The most eclectic crew in hip-hop sits down for a once-in-a-lifetime roundtable discussion. It's all G.O.O.D.
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2012 issue.
Kanye West is presently re-envisioning your world. That’s right, if the 35-year-old multi-disciplinary artist has his way, DONDA will rule everything around us. Seven-screen cinema, womenswear, menswear, design of all kind, even education—he has a plan for it all. But it starts with music. G.O.O.D. Music, to be specific. West has cultivated a wildly diverse range of talents—including John Legend, Common, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, Big Sean, Q-Tip, Mr. Hudson, Teyana Taylor, Cyhi, D’Banj, Hit-Boy and (unofficially) 2 Chainz—and will be releasing the ensemble’s first group album, Cruel Summer, this month. Complex assembled the massive—minus Kanye, who maintained his “no press” policy—for the first time to discuss this project, the crew’s creative chemistry, and West’s new world order.
What does G.O.O.D. Music mean to you?
Big Sean: Quality—the best. Kanye put himself in a class that nobody can match, as far as evolving, progressing, and taking the best of what we learn and making more out of it. So the brand is just being the coolest. We dress the best, we rap the best, we sing the best, we look the best. [All laugh.] It’s about getting the money, but it’s also about changing the world and doing what the fuck we want to do.
Pusha T: And knowing that it’s limitless. That’s the biggest thing that comes with G.O.O.D. Music. You get so much, and the fans get so much, in fucking with this brand. From G.O.O.D. Fridays to these 30-minute movies in the Middle East...
Kid Cudi: —made on a whim.
Pusha: There’s just so much that comes along with the brand, as far as showing people that we can do what we want. There are no limitations.
John Legend: It starts with the name itself. We want to be known for quality. We want to be known for stuff that we all can be proud of. That creativity, that attention to detail, that quality control—that’s what distinguishes us from other folks who might just be chasing a hit. Kanye picks artists who care about making great art. We all want to make money and do well, but we also want to make great art that’s important and interesting.
It starts with the name itself. We want to be known for quality, creativity, attention to detail.
Common: There was a moment in hip-hop when I went to SOB’s and I saw Kanye perform before he came out with The College Dropout. The thing that amazed me was that the “backpack” crowd was there, and then there was the Roc-A-Fella crowd, dudes who were throwing up the Roc. I was like, “Yes.” It reminded me of when I grew up. There was niggas who sold dope that was listening to Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest—and there wasn’t no separation. They just liked it.
What this community does is connect these individuals. There’s somebody who may fuck with 2 Chainz and think, “Aw, Common—he be on that conscious shit.” But because we’re on a song together, they’re going to feel what I do and vice versa.
Cudi: With all due respect to what these guys said, I think we’re missing the main point, which is that we represent honesty, in all aspects. Ain’t nobody fake. Ain’t nobody phony. Niggas are who they are. Everybody is who they are around each other. We’re real. I’m not in other crews. I don’t know how other niggas live, but I know right here that’s one of the main things we represent: honesty and realness. You can just hear it in the music. This ain’t no cookie-cutter shit.
Many of you have done albums with other labels. What’s the difference when you put out a G.O.O.D. Music album?
Common: ’Ye’s perspective is “We’re going to make the purest music, and make it reach. There ain’t no limitations to where you can reach.” So, like he said, it’s about quality.
Sean: Ain’t nobody perfect, you know what I’m saying? But we’re probably the closest motherfuckers to it. [All laugh.]
I don't know how other people live, but I know right here we represent honesty and realness. —Kid Cudi
Pusha, you worked closely with Pharrell on those first two Clipse records. How has it been putting together your solo album with Kanye?
Pusha: ’Ye has always got a million things going on, so once I got a great body of work done, I flew out to London and I played it for him in the middle of his clothing sweatshop. [Laughs.] We played it for four days straight. He’s like, “Man, I love this. I don’t like that. I’m going to redo this beat....” It’s the best thing in the world, because he’s going to tear your shit all the way down, and then build it back up. It doesn’t get any better than that.
You’re all very talented, very different artists who make very different music.
Q-Tip: And the thing about ’Ye is he’s able to see the common thread through everybody. It’s good that niggas see that—niggas like us forming like this. Especially in rap music, you hear a lot of motherfuckers talk about getting their own shit, in an individual sense. But everybody needs somebody, and what we represent is community.
