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Revisiting Re-Up Gang's forgotten album and the legendary run that cemented them as mixtape lords

Preezy Brown

 // Aug 6, 2018

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With the evolution of technology, the internet and the music industry as a whole, the process and pretenses under which artists record and release their music in 2018 is as fluid as ever. In contrast to the late 90s and early aughts, when massive marketing and promotional campaigns signaled the impending release of a major label album months ahead of schedule, the past decade has been defined by a more streamlined, D-I-Y approach, with even the biggest and most bankable stars in music shunning the industry red-tape and opting to deliver music whenever and however they felt like it.

However, this shift toward a spirit of independence also altered how people consume music, as well as how fans differentiate a mixtape and an album, a line that would forever be blurred after 2008, the year when online media, independent blog sites and curators replaced the streets and the mixtape DJ as the arbiters of what was credible, niche and cool.

This changing of the guard coincided with the splintering of the Re-Up Gang, a crew that dominated the streets and message boards alike with a trilogy of releases that stamped them as mixtape Gods and standard-bearers for street rap. Comprised of rap duo the Clipse and Philadelphia natives Ab-Liva and Sandman, the Re-Up Gang were preceded by groups like G-Unit and the Diplomats as the prime architects of the mixtape renaissance, but quickly became major players after joining forces in 2004 under tenuous circumstances.

Following a short-lived stint on Elektra Records, where Pusha T and Malice recorded their shelved debut album, Exclusive Audio Footage, the Clipse gained traction after the duo inked a deal with longtime friend and collaborator Pharrell Williams to join his Arista Records imprint, Star Trak, in 2001. The next year, the Clipse unleashed their debut album, Lord Willin', which was powered by the lead-single "Grindin," a song that instantly became an anthem for everyone from hustlers on the East Coast to dope boys in the South and everywhere in between.

Achieving platinum certification and positioning the Clipse as one of the hottest new acts in music, Lord Willin' gave rap fans and critics alike the impression that they were the real deal and had the makings of a duo that could balance mainstream success with street credibility and longevity. However, things began to go awry in 2004, during the recording of the group's sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury. BMG, Arista's distributor, entered into a merger with Sony, resulting in Arista Records—and Star Trak—being dissolved into sister label Jive, who were more known for producing pop acts like Britney Spears, NSYNC than their standing within the rap community.

Although Star Trak quickly found a new home at Interscope, the Clipse were retained by Jive under the guise of contractual obligations the duo had yet to fulfill. The change was one that the Clipse were not receptive to, with Pusha pointing to their familiarity with Arista and Jive's lack of expertise in the rap arena in a 2005 interview. "It was just one of those things that we were at home at Arista," Pusha explained. "We were signed by LA Reid, he understood us and knew what was going on. He knew what it took to break these street records. He listened to our vision and basically followed it. It went from there to being acquired by Jive Records, [who are] people that really specialize in pop music. It's just one of those things where the Clipse have not gotten the attention that were suppose[d] to get."

With fans impatiently awaiting the arrival of their highly-anticipated follow-up to their classic debut, but without a release date or a rapport with their record label, the Clipse were stuck between a rock and a hard place, with their window of opportunity to take the next step in their careers appearing to be dwindling. Tapping into their hustler's ingenuity, Pusha T and Malice decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Re-Up Gang, a rhyme syndicate that paired the brothers Thornton with Ab-Liva and Sandman, two spitters out of North Philly that the duo had found kindred spirits in.

A founding member of Philly rap collective Major Figgas, A-Liva first connected with the Clipse in 1999 during a chance recording session at Neptunes member Chad Hugo's home, which manifested in a mutual respect and admiration between the 6'9" rhyme animal and his Southern compatriots. Ab-Liva's affiliation with the Clipse led to him being tapped to record for Lord Willin', appearing on the song "Hot Damn," which was released as the fourth and final single from the album. Accompanied by a music video, "Hot Damn" introduced Ab-Liva not only to Clipse fans, but the greater rap world as well, and resulted in his eventual enlistment in the Re-Up Gang.

