Pusha T: As far as music goes I feel like I haven’t been ashamed of much of the hip hop that I like, and hip hop is such a young genre, I believe.
KG: Ok, but what about not Hip Hop, what did you listen to that 20 years ago you would have been embarrassed to admit, today, and now your like ok it was part of it.
PT: I mean, I like, uh I like Poison.
PT: Yeah, I like Poison, I was all those things but, those were great songs man! I like the Bangles!
KG: The Bangles!
PT: “Walk Like An Egyptian” was huge!
KG: Yeah right? OK.
PT: And the girls were hot! That was probably my first like super hype!
KG: [laughing] The Bangles?
PT: Yeah those girls were hot!
KG: What else is really embarrassing? How about when you were really little? Like five, what were you listening to?
PT: What I was listening to... I couldn’t be embarrassed of Michael!
Rob Markman: Like at all!?
PT: Michael, Prince. No way. I was into all of that.
KG: What about goofy kids music? Sesame Street?
KG: Never? Elmo? Never an Elmo moment?
PT: Never was into it! But I mean I’m the youngest of like four kids.
KG: How old is the oldest now?
PT: The oldest now is 52.
KG: Oh yeah, right so...
PT: And she worked at a record store.
KG: And so what did she bring home?
PT: Whatever was hot.
PT: Man, like I said, Michaels, Princes.
KG: Like what Prince?
RM: “Somebody’s Watching You”
PT: [laughs] yeah “Somebody’s Watching Me”! Purple Rain, UTFO, Roxanne Shanté. All early Hip Hop. She lived in Harlem. This is my sister that lived in Harlem. I moved to Virginia when I was two.
KG: Did she bring vinyls?
PT: Yes! Vinyls.
KG: Do you still have them?
PT: They may be at my mother’s. They should.
KG: You have a record player?
PT: She may.
KG: But you don’t?
KG: Do you keep records?
KG: I have 10,000.
PT: Wow. Well actually I have my own album. I have my own vinyl. We do press vinyl for my albums.
KG: Did you come up with CDs?
PT: Tapes first, then CDs.
KG: CDs were terrible, nobody likes CDs, I think everyone’s glad to see them go. I mean you took something that was like this, and beautiful, and shrunk it down to like this, and you can’t even read anything? They never even bothered to change it and it’s a piece of plastic.
RM: Let’s talk about this then, because this is one of the topics that we want to discuss. We don’t have CDs anymore, right? But now we don’t have anything physical. So, how our poetry, how our music is, it’s not like there’s anything tangible to hold on to.
PT: I think that has totally ruined the experience of music.
KG: I totally disagree with you. ’Cause I think the experience of music is the experience of music, it’s not the experience of all that other crap. You know you listen; you know you hear the music.
PT: No. It’s the engagement of going to the store.
KG: No, no, no, it’s the engagement of going to the different MP3 blogs! I mean I shop from like…
PT: You don’t have to go anywhere! You just do it in your house!
KG: It’s great!
PT: No way! [laughs] No way!
KG: You see, I used to haunt every record shop on the planet when I would go there! And now I go, now it’s like every thrift shop, every record store is interconnected by a database and everything I ever wanted is there. And I download, and download, and download, and download. I download much more than I can ever consume. Do you?
KG: Do you have more music than you could ever listen to?
KG: You see I think that actually the collecting of it has become much more interesting than the music itself. I’m actually going to go back on that and say that actually the music has gone to the side and the acquisition of the music has actually become better than the music itself. So this morning, I downloaded 21 gigabytes of Bob Dylan records from a session from 1966 and 1965. There are 18 volumes of this stuff, I’m never going to listen to it!
RM: You are a musician and you create music and are primarily heard, what do you think about how people consume the music? Does it matter to you if they download it from iTunes or from a blog, or if they find a record store and buy the vinyl?
PT: It doesn’t matter to me where they get it. Just personally I know the difference between, you know, downloading an album and getting straight to it versus the hunt, the search, of going to the record store even previewing at the record store. That’s what we were doing as kids.
KG: I preview it on YouTube first and if it sounds good I will download it.
PT: No…no way.
KG: [laughs] It’s true.
PT: And then the whole idea of album art, I mean, I think, as a child, I was putting up these things as posters.
