Nas: ‘My beef was with the system, not another crew’

Nas: ‘My beef was with the system, not another crew’
Lockdown Longread — As one of the greatest emcees of all time, the New York rapper pushed hip hop into bold new realms. He lived through a dark time – but with one hand on the mic, he survived to tell the tale.

This story first appeared in Huck Issue 36 (2012). During lockdown, we’ll be republishing longreads from the print archive to help keep you occupied during the long days indoors. 

It’s a drizzly October night in Shoreditch, East London, and hordes of people are gathering outside XOYO, a sunken club down a dingy side street that connects Old Street station to the beating heart of hipsterville.

New Era caps, Nike Airs and Supreme hoodies traipse through the heavy-duty doors towards the bar, where coats are swapped for Mai Tais and Mojitos. Soon, down in the brick-walled basement, one of the greatest hip hop artists of all time will play an intimate show for his “real fans” and an air of anticipation, intermingled with weed, hangs like a cloud under the ventilation pipes.

Tonight is a no-frills affair and when DJ Green Lantern steps out to take the decks he takes us straight back to the early nineties of Queensbridge, New York. He drops Biggie and 2Pac – “Say hell yeah!” “Say fuck yeah!” “Say B.I.G. Rest in peace!” – and the crowd is hyped. iPhones and trigger fingers summon the street poet, as Nas – aka Kid Wave, Nasty, Escobar, Nastradamus – steps out to ‘No Introduction’, the crowd-pleasing opener to his new album, Life Is Good. Everyone here knows every word.

“Life is good,” he laughs, low, with a Big Apple accent. “I think I forgot that at some point, I woke up one day and realised I needed to get back to this. I need to play shows like this, it’s just about the music down here, no bullshit.” The next hour or so blends the past and present, with songs pulled from Nas’ epic archive; between his eleven albums, he’s shifted 13 million copies in the US alone, and seen eight full-length records go platinum and multi-platinum worldwide.

In a hoodie, trademark Timberlands and a Mets hat – a get-up he’s been rocking his whole thirty-nine years – age can’t catch Nas. Under his hoodie he reps a Run-DMC tee, paying homage to the old school that paved the way for him. Under his tee a ‘God’s Son’ tattoo arches over his belly and a bespectacled Malcolm X is inked onto his ribs. His forearm bears a pin-up girl’s body with a lion’s head – he had the face of his ex-wife, Kelis, covered after their painful public split in 2010 – and a crucifix on his upper arm is reflected in the twinkling pendant around his neck.

Nas eases through the set with the relaxed swagger of someone who’s been doing this their whole life and when he spits ‘One Mic’ for the finale – “All I need is one mic, that’s all I ever needed in this world, fuck cash / All I need is one mic, fuck the cars, the jewellery / All I need is one mic, to spread my voice to the whole world” – the rhetoric is self-evident. No stadium hype, no flashy guests, just the ghetto storyteller from Queens who took rap to a new height; a prodigy hailed as the ‘next Rakim’ who’s still the ‘rapper’s rapper’ despite significant mainstream success; and one of hip hop’s finest watchdogs – a man who raises consciousness in one breath and proclaims ‘Hip Hop is Dead’ in the next.

Show done, managers, publicists and minders usher Nas off stage, where groupies and diehards lurk to get close. We’re pulled through the throng and thrust into a small side room lit up by green neon like a late-night gas station. The Nas in here is even more low-key, switched down in a plain white tee. There’s cans of Red Bull in a tiny fridge and some sandwiches on the table. Despite the plane rides, hotel rooms, press junkets and parties that come with playing three intimate shows in three nights – a series of hype-builders ahead of a stadium show at London’s O2 Arena in March 2013 – the father of two is courteous and composed. Eyes half closed, he takes in questions with a thoughtful pause and constructs answers like rhymes, without missing a beat.

How does a Nas show today compare to a Nas show twenty years ago?
Twenty years ago I didn’t like the audience, I thought that they were invading my privacy. I didn’t respect this thing as much as I do now because I thought it was fleeting. I didn’t believe in this industry at all. Now I know more of the ins and outs than I used to. So today I appreciate it more. I understand it more, so I can have more fun with it. I don’t look at the crowd like, ‘What are you looking at?’ like when I was from the streets. Today I’m a performer.

What do you think people want from a Nas show?
They don’t think, they feel. And when you go with feeling, the bullshit[ters] leave, and the real ones stay. I’m blessed to have real ones come and still see me.

Did you have a listener in mind when you wrote this album? Or was it just stuff you needed to get out?
Both. It was for people from my era, early nineties, and it was also stuff I needed to get out. The reason I made this specific album for the nineties is because I feel like there is nothing else like it out in the marketplace, in the rap game, in the world. […] The other albums won’t be like this. But for this one it was important to sound like that.