Hailed as a rap phenom in his Germantown and North Philly stomping grounds as a teenager, Sandman caught his first big break after hooking up with producer Clark Kent and signing a record deal with Interscope Records, but was ultimately dropped from the label without releasing an album. Choosing to return to the mixtape circuit while building up his own C.A.N.N.O.N. Inc movement, a chance meeting with Pusha T, as well as a rapport with fellow Philly native Ab-Liva, resulted in Sandman joining the Rep-Up Gang as the crew's final piece.

Spearheaded by Pusha T, who reached out to DJ Clinton Sparks to help him put together a mixtape, the Re-Up Gang's debut mixtape, We Got It 4 Cheap Volume 1, was released in 2004. Arriving during the peak of the mixtape era, Volume 1 served as a pleasant surprise to die-hard fans of the Clipse and casual fans alike, drawing in listeners with superb lyrical showings from all four members and its unabashed coke-centric subject matter and imagery. Meshing Pusha T and Malice's nasally flows with Ab-Liva and Sandman's slick, yet heavy-handed deliveries, Volume 1 gave the rap world their much-needed fix of the Clipse while also thrusting their partners-in-rhyme into the public's consciousness, translating into critical acclaim for the lyrical four horsemen.

However, in spite of the success of Volume 1, the Clipse's relationship with Jive was continuing to sour due to creative differences and Hell Hath No Fury being devoid of a release date. While continuing to fight through the label red-tape, the Clipse and the Re-Up Gang capitalized on the immense buzz of Volume 1 by following up with a second installment the following year, a project that would take the quartet's popularity to unprecedented heights. With DJ Clinton Sparks returning as the host, the Re-Up Gang ran roughshod over a collection of classic instrumentals on We Got It 4 Cheap Volume 2, including Show Biz & Ag's "Next Level (Nyte Time Mix)," Ghostface Killah's "Daytona 500" and Outkast's "Elevators (Me & You)," as well as hijacking newer tracks like The Game's "Put You on the Game," Common's "The Corner" and Cassidy's "I'm a Hustla." Billed as one of the premier rap releases of 2005, Volume 2 was considered an instant-classic and received resounding praise from the rap community, earning high honors such as Mixtape of the Year and has since been listed as one of the best street albums of the decade.

With Volume 2 capturing the Re-Up Gang at their apex, the buzz surrounding the project fueled anticipation for the Clipse's delayed sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, which continued to languish in purgatory amid Pusha T and Malice's battle with Jive Records. Frustrated with Jive's lack of attention to their impending project, the Clipse requested a formal release from their contract with the label, which Jive denied, resulting in the disgruntled duo filing a lawsuit against the label in an attempt to break the four-album contractual agreement between the two parties.

However, the Clipse and Jive eventually settled the lawsuit on May 9, 2006 after the label agreed to a distribution deal for the Clipse's own Re-Up Gang Records label, but issues between the two continued to persist amid shifting release dates for Hell Hath No Fury, further straining the two parties' business relationship. After numerous delays, Hell Hath No Fury was released on November 28, 2006, and was touted as the Clipse's best work to date, earning perfect ratings from a variety of publication, but peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 and failed to reach gold certification, resulting in the album being deemed a commercial disappointment in comparison to the runaway success of Lord Willin'.

