Martin Douglas revisits a Clipse classic and digs into the legacy of production team The Neptunes
Martin Douglas revisits 2006 with the track “Mr. Me Too” by The Clipse. The Neptunes saved their weirdest compositions for a couple of longtime collaborators from their home state of Virginia.
Written by Martin Douglas.
Audio production by Roddy Nikpour. Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop
Read a written version of the piece below.
By 2006, the Neptunes were the most in-demand production unit in all of popular music. And their friends and frequent collaborators the Clipse were changing their music industry fortunes by betting on themselves. But there’s a lot to cover before we get there.
Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, childhood friends from Virginia Beach after meeting at band camp, formed the Neptunes in 1992. They were discovered at a high school talent show by Teddy Riley, innovator of the sound known as New Jack Swing, and were invited to work on the Wreckx-n-Effect hit single “Rump Shaker.”
Around the same time, Williams became acquaintances with two brothers from Virginia Beach, Gene and Terrence Thornton. Big brother Gene and little brother Terrence were both born in the Bronx and moved from New York to Virginia along with their family in 1979. Terrence was just a toddler.
After striking up a friendship with Williams, Gene, who met the producer while pursuing a career in rap, enlisted in the United States Army. Terrence, who came into rap later than his older brother, signed up for the cocaine trade while Gene was away. Using his ascending status in the industry, Williams helped Gene and Terrence — now known individually as Malice and Pusha T, and collectively as the Clipse — secure a recording contract with Elektra Records.
But as sales lagged on their single “The Funeral,” they were dropped. This wouldn’t be the last time Pusha T and Malice would experience the hard hand of major label politics.
Meanwhile, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo were beginning to make major waves as the Neptunes. Though they received a big-time placement on Bad Boy Records star Ma$e’s full-length debut Harlem World, it was “Superthug,” a single from Queens rapper Noreaga’s solo debut, that really put the Neptunes on the map.
From there, the Neptunes exploded, producing hits for rap stars Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Jay-Z, and Nelly, as well as Billboard chart stalwart pop artists like N*SYNC and Britney Spears.
Williams and Hugo also established their own label, called Star Trak. Clever branding to highlight their nerd/skater/outsider bonafides.
As for the first artists signed to Star Trak? Their friends from back home, the Clipse. In 2002, the first single from Clipse’s Star Trak debut would serve as a calling card for both the rap duo and their corresponding production duo, extending to the present day.
A minimal composition featuring little more than a knocking drum pattern and an eerie melody in the chorus, “Grindin’” was an instant favorite in radio freestyles, rap cyphers, and teenagers freestyling in the school cafeteria as a classmate hammered out the beat. On the strength of “Grindin’” — not to mention some of the Neptunes’ most adventurous beats and the fastidious detail Pusha T and Malice put into their accounts of Virginia drug game — the Clipse’s debut album, Lord Willin’, sold 500,000 copies in the matter of a month.
Clipse began recording the follow-up for Lord Willin’ in 2003, only to find themselves on the receiving end of more label woes. Star Trak up to that point had been distributed by Arista Records, but after a merger between Sony and BMG, most of the acts on Arista were subsumed into Jive Records. Right at the same time as Star Trak signed a new distribution deal with Interscope, the Clipse were forced to stay on Jive.
The Neptunes continued capitalizing on their creative and commercial momentum, striking a partnership with former No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani and signing Houston’s Slim Thug and Los Angeles rap legend Snoop Dogg to Star Trak.
Not to mention starting the band N.E.R.D. and releasing their first album as the Neptunes, a compilation exclusively featuring tracks produced by the Neptunes, featuring Pharrell Williams singing lead on the single “Frontin’,” featuring a verse from Jay-Z.
Williams later told Clash Music he originally wrote the song for Prince.
While the Neptunes were topping charts and winning Grammys for their work on former N*SYNC member Justin Timberlake’s solo debut Justified, Pusha T and Malice finished their second album … and watched its release date get pushed back again, and again, and again by Jive Records. Clipse asked to be let go from their contract. Jive refused. Things got litigious between the two parties; lawyers became involved.
While sorting out the legal affairs of their musical career, Malice and Pusha went back to the streets with product. The brothers were in legal limbo with a major label, so they decided to flood the music marketplace with a mixtape titled We Got It 4 Cheap Volume 1.
