The rap game ain’t based on sympathy, and Joe Budden knows this firsthand. Despite his eponymous 2003 debut album spurring the hit song “Pump It Up,” label politics ended up getting his sophomore Def Jam LP shelved. He’s beefed with the likes of 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Prodigy, and The Game. And Slaughterhouse, his supergroup with Royce Da 5’9”, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz, was relatively short-lived after only releasing one album with Eminem’s Shady Records that fans felt grasped too hard for radio spins.
But the Jersey City representative has never felt bad for himself, and he has always been a self-starter. He harnessed his pain into the cult classic Mood Muzik mixtape series, which embraced the Internet-friendly indie route before many other artists figured it out, and predated much of the vulnerability that rap would mature into in the later aughts. He also began to foster a career as a media personality. He co-hosted a morning show on Hot 97 early in his 20s and jumped into Internet content early with his Joe Budden TV YouTube series. The latter series built more interest in Budden and his relationship with ex-girlfriend Tahiry, landing them a spot on Love and Hip Hop: New York in 2013. And in February 2015, he debuted the first episode of I’ll Name This Podcast Later (now known as The Joe Budden Podcast) which would eventually allow him and his cohosts to tour around the country. But he truly showed his media prowess on Everyday Struggle, a digital-only show with Complex that brought the fiery debate format of ESPN’s First Take to hip-hop. Alongside co-hosts DJ Akademiks and Nadeska Alexis, Budden gave industry commentary while sparking contentious viral moments with Lil Yachty and Migos, racking up millions of views. In January 2018, he left the show, leaving some wondering about his next moves: he had already announced his retirement from rap with his 2016 album Rage And The Machine, and there was no telling where his media career would go next.
But Budden had a plan, and now his seeds are beginning to sprout. He announced in May 2018 that he was launching a show with Diddy’s network Revolt TV called State of the Culture, and last month, announced that his Joe Budden Podcast would be joining the Spotify network while increasing their output to two episodes per week. State of the Culture, co-hosted by Scottie Beam and Remy Ma, is scheduled to premiere digitally on Monday, Sept. 10 at 5 p.m., and on the TV channel on Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 10 p.m. After years of toiling in the recording studio, he’s arguably working harder now than ever, producing three shows a week between all of his endeavors.
He jovially visited the VIBE offices last week in a polo shirt and fedora, with the same open book approach that has garnered him such a loyal fan base. But days later, Eminem, offended by his signee’s comments about his music last year, would diss him by name on his surprise album Kamikaze–released on Budden’s 38th birthday. A fitting gift for one of hip-hop’s firestarters. In a candid conversation with VIBE, Joe Budden talks about leaving rap behind, creative beefs with Diddy, and how he convinced his new business partners that he isn’t crazy.
VIBE: You dedicated so much of your life to rapping. When did you first become comfortable with the idea of leaving music behind?
Joe Budden: I don’t know if I was ever comfortable with the idea. I had to condition myself to even pretend to appear comfortable. Early on, it was real tough for me to stick to my guns and say “I’m retired, I’m not rapping, don’t ask me for nothing.” But I had to do that because I love rapping and I love music, so if I don’t do that, you can’t be halfway in it and halfway out. If you’re in it and you love it, you’re right back in it. That took a lot, I can’t say that I was ever really comfortable doing it. I don’t know if I was ever comfortable with the way it sounded when it rolled off my tongue. People didn’t really understand my vision of where I was trying to go, and now people understand in hindsight, but that comfort comes with time.
Do you ever write on your own at home, even if you don’t put it out?
No. I’ve written enough in my professional career, which was part of the reason I decided to retire. You put your blood, sweat, and tears into an album and you think that’s where it ends, but no–when you go on tour you’re still carrying the life of that album and the life of those songs until you put your next project out. I was writing sh*t down that I was feeling with all my soul and I was living it for the next year and a half to two years, it wasn’t very pleasant. So today, when I have those type of thoughts, no, I’m not in a rush to go write them. I kind of enjoy the fact that I don’t have to write anything. For so long, we had to write to pay a bill, we had to write in many instances where maybe you weren’t even inspired to write because it was your job. That’s how passion, creativity, and love gets killed. I kind of re-gained love in retirement, if that makes any sense.
