“Don’t ask me about my music, and how that’s comin’ ‘bout /
Don’t ask me about my album, or when’s it comin’ out”
Those two lines, in Malice’s verse on “Virginia” from Clipse’s landmark debut, Lord Willin’, contain a robust amount of autobiography, without actually seeming like they’re talking about anything other than the album where the verse is happening. Sure, Malice might be talking to people who know he’s working on Lord Willin’ and is sick of them bothering him, but those lines are speaking to a what-if of rap history: Clipse’s forever-shelved original debut LP, Exclusive Audio Footage, an album that had two lacklusterly received singles before being cancelled.
In 1996, Pharrell Williams was just at the beginning of his days as a music production and label kingpin; he had some juice from “Rumpshaker” and he and Chad Hugo were making beats for Blackstreet albums, and refining the sound that eventually became the Neptunes. He was starting to try to ferry artists to the promised land of commercial success, and one of the first groups he took a risk on was a raw rap group from his home state: Virginia Beach’s Clipse.
Clipse, the duo of brothers Malice and Pusha-T, worked in Pharrell’s studio when they weren’t hustling starting in the early ‘90s. In 1996, Pharrell helped Clipse—who at the time, were like a Dirty South version of Mobb Deep, which made more sense than it seems, because both Pusha and Malice spent a lot of time in New York growing up—land a deal at Elektra. The conceit would sound familiar: Clipse would make an album about the unique realities of Virginia, chronicling their lives as drug dealers over an album entirely produced by the Neptunes. It was the first time a label took a real stab at letting Pharrell helm a project like this; after all, it was three years before the Neptunes would even be a guaranteed bankable production bet.
So Pusha and Malice and Pharrell and Chad Hugo bunkered down in the studio for the better part of three years, writing and rewriting what they were calling Exclusive Audio Footage. After nearing completion of the album in 1998, they set upon the first single from the project: “Got Caught Dealin’.” The song was sent out to radio stations and promo spots via a CD single you can get on Discogs for pretty cheap.
In the light of 2018, it’s hard to figure out why “Dealin’” never got pushed to radio, particularly since it was a radio-friendly version of a much harder song that sounds like it could have fit on Lord Willin’. But what’s especially clear is that Pharrell hadn’t quite found the right sound for Clipse; their vivid, straight-ahead tales of dealing and wheeling sound hurried over the glossy production style. Clipse and Pharrell went back to the drawing board one last time, and came out with arguably one of the best rap singles to never end up on an LP:
“The Funeral” is the beginning of the Clipse of proper record: it’s them over a perfect, martial Neptunes beat—someone needs to write an entire doctoral thesis on how Pharrell’s drumline past made him the best producer of drums in rap music history—and small details, journalistic, real-time lyrics imagining their own funeral. From Malice imagining exactly how he’d meet his demise and what people would remember about him at his funeral, to Pusha describing exactly how his casket march would look, complete with a Blue Angel flyover, this is an all-time classic. Put “Hold me high, Gucci suit and tie, let my casket reach the sky, so my girl don’t cry” on my tombstone.
Elektra paid for “The Funeral” video—a historical artifact if only because it’s the last time you’d ever see Pusha-T wearing an ill-fitting suit— and pushed the single on their promotional outlets, but when it didn’t make a dent—it didn’t register on the charts, and if wasn’t for YouTube, it’s music video would probably just not exist in any form anymore—Elektra indefinitely shelved Exclusive Audio Footage, and dropped Clipse. The album is uneven—the heights are too few, and the production, which is too glossy and not as stripped back as Clipse’s music would be, is still finding its way as much as Pusha and Malice were—but it’s definitely better than a bunch of the major label released rap albums from 1999.
Clipse went back to Virginia Beach, and waited for another opportunity to make music. In 2001, Clipse were signed by Pharrell—who by then was getting work on No Doubt singles—to his Star Trak Entertainment label, which partnered with Arista to sign the group to a new deal. They worked for a year, dropped Lord Willin, and went on to be the Clipse we know now. But sometime in 2004 or 2005, around the time that Clipse were again in label limbo with Jive—which had absorbed Arista—some enterprising Elektra employee, his name forever lost to the digital sands of Internet history, leaked the entirety of Exclusive Audio Footage onto file-sharing websites, and a bootleg vinyl version appeared in stores around the country.
The album is now pretty easy to find in full on YouTube, but what’s intriguing is that every version of the album you can find now—the vinyl, the YouTube, those old MP3 versions from the Bush administration—has a different track list. It’s likely that the album was never actually “finished” or properly sequenced how Clipse/Pharrell wanted it, but the version I like the best is the one that has “The Funeral” as the album’s last song. Listened to that way, it feels like Exclusive Audio Footage is Clipse and the Neptunes figuring out what their collective sound is, and then cracking it, finally, for the album’s last song.
Who knows what Clipse’s longer arc would have been if they got to release Exclusive Audio Footage. Would they have ever made “Grindin’,” the best rap song of the 2000s? Being stifled by a record label that is unsure of what to make of Clipse ultimately led to their best music: Lord Willin and its follow up, Hell Hath No Fury, were both written after label struggles. So maybe, we should be thankful that Exclusive Audio Footage did get shelved, and Clipse had no choice but to make Lord Willin’.