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Risks & ‘Real Sh-t’: How Young Thug & Gunna Pushed ‘P’ — And Hip-Hop Forward

The hip-hop stars discuss their musical bond, fashion, owning the Internet and their long-term strategies.

“Let’s do this s–t!” Young Thug bellows as he enters an Atlanta photo studio just after midnight, with Gunna by his side. They are five hours late to their photo shoot, but their laughter is infectious as they swoop in to save the day, and the mood in the room seems to instantly relax when the crew hears the bounce in Thug’s voice.

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The term “fashionably late” couldn’t be more apt for the Young Stoner Life label stars. Draped in a short-sleeve denim jacket, a spry Thug towers over everyone at 6 feet, 3 inches, courteously greeting those in attendance, then joking about the size of his too-small shared dressing room. Gunna briskly walks in behind him, exuding the same Southern warmth — handshakes, hugs. “This room small as s–t,” Gunna says with a chuckle before sitting down, ready to tell his story next to the man who helped change it.

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Young Thug and Gunna’s hip-hop stardom predates the pandemic, each with top 10 hits and A-list collaborations. Yet over the past 12 months, Thug’s YSL, which formed as an imprint under 300 Entertainment in 2016 and signed Gunna that year, has proved to be a formidable force in hip-hop, anchored by recent chart successes. And with three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 in the past 12 months — last year’s YSL label group release Slime Language 2, then Thug’s rock-tinged opus Punk and, finally, Gunna’s early-2022 smash DS4Ever — Gunna and Thug are making a compelling case for themselves as the best duo in the genre.

“It’s Batman and Robin,” 300 Entertainment chairman/CEO Kevin Liles told Billboard in January. “If one needs to lead, one leads; if one needs to follow, the other one follows.”

After meeting in 2015, when Thug was quickly developing into a mixtape phenom out of Atlanta, the pair formed a close-knit bond. For College Park resident Gunna, choosing to sign with one of Atlanta’s biggest rap heroes was a no-brainer. “He was already on TV,” says Gunna, 28, of his 30-year-old YSL boss. “So we already looked at him like he was a star that made it.”

Thug’s elastic flow, Southern drawl and kooky lyrics made him stand out from a crowded Atlanta scene, and his eccentric fashion choices — including the dress he wore by Italian fashion designer Alessandro Trincone on the cover of the 2016 mixtape JEFFERY — cemented his reputation as a risk-taker. He experimented sonically as well: His 2017 mixtape, Beautiful Thugger Girls, had flashes of pop brilliance, which culminated in his “Havana” collaboration with Camila Cabello hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following year. His 2019 official debut album, So Much Fun, was free-spirited maximalist rap bursting with colorful puns and became Thug’s first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. By comparison, last year’s follow-up, Punk, was a rock-leaning foray — Thug was joined by Blink-182’s Travis Barker, fun.’s Nate Ruess and Gunna for a Saturday Night Live performance last fall — but still debuted in the top spot.

Young Thug
Louis Vuitton suit, Givenchy shoes, Bobby Wesley cape, Saint Laurent eyewear. Diwang Valdez

Thug’s music also influenced Gunna’s own fearlessness. Following his breakout moment alongside Lil Baby on their 2018 joint mixtape, Drip Harder, Gunna showcased his solo prowess on his 2020 sophomore album, Wunna. He toyed with different vocal effects while maintaining his pristine, lush trap sound, and Wunna debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with the help of the top 40 Hot 100 hit “Dollaz on My Head,” featuring none other than Thug.

But Gunna’s biggest win was still to come: At the top of this year, Wunna follow-up DS4Ever defeated The Weeknd’s Dawn FM in a head-to-head matchup on the Billboard 200. Give some credit to the 16th letter of the alphabet: “Pushin P,” featuring Thug and Future, became a top 10 hit on the Hot 100, with the “P button” emoji — short for “player,” signifying anything that keeps it real — entering the cultural lexicon. Nike, IHOP, Wingstop, Kim Kardashian and even the Teletubbies tapped into the online craze. “Pushin P,” along with the album’s Drake-assisted “P Power” that dropped late in its debut chart week, helped Gunna secure the No. 1 spot.

“Along with being prepared, when somebody throws an audible, it’s about having the right team in place,” says Gunna’s manager, Ebonie Ward, of the “P” mania. Over the last several years, Gunna has assembled an all-too-rare team led by Black women, with Ward, 300 Entertainment’s Rayna Bass in marketing and The Lede Company’s Courtni Asbury in publicity. “It’s admirable and something he’s extremely proud of that he has been able to put his career in the hands of intelligent and very capable women,” Ward says. “He has been able to put his trust in all of us to execute his dreams.”

Following YSL’s partnership with 300 Entertainment, Thug signed myriad rising artists in addition to Gunna, including Lil Keed, Strick and Nechie — all of whom were showcased alongside their label boss on Slime Language 2. As Gunna ascends, Thug, a father of six, is thinking about his long game as an executive. “[Thug’s] form of leadership is something I’ve always looked up to,” says Geoff Ogunlesi, 300 Entertainment vp of A&R and YSL Records vice president. “He’s the leader that knows the fine line between ‘let me lead by showing you’ and ‘let me lead by telling you.’ ” Now Thug and Gunna are showing how to lead the conversation in mainstream hip-hop.

Gunna
Bobby Wesley shirt and cape, Off-White jacket, Rick Owens pants and boots, Haffmans & Neumeister + Marcus Paul eyewear. Diwang Valdez

What first impressed you about Gunna that made you want to sign him to Young Stoner Life?

Young Thug: The fact that he wasn’t really star-struck. He was quiet, cool, a chill n—a that wasn’t trying to do too much. Just chilling back and relaxing. That’s how we really got super close, though: It just took nights in the studio, like four or five in the morning, just riding this motherf–ker out. (To Gunna.) I taught you that the studio was like a home.