In our last interview, you said that you can’t say all of these things about what artists need and what the industry needs to do, and still remain in the industry when you see it going away from that.
You just gotta lead by example. I’ve always had something to say about the state of the culture and it always boils down to what are you doing to fix it? Throughout my entire career, I can find pockets where I’ve attempted to do things differently to contribute. It wasn’t until I was able to really retire and let go. They say if you love something you gotta let it go, and it just sounds like bullsh*t. But once you actually do it, once it became a selfless act, once I wasn’t angry and bitter about my time in music–how can I help everyone else? Sh*t was so fu**ed up for me and goddamn, I fought the fight all of these years, and I relate to you young ni**as. I’m coming off angry ‘cause I’ve never done this before, and I’m passionate, but boy do I relate to y’all. Y’all don’t have no information. Y’all getting all this f***ing money and y’all getting robbed without a gun right in front of your face, with all of the tools to do something different. It’s my responsibility, it’s my duty ‘til I die. That’s the mission. It’s going to always be the mission, just in what tool we’re using.
“Puff just needed to know that I was not as psycho as he had read in the past.”
Does it feel weird for you to be contributing to the culture from outside of it as opposed to being an artist?
I don’t look at it like I’m outside of it. I look at it like I’m running right next to it from outside of it, so yeah, you’re right. But I guess I don’t look at it from outside, because the good fight that I’m fighting for musicians and streaming is just musicians rights. Podcasts are streams, so I’m still fighting for the rights of entertainers. It feels different being received the way I’m being received and the way the things I say are perceived today, that feels different. For me, I’m doing the same things that I’ve always done. I’ve always been outspoken. I’ve always been honest. I’ve always said things that maybe other people were afraid to say. That’s been constant through my entire career–it just so happens that the people are behaving like we need it today more than ever, so they’re receptive to it.
“You know I ain’t never really fu**ed with Joe Budden’s music like that but we need this sh*t, like you might be the most important n***a out here. I’m gonna keep it a buck.” Nothing flatters me more than that. It’s the most unbiased, honest critique that you can say. “That thing that you thought you are excellent at, to me, is the worst thing in the world, you didn’t add to my life in that. But I see value in you somewhere else.” Wow. For a ni**a like me who always hung his hat on MCing, I’m humbled to the highest degree. My mom always said, “whatever attracts them to you is just what attracts them to you. Some people like you ‘cause you’re cute. Some people like you cause you’re funny. Some people like you ‘cause you got money. Welcome them all.” So I welcome all these ni**as today.
It’s one thing to just shoot the sh*t with your friends in front of a microphone. But what has the process been like of creating shows and segments from the ground up?
That was practice and experience, probably. That was me at Hot 97 doing the morning show as a 23-year-old falling asleep during a commercial break. That was me sitting in my room doing some internet show called “This Is My Fu**ing Show.” This was 2009-2011, I was selling it on iTunes for 99 cents–we didn’t know what a podcast was, but that was a podcast. It was being at Complex and learning how to be on camera, Love and Hip Hop learning how to be on camera, and I just bring all that to the podcast and somehow it works. Rory & Mal don’t give a f**k about none of that. They’re two ni**as. They’re thinkin’ that we kickin’ it. It’s my job to try to at least simulate some form of structure, that’s where the fun part comes in for me.
How do I apply all of the things I’ve learned over the years to this show and take what I think broadcasting is to the next level? We’re calling it a podcast but is it a podcast? No, this is broadcasting, my ni**a. We’re reaching Africa. We reaching Egypt. We reaching people all over the fu**ing universe. That’s not a pod. [With] a pod, you think of something tight and very small. Broad means big. I’d like to think that I’m probably the broadest caster. You can plug Joe Budden in anywhere and it’s going to work. Reality TV, scripted, unscripted, radio, studio, rap, podcasts, digital, YouTube—where you wanna go? Tell me what you want to do, I’ma find a way to make it work.