The album definitely speaks back to your 1994 debut, Illmatic. But are you driven in the same way as you were back then?
It’s definitely coming from a different place now. Every time I do new music it’s for a different reason. The motivation is different.

So how do you stay immune to hype and trends and produce an album like Life is Good that feels retro and contemporary at the same time?
I think it’s a Queens, New York, thing and I think it’s just me being a real avid fan of eighties hip hop and early nineties hip hop – my launch period into the rap game. I appreciate that period of time and it’s really my template for what I do moving forward. Even if I do something that sounds very un-nineties, that period of time is always my template.

“The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps,
That’s where I learned to do my hustle had to scuffle with freaks,
I’m an addict for sneakers, twenties of buddha and bitches with beepers,
In the streets I can greet ya, about blunts I teach ya,
Inhale deep like the words of my breath,
I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death,
I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times,
Nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind.”
– ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, Illmatic, 1994

Nasir ‘Nas’ bin Olu Dara Jones was born September 14, 1973, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, to Olu Dara, a jazz and blues musician from Mississippi, and Fannie Ann Jones, a Postal Service worker from North Carolina.

The family, made four by Nas’ younger brother Jabari Fret (aka Jungle), soon moved from Brooklyn – where a pre-nursery Nas apparently played trumpet on his stoop – to the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens, where he befriended neighbour and deejay Willy ‘Ill Will’ Graham. With Ill Will he listened to records and radio stations, got stoked on late-eighties hip hop, started making comics – “I was a big Family [Circus] and DC Comics fan, so I used to copy and draw” – and wrote rhymes.

It was here, too, in the largest housing project in North America, that Nas began learning about his African roots and different religions – educating himself through the Qur’an, Bible and Five Percent Nation (a Harlem-born offshoot of the Nation of Islam). Black oppression became a theme through much of his later work and he’s never shied away from controversy to that end; in 2008 he took on Fox News and their coverage of presidential candidate Barack Obama for what he and campaign group ColorOfChange saw as a “long racist smear campaign”. For a young Nas, though, books and ideas were simply a way to rise above a difficult reality. Olu Dara Sr. left home in 1985 and things got pretty hand-to-mouth for the family. Barely a teenager, Nas was forced to grow up fast and make fast money, dropping out of school and working ‘the corner’ to help make ends meet.

Do you remember the first rhyme you wrote?
Sometimes I think I do and other times I realise there are things I don’t remember. I can remember one of my earliest, yeah, I think I do. Right now I’d rather not [say] but I said it in an interview before. It’s somewhere out there man – you can find it.

How does the writing process happen?
It comes to me way too easy. I don’t take down notes for rap, I take down notes for myself. Maybe an idea will end up in the rap, but usually it doesn’t. I just take down notes. I don’t think about it till I get [to the studio] and I hear the track, and then it just comes.

Are you curious about other people?
Yes, I’m a people watcher! I’m only ever in the studio if I’m working on an album project. When I start to work again I’m upset because I’m enjoying life too much and I have to drag myself in there and get into the routine of recording and then it comes easy. For the most part I’m never in the studio. I’m too busy enjoying the lessons out here in life.

What kinds of people interest you?
I like great thinkers. Great thinkers have always been the people I’ve been drawn to.

Do you remember the first time you heard rap?
I don’t remember the exact time but it had to be… y’know I was basically a kid when it was starting so I heard it on the radios of the neighbourhood. That was just the music of the day. It was impossible not to hear it; it was everywhere. […] I just knew it was good. I knew it felt right, it sounded right. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever heard.

Were other kids writing rhymes?
I mean everybody was just working on their vocabulary, so I guess it’s possible. As soon as I heard it, I was just perpetually trying to do it. […] It was all about [telling] stories.

What was it like in the projects when you launched into the rap game?
Those were the teenage years; I was just being a teenager. And everything that teenagers in the United States get into, I was getting into. It was just fun. I was starting to think a little bit about what I wanted to do. But I knew I had a few years before I had to make a decision. I didn’t let that get in the way of having fun. Because of that, school saw me less and the streets saw me more and that was my life.

But you were always ambitious?
Somewhat, somewhat. If I really had ambition I would have finished school. I guess I did have ambition; it was just tough at the time. I was just living, y’know. Just living. Kinda lazy, impatient about school.

