and the polarizing music industry arranges that artists don’t play it as such.
Beefs, record label plights, financial disputes and rivalries run rampant, ripping a seam into even the most tight-knit relationships. Collaborations and joint projects, sometimes intended as a remedy for such division, now serve as matchups for fans to compare and pit the talents of artists against one another. Opposition is a spectacle, roused by some for the proverbial throne and crown of rap king and queen. In the bar-eat-bar world of hip-hop, solidarity is hanging on by its last breath.
The hybrid kinship of Hustle Gang, founded and handpicked by the self-dubbed “King Of The South” T.I., breathes hope back into the life of hip-hop unity. Tip soared up and down the East Coast to elect the members of his Grand Hustle Records extension strategically. Dipping down to Jacksonville, Fla., he swooped up femcee and Hustle Gang’s new first lady, Tokyo Jetz. Tip reached next door for Alabama’s young emcee mogul Translee, and even further west for Houston rap vanguard Trae Tha Truth. Trekking up to Northeast territory, he grabbed Grand Hustle Records original B.O.B. from North Carolina, then swung up to the Big Apple for New York’s 5ive Mics. As a proud ATLien and Peach State denizen himself, Tip brought it home, thickening the roster with the homegrown talents of Young Dro, Yung Booke, London Jae, RaRa and Brandon Rossi.
The roster is heavy, but doesn’t falter, as each artist’s solid rap savvy holds the weight steady. All deft, all determined, yet all different, as these qualities are demonstrated on their 2017 We Want Smoke compilation album. 17 tracks of refined rap from the project boasts each artist’s special gift, maintaining the essence of hustle, trap, grit, and grand, as the label crowns itself. With so many thriving names in one place, matters of balance, peace among peers and equity still come into question.
Who’s the troublemaker? Who’s the peacemaker? Who follows? Who leads? Who is the strong suit and the weakest link?
For Hustle Gang, the answers to those concerns are simple: no one.
As a tantamount team of 11, versatile, power-balanced talents with unmatched chemistry, it’s instead all or nothing. And gang over everything.
...Hustle Gang as we know it has become more than just a place of business. It's an institution of culture.
Why a full, collaborative album versus individual songs? Was that a group decision or an executive decision?
T.I.: For me, it was an executive decision because Hustle Gang as we know it has become more than just a place of business. It's an institution of culture. For it to exist in that state, it has to represent the culture in all facets. The best way to do that with a collective is a collaborative piece of work. So, different artists can showcase their different sets of skills and speak to each of their individual fan bases.
There's a healthy mix of flavor from across the map (Tokyo Jetz from Jacksonville, Translee from Alabama, 5ive Mics from New York). How did you go about meshing everyone's sound together for We Want Smoke?
Young Dro: Just think of it as gumbo. All flavors. It tastes good once you cook it up, you dig?
Tokyo Jetz: I wouldn't say it's hard for us to blend it because we all work well together, and everybody's dope. So, no matter what you're doing on the song, it's going to be something dope regardless. We don't really have to worry about it.
T.I.: And that's very important. There's two important things in music and collaborations. One is chemistry because music is a transference of energy back and forth. We go in the booth and we give you our energy. We give you what we have on our minds and our hearts. When you press play and it comes through the speakers or your headphones, it gives you a certain energy even. In order to convey that energy, you have to have chemistry on the artist's end. All of us, we speak to each other everyday. At least one of us are with another one of us everyday. We have a genuine chemistry which translates through the music.
As a label boss—...
T.I.: I don't really like that term "label boss." [Laughs.] That sounds like Terrence Howard on Empire.
As the lead of a label and founder of the team, how did you go about handpicking talent for Hustle Gang?
T.I.: Well, hip-hop right now is so diverse. We have a wide array of talent and art from the most introspective and intellectual as Translee and B.O.B., to the most fun-loving, hood, ratchet club music like Young Dro and Yung Booke. There's trap music like myself and RaRa, then we got Tokyo representing for the females and the new age and sound of "lit-ness." GFMBRYYCE [T.I.’s younger brother and Queens-bred rap talent]. And there's the ability to merge sounds, whether it's melodies and lyrics, the way Brandon Rossi, London Jae and Trae the Truth does. Then, you got classic subway music like 5ive Mics has.
Wait, what's subway music?
T.I.: You know what I mean–beat-boxing. Timberlands in the summertime type music. [Laughs.] I mean, real East Coast, BK, unapologetically New York sh**. Just a wide array of stuff.
I think the challenges come in the studio. Everybody's so talented. If you come [in the booth] behind people like Dro, and Tip, or Tok, or anyone here really, it's going to be a challenge. Period. They're so good at what they do.
Tokyo, as the femcee voice of Hustle Gang you’re surrounded by so much male influence. I recall you saying your style as a female rap artist stands out. In what ways?
Tokyo: I think the most important thing about this situation is that I'm comfortable here. I like being here. Nobody makes me feel like I need to do something different, or need to speak on topics I usually don't speak about, or dress a certain way, or be a certain way, or sell sex. Nobody forces me to do anything. I'm able to do what I want to do how I want to do it, and make sure that I'm happy at the end of the day. That's probably the best thing about being in this situation because I don't think people are usually given that freedom. The first thing people try to do is change you. If you look at me, I'm different from the average female rapper you see: I'm skinny as heck, and I don't rap about what everybody else rap about. I'm gonna rap about something that you think a dude is supposed to rap about and give you the female aspect of it. They make it OK for me to do that.
Young Dro: And if anybody got something to say, they can come holla at me.
You're all solo artists as well. Are there any challenges of being a part of such a large team? How do you overcome them together?
Yung Booke: I think the challenges come in the studio. Everybody's so talented. If you come [in the booth] behind people like Dro, and Tip, or Tok, or anyone here really, it's going to be a challenge. Period. They're so good at what they do.
Translee: I don't think it's really challenges. I think it's more so inspiration. Whenever you hear someone start the song up, like RaRa will start the song off and the hook is fire, you don't want to let RaRa down with a whack verse. I think that's how we all operate.
Tokyo Jetz: I think you should ask Trae what the biggest challenge of being in the studio is [collective laughter].
We haven't heard from you Trae. Did you have anything to add?
Trae The Truth: Give me another question. [Laughs]. I'll answer another question.
In your opinion, why do you think people need to actually digest We Want Smoke outside of just hearing singles on the radio, or in the club?
Trae The Truth: It's a representation of life in these current times like Tip said earlier. There's all different dynamics as a whole. You need to hear the struggle, you need to hear the pain. You need to hear that energy, that uplifting, that 'get high' music. You need to hear whatever, so it's perfect for what people need. It's a little something for everybody on there that you'll be able to find.
Then, it's good music. A lot of people ain't making timeless music, they're making music for the moment. You'll be able to play this way down the line, and it'll still sound fresh.
5ive Mics: I think there's nothing else out like it. There's not a crew out here like us that's making one album. 'We Want Smoke' is unique. It's incomparable.
Brandon Rossi: This is not something you just listen to, you have to experience it, too. It's not like a blueprint. Like Dro said, it's like gumbo with some seasoning you ain't never had. It's authentic, and it's all original.
A lot of people ain't making timeless music, they're making music for the moment. You'll be able to play this way down the line, and it'll still sound fresh.