No Fury – until December of 2006.
The album was a critical smash, but missed the mark in terms of striking a chord with new audiences not already familiar with the group or the pair of mixtapes it dropped while redtape held back the studio album’s release.
More than two years later, with both men over 30 and clearly removed from the street life they’ve so creatively glamourized on many a track, the opportunity, at least musically, to find crossover success may be waning, though Pusha (Terrance Thornton) insists it won’t sway the duo one way or the other.
“You just gotta do what’s true to your heart, and we’ve never done anything really commercial – our biggest record was a record that didn’t even have a hook (2002’s Grindin’). “That was street but for whatever reason it translated and I think honestly this album is going to be just as groundbreaking and it’s going to be just as disruptive to radio and music, that’s what gets the Clipse over, just being a disruption, going left when everyone else is going right.”
A host of producers including Swizz Beats and Harlem’s Sean C and LV promise to bring different flavours to the table this time around. But never ones for a club anthem – yet – the brothers promise that clothing line or not Till The Casket Drops is a lot more than a last dash for dough.
“It’s very moody, it has different colours, different moods, but it’s also done by different producers so that gives it a whole other perspective,” Pusha says. “Everyone has brought what they thought the Clipse are about and translated it in music and they translated it on the album.”
The sound – like the set which ran for about 45 minutes and featured no shortage of album classics and plugs for/modeling of Play Cloths gear – is promising. But a group which has often been critical of those they perceive as inferior lyrically (it’s a long list) could struggle to reinvent themselves musically, present their cloths commercially and maintain their long-standing street cred all at once.
But ever confident, Clipse seem determined to try, even as Pusha shies away from his previously aggressive verbal commitment to street hip hop and little else.
“I love everything because I don’t look at music just for lyrics, I look at it for moods, I look at it for where I am when I’m listening to it, you know what I’m saying, how it makes sense,” he responds when asked about who the rap game might be better without.
“To clear that up I really don’t think that we’ve been critical of people who don’t bring it or who do bring it – I just think that when you talk about lyric-driven hip hop you’ve got to speak of the Clipse.”
Without question, but it’s a long way from calling Wayne’s “metaphors boring” or telling Atlanta’s DJ Drama that their style meant, “the beginning of the end for a lot of mother(expletives).”
Still, a time and a place, Pusha says.
“When I’m in the club I don’t want to hear KRS-One My Philosophy, I don’t. I might want to hear Soulja Boy Donk, because I might want to see that girl with a donk shake her ass.”
Fair enough, but people in the club don’t necessarily want to hear Clipse records, even though countless teenagers lining up for autographs at Livestock beg Malice and Pusha for a concrete release date for Till The Casket Drops.
“March,” Malice says with a smile while responding to one particularly enthusiastic young fan. “Or April … or May.”
In the meantime, they’ll continue to tour and promote Play Cloths, and die-hard followers hope, deliver the same healthy doses of wicked wordplay and bittersweet imagery that made them legends in the drug-rap movement they’ve perpetually refuted being part of.
“I’m not a part of your coke-rap genre, I put it in the pot it comes back like karma,” Malice once rhymed.
And in one sense that’s true. They’re not just a part of the genre, they’ve defined it for years. Maybe moving on to bigger things (better is debatable, at least musically) isn’t the worst thing for Clipse, at least once they figure out what exists beyond drugs and clothing.
But if those plans are in the works, they’re not letting on just yet.
“It’s basically about getting into anything you can put your hands on,” Malice says.
“Whether it’s the clothing line, the music, movies, just whatever you can, it’s about expanding, staying busy and trying to keep that money rolling.”
Just watch out for the legal issues.