“The world is a crazy place, not just the ghetto. Knowledge is the key to understanding and maintaining in this world.” NAS doesn’t rhyme. He weaves stories.
While all but a few true simply pile non-descript lyrical sweet nothings on top of each other ad nauseam, Nas is that rare MC who can transform a musical track into a terribly spiked Electric Kool-Aid Acid auditory docudrama that places you smack dab into a living, breathing, twisting, turning episode that serves as the true incarnation of virtual reality – Queensbridge style.
With a host of all-star producers including Premier, Large Professor and Q-Tip contributing only the smoothest of sonics, 1993’s Illmatic was an instant classic, a debut that commanded one to sit up straight, listen and learn from the infamous Queensbridge housing projects’ illest twenty-year old.
A direct stylistic descendant of New York legends Rakim and Kool G Rap, Nas stood at the vanguard of a then emerging legion of fellow metro stars (including Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G., Jeru The Damaja and Mobb Deep) whose words were culled from real experiences, not Disneyland-like escapades of creative insurgency.
While people aboveground or otherwise peeled 500,000 copies off shelves, it was felt that Nas’ peers received even better commercial rewards. Determined to build his audience, Nas went on to record a smattering of choice cameo spots with the likes of Raekwon, Mobb Deep, AZ and Kool G Rap. All the while, anticipation was mounting for his next chance to shine:a new album.
It Was Written, which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s album chart, appeases the hardcore purists who were biding their time waiting for this release, while wisely appealing to a wider audience with it’s array of shifting soundscapes and innovative delivery. Since 1996, Nas has beenthinking larger. Subject matter is concerned with getting yours before getting done in by the various forces. From running keys across states, to enlisting the aid of two hookers in an elaborate scheme to fleece a foe, Nas brilliantly takes us along his situationist existence with language that assumes action.
In A&R mack diva Faith Newman’s midtown Sony office, Nas spoke candidly about rapping over beats and running the streets. Admittedly reluctant to speak to the media, he nonetheless answered every question put to him.
Many of the lyrics on the new album make a lot of illicit Coke-dealing references on a different scale than just a little running. Are you using Rap cash to operate as a Coke financier?
Its just, you know, street mathematics. Street mathematicians who be on corners, operating as businessmen. It takes a lot of work for these guys to be out in this illegal business. A lot of youth is into knowing about how this shit really goes down, how it happens. I want my album to be accurate when we do address that shit. Tell the kids this is what’s going down straight up and down. It’s not trying to tell people to get involved with that shit because I wouldn’t want to be involved with that shit. I’m not involved with that shit.
You’re not involved at all?
Nah, no way possible. I’m proud of the ghetto, happy to be a part of the ghetto. The ghetto raises you, teaches you. That’s the place I was raised as a child. I love that place. I survived there, know how to survive there … but I moved on. I’m involved in music, not drugs.
What about before you were rapping?
Everybody in the ghetto grows up around that shit. The ghetto is poor neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods got drugs. Nobody’s really a dealer in the ghetto. The dealers are the ones bringing the Coke to America. Dealers are the millionaires. Ghetto kids just the fucking pawns in the game for real.
But you wouldn’t trade your upbringing for anyone’s…
Growing up in the ghetto means more to me than any preppy motherfucker going to college ’cause I survived that shit. If I was living in some neighborhood with houses and flowers, I wouldn’t approach life the way I do. I wouldn’t cherish the small things. I wouldn’t be so strong and deep – rooted to the struggle. There’s a lot of people that rap that talk about fun all the time. That’s good; I like that. Lots of people that do little laughs in their rhymes. I like that. Unfortunately, I can’t do that because that’s not my state of mind. That wasn’t how I was raised.
Queensbridge serves as the inspiration for your material?
Definitely. QB is everything to me. Out there so much shit happens. That was the world to me even though I lost a lot of friends to jail systems and murder. God gave me the knowledge to see the light. Since he let me live, I gotta remember to carry on for those he chose to take. The world is a crazy place, not just the ghetto. Knowledge is the key to understanding and maintaining in this world. I try to read, stay at peace with myself. Even with interviews, I don’t like doing them. But in the long run it pays off.