Nas’ story is synonymous with the story of hip hop itself. He grew up during the ‘Golden Age’ (1986-1994), which produced legendary artists like Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, but when he launched into the rap game in 1991 on Main Source’s ‘Live at the Barbeque’ track – “Verbal assassin, my architect pleases / When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” – it was a tipping point for the art form. Hip hop was mainstreaming and industry cats began to cut the scene into sellable chunks. Not everyone would make it out alive.

Between the cannibalising of the industry and the harsh reality of life on the streets – Ill Will was shot dead in 1992 after a trivial dispute that also left a few bullet holes in his brother – Nas’ future looked bleak. But it was exactly that toxic mix that he distilled into Illmatic, which he finally released in 1994, aged just twenty, and a dad for the first time to daughter Destiny.

It’s hard to overstate Illmatic’s impact on hip hop. As producer DJ Semtex put it to us, “Illmatic is an exemplary album of perfection that forced the evolution of lyricism and production values within hip hop. Eighteen years later it remains omnipotent. Although few have been compared to Nas, they have yet to make ten albums and their Illmatic. Nas is one of the greatest lyricists of our time.”

Featuring legendary producers Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., and DJ Premier, the album was a sonic poem of Nas’ native Queens and the creative high point of the East Coast renaissance – a counter movement to the gangsta rap emerging on the West Coast, sparked by NWA and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in the eighties and brought to the mainstream by Tupac Shakur and Dr Dre in the nineties. Although a coastal rap war between East and West would follow – centred around New York-based Bad Boy Records, headed up by Sean ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs, and LA-based Death Row Records led by Suge Knight and Dr Dre – Nas, often referred to as ‘introverted’, stayed outside the beef. By 1996, the two kingpins for each side – The Notorious B.I.G. on the East Coast and Tupac Shakur on the West – had both been shot dead. New York needed a new king and everyone looked to Nas to step up.

You lived through a crazy time in hip hop with the East-West feud. If you could live through that time again, would you do anything differently?
No. Not at all.

Has the memory of the people lost back then – Biggie, 2Pac, Ill Will – changed over time?
Life changes. I change. Different things enter my life. I have a better understanding of life and death. That’s it.

Do you think the rivalry that existed in hip hop back then has faded?
When I saw [1983 hip hop film] Wild Style I saw competitiveness and it made me really understand Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee and it made me understand that this thing was about reigning supreme. So from Cold Crush Brothers, Busy Bee, Force MDs, and that era – which people don’t give a fuck about now, which is a shame – to now, the competitiveness makes battles inevitable. So you gonna battle! That happens with rappers, I’ve watched that happen. But the thing about it is, where is it going? It’s stagnant now in a lot of ways.

Are hip hop artists more united today? The community was overwhelmingly supportive when Frank Ocean came out as bisexual recently…
I think hip hop artists realise that there are a lot of things against us and showing some kind of brotherhood is very positive. It’s good to see.

In the beginning hip hop really gave a voice to the disenfranchised. Illmatic was part of that. Now, twenty years on, when you hear about things like the disproportionate amount of young black males incarcerated in the US prison system, how does it make you feel?
I learned that statistic a long time ago. And I realised my beef wasn’t with another crew, or with my neighbour. My beef was with a system designed to destroy black men. That was one of the things that kept me out of jail early on.

How do you feel about the current situation? Do you think it’s getting better or worse?
Neither, it just exists. It’s all about population control and it’s also all about survival of the fittest. It’s a rough world. I’ve been realising that people in my position need to go back to their communities to fight harder to save young lives. I should be back more. People in my position should be back more. We gotta try something, y’know?

Is that something you wanna do in the future?
That’s one thing I hope I’m able to do. I’m not quite as good at that. It’s not done as easy as said. […] I’m very concerned about America, the country I was born in. I’m hugely concerned about kids here.

Are you gonna vote?
Yeah. I think Mitt Romney is an asshole from the nineteenth century and that day is long gone. And when that section of the world realises that world is long gone, they can join us moving forward. Barack has caught up to the rest of the world. The world is always evolving so Barack is not as on time and in-sync as it moves – no one is. If you are, it only lasts fifteen minutes. I’ll vote to support the power of the people.

After his death, another friend of Biggie’s, Roc-A-Fella rapper Jay-Z, was also ready to take the New York throne and this led to a major feud between him and Nas. Diss tracks were shot back and forth – from Jigga’s ‘Takeover’ to Nasty’s ‘Ether’ – but Nas retreated from the drama to care for his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2002. Jay-Z would go on to become one of the richest and most successful hip hop artists of all time but Nas lacked the entrepreneurial spirit of his once rival – who made peace by signing Nas to his Def Jam label in 2006 – and instead continued to focus on his art, putting out his seventh album, God’s Son, at the end of 2002. It was his most personal record to date and featured singer-songwriter Kelis – who he would marry in 2005.

