In 2003, a menacing MC from New York had the rap world salivating for his debut opus, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Queens star, 50 Cent, had the rap game in the cobra clutch, not only because of his titillating singles such as “In Da Club” and “21 Questions,” but for his barbaric mentality towards his competition. But while 50 effortlessly doled out mainstream bangers, a Jersey lyricist was hungry to usurp his throne with his own lyrical wizardry.
Enter Joe Budden, a pugnacious 21-year-old MC who zipped his way through the ranks of the underground circuit. In hopes of blooming into a radio darling, Budden inked a contract with Def Jam Records. With a new deal in tow, Budden meticulously crafted his self-titled debut, which spawned his hip-hop classic, “Pump It Up.” With burgeoning producer Just Blaze behind the boards, Joey penned a flavorful club banger peppered with playful quips and an addictive hook.
The tuneful record clinched Budden VIBE’s best new artist award and a Grammy nomination for best male rap solo performance in 2004. In addition to his bevy of accolades, the rapper's signature hit became ubiquitous across different walks of life — including in movies such as 2 Fast 2 Furious and You Got Served, and at any number of sports arenas worldwide. On the Billboard Hot 100, “Pump It Up” peaked at No. 38, his highest peak on the chart, while maxing out at No. 10 on the Top Rap Songs chart.
Billboard caught up with Joe Budden to speak on his success with “Pump It Up,” the origin of the record, going toe-to-toe with JAY-Z on the remix and why he hates the music video to this day. Check out our interview below.
How did the “Pump It Up” record first get to you?
Me and Just Blaze were in the studio and he was playing beats. He got to the “Pump It Up” beat and he skipped over it really quickly. I urged him to go back to it, and I asked him what it was. It was a skeleton so you couldn’t really hear what it was. He said, “It was just a beat I was working on, and I didn’t finish it.” I told him to give me a copy of it and I went home and wrote to that skeleton. The rest was history.
It was just the bare beat?
It was the drums and the Kool & the Gang] sample. It wasn’t structured the way you hear it now. We added that break throughout the whole verse. I think that was only there maybe one time and I was like, “Nah, that’s too hard. We gotta bring that back.” It was so hard that we wound up putting that in the hook. When we put it in the verse, we liked how it sounded and wanted to keep hearing it, so we put it in the hook.
When you heard the sample, in your mind, did you already think this had the potential to be a home run kind of banger?
To be perfectly honest with you, I had never had a huge single. I didn’t know the workings of a huge single. I didn’t know what it took to create one. When I picked that beat, I was really just trying to be true to the essence of hip-hop, with the A Tribe Called Quest “Scenario (Remix).” All the samples that were in it. I was just like, “Let me do some sample-heavy, New York, fast-tempo shit where you could just spit.” My goal was just to spit over an up-tempo beat. I had no idea it would eventually turn into a club record and a radio record. Trust me, I didn’t know how to even try to go about making that.
What were you age-wise? Like 21-22 at the time?
Yeah, I was 21 years old when we made “Pump It Up.”
I know you’re a perfectionist. Was this a one-take situation or did you take time to really craft your verse?
No, I took quite some time with the verses, because the flow was really important over that beat. When I nailed ‘em, it took us a long time to come up with the chorus. I had writer’s block at the time. I didn’t know what my team was looking for or what the people were looking for. It took me a really long time to come up with that hook.
Tell me about the video because I loved the video–
I hate it.
You hate a lot of shit, man.
I hate that video.
Why? I thought it was dope when “Focus” came at the end, because I know that was the street single.
Yeah, that was dope, because “Focus” was dope, and it never really got a look, so that was real good. But just the treatment for “Pump It Up” — again, I had never made that type of record, and I didn’t know how important the video was and how much it would be seen, and we just wanted to do something different and cool. They brought in a stylist and they put on this turquoise bandana and they airbrushed the T-shirt. The video just didn’t age well, I guess that’s my thought. So when it comes on today like at a bowling alley or something randomly, I’m just real embarrassed. My haircut was bad, my sideburns, it was just…
Laughs] Looking back at it now, what changes would you make to it today? Either to the record itself or even the video.
Truth of the matter is, for a 21-22-year-old at the time, it was a fun video. It was colorful, youthful, vibrant. Today, I’m looking with grown-up eyes. Today, it would be a lot more laid back and less energetic. But then, it would be a different video.
That was a crazy year for you because when VIBE had their award show, you won best new artist. Talk about that experience and you getting that recognition so early on in your career.
It’s a gift and a curse. It was a huge blessing because, at that time, a lot of people… the shelf was a weird thing back then. I got signed and came out with an album rather quickly, which expedited my learning experience in the music business. That’s where the blessing comes in. I was able to deal with things on a large level, and I had a little bit of money, and I lost money very early on. I learned a lot earlier.
I’m pretty sure it was nominated for a Grammy, too.
Yeah, it was Grammy-nominated, and it won VIBE’s best new artist. The people I was nominated with for the Grammy] were like 50, Ja, Em, like all the heavyweights. For a freshman act to hit that type of home run, yeah, it was special.
When you first got the news of the Grammy nomination, what was going through your mind?
Honored and blessed to be acknowledged by a group of my peers, and in that group, it was humbling. It was a dream come true at the time.
It was humbling but I’m sure it gave you a lot of confidence. Like, “I’m here now.”
You know what? Back then, I always thought I was the best rapper. Remember, I was naive, so I wasn’t playing the hits game or the game that the records business was playing. I was from the streets, so it was like, “Yeah, I rap better than n—as.” Laughs.] That’s how I felt back then.
Which one was more of a mind fuck for you? Watching the song getting played in movies like 2 Fast 2 Furious and You Got Served, hearing it at basketball games, or when you heard it on the radio?
Probably more of a shock in the movies. It still comes on at basketball games, but in the movies, it gave my songs a much longer life than they would have had.
Do you remember the first time you heard your record in 2 Fast 2 Furious?
I think I saw the premiere, and I knew the song was in the movie. That was exciting for me at the time until I got more information. The 2 Fast 2 Furious soundtrack came out a week before my album with “Pump It Up” as the lead single. That album went on to sell like 370,000 copies first week, which was amazing, and it was like astronomical numbers for a soundtrack. In hindsight, I wish they would have separated those releases a little more.
One of the biggest moments that came from the record, especially for the hip-hop junkies, was when JAY-Z did his rendition on it and you came right back.
That was amazing. That was an amazing moment in hip-hop. I went to him for a remix, and for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. So when I heard it — I mean, I’m a huge Hov fan, so that was real big. He started spitting and he wouldn’t stop. Then I kind of was nervous a little bit. Laughs.] Now you got the best rapper on your ass with a hundred bars. Boy, that was nerve wracking.
Did it take a long time to craft your verse for the comeback?
One hundred percent. No rewrites. I used to pride myself on not rewriting.
You were one of the first artists to go independent and sign with Amalgam. What are your thoughts on newer artists today embracing the title of being independent, knowing you were one of the forefathers of going independent?
I championed independence. What I will encourage, no matter what type of deal you’re in — just read over the fine print with a fine-toothed comb. Independence is not for everybody. You have to be built for that, for the grind and the work ethic. It’s grueling. I love it.