What does it mean to have Kanye West involved in the production of your album?
Cudi: He knows what he’s talking about. It’s crazy how insanely smart he is—it’s frustrating at times. When I’m playing him stuff, he usually likes it. [Laughs.] But I remember there was a time when I played him something, and he was like, “Turn it off. That was terrible.”
We were in Hawaii, working on 808s & Heartbreak. That was when I first got on board, and I was doing hooks, and I was just trying to find my place. One day, I got to the studio early, and I was like, “I’m going to make a beat.” Then he came in, and I was all excited to play it.... He made this face. I was like, “Oh my God. I want to make sure he never feels like that about anything that I ever make again.”
Common: He was the first producer that I had that was like, “Man, change that verse.” or “Nah, that line is weak. Hell nah.” [All laugh.]
Cudi: But that’s what it’s about, man. And I didn’t feel bad. I was like, “OK, back to the drawing board. I bet that nigga won’t say that again.” I don’t think he’s shot down any song I’ve played for him since.
Kanye tears your work down, then builds it back up. It doesn't get any better than that. —Pusha T
Kanye is well-known for his ruthless pursuit of quality. He doesn’t accept less than 100 percent from himself, and he certainly doesn’t from those around him. Do you feel pressure?
Tip: I don’t feel like that because, like you said, he understands what the talent is—it’s on par with his. One thing that we all have in common, Kanye included, is that we all want to be great. We all have that drive. Kanye channels it—he’s the nucleus. But at the same time, it’s collaborative. He’s open to whatever it is. If there’s pressure, it’s just to do outstanding shit. And that’s more of a drive than a pressure.
Cudi: Luckily, everybody has their own vision. No one is lost. A lot of artists get lost. They drop an album, and then they go fucking blank. But everybody here sees their career 10 years from now. I don’t think anybody is seeing their career year to year, like a motherfucker working check to check. Everyone has their own vision, so there’s no pressure.
John Legend: There have been plenty of artists signed to artists’ labels that haven’t had nearly the kind of success as the head of the label. Even with G.O.O.D. Music we have artists that have done very well, and we’ve had artists that haven’t. Being attached to Kanye is only going to get you so far. You’ve still got to have the records, the talent, and the artistry to carry it on your own.
Common: If you’re forming a business, you go get people that can do their jobs well, and you don’t have to micromanage them. Like Cudi was saying, we all have a vision of our creativity for years to come. This is going to sound crazy, but it’s something to think about—Big Sean might have been 2 years old when my first album came out.
Sean: Yeah. My homie put me on, though.
Tip: He wasn’t even born when my first album came out. [Laughs.] Damn.
Common: To have that energy circulating, that’s beautiful. When you saw crews, you always knew the weaker links in the crew. At certain times, you’d be like, “Aw, man. Here comes such-and-such.” [All laugh.]
Sean: That’s true as hell.
We all want to be great. We all have that drive. Kanye channels it—he's the nucleus.
Common: But man, if you get together with some cats that already got it going, then it’s like, “Yeah! Here comes such-and-such on the mic!” That’s what we bring.
Sean: These guys are legends. And I definitely feel like Cudi feels: I see myself in 10 years—I know exactly where I want to be. But that’s something that I recently came into. When I met Kanye, I was 17 years old. I would be nervous around him. He was my idol. So, for a couple years, I didn’t know what I was doing. If you listen to a lot of my early mixtapes, you’ll see I was rapping like Kanye because I didn’t have my own identity. Now, I’ve got my own ad-libs, my own wittiness.
I realized that I was sitting next to Common, sitting next to Jay-Z, sitting next to Kanye for a reason. I stepped up, got my mind together, and visualized how I wanted to be as an artist. That’s something that I don’t even think comes with age. It comes when you’re ready for your life to change. I got tired of living in that two-family flat with my mom. I got tired of being in the same room I grew up in my whole life. So it was like, “This has to work.”
I knew I could be the greatest. I was listening to Jay. I was listening to Wayne. I was like, “Man, I can do that. I could do it better than them.” Seriously. I feel like I’m going to be a legend. But it wasn’t always like that. There was a point where I was insecure. I would be out in Hawaii, and I was intimidated being around Cudi. We got signed around the same time...
Cudi: —I was poor when you got signed, dude. [Laughs.]