KG: That’s true, and that’s where we did not miss the MP3s, my vinyls are completely beautiful. But that was something else, I feel that that was just like another time. You see the thing is I write books that are not meant to be read. Right? So, imagine you are making music that is not meant to be listened to.
PT: I can’t imagine that. Everything I do I make it for at least one person.
KG: Yeah, I make it for a few people that might understand the oddness. I deal with language that is not meant to be too engaged with or too read, but mostly to be thought about.
RM: But it is interesting that the cover of your book does look remarkably similar to Pusha’s last album, which was a white cover with a barcode on it.
KG: I know, I know I know, I know, I mean it’s something as you know, we’re getting right to it now.
RM: Did you know that?
KG: I published this in ’97 so no, I didn’t see your record.
RM: No, no I’m talking about prior to just pulling the book out.
KG: Well no, I mean you know, I do, so I knew that but uh... so anyway so here you go, I mean… it’s all… but the thing is it’s all rhyme.
KG: These are all rhymes with “A,” “AH,” “ER,” “EAR,” “ARE.” Then they go two syllables, “ADORE,” “ALLAH,” “ADER,” “ADHERE.” And then it builds up to three syllables in the next chapter. These are all three syllables A to Z, three syllables.
PT: And what’s the purpose of this?
KG: These are all the sound I heard for three years that ended in those sounds. Uh, I collected these things for three years. This was a short project of mine for three years. So when it goes on it keeps growing up it keeps growing up. Here’s a thought all five syllables. So…
RM: Your rhyme book was a lot different
KG: What does your rhyme book look like?
PT: A notepad, a notepad broken into 16 or 24 bars.
KG: What does that mean “bars”?
KG: Why do you call a bar a li… a line a bar?
PT: Because it’s a rap line. My page is usually 16 bars or 24 bars.
KG: So you’ve got a system.
KG: So this is, this whole book is a big system. This is all just one giant system. And a poem which I can throw words on, the words that can just hang off of that, on that gridded structured system.
KG: That’s all. So it’s not the different.
RM: Did you know, Kenneth, that Pusha is one of the few rappers, few MCs… Now people don’t write anymore and take pride in not writing and kind of come up with rhymes in their head. Others type on their phone. He’s one of the few artists in rap who actually still uses a pen and a pad, and approaches it that way.
PT: I have to see it. Like I can’t just, I make and think of a line or two.
KG: Do you have a photo on your phone of one of those pads? Can I see what a page looks like? Do you have one with you?
PT: I don’t believe I do.
KG: Are they visual? Do you draw on them? Do you put like other things on them or is it just…
PT: No. I’m super meticulous about my notepad. It has to be clean, fresh, there’s nothing on it but the bars and the lines.
KG: Is it only for you?
PT: Yeah, usually.
KG: What’s going to, what’s going to happen to those things ultimately? Are you like, do you think about an archive, what happens to that kind of thing?
PT: In past years I’ve thrown them out.
KG: Ah! Don’t do that!
RM: You don’t throw out a book, but you throw out your own notebook?
PT: You know why? Cause I’m done with my music when I’m done with it.
KG: No, no, no.
PT: I record my music and I don’t listen to it.
KG: But don’t do that, because it’s historical.
PT: Yeah, I probably shouldn’t…
RM: Send them to me, bro! Like I’m dying to see one of these things!
RM: One of the things that I’ve loved to hear you guys talk about, aside from being two great writers, there’s also pride in your performance. Kenneth, you know when you actually get in front of a crowd and perform these things, there’s a performance aspect to it; Pusha, I’ve seen you perform a bunch of times, man, and I feel like you catch the Holy Ghost every time on stage. Talk about the confidence in [each other’s] performance poetry, in the swagger that you approach it with.
PT: By the time I hit the stage, I have the attitude that people can’t see any type of nervousness in you or any type of vulnerability. This is rap music man, you’ve really got to get your point across. Nervousness, man, I feel like people in that crowd they see right through you. People can sense anything; in my opinion that’s how I feel that I can sense anything in them and anybody that I’m tuned into. If you don’t believe it, they don’t believe it.
