Pusha T on How 'Daytona' Was 'Therapy' For Kanye & the Importance of Writing Your Own Raps

Pusha T
Courtesy of Def Jam

Pusha T

"People are gonna see that there's an elevated level of musicality that you're getting from this album that you ain't getting from nowhere else."

Terrence LeVarr Thornton is a man of responsibility. He's a man who wears multiple hats: fiancè, brother, son, rapper, president of a record label and more. But, at some point, while working on his latest album, Daytona, he lost sight of being a friend to his longtime brother in war, Kanye West

"Certain shit you just don't peep, says Pusha T, slouched on the Billboard couches on a recent balmy morning in New York City. "You just don't peep little shit. And I'm like, 'He's tripping, ranting.' Little do I know, he's going through some shit." Disappointed at how his Laissez-faire approach towards Kanye's behavior and antics went so far, Pusha would unknowingly remedy his past mistakes through their shared affinity for music. 

After scrapping his initial album King Push three times -- per Kanye's request -- Pusha and 'Ye remolded his entire project. With Kanye piloting his seven-track expedition on the production front, Pusha T's drug-laden raps, cocaine-coated metaphors and thunderous ad-libs all found a home on his renamed endeavor, Daytona

"People are gonna see that there's an elevated level of musicality that you're getting from this album that you ain't getting from nowhere else," he says. "I rock with so many things. I love so many things but it's different. And you can tell. You can tell it's heavier."

Billboard spoke with Pusha at length about Daytona, how the album was "therapy" for West, the importance of paying homage to his fallen friend and tour manager, De'von Pickett, his chemistry with Rick Ross and why you can't be considered the best rapper alive if you don't write your own lyrics. 

Check out our interview below. 

At Made in America, you shocked all of us when you said you scrapped the album three times and started from scratch. With the album only being seven tracks long, which one of those seven tracks, if any, were still from the original batch that you were cooking up?

See, the track part of it is what's weird.

Why is that?

Because that was the real issue. The process goes like this: I go out I'm and like, "Okay, I'm about to do an album." I go out and reach out to producers. Cool. I love something, I lay vocals to it, I bring it to Ye. "Ye, what you think about this shit? I'm ready to work on an album, this is what I started with." He'll be like, "Oh shit, okay. Let's listen to music." We listen to it, "Man, I fuck with that, I fuck with that, you sound really good on that. Alright, keep those." He goes through the files, through samples and loops and shit, and then he gives me a batch. He'll be like, "I think you sound good on these."

So he mixes it up for you?

Yeah. He'll give me a batch.  He'll give me his batch of beats and other peoples' that he accumulated. "I think you sound good on this," he'll say. I go lay those and I bring it back. So, I'm like, "Yo, I got my album." He was like, "Really?" I was like, "Yeah." I was like, "I'll fly to L.A." You know, we listen to it. We ride around. I was like, "Yo, this is what the fuck I think it is. This the content. This is everything I want to say."

And he was like, "Alright. Yeah, I'm fucking with it." We all in agreement, producers are hyped. They're like, "Yo, I got a joint. Kanye executive producing it, he A&R and executive producing it, that shit cold. That shit dope." With that being said, day three comes of us just vibing out and I go meet him and he said, "Yo man, I was listening to it last night, man, just in the crib. I think I can produce everything on this joint. And I think I could do a better job than the shit that we picked."

And I was like, "Bro, you think?" I was like, "I know you can, but like why man?" He was like, "I'm telling you I could produce it better. I mean, you know, you can compete with this, but don't you want to like..."

Shoot to the moon.

Yeah, shoot to the moon.

And in your mind...

I was like, "Yo, you know what? Let's do it." He was like, "Alright, let's go to Utah."

What's in Utah?

I said, "Bro, now I gotta go to Utah?" "Yeah, let's go to Utah." He goes to the record store, buys thousands of records. You know, some ill-ass resort, 10 bedroom mansion, middle of nowhere, level shit. Eight to ten grand a night. And he's just listening to music. And then he'll come up like, "Yo, man, do me a favor. Can you make me 25 joints that you just love? Like what do you hear, like what type of sound do you hear? What do you want to be on?"