Sean: He was so sure of himself as an artist. He was carefree, and I learned a lot from just looking at him. My live show got better watching Cudi. Even meeting up with Common, how he wrote his raps, I stopped writing my raps on paper. I just write them in my head. That’s all stuff that comes from being around people like him, being around ’Ye, and it’s something that you ain’t got to be scared of. I come from Detroit—it raised some of the realest players ever. That’s what I embody. I represent my city, my generation, young people dreaming. I used to ride to school listening to Kanye, was in the crowd looking at Jay-Z, and now these fools are saying, “Hey, I believe in you.” It’s real. I just bought my mom a new car. She was happy as hell. She was leaning on it, taking pictures. Now, she’s house shopping. This is what it was all for.
Speaking of which, 2 Chainz, you’re charging a hundred a verse?
How much to answer questions?
2 Chainz: A thousand a line.
Can you tell me what the nature of your relationship with G.O.O.D. is?
2 Chainz: I’m not officially signed, paperwork-wise, to G.O.O.D. Music. But I have a great rapport with ’Ye. He called me before Watch the Throne came out. I’m an only child. I’ve got trust issues. So I don’t have a best friend, a brother, sister—nothing. Stuff was happening in my life that I couldn’t tell nobody. I didn’t have anybody in my life that I could tell, like, “’Ye just called me.”
I’ve talked to ’Ye 1,000 times about trying to make this situation work for the both of us, so it won’t feel like anyone is getting used or anything. I’m in a position in life where I like talking about things like that. I came from a situation with DTP, being under Luda, where I got a phobia. Sometimes when an artist signs another artist, they’re so worried about themselves. And with ’Ye, he helps everybody.
Has Kanye changed your process?
2 Chainz: When I do a song, I consider that song history. Around here, they go revisit the song, touch it up, change it, flip it, move it around. [All laugh.] Dude sees all these fucking colors and builds around your vocal tone and moves it around. “Mercy” is some cool-ass genius shit, where he separated the sounds and voices. From the fucking chant, to the hook, to “swerve,” to Sean, to P, and even him switching it up with me coming back in. That’s just what radio needs.
I came from a situation with DTP, being under Luda, where I got a phobia. Sometimes when an artist signs another artist, they’re so worried about themselves. And with Kanye, he helps everybody.
Tip: You know what’s the cool thing about Kanye? Once niggas get to that No. 1 spot, they play it safe. They’ll put out joints that just fit it right, and they’ll get the right motherfucker to sing it. ’Ye don’t give a fuck. He’s trying to change that whole shit. It’s brave, and more niggas need to follow that example.
Cudi: Sometimes in hip-hop people forget about the bed that the lyrics lay in. You can enjoy the raps, and you can enjoy the music at the same time—to the point you don’t mind hearing it for another 30 to 35 seconds. It’s like back in the day, with motherfuckers like Mozart. There wasn’t no fucking words on that shit. It was just sounds and beautiful-ass melodies. That’s what was entertaining to people. I think it’s cool to bring back the instrumentation. When you do shit like that, when kids hear a record that has a long-ass instrumental break—and it’s mad creative, with strings—that triggers kids’ minds.
John Legend: He’s always pushing himself. That’s always been part of his core. That’s what makes him try new things with each album. He’s already been where he was, and he’s ready to move. He’s consistent in the fact that he’s willing to change. He’s willing to push himself and go beyond what he did in the past.
2 Chainz: I’m confident in the music I’m putting out. Me and ’Ye had—it wasn’t an argument, but a conversation. He said, “You shouldn’t put this out,” but my confidence told him, “This shit is going to work.” I premeditated all these things—the timing and everything—and it worked. I thought that was the coolest thing, because Kanye hit me back and let me know that was the move.
Sean: That basically happened with all my singles. ’Ye was like, “I don’t know.” And then they ended up working, and he was like “Good job.” [All laugh.]
Common: I’ve had the opposite experience. They've been saying, “Yo ’Ye, I’m going to put this out,” and then, he’s like, “No,” and that shit works. I’ve been like, “Man, I don’t like that shit,” and it turns out to be somebody else’s song, and that shit be a hit. [Laughs.] I passed on a lot of beats he’s done and...
Cudi: —[Makes bomb noise.]
Any in particular?
Pusha: “Niggas in Paris.”
Tip: You passed on that?
Sean: Get the fuck out of here.