Three more albums followed; Street’s Disciple, a much more political record that saw Nas reconnect with his father on the track ‘Bridging The Gap’; Hip Hop Is Dead, a scathing look at the hyper-commodification of hip hop in 2006; and Untitled, a record that Nas wanted to call ‘Nigger’ but was forced to self-censor following threats that state funding to Universal would be pulled. He released a statement at the time: “I want my fans to know that creatively and lyrically, they can expect the same content and the same messages. The people will always know what the real title of this album is and what to call it… Everybody is trying to stop the title. It’s just people being scared of what’s real. Somebody is trying to open up dialogue for people to talk. People that [are] high up, [who aren’t] really understanding what I’m doing, are scared.”

In 2009, when Kelis was seven months pregnant with a baby boy the couple would later name Knight, she filed for divorce citing ‘irreconcilable differences’. After a messy, public and expensive break-up, the artists were officially separated in 2010. Nas’ new album, Life is Good, is an honest love letter to their relationship and its demise. On the cover, the rapper holds a part of Kelis’ green wedding dress – “the only thing she left behind” – and in the songs he is brutally honest but lovingly respectful. He may have dropped a whole lotta ‘bitches’ and ‘ratchets’ over the years, but degrading women was never high on Nas’ rap agenda. When I ask him if he cares what people think of him a week after his XOYO show, down a crackly phone connection to his home in New York, he says, “Oh, of course, when it comes to etiquette, table manners, class – those are the things my mom had, so that’s in me too. Believe it or not.” In fact, he’s always supported female artists and he’s donating a percentage of profits from his O2 Arena show next year to the Amy Winehouse Foundation – a former friend whose song ‘Me and Mr Jones’ was written with him in mind. At the time of writing, Nas’ Twitter profile pic is one of Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban just for going to school. His status reads: “If Malala’s your hero, please make her photo your profile picture and share her story.”

Faith Newman, the Columbia A&R representative who signed Illmatic, makes a valid observation in Eric Michael Dyson’s book, Born To Use Mics: “I have never, in all the fifteen years that I’ve been listening to rap, ever heard anybody express something so vividly and perfectly as Nas. He doesn’t have to shout to be heard. It’s so effortless. You listen to his music, you get this mental picture of where he’s coming from. It’s not gratuitously violent or sexist, it’s just real. It’s touching, too.”

What do you find exciting in hip hop now?
I like Azealia Banks, I like Nicki [Minaj]. Those are the girls that are currently in the game. I like A$ap Rocky, Big Sean.

Is it women’s time in hip hop?
It is women’s time but women are under the illusion that they’re being blocked, so women have to stop playing a man’s game when it comes to the artistic shit. They have to just go and do it. Stop worrying about where you fit in. Just go and do it.

Do you think rap is still subversive?
Errrr, I guess. It’ll always be that. Kids and their parents, it starts there. Some parents don’t understand what their kids are getting into and hip hop sounds really dangerous to them so I guess in that sense and a couple of other ways it does challenge authority. I guess it’s still that way.

In Ice-T’s new film The Art of Rap you say “disrupting those stiff motherfuckers” is what it’s all about…
Yeah man, it gives you another thing to look at. You grow up one way and you look at life in one way, because you’re only taught one way, and that way is kinda protective, and that way is very ignorant to other culture. There’s a place that hip hop comes and shocks you, and changes everything.

In ‘Reach Out’ on the new album there’s a lyric, “When you’re too hood to be in them Hollywood circles / And you’re too rich to be in that hood that birthed you.” Where do you fit in now?
I feel like I have a fresh start, I have a fresh lane. All the other lanes that are open have been done and overdone. My lane is a lane that I’ve helped open and that I continue to keep open. So I’m good.

You’ve been in the news recently because of an outstanding $6,000,000 tax bill. Do you wish you’d been more business-minded in your career?
No, I don’t have any regrets. The way we live is no regrets. Everything is a learning experience and your mistakes, when you go back to look at them, are just moments of being human. Those are my reference points. So I go back to those points. And I love those points when I didn’t do well because that meant I was just a human.

How do you keep things fresh? Why do you keep making music?
It’s like anything else. Like that Woody Allen film [Whatever Works]. Just let life be life. I don’t care about the extra shit. The extra shit going on has nothing to do with me. I’m doing something I was a part of since my young age and something that is fresh and new to the world. Like Grandmaster Kass said, “Hip hop didn’t invent anything. Hip hop re-invented everything.” So I’m in that movement of re-inventing what was already done. That’s what hip hop is, sampling life and adding on. I’m just enjoying life. Life is good.

