Last year, HYPE was afforded the opportunity to sit down with New York legend and one of the greatest to ever do it on the mic, NAS. Courtesy of the Castle Lite Extra Cold experience, that also boasted Wiz Khalifa and Timbaland, our Freditor got a full hour in to kick it with Esco in what turned out to be an epically dope experience.
We’re kind of sad that he didn’t ask about certain things, like the Hova beef and what it felt like when Pac dissed him, but we’re told the security on the day was deeper than Alcatraz so we forgive him. He also go a chance to go to the technical rehearsal and see Nas perform the entire Illmatic album with his live band a day before the concert. Lucky bastard!
In case you didn’t catch it in the August/September 2014 issue, here is the exclusive interview with God’s Son. Don’t say we never put you on.
Fred: You’ve been to South Africa before but not to perform for the public at an event of this magnitude. You’ve always been really vocal and passionate about black American African heritage so I’m sure this is exciting for you.
Nas: I’m crazy excited, it’s like I’m living a dream. Someone like myself who talks about Africa and its meaning, being the birthplace of man and all that great history that’s been erased and even hidden, I think it’s my duty to be proud and to bring about the conversation that allows us to talk about the great history of my people.
America is a melting pot for all different groups of people, historically. And it’s rare that the story of all of these people will be told in the history books. So I always felt I had to find out my history for myself and research my roots and that’s where that element comes from in my music. And then to be here and perform with the orchestra is something I never thought would happen. And I appreciate Castle Lite and everybody who’s receiving me so well over here.
Fred: Speaking of the orchestra, you’ll be performing all original Illmatic joints. It’s been 20 years since then. It must be a trip to be around and active long enough to celebrate this milestone.
Nas: I’m in a better place of understanding now than when I released my first album. When Illmatic first came out, it was surreal. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience in my life than releasing my first record to the world. Creatively and career-wise, it was the greatest thing. But 20 years later it’s a celebration. It’s me going back and revisiting a bunch of songs that I haven’t performed in years… ‘Memory Lane’, ‘One Time For Your Mind’… So it’s really surreal. I can’t even begin to try to explain this feeling.
Fred: Every fan has their favourite album out of your discography and those debates could go on forever. As the artist, which of your albums are the most meaningful; for whatever reason, personal or commercial?
Nas: They all have different meanings to me. I’ve gone through too much, from beefs to divorce to my mom passing which I always expressed in my music, so there’s not one that sticks out as more important than the other to me. I’m just happy that I’ve lived long enough to be sitting here with you and be in a position where I can reflect on a two-decade legacy. That’s something really special.
Fred: It was Biggie’s birthday just over a week ago and that got me thinking about the impact that New York has had on rap music. Not long ago when Hov was asked about how he feels about the perceived decline of that golden era NY sound in rap, especially with guys like A$AP Rocky and French Montana who have emerged but sound somewhat southern, he said that music has nothing to do with geographic location. Now, as someone who has always been proud to rep Queensbridge and someone who has championed and helped define the NY sound, do you feel the same way or are you still territorial about it?
Nas: Hip hop started in NY so it’s important that New Yorkers realise that to talk about NY music and its sound should not be a small-minded conversation. Music is supposed to evolve. It’s been around for 40 years. At 40 years it’s supposed to be going through changes, it’s not supposed to sound exactly the same as what it did when it started. With respect to all the regions, NY hip hop has to be allowed to move on and grow and expand. It’s a very serious thing. It’s a street thing. It’s a poetic thing. It’s a narrative. It’s everything, not just one thing. So I’m happy about where NY hip hop can go. I think it’s not as easy as people say it is. It’s not as easy for the ‘new sound of NY’ to be put together. There are too many distractions. It’s the starting point of hip hop so of course people hold it to a sometimes unrealistic standard. But we need to give it space to find itself and maybe soon someone will be lucky enough to find the new sound in the 21st century. But it’s gonna take time and that’s a good thing.
Fred: On that note, KRSOne said hip hop is a reflection of us and what is happening around us. If that’s the case it follows logic that the content of rap songs now is different to what was in rap songs 20, 30 years ago because things are different. So if I’m an 18-year-old rapping about money and popping bottles in the club because that’s my reality, can the world really be mad at me for speaking about what’s real to me? I could rap about Malcolm X and his noble teachings, but that wouldn’t be true to who I am. Without using the word ‘conscious’ you’ve always been an advocate for righteousness on some level. How do you view this whole tug-of-war between social responsibility and music?