I'm like, "Oh, okay. 25 joints I love. [Raekwon's] "Glaciers of Ice." "Devil's Pie," D'Angelo. Rae and Ghost's "Rainy Dayz." And I'm just listening to all the joints. I mean, shit. He was like, "Yo, you like R&B shit? Do that shit on that, too."

Like, I got you.

He was like, "Basically, just pull whatever. Pull whatever you feel and with you doing that, just make sure that you just make sure it'll spark something else. But at least I know that we're playing in the same field."

I was like, "Alright. Bet." I make a list of 25, he make a list of 25, 15, whatever. And then, if the sample don't fit the mold, we start trimming it down. The sample don't fit the mold and then he just start yelling out shit like, "Now, see that, when that shit come on, that feeling right there? We searching for that feeling. We just, we searching for feelings. We searching for feelings. Fuck everything else. See, music ain't making you feel like that no more. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to make you feel a way."

He's got the screwface going and everything.  

"Yo, these guys, whatever they was on, we out here to find that." And I'm just watching him go through the process. We find "The Games We Play," boom. He was like, "Go right to that. That is Pusha T. I want to hear Pusha T on that. That's it." And mind you, at the same time, he's finding my album, and when I be like, "I don't think it's for my album, but..." he's like, "Yeah, that shit, that groove is crazy, you sure?"

I'm like, "Man that groove." He's like, "Nah, I said see the first thing you do, you start harmonizing" He's like, "That's Teyana's. Yo, put that up. Put that in her file, please." And that's where we at. You get what I'm saying? So it's cool, boom. You know, from Utah I went to Wyoming. Same type of style. Resort, mansion built out into the studio. And I've been back and forth.


It's like I'm going back now, I got a whole video to shoot. I think I'm going to skip out on that. I think I'm gonna skip on that and go do it. With that being said, the whole process was therapeutic, man. Because you think about what he was going through, like it was a lot going on. Hospitals, it's like, things. So, even when he said, "Yo, let's go to Utah and do this." You know, me, not even being well-versed in what he experienced, I just know, "Holy shit, he went to the hospital. Boom! I'm in L.A. Alright, I'm on my way out." You know? I'm on my way out. Cool. So I go out there and I'm like, "Oh nah, you're like fucked up. Like, we gotta..."

We gotta chop it up.

Yeah, we gotta chop it up. Going through that, going to Utah, I realized that now we talk about it. He was like, "Man, this was like therapy. This shit like therapy session." He was like, "Yo, I just dove back after the hospital. You know, working on your album was my dive back into just music."

And that's crazy because that's been your boy, but you don’t even know what’s going on outside of the music.

I don't know nothing. Like you know, certain shit you just don't peep. You just don't peep little shit. And I'm like, "He's tripping, ranting". Little do I know, he's going through some shit.

Forget the whole label situation you two have together -- how do you hit somebody up who’s been your friend and be like, "Yo, I don't want to get into your personal shit, but are you good?"

Yeah, you know, the thing about him is I don't even have to say [anything]. He's very forthcoming with information. I don't know if he didn't know he wasn't good. You know after, you be like, "Oh shit, I was tweaking." You don't know. Ultimately, like I said man, when we speak about it, we be like, "Yo, this shit was like real therapy out here, man." We did that exercise and then it just come back. You get into the mix of L.A. shit.

And it's weird because we go away so he can be away. And me being a writer, I'm just like, “I gotta do L.A.” For him, it's 90 different things coming to him all day. I ain't looking at it like that. But sometimes you gotta chill.

You mention you being a writer and for Daytona, I kept thinking about your writing process for “Runaway” and how you did multiple re-writes per Kanye’s request. Which tracks took you the longest to perfect or required multiple re-writes? I don't know but something about the lines were crisper than usual. 

I just knew the opportunity. Having him do a whole album for me, I said to myself, "I want to be extremely happy with every line that I say." I wanted to live like this should be the funnest album that I ever perform. I ain't made a song that I don't want to make.