2 Chainz: He ain’t lying. I thought Pusha had that beat. I heard that three or four times, and it wasn’t for him.
Common, you’ve been working with Kanye since 2005. How has the label changed since then?
Common: Now he’s choosing artists that have established themselves to a certain extent because it’s tough when you’re an artist and you’re trying to develop artists. I think he felt that to do the work he wants to do—you see it’s not just music—he didn’t want to take a baby and teach it everything. That’s the biggest change that I’ve seen. And shit, he used to have a phone. [Laughs.]
2 Chainz: I never met Common before. I never met Q-Tip. I’m a country nigga from Atlanta—and they say I’m the hottest nigga doing it. I told them straight up: “I’d like to pay homage to people before me.” I feel like New York is the capital of this shit, as far as this being created here originally—samples, lyrics, substance, all that shit. I tell Sean when he had a hot line, “Nigga, you went in.” Ever since I seen Common’s video, I’ve been wanting to tell him that shit was crazy. And this ain’t being on nobody’s dick or nothing like that, but people don’t do that anymore. Everybody’s got these big-ass egos or they’re scared.
Cudi: You know what it is? You don’t know how they’ll respond to your kindness. Because we’re so real, we want to be kind to somebody and shit.
2 Chainz: You know that shit I’m talking about? When I could be right here and act like I didn’t see Pusha T. That rap shit y’all do, while we in the same club. [All laugh.] Talking to your homeboy, like you don’t see him right there. That shit is lame as hell. That shit is hurting the art.
Cudi: Yeah, but I just don’t like anybody. [All laugh.] Everybody here, I love. If you ain’t in my family, I don’t like you. [Laughs.] Nah, I’m just joking. I love these niggas. I can tolerate other people but I love these niggas. Before this, I was just a wayward wanderer and then I finally found a home. We’re all artists, man. We’re not just writing raps. That’s what I was saying in the beginning. Ain’t no cookie-cutter shit. This ain’t no factory with robots running around, just spitting our raps. We’re there from the ground up creating magic, and that says something, man. If motherfuckers ain’t with it, they better get with it.
2 Chainz: Yeah, man. Win on three. One, two, three. [All laugh.]
Perfect place to end.
WATCH G.O.O.D. MUSIC'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: Lead Image (Clockwise From Top Left): Kid Cudi, Q-Tip, Kanye West, Cyhi, 2 Chainz, Common, Pusha T, Mr. Hudson, John Legend, D'Banj, Teyana Taylor, Big Sean. (PHOTO) Cyhi, D'Banj, Mr. Hudson, Teyana Taylor: Fabien Montique. (STYLING) 2 Chainz, Big Sean, Common, Kid Cudi, Q-Tip: Matthew Henson / Pusha-T: The Sartorial Collective. (GROOMING) Gaston Nunes. (MAKEUP) Rebecca Hickey. SIXTH IMAGE: On Big Sean: T-shirt by Givenchy available at Mr. Porter. On Pusha T: Sweatshirt and T-shirt by Givenchy. On 2 Chainz: Jacket by Public School / T-shirt by Calvin Klein. EIGHTH IMAGE: On Q-Tip: Jacket by Rag & Bone / Jeans by RLX. On Pusha T: Jacket by Dior Homme / T-shirt by Dries Van Noten / Jeans by Acne. On Big Sean: Jacket by Carven available at Mr. Porter / T-shirt by Shades of Grey By Michah Cohen / Jeans by Naked & Famous. On 2 Chainz: Jacket by SLVR / T-shirt by Calvin Klein / Jeans by Naked & Famous. On Common: Jacket by Tim Coppens / T-shirt by Calvin Klein / Jeans by A.P.C. On Kid Cudi : Sweater by Calvin Klein Collection / Jeans Cudi's own. NINTH IMAGE: On Kid Cudi: Jacket by Alexander McQueen available at Mr. Porter. TENTH IMAGE: On Common: Jacket by Tim Coppens. On Kid Cudi: Jacket by Surface to Air / T-shirt by Calvin Klein / Hat by SSUR / Jeans Cudi's Own. On Big Sean: T-shirt by Givenchy / Hat Sean's own. On Pusha T: Sweatshirt and T-shirt by Givenchy. On 2 Chainz: Jacket by Public School / T-shirt by Calvin Klein. On Q-Tip: Jacket by Rick Owens / Jeans by RLX. All jewelry and watches artists' own.