Gunna: “This could be your spot, come hang at the studio.” That’s how it is now. We at the studio every day. The studio is my spot. If I go home, the studio’s downstairs. I can’t run from it.

What was it about Thug and how he treats his family that you look up to?

Gunna: Everything in the world about [his] kids. I could not have kids yet because I see what he does for them and how much he’s there, watching how he raised all of them. That’s what he been doing, that’s what he hustled for. Even though I ain’t got no kids, I’m still hustling for my kids. I know for sure that I gotta have a legacy. Generational wealth — we gotta be more rich.

Young Thug
Diwang Valdez

Thug, how do you balance being a father, artist, executive and fashion icon all at once?

Thug: It’s about being gangsta. I think I’m gangsta enough to the point where I just be more so myself. I don’t really have problems dealing with all that. The hardest thing to deal with is coming from poverty and making everybody love you. That’s harder than family. Family, you’re born into that. You don’t learn nothing about family in school. That’s natural instinct.

Gunna: We don’t got family classes. Why is that?

Thug: You could have no brain. I’m pretty sure ants know family. Every species. It’s just in you. Coming from what we come from to making it, bruh, that’s the hardest thing. That s–t harder than dying. That s–t harder than death.

Gunna: Lions know family.

YSL scored three No. 1 albums in the last 12 months. What does that success mean for the culture?

Thug: We monetizing each other and family. Because of the pandemic and wack-ass presidents and all this fraud-ass s–t, I think the world is finally getting back to wanting real s–t, and we always been pushing that. We pushed this s–t 10 years straight, and the world is trying to get back to this.

Gunna
Diwang Valdez

What did you learn about yourselves during the pandemic?

Gunna: I think I found out how to do more fun, cool s–t at the [house]. I started doing different colors in the rooms, and I started setting little vibes. I might have a little hookah room. We just cranking different vibes when you pulled up during the pandemic.

Thug: I learned that I’m P, but I’m a house n—a. I learned that I actually like being bored. I want to just be sitting in the room while everyone having fun. That’s what I learned about myself.

Gunna: This n—a [Thug] be at home a lot. He like being at home in Atlanta. He really an old-school n—a. He ain’t 34 or 35 just yet, but he just talks with wisdom and s–t, and he dropping jewels every time he talk.

Thug: What I learned about [Gunna] is that he learned about himself. I learned that he figured out who he was. I just sit back and pay attention to [Gunna], and he know himself. (To Gunna.) The way I saw you in 2017 is how you is right now, but you didn’t see that back then. You done figured out who you really was. Nobody got to talk to you ever again. You know exactly what to do and how your clothes need to be. You learned yourself.

Thug, what is it about Atlanta that has the hip-hop culture on tap?

Thug: We just the quickest adapters. Everybody from New York still New York. You got Atlanta n—s that sound like New York n—s, you got some Atlanta n—s that look like Miami n—s, you got some Atlanta n—s living in Los Angeles. New York is just New York. That’s the No. 1 reason we gonna have it for a minute. We adapt, and we pay attention to the charts, we see drill beats, and the New York sound going crazy right now. We gonna adapt and get on it.

Young Thug, Gunna
Diwang Valdez

Gunna, DS4Ever was your third No. 1 album. Did it feel differently for you?

Gunna: Yeah, I feel this one because I had an opponent [The Weeknd] that was a pop star. I also feel like my album was anticipated. DS4 had everyone waiting on this s–t, and it had been a while, and I was teasing this s–t. [Lead single] “Too Easy” was anticipated as f–k for the album. I was already ready. I had two or three videos ready, but it was clutch timing and just waiting on that window.

Did you foresee “Pushin P” being such a cultural movement?

Gunna: No, but we knew it would happen. People are just catching on more and more. It’s nothing that we ain’t been doing. We were “Pushin P” before the song got made. Atlanta was already “Pushin P” before the song came out. That’s why we like, “We P’s.” It’s still lifestyle s–t.

Young Thug, Gunna
Diwang Valdez

Talk about your influence on the fashion game. How have you guys been able to intertwine the worlds of rap and fashion so easily?

Thug: When you learn fashion, you learn that it’s just about not giving a f–k. High fashion is all about not giving a f–k and not caring and being open-minded to everything. At the end of the day, what you say don’t matter about me. How you feel about me don’t matter. N—a, I’m having money. It wouldn’t even matter if I didn’t have money. You not up there in heaven with God. God don’t tell you what button to press. There’s nothing you could stop, so it don’t matter. That’s how we look at it. What matter is, we chosen and we genuine and pure. That’s what matters.

Thug, it’s hard to picture you ever retiring from rapping, but do you have a time frame in mind where maybe you’ll just focus on the executive side?

Thug: Yeah. I just don’t want to be a certain age and still rapping. I’d rather start doing a different thing. It ain’t even about nobody else, it’s just about me and my integrity and how I want to be looked at. Why would I be 45 or 50 years old trying to record albums? When I’m 50 years old, I know 80% of the world is motherf–king 15 to 24. What the f–k am I trying to make an album at 50 for? Why? I’ll sell a song to Chanel when I’m 45 or 50. I’ll send three or four songs to Balmain. As far as trying to rap, f–k no, I ain’t doing it. It’s not [that I have] a problem with it, it’s a problem with me doing it. I don’t want to do it at that point. I got other business and other s–t to be doing. I got kids that gonna need more attention from me in 10 years.

Gunna: I don’t want him to stop no time soon.

PMC is the largest shareholder of SXSW and its brands are official media partners of SXSW.

Young Thug and Gunna

This story originally appeared in the March 12, 2022, issue of Billboard.