Pusha T on making “the album of the year” ‘Daytona’ and playing ping pong with Damon Albarn

King Push held court with NME during a recent tour stop in London

“[The UK] is one of my favourite places, if not the favourite place for me,” Terrence LeVarr Thornton, better known as Pusha T, tells NME. We’re sat backstage at The O2 an hour before the Virginia rapper walks onstage to deliver a blistering guest set at BBC 1Xtra Live. For over two decades, the 41-year-old has built up a name as one of the biggest rappers in the world: first as a member of Clipse alongside his brother Gene (AKA No Malice) and then as a GOOD Music-signed solo artist.

And yet, even after all of these years of global travelling, the UK still holds a particularly special place in his heart. “I just have a rich history here personally. Like, when I first started in music and [was] running around with Kelis years ago, I’ve always been into the whole club scene out here!”

The UK loves him, too: when he steps on stage for his performance, the thousands-strong crowd scream every single word of his lyrics back at him. Playing tunes from his Kanye West-produced album ‘Daytona’ – and a handful of older cuts (like Clipse’s ‘Grindin’’) – it’s pretty much a masterclass in how to perform for the younger artists on tonight’s bill.

After a busy year that’s seen Pusha collaborating with Kanye (‘Daytona’ was the first album to be released from West’s ‘Wyoming Sessions’), touring with Gorillaz and fulfilling his day job duties as the president of GOOD Music, we caught up with King Push to see how he’s handling it all.

NME: How have you found the reception to ‘Daytona’?

“The reception for ‘Daytona’ has been amazing. I gotta say that I’m really happy. I felt like I made the album of the year, and it’s feeling like people are receiving it as such.”

It’s made up of seven tracks, and we’re currently in a world of 90-minute albums. Do you think you can say everything you want to say in just seven tracks?

“For sure! At first, I really wasn’t with the seven tracks [format], but when I look at everybody else – and, like you said, the world of 90-minute albums – and you look at how people are using length to help play with their numbers, it’s a little cheap to me. So I feel like doing it this way, it’s like less is more: you know that I’m not toying around, and not trying to make you sit through streams for no reason. And it ended up good!”

You started recording ‘Daytona’ in Utah before then moving on to Wyoming. What was that whole process like?

“That was really good, man. A lot of times me and Ye used to call it rehab, and going to Wyoming, going to Utah, it was just us, samples and maybe a couple of creatives. It was just all about the music, it was the total focus.”

Having now listened to the other albums in the ‘Wyoming Sessions’, did you listen to any of them and think: “I’m sad I didn’t get that beat?”

“Yeah, there’s a couple of beats on the ‘Kids See Ghosts’ album – I believe it’s a record called ‘4th Dimension’ – I wish I had that beat. And yeah, there’s always a couple of beats I wanna take from Ye – anything he does is always something I can’t argue with him [over] too much, or he gets annoyed with me.”

Have you heard any of the new Kanye album, ‘Yandhi’?

“I haven’t – I was just invited today to go out there and listen to it, actually! So I’ll probably go this week.”

Last year you collaborated and toured with Gorillaz – what was that like?

“Ah man, Damon [Albarn]… I think I had more fun playing ping pong with Damon! We toured together and that was good, but that [ping pong] was like the highlight of the tour. I was here [at The O2] playing ping pong!

Coming to every venue, playing ping pong, he’d [Damon] kill me, and he’s really good, man. I didn’t know he was that good, he’s super good.”

Would you ever want to work with Gorillaz again?

“Of course, hell yeah! Gorillaz are dope; [I] definitely would. They’re [on] another level. And being on tour with them and watching the fanfare and being a part of that, it was a blessing.”

Obviously, you’re mad busy: alongside releasing and touring ‘Daytona’, you’re also the president of G.O.O.D. Music. How do you find the time to do all of this?

“Being president of G.O.O.D. Music is a job that to me goes hand-in-hand with having relationships with the artists on [the] G.O.O.D. [roster] – which I already have – and just giving my opinion, and basically trying to oversee the releases. So to me it’s not that hard – it’s just what we already do.”

Have you found a way to give back to the younger artists who are coming through?

“For sure. I sort of feel like that’s where my career is going now anyway: giving back to younger artists, discovering [new talent] and giving all the gems I know from being in the game so long.”

And you mentioned in a May interview that you were possibly looking for a retirement route: how long do you think you’re going to keep putting your own music out for?

“I don’t even know man, I don’t know. I said when I did [2013 debut solo album] ‘My Name Is My Name’ I was almost done, but I don’t know – it’s tough! I don’t think lyric-driven hip-hop goes out of style, street hip-hop doesn’t go out of style, and so it’s hard to say.”

Today’s music industry feels a lot different to when you started out over two decades ago. How do you think it’s changed, what with the omnipresence of the internet and the fact that artists can simply drop a new project on SoundCloud these days with relative ease?

“I feel like the industry has definitely changed: it’s less cosign and more independent [artists around] – which is something I admire – and watching it play out and watching these young creatives just do it for themselves is inspiring. That’s sort of what keeps me in it too, competing with this new energy: it’s finding ways to make what I do relevant [to] what’s going on right now. That’s a task and a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge in itself.”

Do you think that the fact that certain young artists can now rapidly rack up thousands – if not millions – of streams with their music might encourage complacency in hip-hop?

“No, it still takes work. The streaming game is just one part of it – you still have to make the world aware of you, you still have to have a level of consistency, you have to do so much. Streaming isn’t just an end-all, be-all win for any artist who just wants to drop music, it doesn’t work like that.”

At the moment there’s this Machine Gun Kelly versus Eminem beef going on, which some people are arguing is manufactured. Do you think they’re just doing it for the publicity?

“No, I don’t think so. I think what they’re doing is they’re basically keeping it at the essence of hip-hop. And the back and forth exchange is what hip-hop is all about, and I think they’ve both done a good job.”