Why don’t you like doing interviews?
I like to be original, to do original things. Bottom line, if it’s not me writing a book I’m not really into it because I’m already voicing everything I want to say. But I understand people want to feel me. Sometimes I feel like you’re just playing yourself in interviews. Sometimes the interviewer doesn’t know shit. Not like you, though; you on time. A lot don’t know what’s going on, ask the same questions over and over … shit gets tiring.
Your raps achieve an intricacy few can touch. What is your process for writing a rhyme?
A lot of rappers just want to rhyme and shock you. A lot of rappers bust they brain cells trying to come up with shit. I wrote this whole album in the studio just coming in and chilling. Just regular shit. I didn’t sit down and plan it out or nothing. I just went into the studio and wrote what came to mind. From Illmatic to now, the schedule has been changed so much, I didn’t have time to sit at home and really con-centrate. It’s been more business. I just came and wrote the shit right in the studio.
The whole album?
Yeah. I got so much shit I want to say. But I want to make songs. Sometimes the song starts off about one thing then leads into something else. I just like making the music. That’s the best part – the studio and doing shows.
What type of control do you have over the music?
All control. Sometimes a producer will come in with some shit in his head that he want to do and he just knock it out and I be with it. Sometimes I’m more involved with picking out the beats and breaks. With this album I was involved to the fullest. Every producer you work with you learn something new. I like to get better and improve on my shit, so I like to keep working with different producers to learn more shit.
Might you begin producing tracks yourself?
Definitely. It’s still family that’s coming out with records like The Firm. I’m definitely in the music. I just feel it. I’ma put that shit out just how I see it in my head and hear it in my ears.
What’s the deal with The Firm?
It’s some political shit. Real ghetto. One thing about people I work with, I like to work with the best. I like lyrics to be from the heart. There’s a lot of good lyricists out there, but there’s only a few true ones. I see my crew being one of the select few. It’s just a few brothers who knew each other really before all this record shit started. I could look at Foxy Brown as a sister, AZ as a brother. I knew AZ while I was working on Illmatic. I knew this nigga was the hottest motherfucker. We just coming together for that family essence and putting down messages. We not coming together to shine as a group. We don’t want to be a group.
What about yourself? A lot of people say you’re the best MC today no question…
Nah. There’s too many MC’s to have one best MC. I think whoever comes out with the newest shit at the time is the best. Now, I like to be respected. To be respected means I’m doing my job to the fullest. You know, you got your all-time greats, but it’s too many now to have one top dog. One day I’ll be like Meth is my nigga, then I’m like Raekwon or Lauryn is the shit. Everybody just keeps complimenting Hip Hop. We keep adding to Hip Hop, the mothership.
You carry on tradition for G Rap, Rakim, and others…
Most definitely. Without guys like them, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t think most of us would be here. They made up our mindstate. They raised us. Guys like Rakim, Kool G Rap, LL Cool J, KRS-One, and Run-DMC.
You cover two songs on It Was Written: "Sweet Dreams" and Kurtis Blow’s "If I Ruled the World." What was the thinking behind those selections?
That shit means everything to me cause if you’re not doing shit like that, you’re not doing Hip Hop. Lot of people be like, "Why use the ‘Friends’ beat?" Nigga, I’m doing Hip Hop. Kurtis Blow was the nigga to me. That’s why I’m doing "If I Ruled the World," ya know? Hip Hop is converting an old record into a Hip Hop song. Hip Hop is good times. All the records, we’d rhyme to ’em. That’s what Hip Hop is. We take that and make it our music. Lot of people try to be real creative, but they just staying one-dimensional. Sounds they coming up with are not going anywhere.