Nas: I feel like when I did Hip Hop is Dead I was dealing with that. You’re supposed to be who you are. You’re supposed to make music that is true to you. Hip hop as a whole needs to evolve, it’s not just about NY. In my eyes the problem with that is that there needs to be structures in place to do something about misrepresentation. Like, when awards are given out and the media talk about hip hop, they’re confused because they haven’t done their homework on it so you have a case where there’s an award for the most pop song in the world and it’s called ‘hip hop’, or the most R&B song in the world and they label it ‘hip hop’.
Someone may be involved in a crime and they say “hip hop artist involved in crime” and this may be a person who did hip hop as a hobby and never made a record. So the way it’s thrown around is without respect, without concern, without any knowledge of it and that’s what I have a problem with. When you have that, the musician is confused ‘cause he feels like no one cares about his craft, so he’s going into studio to make something that sounds like techno to separate himself from what the media tells him is hip hop.
It’s just like if I start playing violin today and I didn’t even put enough hard work in and I’m at the classical music awards and get an award because kids like it over real classical musicians, that would never happen ‘cause in that field they protect and respect their art form. In hip hop no one cares. No one stands up for it and it’s a mess. We need order so we can all follow the tradition of where we came from. We need to keep referring to the pioneers, you know what I mean.
Fred: You are a true lyricist if there ever was one. So much so that that element of your music eclipses your artistry. How does your writing process today differ from 20 years ago when you were starting out?
Nas: Back then I used to carry a notebook to the studio. I don’t do that no more ‘cause I don’t have the time to write anywhere but right there in the studio on the spot. So when you hear my stuff now, know that I wrote it in the studio. I miss the days of writing at home, taking my time…
Fred: …‘My Book of Rhymes’.
Fred: Competition has always been an intrinsic part of rapping. Somewhere along the line it started to get really serious and people started getting killed. That element is less prevalent now than it was when ‘Pac and Big or you and Hov were sparring. I’ve always felt as though one of the best attributes of battle is that it inspires the best lyrical material from rappers because they feel they have something to lose. Do you feel there is still a place for battling in this day, or have we ‘evolved’ to an age of just great music and making money?
Nas: There’s always going to be space for battle. For competition. It’s just an inseparable part of the game. Trying to be the best, trying to be number one… someone stole my name… someone took my style… someone looked at me wrong… someone didn’t give me my due credit. It’s less about bragging and more about being the best lyrically and poetically. So there’s always gonna be egos. The street element is present now more than it’s ever been. But people have stopped battling, in the primitive sense, and the focus of the competitive element has shifted to the music.
Fred: The Hov comparisons are something that you will never escape, just because of what a big part of rap’s history that beef is. I like to think of you like Hov is more an entrepreneurial mind and you were always purely about the art of rap…
Nas: It’s always about the music for me. If you look at me I didn’t really do many business ventures throughout my career because I would have an idea and then before I’d have a chance to make something of it, I’d see someone else do it. But I didn’t mind ‘cause those people were really good at it. I just liked to watch my fellow artists become entrepreneurs and be people who can inspire the next generation. I did that more with my songs I think.
As far as business, endorsements and things of that nature, I got into it kinda naturally. Those ventures materialised as a direct result of things that I was actually doing; all the partnerships have been organic and not necessarily etched out plans for monetary gain. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve met a lot of people and happened to inspire a lot of people who now I’m in conversation with about business. It’s just how things are going for me now and it’s great, but music is always going to be number one for me.
Fred: You’re not doing too badly in that respect. Mass Appeal Records, the magazine, the recent deal with Jordan Run, Hennessy. Unlike with rock music, for example, where artists grow with their audience and can maintain relevance, rap music tends to throw away their artists when they become old. As an O.G in the game who has just reached a massive milestone, how do you feel about your next 20 years in the game?
Nas: There’s not too many rap artists unfortunately who last 20 years. Another 20 might be too much. Twenty years is a long time. Sometimes I feel old [laughs]. But for the most part, I feel good like I’ve always felt. I feel like I wanna make room to do other things with my life. But those other things will also have to come naturally to me. It will probably be a lot of different things in the arts, a lot of different business moves. I can’t help it, as an older guy you think about different things. But I will always be entrenched in helping to build the integrity of the culture in one.