The blended family hustle

With T.I. at the helm, Hustle Gang captures a familial vibe with 'We Want Smoke'

Hustle Gang Album Cover.59e5106470a03
Photo credit: Courtesy Hustle Gang
'We Want Smoke'

On a rainy, Monday afternoon, the Gathering Spot is swarming. A production crew scrambles to move an outdoor show featuring 12 separate acts to an indoor space half the size. A PR team juggles a fully booked press day with final preparations for the aforementioned concert, an album release celebration for the Hustle Gang debut We Want Smoke (out now via Grand Hustle/Roc Nation). A handful of the artists in question 5ive Mics, Brandon Rossi, RaRa, Tokyo Jetz, Translee, Young Booke, and Young Dro are gathered in a conference room and acting on their best behavior ??_ except during the moments when the genuine camaraderie between this band of rap siblings overpowers everything else. It is Hustle Gang over everythang, after all.

At the center of it all sits a poised T.I., pulling double duty as featured artist and calculating executive. Since first introducing the idea of Hustle Gang in 2013 as a rebirth for his Grand Hustle imprint, T.I. has been working towards this very day: finding the right artists, nurturing existing movements, even redefining his own voice in the process. Through 17 tracks, a handful of features and a very low profile list of producers, We Want Smoke offers a surprising cohesiveness, one that few artists are able to sustain on their own with a project that long; let alone with nine co-stars. And despite the absence of a single solo track on the album, all 10 members of Hustle Gang shine, including B.o.B, GFMBRYYCE, Trae The Truth, and Tip himself.

Perhaps it's because, rather than creating an environment where his acts vie for the label head's attention, T.I.'s signees have fully bought into the concept of Hustle Gang as a family. Each member fiercely defends and supports each other, all while reveling in their turn in the sun. Together.

How different was is to bring this group of artists together, who have different sounds and personalities, versus doing it the first time with Pimp $quad Click?

T.I.: With P$C, we all knew each other before music. And sometimes that could be positive and sometimes it can have its disadvantages, because in a professional setting, you need everybody with their game faces on at all times. It was easy to fall back into trap conversations and get on real homeboy time and forget that we're working. Everybody here, of course we are a family and we do have very strong ties personally as well as professionally, but everybody's at this table for the same reason: we wanna win; we wanna kill shit for real. And everybody had their own ideas, before they met me, of how they were gonna kill shit. So this is a huge moment for the entire gang.

There are more artists on the roster now than there were a year ago. How long of a process has it been for you to get everybody to this point?

T.I.: We've been rebuilding and recovering ever since Doe B died. So we've been slowly acquiring pieces and welcoming people who are worthy into the fold whenever they displayed a significant readiness. And that process is never ending. We're always doing that. We're an institutional culture.

What makes this work well for you guys, in terms of the sound?

Room: Comradery. Diversity.

Brandon Rossi: I don't think it's all about a sound, I think we're going for a vibe. It's not like we going for a sound, we all have good taste in music, we know what a good record is. It's not a long thought process.

Tokyo: We go into the situation differently. Somebody else might go into the studio like, "Oh, we need to do this song, we need to make a pop record so it can do this on the charts.' We actually go into the situation together and listen to music and just vibe. And it comes out dope.

So everyone is involved in the structuring of the project?

T.I.: And different people bring different things to the table. For instance, GFMBRYYCE started "Do No Wrong.' He presented it and said "We should do this.' Rossi and RaRa, they started "Friends,' and we did it and it was dope. Each of us has a record that we started and presented to the rest of the gang. And once everyone else contributed to the record, it became something totally different and much better than we had expected. Having the ability to do that sets us apart.

Tokyo, have you found it difficult to find your voice in this gang of guys?

Tokyo Jetz: I'm dope within myself. No matter who was around, I'm still gonna be dope. I just add to what everybody else brings. In this situation, I don't have a reason to hold back. I can speak on whatever I wanna speak on, I can say whatever I wanna say.

Individually, what do you think are your strengths?

Rossi: I like Booke's younger perspective. I like Dro because I know what he's gonna do every time he steps in the booth. I ain't even gotta talk about Tip. Tokyo, first of all, is the best female rapper around; anybody want problems with that, we can start the debate. I really respect Translee's mind, how he approaches his subject matter. 5ive is just one of them niggas who can do anything with the raps. Me and London are similar because we like to do melodies and we can rap, and I make beats and engineer just like him. Ain't no telling what you can get out of us. And RaRa is like Dr. Dre and Kanye and Pimp C in one. He can do anything.

RaRa: We all kinda come from the bottom with it and I admire everybody being able to deal with the process. It's like LeBron going to play with Dwyane Wade: sometimes you gotta take a pay cut in the beginning because you wanna play amongst great people or on a certain team. A lot of people can't do that. Rap is built off of ego and pride and to me everybody put they pride to the side to be able to come together. That's big for me.

Tip, someone said on Facebook the other day that they're not sure if they can trust your opinion anymore when it comes to female rappers, which was an Iggy Azalea reference. Do you worry that people have lost confidence in the artists you back?

T.I.: First of all, let me say this: I don't give a fuck about what nobody say. I don't need nobody's validation, I don't need anybody to reassure me that I am what I've always known I was. I knew who I was before they found out I was. So, I don't care about any of that. Secondly, at that time, it took for me to go through a journey, just like others, so that I could get to a point of understanding and seeing exactly what I was dealing with. I'm not, by any means, anything less than loyal. Once I commit myself to someone, I'm gonna uphold that to the fullest. And I don't think that that situation is in any way a reflection of me. I think people make their own decisions as humans. I don't think people really understand: I'm not a "do it my way or else' type of executive, leader or whatever you would call me. The people I have around me, it's because I trust their vision for themselves and how it applies to the overall big picture. So, she had her journey, so far be it for me to tell her how to be a little white girl from Australia and come and apply herself to American culture. So all the insecurities and all the stuff she had to process, I couldn't really understand it. So I had to let her go on her journey, and her journey led her to where she's at right now.

Is there a meaning behind the term "We Want Smoke"

Tokyo: If you're saying you want smoke, it's like saying you're looking for problems. If anybody has a problem, you want them to bring that problem to you.

T.I.: For example, if you got a problem on social media, like how y'all kids handle your business nowadays. If there's one person who made a statement, and then the other person makes a statement and they say, "Man, you don't want no smoke man. Pull up.' That means you not about that life.