KG: I agree with that. The most high-pressure reading I ever did was for Obama. And you know what? I just walked up, he was so cool, he was so sweet, and I felt so comfortable. And I’m sitting there; I couldn’t think I was reading for him and for Michelle Obama, for the First Lady. I wasn’t nervous at all; I just figured well “I’m just going to do this what’s the big deal.” But after that, there’s no crowd that can intimidate me after having read for the President.
PT: I can go with that…
KG: Right? I mean that’s how you know…
PT: I can definitely go with that. I’ve never performed for the President. [laughs]
RM: Who was the most high-pressure performance that you had?
PT: Let me think about that. A high-pressure performance?
RM: Or just somebody, even on the scale of Obama.
KG: Did you ever go on a TV show or something like that?
PT: Yeah but, that’s not pressure to me. I don’t feel like… Oh you know what? Oh, Fallon!
KG: On Fallon…
PT: That was a little bit of pressure simply because usually I walk into arenas or places that I know who my crowd is, and they are like specifically there for me. That crowd—they’re being told when to clap! [laughs] They’ve got the applause sign!
KG: That sense of broadcast can get freaky. You know, everybody sees that. When I did my thing at the White House it was when Internet video was just taking off, had I done that performance four years later nobody would have seen it. But of course everybody saw it, everybody continues to see it forever, as it goes out now.
RM: Something you did that a lot of people had an opinion on was “The Body of Michael Brown,” the performance of that. You caught a lot of flack for that, how much…
PT: Can you tell me how much, I mean I saw it, I didn’t understand the flack, it was like. I saw a write-up about it.
KG: I just read his autopsy report.
KG: People didn’t like that. I just read it straight up. I changed a little bit, because if I actually went up and read an autopsy report, everybody would have left. Not because they were offended but because they were so bored, because of all the medical terminology. I did that in March, and people got really upset about that.
RM: There’s a performance aspect of this—because I could have read the autopsy report straight up and that was horrifying and gruesome in itself what was done to Michael Brown in the reality of it.
KG: The reality of it is right, it’s exactly right.
RM: But when you, when you put your poetic filter on it, it’s a performance.
KG: It is a performance. It’s actually making you listen to something that you’d never listen to. You know, you think you know what happened to that child, but you actually don’t know what happened to that child until you hear what happened to that child, and hear what 11 bullets had done to this person, and the fact that nobody was held accountable for this. After a document like that is loaded publicly, and everybody has that as evidence—you think you know what happened to that body, but you don’t know what happened to that body, not until you read that autopsy, because you are never going to read that autopsy report, but until you hear that autopsy report, like: a kid being told a story instead of a kid reading a story, you don’t understand. And after you hear that, it’s a horrible document and it’s a terrible thing, you know you just can’t imagine what happened.
PT: And, did you know that? Did you know how people would interpret it?
PT: I mean what made you say “Let me read it so you can…”
KG: Well because I was completely devastated by what happened there.
PT: But I just don’t know how, I didn’t know that that would come off that way.
KG: I had no idea it would come off that way!
PT: Oh ok.
KG: No, fuck no! I though I was getting up and I’m doing like a piece of social protest. A lot of what I do is that I reframe documents and present them as poetry. I don’t alter them at all I just take something from here and move it here and it becomes different. If you take something and put it in the context of something else, it becomes something [else], it’s what you do as well.
RM: Hip hop is largely based on—and gets a lot of criticism for it, at least in the past has—sampling right? Like taking something, altering the drums, changing the pitch and making it your own.
PT: Which I hate.
RM: You hate what?
PT: The idea of not being able to sample.
KG: What I found really hard, and this is what’s interesting about the Brown piece, was that the nation’s feeling about this thing was in motion. We don’t know how we felt in March about it; we’re still really upset. So, I figured that it is so hard to capture something in the moment, something contemporary. History is easy. I did a piece about the death of Michael Jackson, ok? But I did that in 2013, and Jackson died in 2009. Four years later the country knew how to process that death. But what I tried to do with [“The Body of Michael Brown”] is I tried to capture something in motion. Take a picture of something moving really fast and try to take a really good picture of that. I don’t think I did it. I don’t think I could do it. Can you do it, and you do that? Do you ever try to do that, to capture something that is in motion?