It’s like, "Yo, let’s make a beat, let’s rhyme about the street." That’s just one-dimensional. I like somebody to take me on a journey. I want them to talk about something that goes on in their lives for real, how they really feel. I don’t want to hear about the streets every damn day. Niggas talking about how much Weed they smoke. All that shit is corny. I want to hear how they live. I don’t want to hear niggas rhyme how I rhyme or how Mobb Deep does.
Many rappers have picked up themes that you introduced several years back…
Definitely. It’s all good. I feel like a pioneer, like a dictionary for most MCs. That’s why I feel obligated to keep making some shit. I know my first album had a lot of followers. But what I tried to do with this one was just dodge and weave, so they’d be like, "Damn, I can’t do that, I can’t imitate that shit." Not even imitate, ’cause I imitated Rakim. I imitated everybody when I first started. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what Hip Hop is – each one teach one. But I want to take everyone on a journey with some original shit.
Is working with Dr. Dre on the song "Nas Is Coming" part of the same originality? To squash all that East Coast/West Coast bullshit?
Yeah, it’s definitely bullshit. I think you’re going to see more East Coast rappers coming together with California rappers.
Why is there a barrier?
That’s what everybody’s starting to realize. Working with Dre was a good experience because he’s a professional. He’s one of the best producers, the way he works. He’s a perfectionist. He’s the perfect type of person you want to work with if you want to put some shit down ’cause he puts some shit down. We worked in one day ’cause I was busy and he was busy. We needed more time to work, but now we looking forward to sitting down and working on a few joints for The Firm shit. Sit down and really concentrate.
So there’s going to be a partnership in the future?
Yeah, I mean I’m involved with any producer who’s dope. And that’s one of the dopest niggas ever to live, ever to touch the forty-eight track board. It’s a pleasure to work with the God ’cause I look at my shit as trying to be supreme shit and I see his shit as supreme shit.
Any chance Dre may rap on some tracks?
There’s no telling what we may come up with.
"I Gave You Power" was written from the perspective of a gun.
Like I said, there’s a lot of one-dimensional rappers who don’t take you nowhere. I want to take you on a journey. "I Gave You Power" takes you inside the mind of a gun. What a gun’s feeling, what a gun goes through, how a gun affects people’s lives. It’s just a foul situation. It’s saying that if I was a gun, I’d just be the most depressed motherfucker in the world because of the way I’m treated, what I’m used for, the whole science behind it. It meant a lot to me how a gun equals power. It’s how all wars was won.
Is it an anti-gun song?
I didn’t make it with a message. I made it with an underlying message, not out in the open. You gotta listen to it real close. Guns are fucked up.
You still hold?
It’s a war out there, man. Solider got to equip himself. Cops shooting for nothing. Arresting guys for nothing. Who knows what’s going to happen? The world is crazy. Many different worlds exist. Rich man doesn’t understand a poor man’s world. Poor man doesn’t understand his world, but wants to be in a rich man’s world not knowing that it takes a lot of hard work.
Did you finish high school?
Nah, I left in the ninth grade. I wish I was living in an environment where I could have finished school. I would have loved that. But my environment didn’t provide for that. I was hanging with the crew going through what we call the school of hard knocks. But I felt that even then when I wasn’t in school, I was put here for a reason. I wasn’t going to turn out to be a low-life scum of the Earth. I always knew I wouldn’t turn out to be like that. I began rhyming when I was nine.
Where do you see yourself in this big web of life now?
I’m looked at as just another Black motherfucker. A roach. I’m a roach. Not shit. Who cares about me? Nobody. So life is what you make it. I make myself happy with what I do. I’m still going and having fun. Don’t get in my way or kill me. Straight up.
What does Rap mean to you? A hustle?
Rap is so much fun, but unfortunately it turned into a hustle. But I don’t always look at that part. For some people that’s all it is. I make music ’cause that’s what I think I was born to do.
What does Hip Hop mean to you?
Hip Hop, that shit is gonna be here forever. It’s large. A lot of power going to try and shut it down. But they can’t. It’s too powerful. Hip Hop is what I like to do. All I like to do.
Originally published in SECONDS #39