As the saying goes, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” But In the case of hip-hop influencer Pusha T and EVP and Head of A&R Def Jam Steven Victor, hard work and talent will certainly take you further.

Recently, Universal Music Group (UMG) kicked off its Masterclass series—a six-part speaking engagement featuring artists and music executives discussing the ins and outs of the industry. Targeted toward college students, the series spotlights both a forward-facing figure in music as well as a prominent background figure while candidly addressing the current climate in hip-hop and the industry as a whole.

Moderated by Digital Content Director of Ebony-JET Soraya Joseph, the Master Class series kicked off with Pusha and Victor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute’s Element of Hip Hop event before about 400 students.

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Curated by UMG’s VP of College Lifestyle and Marketing, Todd Goodwin, the intimate 45-minute Q&A touched on such topics as career, the importance of being dimensional in your role, and the most current climate of the industry today.

While discussing the future of hip-hop and the importance of embracing newer artists, Pusha said:

“I’ve been here damn near 20 years and I look to be here for a long time. I feel my calling is to basically see the game forward and see new artists forward. I feel like all of the greats in music who I loved, except for a couple, would always shun new [artists] and energy. And these are people who I was dressing like and actually trying to look like them.  But I remember I would always see interviews and they would be say, ‘These new artists don’t do it like we do,’ and I always said, I never want to be this guy. I didn’t want to be like that. That’s not hot!

Especially for the youngest genre, like c’mon man. What are we like, on 44 years of hip-hop? We gotta see this thing though. I’m trying to see the Mick Jaggers of rap—all of that. Whose going to be that in hip-hop? I’m just trying to see the whole culture grow, and you can’t do that by saying, ‘Hey, Trap Music isn’t as hot as “Paid in Full” by Rakim or whatever.’ You can’t do that. You gotta embrace it all.
You gotta stay outside of what you know. That’s the simplest way I can translate it. Like, I’m still outside. I’m still trying to go out and find that energy. I’m still going to the club and I’m still seeing how you guys are even reacting to the music. I love [music] so much, that I want to be in it in every aspect. It’s not just about money. I don’t know what I would do without music. Hunting and searching and just trying to find artists…. I live for all of that.
I’m not cutting the legs off of hip-hop. The youth are the legs. I’m not cutting the legs off at all!”
In regards to the A&R process, Victor made sure to address the more recent stigma surrounding major labels, stressing the importance of a major, while also maintaining your independence:

“[Being independent] doesn’t work for everybody. It worked for one person—Chance the Rapper.

If you look at the biggest artists in the world, who is independent? Nobody can do it [all] by themselves. That’s like a label person saying, ‘Hey, you don’t need a producer, you’re a rapper, just make the beat yourself.’ It’s the same thing.

You should build your own fan base—you should do that. I admire independence [but] it depends on what kind of artist you want to be. I’m not [just] in it as an executive or a manager as someone in the music business. I’m not in it for indie games. I’m in it for master success; and I think if you want to have master success [you need help]. If you look at the biggest artist in the world, look at the list. The top 10 or top 20. I’m not telling you anything you can’t research.”

Rapper/President of G.O.O.D music Pusha T, who has a long working history with Stevens, challenged the EVP’s logic because, after all, what’s a debate without a slight disagreement?

Pusha: I’m from an era of hip-hop where we celebrate independence. So we always admired and loved the stories of all the indie labels—Suave House, 8 Ball and MJG.

Victor: Those indie labels had partners.

Pusha: Not at first, not at first!

Victor: Yeah, but at the end of the day, after a while, when he wanted to take it the next level, he had a partner.

Pusha: Look man, this is why we come to a happy medium. And when we do agree, it’s usually right.

Victor: You gotta go through these conversations to get through it.

Pusha: Yeah, and I still disagree with him. Right now.

Victor: So why ain’t you independent?

Pusha: Good question! [laughs]

In the end, Victor emphasized that while although major labels are ideal for growth, independent effort as an artist is  still a major key:

Victor: Get you a smart manager, and a smart lawyer and get yourself a good deal. An independent deal. You’re still signed to a major corporation but—

As an artist you have to do things on your own, you have to be independent, but up to a certain point because a major record label can’t get you any fans, they can’t get you a fanbase, they can’t do the work for you. Once you’ve done those things on your own, and when you’ve done those things on your own, you’re able to negotiate a better deal for yourself that might resemble an independent deal but, you have to do the work. You have to do it independent up to a certain point. But if you’re trying to take it to the next level, you need certain help that you won’t be able to do on your own.

Pusha: Facts!

Check out the entire conversation below.

The UMG Masterclass series, done in partnership with Ebony Media Operation’s newly redesigned JET, will travel to Atlanta, Chicago and Houston, with its most recent stops being Atlanta and LA’s University of Southern California.