What does New York mean to you?
New York is the greatest city in the world. The greatest city in the world.

These days, despite releasing a new record and touring it around the world, Nas is keeping a low profile. “My home has been the road for a couple of years,” he says over the phone from New York. “So I try and spend as much chill time as possible here now to watch my son and daughter grow up, because that’s everything to me… I grew up in a single-parent home. I saw my mom work really hard to take care of two boys – I want to be in a real family situation, y’know?”

After twenty years in the game, Nas likes to live pretty chill. He’s not crazy about the gym, he doesn’t really care about sport, but he reads a lot – “I read books about things I’m familiar with. Musicians, entertainers. The last good thing I read was a book about Hattie McDaniel, she’s an actress from Gone with the Wind” – and he listens to a wide range of music from old jazz greats like Duke Ellington and legendary songwriters like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen to a bunch of contemporary rap stuff, too.

Does he still get to party? “I don’t know what that is.” Party! “Hockey?” No party! Go to the club?! “Oh parrrtyparrrty! Yeah, yeah, it’s all a part of what I do.” But he’s matured with style, rocking less Carhartt and more Cavalli these days. “If you don’t look the part, how can you talk the part?” he says after a long pause. “Stylin’ on people is what it’s all about. Who’s the freshest, who’s the flyest? That’s a key element to hip hop, absolutely.”

In a world where lyricism takes a backseat to celebrity, Nas has always been a bit of an anomaly. Thanks to cheap, user-friendly technology there are more recording artists now than ever, but somehow the Queens rapper remains relevant. In July 2012, hip hop bible The Source magazine published their ‘Top 50 Lyricists’ list and Nas ranked second. Out of the top five – Rakim, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, 2Pac – Nas and Jay-Z are the only two still making music. He doesn’t crave the fame, he doesn’t need the money; if he so wished, Nas need never write another song. But the desire to create possesses him with the same intensity it did when he was just a kid trying to make sense of a crazy life. Nas watches the world, he takes notes, and when he gets to the mic, it just all flows out.

What’s your greatest fear?
To be scared. To achieve the things that I’ve achieved, fear had something to do with it, but it’s really not fear at the end of the day. KRS-One said years ago, “Here’s where the problem starts, no heart. Because of that a lot of groups fell apart.” […] The ones that came up and were just so talented that you didn’t understand what happened to them – a lot of them just didn’t have any heart. [They] wind up on drugs, or become bitter and just talk about people all day. They had no heart. And they make excuses for it.

You have pretty diverse influences. Is there a thread that runs through all the things that inspire you?
I respect intellectuals that had an education from a time before I was born. They were smarter. Today we all have a microwave education. Internet technology is fast-forwarding our education. I respect the guys who had to really read and learn, the guys from the generation before me, because of course, those guys had to pave the way. At the same time, my generation today has something fresh to offer and that’s what I am.

What are your plans for the future?
Continue to build, continue to grow. Watch my kids grow. Create. Create. Keep changing up things. Come up with ideas that inspire people. Keep playing people some good music. Yeah, that.

What does success look like to you?
Clean, smart children. Clean, smart, healthy children.

What would you do if you couldn’t make music any more?
I love art. I love being creative. So I’d probably still be creative in some way. I’d probably find that other talent that I didn’t know I had because I’ve been concentrating on music too much. Who knows?

How would you like to be remembered?
Oh no, I can’t answer that! I don’t care that much about how people think about me. While I’m here, a lot matters. When I’m gone, I’m gone. I don’t know, I’d be cheating myself if I told you that; I’d probably downplay myself, there’s probably someone that thinks of me more than I can. That should be outside of me. I probably don’t even know what it is that people think of me, really. So whatever it is, let it be.

You’ve been in the game for so long. Is there anything you feel you have left to do?
I haven’t even started in a lot of ways. I’ve done a lot of things, but it’s funny – I read an interview where Duke Ellington said something similar, like he never even started. The fucked-up thing was he was old as dirt when he said it. God bless him, he’s a genius – I love him. I don’t wanna be an old guy saying I haven’t started but the reality of it is, as you get older, you still feel young. You’re only as old as you feel. So I now understand what Duke Ellington was talking about. I’m nothing compared to him; I’m only expressing the way I feel about what he said years later as I grew some wisdom. You’re never too old to learn something new and you should always feel like you can offer something different. With me, it is what it is. I go with the flow. The pain is love and you gotta just keep pushing.

This story first appeared in Huck Issue 36. Subscribe here to make sure you never miss another issue.

Read more from the Huck archive, courtesy of the Lockdown Longread.

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