Despite Jive's attempts to repair their relationship with the Clipse, the bad blood continued to boil over in the wake of Hell Hath No Fury, concluding in Pusha T and Malice being let go from the label in 2007, giving them the opportunity to make a fresh start elsewhere. Inking a 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement with Columbia for Re-Up Gang Records that same year, the Clipse turned their focus back on the Re-Up Gang, who were more than two years removed from their last project at the time of the signing. The duo wasted little time galvanizing the crew, with Re-Up Gang's third installment of their We Got It 4 Cheap series arriving on February 5, 2008. With DJ Drama replacing DJ Clinton Sparks as host, We Got It 4 Cheap Volume 3 picked up where its ballyhooed predecessor left off, with Pusha T, Malice, Ab-Liva and Sandman getting surgical over an array of instrumentals. However, one distinction that separates Volume 3 from the first two installments is the inclusion of original songs, with the Dame Grease-produced "20k Money Making Brothers on the Corner" and the Pharrell Williams-assisted "Cheers" (which originally appeared on DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz: The Album) both among the most memorable highlights from the tape.

Following the release of Volume 3, it was reported that Re-Up Gang's major label debut would be released on Re-Up Gang Records through Columbia Records later that year; however, Columbia reportedly decided that the Clipse should release their third studio album before rolling out Re-Up Gang's album, putting the project in limbo. With Columbia's lack of urgency regarding Re-Up Gang's debut, the crew struck an agreement with Koch Records to release the album, which was liberated just months after the deal was announced.

Ten years ago, on August 5, 2008, Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang was released on Koch Records, but the occasion was far from a celebratory one, as the album was both a critical and commercial disappointment, failing to create the same excitement and euphoria that surrounded their We Got It 4 Cheap series. The album, which was comprised of verses and choruses recycled from Volume 3, also ruffled the feathers of Re-Up Gang member Sandman, who believed the release of the album was mishandled by Koch, making his feeling known in various interviews. "When you have a movement like the Re-Up Gang, something that came out of nowhere that was turned into a cult following, I just don't see how people dropped the ball on the last project," Sandman said at the time. "So it didn't make sense for me to stick around if shit ain't in my best interest."

Sandman also alleged that he was initially told that the Re-Up Gang's album would be released June 9, 2008 on Columbia Records, before the album was pushed back and subsequently picked up by Koch. "To me, I just don't think whoever—either Koch [Records] or the Clipse—did not believe in this Re-Up movement," Sandman added. "Or it didn't mean nothin' to them. What the fuck vision do you have that you'd squander this?" When all was said and done, Sandman would announce his departure from Re-Up Gang less than a month after Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang hit stores, listing the Scott Storch-produced track "Fast Life"—which only featured the Clipse and was devoid of verses from Ab-Liva or himself—being released as the lead single for the album among the reasons for his decision. He also charged that Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang was to prop up the Clipse in an attempt to spark anticipation for their next studio album and was not in his or Ab-Liva's best interest. "To me, it's unjust. The fans are onto it now too: 'Damn, that's it for the Re-Up?' 'Cause now all you hear about is [The Clipse's forthcoming album] Til The Casket Drops. The Re-Up Gang has been phased out; I guess I was just supposed to play along. I'm not no fuckin' nut!"

With Sandman out of the fold, the Clipse shifting their attention to Til The Casket Drops, and Malice's spiritual awakening and decision to give up coke-rap, the Re-Up Gang as we knew it was dissolved, with the three remaining members going their separate ways. Pusha T has continued to earn a spot in the conversation as one of the best emcees in the game while also serving as an executive at G.O.O.D. Music, Malice has turned his platform into a pulpit to promote Christianity after making the name-switch to No Malice, and Ab-Liva continues to be one of the most sought-after pens in hip-hop, lending his talents to hits such as Kanye West's "All Day," among other songs. Sandman, on the other hand, has continued to release music, but has failed to reach the same heights as a soloist he had during his tenure with Re-Up Gang, and despite being more than capable as a lyricist, has yet to recreate the magic that spurred many to deem him as the heart and soul of Re-Up Gang.

All good things must come to an end and the Re-Up Gang's legacy as mixtape Gods and their reputation as one of the best collection of lyricists of their time is without reproach, but on the 10th anniversary of Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang's release, we just wish the story ending on a more triumphant note.


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