It's just about being confident that I'm bringing what I need to bring to the table to match the elevated level because that's one thing I think people are gonna see. People are gonna see that there's an elevated level of musicality that you're getting from this album that you ain't getting from nowhere else. Not to say that it's not good, not to say that nobody else is whatever. I rock with so many things. I love so many things but it's different. And you can tell. You can tell it's heavier.

Daytona, as you said, speaks to the "luxury of time." In what ways do you value your time more now an as artist?

The luxury of time, I'm looking at it like this: Daytona Rolex, that's my favorite watch. I look at it and say, as a fan or my family, because that's who they are to me at this point, 16 years are gone. It's like at this point, I'm trying to think. I look at myself and who I'm rocking with for 16 years, and the type of music I want them to make. I want uncompromised music. They don't have to have constraints, time constraints. That ain't what it's about. Cool.

What you should get from me when you get a project is the actual luxury. Like, you should know that that producer and that rapper had taken their time. They took their time. You should hear the time. You should hear in those joints that "The Games We Play" was actual sample 647. Like this is 647, you know? And you should know that.

You even mentioned on "The Games We Play" that this album is this era's Purple Tape. In what ways do you think Daytona embodies Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx?

Yeah, I just feel like, you know, this should be in every hood, every street corner. The Purple Tape was inescapable. Inescapable to, like, the streets. I couldn't turn. I had the tape. I had all of it. I couldn't turn away from it. Nobody could get away from it. It was...man, high taste level, luxury drug raps. That's how I hear this. I hear it just like that. I hear the confidence and storytelling in a record like "Santeria" and then having 070 Shake singing in Spanish.

And I have a version with her singing it in Spanish and in English and I was like, "Yo, do the Spanish one first." And then 'Ye will just be like, "Fuck that, all Spanish. Keep that shit pure. Let that shit be what it be. They wanna find out. They'll find out. Let's not tell them. Let's stop doing this."

You know, that same record, "Santeria," you also spoke about De'Von, your tour manager who was killed three years ago. How long did it take for you to mourn his death, let alone even utter his name on a record? That's a lot to process.

Listen, it took quite some time. And the record itself is me being creative, me being creative and toying with the idea of the options that a person in my position, from my background, you know? How entrenched I am, how I'm still close and how in touch I was. I wanted to write a song that just embodies my emotion and let people know, we're sad. We were and we're extremely sad still today.

But it's like, I just want to show people how my mind works, ’cause people don't even know -- people don't even know once a situation like that happened, and not everybody is as thought out as me. You know, you never know. And that's why, "Now that the tears drying, the pain takes over. Let's talk this payola." Then I go into, "You killed God's baby," and it wasn't his will and blood spill, we can't talk this shit over?

Like, 'cause I was trying my best to let those who know -- people that know De'Von know De'von is in church. He's my tour manager, but he's in the church. I used to curse him out. Like, “Get my band together right. Get my band together, get my shit together. Where the band at? Who you got for the band?” And I'm going crazy on him, cursing him out, you know? Because the church members won't leave.They gotta be functional, but he was so entrenched.

He wanted to make sure everybody prayed before the shows. And me just taking for granted who he was as a person and then, you lose 'em, and you realize what you lose. You lose principles, you lose spirituality, you know? You just, you forget all these things that he’s bringing. And then, when you find out that he's been murdered, I mean over nothing. Bro, you killed God's baby, you ain't even -- you can digest things when you can understand them better.

It still feels like you’re struggling with it.  

Yeah, I just don't feel like it’s right. Like, you know, "Oh, my homeboys over there? Yeah they get money all day. They rob. They do whatever they do. They steal. They living hot." Okay, I mean not that it's even right then, but it's like, “I get that.” When that happens it's like, “Damn, man. He got caught up.” You don't look at this the same and that's what I was trying to get across in that song. I don't look at this the same at all.

You know, anger is different 'cause it never had to be. You don't bring that energy to people who ain't in that life to me. That's how I look at it. You don't treat civilians like you treat people in a gang. You don't do that.

You and Ross previously teamed up on “Hold On” and “Millions.” What sells you on Ross as an artist and person to collaborate with today?