PT: Yeah. In hip hop I feel like a lot of artists race to be the first one to talk about the current event or to put the social media craze new thing in the song or, just say things super relevant to society right now, in the present. Like I feel like that’s part of our thing.
KG: How do you do it? What’s your relationship to that?
PT: I just speak on current events. Even now, I have a new single that just came out two weeks ago discussing Donald Trump. There’s just a line in it about Donald Trump and his pledge.
RM: Fuck Donald and his pledge.
PT: Yeah! Fuck Donald and his pledge.
KG: I got it! Actually I did a interpretation of “Untouchable.”
PT: Oh dope!
KG: I’m gonna give it to you.
PT: OK . [laughs]
KG: So it’s like, somehow music can do that but literature has this real problem about doing that in the moment. I think that’s about the temporality that I’m talking about. I think we are getting back to that again. So what I tried to do with “Brown” was trying to hit right on!
KG: Didn’t work, you know, I mean ’cause it completely blew up in my face.
RM: How much do you feel that race played a factor in it? Obviously Michael Jackson’s death wasn’t racially charged, it was just kind of a tragedy of one of our biggest pop figures. Maybe people were ready for the outrage but weren’t ready to hear it from a white man after Michael Brown died at the hands of [another white man].
KG: Well, that might very well have been true. However, I actually think that more people were upset with the idea that an autopsy report could be a poem, than they were with anything. When the day is over they’re like: “That’s an autopsy report! That’s not a poem. I know a poem.” I was told by a woman who was actually in the room, an African American woman, “If Goldsmith had only said his intention before he read it then everything would have been fine.” But I didn’t get up and say anything. I just got up and read the thing. And it wasn’t framed. So you know, this ambiguity… Now, I like ambiguity. I want my art to throw people off balance. This one really threw the fucking world off balance. You know? And sometimes you can only go so far off balance that you fall off. That might have been all right, but then if you start to get too specific about it, it becomes only a piece of social protest and it doesn’t take, and it takes the art out of it. So what is the difference between contemporary events, social protest, and art? Those are the kinds of things I’m talking about. Also, I want to just say, I reserve the right to fail and I reserve the right to fail in public. Because I’m a fucking artist.
KG: You know? Right? Come on man!
PT: Of course!
KG: Where else is failure ok?
PT: Right. Right.
PT: And usually we get a second chance.
KG: Usually we get a second chance. Some politician fails it’s the fucking end of them! I think I reserve the right to fail. And it’s super important.
RM: One of the things I want to throw out at you guys, cause you’re both artists, and creating your own, this idea of re-appropriation of art for advertising, for marketing. Do you ever feel like your art is used in some way that is inappropriate, or in some way that you didn’t intend?
PT: This is like the total wrong question for me. To be honest, I look at how my music has been used in commercials and movie trailers, and fast food. I just think that’s growing your brand, and growing a genre, in all honesty. I said earlier hip hop is the youngest form of music. I’m taking all of that; I’m taking all of those art and business situations, and taking them in. And I want them to be more prevalent. I want more of our artists to be in those worlds.
RM: But it seems that you’re taking a curator’s position, you’re at the wheel, driving this as well. It’s not like your stuff is being taken and appropriated from you.
PT: Yeah I know, but I don’t think that really can happen these days. Everything’s so legal, man, they check everything. I can’t even get my album out until it’s cleared. I love the business of that, I love the business of it.
RM: Does the business ever conflict with or intersect with your art?
KG: There is no business in poetry. There’s nothing in poetry, you have nothing to lose. That’s why anything goes in poetry. You say everything, because there’s something connected to it. If you are not taking the greatest chances that you possibly can, then you’re not being a real poet. No money, there’s no commercial, there’s no nothing in poetry. Why would people play it safe to be a poet?
KG: But you’re a poet! But that’s a poetry that people are engaged with. So I could dream of that. I’m gonna give this to you. Here’s my interpretation of “Untouchable.”
PT: [laughs] All too lyrical, this untouchable, pins crushable7.1— man, to even read this bro! You have to explain it!
KG: OK, so I took every word in your lyrics, and I found a corresponding word in this book.
RM: It’s James Joyce? Finnegan’s Wake?
KG: Yeah, Finnegan’s Wake.
PT: So it’s like a mash-up?