You’ve spoken previously about some of the rappers you look up to. Are there any journalists or media personalities who you look up to?
All of ’em. I look up to Angie, I look up to Clue, I look up to Flex, I look up to Charlamagne. I’m inspired by all of ’em. That’s how creativity goes further. You have to pull from all of these different geniuses. But I still want to be myself, I still want to be distinctive in how I deliver, execute and broadcast.
It’s interesting because often artists seem to see journalists as wanna be artists outside of the culture.
I can’t identify with that because I’ve never looked at it like that at all. But I see what you mean, I guess in sports, people sh*t on Skip Bayless, like, “You ain’t never played, ni**a shut up.” I understand what you’re saying there, but I’ve never looked at it like that. It’s what do you have to say, and how do we say it? Period. I’ve never looked at journalists that way ever. Y’all are really important, which is why y’all have a huge responsibility on y’all as well. The pen is mightier than the sword; I believe that I’m a wordsmith. So when journalists aren’t responsible and take that for granted, then they have a hard day with me.
As a rapper, you’ve had your share of tiffs with other artists. How do you handle pissing off an artist musically versus pissing off an artist as a media personality?
In music, it’s a very competitive thing so you never really give a f**k if you pissed somebody off. Just go write a verse. I’m the better rapper, [so] let’s prove it. In media, that isn’t the goal. I’m not here to offend people. I’m not here to disrespect people. I’m not here to hurt feelings so if I ever do that, I’ll apologize. I’d like to think that I’m armed enough to voice my opinion without just flipping somebody the bird. We can have discourse if that’s what the person wants to do. If they don’t want to do that, then I don’t really feel like we should have an interview in the first place, so it’s going to always work out.
When I read about the Spotify and Revolt deals I thought to myself, “Joe doesn’t care if he says something that’s going to destroy a relationship as he is being his most honest self”–
That’s correct. If I’m doing something that could be deemed as ruining a relationship. In Joe’s eyes that relationship has been ruined, so there’s never really much to salvage there.
But Puff has a lot of relationships.
That’s why Puff is Puff, and that’s why Joe is Joe. So [you’re asking] how are we going to balance me being the a**hole and a non-social person around Puff who has all of these amazing industry relationships with people I may or may not get along with, yes?
Yes, but it’s not just Puff. Spotify has relationships with artists, too. Do you have any fears of there being a clash in that situation?
No. My relationships today are all based on my relationship with that person or entity. It’s no longer based on how I respond to other people. That was how I had to deal as a rapper. I couldn’t really say nothing bad about you if you were cool with him, and I was cool with him because we’re rappers. But post-rap? … I want people to have all the relationships they want and I have my own relationships. Don’t get it f**ked up. I’m not like a renegade out here. How I conduct my relationships is very different from how other people conduct theirs. I’m not I guess what you would say “industry.” I’ve never called somebody to play my record. I’ve never asked somebody to play a record. I’m not massaging a relationship so you could do something for me. I don’t give two fu**s about none of that sh*t. I’m here to get the work done and, fortunately, I’ve built my work to a place where I could do exactly what I want to do and deliver. That’s how I was brought on as a partner at Spotify. That’s how I was brought on as a partner with Revolt. Puff just needed to know that I was not as psycho as he had read in the past, and I assured him of that.
How did you assure him of that?
Because that’s a gift. That’s a talent when you see Joe Budden on camera just looking like veins are popping out of his head or looking like he’s uncontrolled or just talking with a lot of conviction. That’s an on switch. Once I’m walking off the set, I’m fine. We can kick it. You need to understand that balance if you’re going to develop some trust and in any relationship, you need trust–business, personal, romantic. I think in the meetings that I had with Puff, he was able to see that he can trust me. The Spotify deal doesn’t get done if they’re not able to trust me. I’ve been in this business for a long time. I’ve seen how relationships go when you’re not to be trusted, when you’re viewed as a liar, when you’re viewed differently. Remember: I’m the guy that’s been viewed differently, so I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. So I get it, I understand it all. I don’t take none of this sh*t for granted.