For many years, mixtapes were the best promotional tool of rappers looking to sidestep legal red tape. They were, primarily a formal designation, “for promotional use only,” meaning not to be sold. But some rappers and DJs made a lot of money off of these independent releases, and lots were bootlegged endlessly. Mixtapes contained a creative treasure trove of rap music. Artists weren’t bound by licensing laws or sample clearances — because these projects technically weren’t being sold — so many rapped on other rappers’ beats and used new instrumentals rife with samples that could likely never be used on a commercial release.
Around 2004, the hip-hop mixtape was experiencing a heightened level of unfiltered creativity. A few artists put out mixtapes which were even better than their commercial albums. The format rejuvenated careers; it turned a Queens rapper named 50 Cent into an international superstar and would later serve as a canvas for Lil Wayne to become one of the hallmark talents of his generation.
For Clipse, who brought along Ab-Liva and Sandman along with them and christened the four-man group the Re-Up Gang, it could have just been something to do. It could have been a way to keep their name fresh in the marketplace. It could have been a way for them to stay creative as their wildly anticipated second album languished on the shelf. It could have been all of those things.
Regardless of the reasoning behind it, We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 1 saw Re-Up Gang, and its members in the Clipse, seizing a new level of notoriety in rap music.
While still in their contract dispute with Jive Records, the Clipse surged forward with the Re-Up Gang, dropping We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 the next year, in 2005. In the estimation of many critics and fans, We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 was an even more defined artistic statement than its predecessor.
Then, at long last, the Clipse settled terms of agreement with Jive. They were given their own imprint, Re-Up Records, and a release date for their long, long awaited sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury. Two weeks after their new contract, Clipse released the first single for the album, “Mr. Me Too.”
The minimalism the Neptunes explored on “Grindin’” was taken to an extreme on “Mr. Me Too.” Dissonant electronics make up the song’s melody; they barely rise above a murmur. While the drums on “Grindin’” took up most of the space on the track, the percussion on “Mr. Me Too” is staccato, distorted, clipped. Instrumentally, the song is so spare that the mere addition of tambourine feels like a dramatic musical shift.
As left-of-center as the Neptunes already were, the production duo saved their most experimental productions for their friends from Virginia Beach. It has long been an open secret in rap that Clipse had the right of first refusal on most of the Neptunes’ beats.They used that status to get the weirdest instrumental backdrops for their rhymes, which would eventually serve as the groundwork for the subgenre known as “coke-rap.”
Pharrell Williams explains the meaning of the song perfectly in the song’s bridge. Clipse weren’t the first rap group to dive into the minutiae of dope dealing, but they did turn it into an art form in and of itself. Pusha and Malice made their crime tales as vivid and detailed as an Elmore Leonard novel. As far as fashion goes, Williams and the Clipse were wearing A Bathing Ape while many other rappers were rocking their jeans two sizes too big and t-shirts that fit like dresses. Between Lord Willin’ and Hell Hath No Fury, there was a sea change in the subject matter and style of street rap. There’s no doubt the Clipse had a hand in that.
After the creative and critical success of Hell Hath No Fury, the Thornton brothers continued to experience highs and lows. They left Jive for Columbia Records, released a third volume of We Got It 4 Cheap, as well as their third studio album, ‘Til the Casket Drops. But the album sold poorly, and the group would never release another full-length album.
In 2009, a former manager of theirs, Anthony “Geezy” Gonzales, was arrested and sentenced to 32 years in prison for drug trafficking. This would lead older brother Gene to change his stage name to No Malice, publish a memoir, and, after a solo album, leave rap altogether. Clipse have recorded three tracks as a group in the past 14 years.
Meanwhile, Terrence has enjoyed a fruitful solo career as Pusha T, signing with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and eventually becoming the label’s president. After a string of critically acclaimed albums, he left the label in 2022 … after many artists, celebrities, and corporate entities rightfully dissolved their association with West for reasons we don’t need to get into here.
But the fact remains that “Mr. Me Too” represented a high point in creativity for the brothers from Virginia Beach and their longtime collaborators the Neptunes. And in their own way, collectively pushed the boundaries of musical experimentation in hip-hop.
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