Ross is one of the people who I can give a beat to. I give him my beat, verse and hook. If the hook is on it, I give him all of those things. And give him the track and say, “Send me my vocals back.” And I can turn my back on the whole thing. I can get my verse in a week, don’t got to call nobody, and I get a flawless verse, man. He compliments me content-wise, you know, speaking to the things I'm speaking to. I mean, we talk the same language. He's a flawless verse guy. Like he's one of those guys.

You have a track with Kanye titled, “What Would Meek Do.” I know you said you wanted to get Meek on the track at your New York City listening party but wasn’t able to. Have you spoken to Meek since he got out?

Yeah, we've been texting. That was the weird part. I wanted him on it and I didn't even know he was coming out at all. We didn't even know.  We didn't know what the possibility was. We spoke to the crew, or whatever, but it wasn't known that he was about to come out or anything. 'Ye was like, “Yo, we can't get them to do a verse?” I’m like, “How? You know he’s in jail.” Alright. Whatever, we can't get it. It’s cool. We finished it and lo and behold Meek comes out.

Now me and Meek's birthdays are similar. Me and his son have the same birthday. So, I spoke to him on his birthday. He wished me happy birthday on his son's birthday and vice versa. I just was like, "Man, he just came home, I'm not asking him to go to no studio."

I go on the 'Gram, Ye and I see him with his son with the chains on and shit. And I'm just like, "I'm gonna let this one pass." I couldn't. He saw my interview [on Wednesday] and he texted me like, "Yo man, thank you bro that was some good shit you was talking [on the record]. By the time he got back in the studio, I was already done with the record. 

With "Infared" you speak on the Wayne label situation with Baby, something you've highlighted for years. Being a president of a label now, I'm curious, what advice would you give to artists so that they can avoid ever being in a bind like Wayne is currently in with Cash Money?

Just be on top of your business, man. Be on top of your business. Be with your lawyers. Understand. Take the time. Like, you know we got a lot of days in a year. A lot. Like, you know, a lawyer you pay 'em too. You need to go sit down with that man one good day.

It's not even rocket science. It's just a level of understanding like, “boom boom boom" and then you can paraphrase and say, "Yo, I wanna know about what money this is." And actually, just know what you wanna know about the bottom line. You're supposed to talk to 'em.

I'm sure you were giggling to yourself when Ross released "Idols Become Rivals" and spoke on their issue, especially since it was something you called out years ago. 

That's why I was like, “Shout out to Ross.”  What he was speaking was pure. And he sees what I see when you see Wayne.

You mentioned on The Angie Martinez Show that you guys are plotting for the G.O.O.D. Music Tour, right?

We trying to figure it out. We've spoke about it with all five projects with all the artists involved and going on a run. You know, that's a lot. 

Light the streets up.

Man, that would be fire. Like me, Nas, Kanye, Cudi and T. I, it would be really, really strong. You know, I hope it happens. Me and Nas even talked about it. If that didn't happen and if he was planning on touring, I was like, “Bro, if you planning on touring, you know I'd go out with you." So hopefully, the whole idea happens.  If not, hopefully me and Nas. Y'all definitely gonna see me on the road. I gotta get to it.

Do bars still matter in 2018?

Of course they do.


Because man, I don't think intellectual hip-hop goes out of style. There's still an art form. You know, people love the puzzle aspect of rap. I know a lot of people love the puzzle, metaphor, simile, "What does that mean aspect of rap thing," you know? Just trying to put it all together. They love that aspect of it. To take that away is like hip-hop would be non-existent to me. I don't think you can have hip-hop without having the fundamentals of the rap game. 

Do you think you could be the best rapper alive if you didn't write your own shit?

There's absolutely no way. That means you're playing into the business aspect of it, not the art. You can't be the best. You and your team, whatever y'all do together properly and create songs with eight poets, two battle rappers, mix and mesh, ya'll do that. That's cool. That you know, that's cool for the business. I'm pretty sure you can throw it out fast. It works.

But when it comes to the technical aspect?

Nah, man. It's not right.

Regardless of the stats.

No. I mean, we all millionaires, bro. Real shit.