You and Diddy are both used to steering your own ships. What was it like to have a situation with two people who are both used to making all the decisions on their own?
I spent all of this past Friday cursing Puffy out. In my head, of course, because I have too much respect for Puff to ever disrespect him. But my point is we had a creative spat all Friday. Friday night around 11:30, we FaceTimed each other and I flipped him the bird like this and he said, “Come on, give it to me. Say it. Say ‘f**k you.'” I said, “Yeah, f**k you.” He smiled and laughed and he said, “I love you. I want us to be able to fight. I want us to be able to have these types of talks. We’re not gonna always agree, but we have to continue to move forward.” That’s what it’s like. You need that. I’m a firm believer in that creativity can’t live anywhere where you can’t fight, where you can’t argue, where you can’t disagree, where you can’t debate, where I can’t call you names, where I can’t get up and flip this f**king table over. I might want to storm out. “Hey, I’m not talking to you this week, I’ll hit you back next week.” That’s how great sh*t is birthed.
That wasn’t happening at Complex. There were a lot of people there who were scared to speak. All the creators felt oppressed, they felt like they weren’t really getting the bang for their buck. So to get to Revolt and to fight with Puff for the greater good of something we both care greatly about, I couldn’t script it better. Tell me another mogul exec as accomplished as him that’s in the mud. This is the mud. I left Complex in December 2017, we’re premiering the show in September 2018. That’s eight months of me and Puff and Robyn (Lattaker-Johnson, Revolt TV’s head of content) and John and Andre Harrell and whoever having creative differences. We could have written something out. Complex wrote 20 shows out since I left there; ask me about them. Or better yet, I’ll ask you about them. You can’t tell me the name; they’re going to fail, they’re really bad. That’s what happens when you rush things. We weren’t in a rush. It’s going to look like we weren’t in a rush.
A lot of your best work has stemmed from pain, but now you seem pretty happy: you have a partner, a new child, and you’re now working on your own terms. When Royce Da 5’9” stopped drinking, he said he had to convince himself that he could create without alcohol. Did you have to convince yourself that you could create while being happy?
Good question. After my album, All Love Lost, my good friend Emanny moved to LA. He’s been my vocalist for a lot of years. We write music together, so that was a big blow to me when he left because I had to convince myself I could write music without my guy. We come up with melodies, he’s my singer, he’s my vocalist. Today, rap is all about melodies. “Wow, my melody guy is leaving, sh*t.” I was stuck with that at one point. Then I got in there and I said, “You know what? I’m a rapper. I’m good at rap, [the] f**k are you talking about? Go rap.” I went on Rage & The Machine, and that’s why every beat just sounded like a different ni**a rapping, flow-wise. I was like, “All right, what I’ma do? We’re not rapping about pain, we wanna be happy. We’re not trying to be sad and depressed and my vocalist was gone, what’s up?” And boy, I loved it. Loved the experience, loved how it came out.
I ain’t even attempt to rhyme a word since that album, so it’s been a few years. I’ve been happy and the universe has been responding to me, and they’re cheapening the value of music every day. When I just look at things in totality, it’s like why would I rap? Is it for the money? No. Is it to prove something? No, I’ve done that. Is it to give my fans another project? No, I’ve got 16. Is it to show the young people I can rap? No. What do you have to say? Have you said everything you want to say for today? Yeah. For today, my mission is greater.
I can’t just be responsible for the 50,000 people that are gonna buy my album. I have to be responsible for the 2 million people that listen to a podcast a week like it’s a much greater responsibility to the world. I’ll be 40 years old in two years, but my birthday is Friday (August 31). Like, enough. For what? Yeah, no. God is good. Now because God is good and because the universe is so great and because we’re full of so much gratitude, maybe one day down the line I’ll sit at home in a rocking chair. I’ll pull a pen out and I’ll say, “You know what, man? Let me just fu**ing write 12 bars and see if I still got it.” And I’ll toss it out there just because I can. But I can’t predict that. I may have too much fun.