KG: No, no, it’s actually word for word, every word of the “Untouchable” is in there, so go ahead just dive in anywhere
PT: What is this? What English is this?
KG: [laughs] Right, right, right? Yeah it’s all there! The structure is there, I just replaced every noun every verb, and I did a search through this and I actually found every word in your piece in this book.
RM: How does this make you feel? Pusha talk about just seeing this, cause we’re like in the moment now, when you’re seeing something that you created that you took time to create, re-imagined in a different way with something that Kenneth took time to create and his art. How does it make you feel looking at this?
KG: You recognize it? You recognize that?
KG: You don’t recognize your lyrics at all?
KG: Do you recognize the structure?
PT: Uh… a bit.
KG: It’s in there, it’s also not matching up exactly. Anyway there’s something about James Joyce. So this book was published in ’39. And what he’s doing is he’s actually telling a conventional story, but what he’s doing is he’s then chopping up all the words into syllables. He’s looking at a big sheet of syllables until he doesn’t understand what the words were. Then he starts throwing syllables back together and smashing things together where they weren’t before. And then he looks at those words, and he says, “well, what do those words remind me of?” Then it kind of goes into the next evolution. He keeps looking at it, and breaking language and recombining language back together to come up with entirely new words. Which is also, you know hip hop has got a lot of compound words in it. Right?
KG: Where does that come from? The compounding of language in hip hop?
KG: So, tell me like how something gets from normative English into compounded slang?
PT: I mean, you know. Slang changes so much I’m not even sure. I mean, due to region, due to region…
KG: Hearing a word, and phonetically spelling a word? Do you ever do it?
KG: Yeah, like what, what are you thinking of?
PT: A clothing brand.
KG: Go ahead.
PT: Junya Watanabe.
KG: If it goes from Junya Watanabe. And what’s the next step on that?
PT: Just cutting it shorter: Watanabe.
KG: Ok, and the first thing comes off. Then what happens after Watanabe?
PT: You got that J. Do! [laughs] The syllable, I mean the first two, the J and the W.
KG: So you see, so imagine that. That’s exactly the same thing. That’s amazing, so you got a book written in 1939 that says exactly that. And I’m always trying to make these connections because I look at this book and I look at exactly your process and actually see it there.
KG: And it’s really amazing. There’s something about hip hop that is deeply modernist literature. If you analyze and you look at it and it doesn’t always make sense. So people are spending centuries unraveling the mysteries of this book.
PT: Of course!
KG: This is my old copy of James Joyce, it even has my post-it notes. I don’t even know what it has there but it has some old school, this is old ok?
PT: I’m not throwing these away!
KG: I’ve got one more!
PT: I’m so keeping these.
KG: About home, this is the new one. I’m going to drop my new one on you.
PT: And it’s gold and fresh!
KG: [laughs] I dropped my new gold bomb on you! That’s my 20-year project.
PT: Let me just crack this open real quick. Wow, yeah, and I can read this.
KG: That one’s more readable.
PT: Yeah of course it is.
KG: But I think you’re going to relate to this one more though, ultimately. That’s about New York and it’s 1,000 pages that I’ve worked on for 20 years, and I didn’t write a word of it. It’s all citation, it’s all cited from elsewhere. It’s a big compilation of citations, of other people’s words.
RM: Copy and Pasted.
KG: It’s a big Copy and Paste book. I didn’t even get permission from anyone. No permission. I just threw it down. See I’m telling you there’s nothing there. I’m just going to take it. I’m just going to throw it in. Publish it and wrap it in gold.
RM: Are you worried of the realities?
KG: It’s fair use. I’m not trying to misrepresent. You get into trouble when you try to say that something is yours when it really isn’t. Everything is cited.
PT: Oh, everything is cited.
RM: I think that’s it.
KG: Can you carry all this shit back with you?
KG: You all right?
PT: Thank you.
KG: You’re welcome. And there’s the “Untouchable” poem for you.
PT: Thank you so much for the interpretation.
KG: Hold on! Can we get a pic? Yeah I want to get a picture.
Photographer: Zackery Michael at zackerymichaelstudio.com
Style Director: Long Nguyen
Location: Slate Studios at slate-nyc.com, New York City