A conversation with Nas

The prolific rapper expounds on commercialism in hip-hop, what makes a classic and why “life is good.”
Gerrick D. Kennedy LA Times 08/20/12

Twenty years into a prolific career, the man born Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones has changed the game again. On “Life is Good,” his 10th album, the rapper known for his sharp wit and biting social commentary taps into one of his most honest and compelling subject matters yet: himself.

More than a week before he would take the stage to close out hip-hop festival Rock the Bells on Sunday, Jones sat down with The Times to smoke Cubans — one of his favorite pastimes — at West Hollywood’s House of Cigars and to talk about commercialism in hip-hop, what makes a classic and why “life is good.”

You’re preparing to hit the Rock the Bells stage. Why are there only a few hip-hop branded festivals out there?

Hip-hop brings out America’s youth in ways that scares America’s adults. So when you pack a city or place with those kinds of fans, people get nervous. That’s one reason. Another reason, hip hop is raw, it’s a raw genre. It’s not so shiny, no matter how many chains people wear. It’s still a real streets thing. It has not yet reached the Rolling Stones touring levels like rock ‘n’ roll has. It’s still the word of mouth, did-you-hear-this-song-last-night small crowd that embraces each artist one at a time. We like to own it before it becomes commercial. When it becomes commercial, the core hip-hop fan tends to walk away from it.

There have been some artists to reach those big touring levels. Do you think it can happen more in the genre?

Yeah, it can. Is it good for hip-hop? Not necessarily. It’s great to see hip-hop reach the level like Madonna’s when she was touring at her peak. … But I think people like for it be a street thing, real rap fans.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the last two years?

No matter what, everything will be alright. A lot of people are scared of failure. A lot of people are scared of love and being hurt. A lot of people are scared of taking chances. No matter what, everything will be fine.

Was there ever a time you felt even your fans didn’t understand what you were trying to convey in your music?

A lot of times. But you never get off your path. Even when I’m doing stuff that I feel isn’t really good, when I feel like it’s off or bad, those are my moments I go back to — my human moments — where I say I was really just a human there, I wasn’t great there, I was just me. That is a great thing to see and feel. Like, ‘Hey, look at me at that point.’ Yeah, people weren’t feeling it, but I was naturally me.

What did having Amy Winehouse on the record mean to you?

Having Amy on my record … it grew into a different thing. It wasn’t just your typical rap album because she blessed it. It was serendipitous. She was an angel. She is an angel, so she blessed that entire project with just that one song. That was just God. I think God makes things happen that we can’t explain sometimes. She was a gift, a pure artist. I give that to God.

Your “Behind the Music” revealed so much about your personal life and your divorce. How hard was it to convince you to do it?

Because the media covered it so much — some true stuff, some false — everyone was telling my story for me. Everyone except me.

I didn’t want to do “Behind the Music,” and I found out my people told them they can start it and they had already started the production. It took some persuading, but I agreed for a couple of things: It’s not the end of the world to tell your story, and it doesn’t mean anything other than you telling your story.

It was hard for me because I was never that kind of guy. I can make music about it all day long but to sit down with you, other than a quick interview, for an in-depth thing … it was out of question. This was the most I’ve ever done as far as telling my story. But I’ll tell you like this, if you can last as long as I’ve lasted so far, there’s nothing wrong with reintroducing yourself to fans and listeners. There are so many artists that come out all the time that could be forgotten or not be appreciated. And these are important stories, and I thought it was cool to let people inside.

The “Life Is Good” cover got plenty of ink. What did Kelis think of it?

She wanted to know exactly … she wanted to hear from me what it meant. I told her, basically it’s life. It’s wins, it’s losses, but life goes on. And this is a part of my life, a part of her life and she was a part of my life. It’s my story. And I wanted to do this in a way to open up hip-hop music in a way it probably hadn’t been opened up before as far as an artist getting into a personal situation. This particular story has never really been done [in hop hop]. I said this is fresh, this is new, and she really appreciates it and loved the concept. She thought it was pretty dope.

You said you didn’t think you’d last this long in the business. Is there something in particular that made you think that?

One of the reasons is, man, how [messed up] the business was in the ’80s when great acts like Public Enemy, De La Soul, NWA, and Tribe were around. The record business was a lot worse. My generation benefited from their losses or from their sacrifices … and realize the torch they had in their hands was supposed to stay lit. For me that’s important. My ego is not as big as hip-hop is. Hip-hop comes before Nas. A lot of these guys have egos, and that’s a character flaw, it’s one of the ugliest character flaws … an artist with ego.

You’ve been called one of the greatest rappers alive, and a number of your albums have earned some pretty big accolades. Does that sort of attention or pressure make you uncomfortable?

Not anymore, because people throw that word — “classic” — around too much. No one knows what a hip-hop classic is, especially hip-hop fans. There’s a small percentage, maybe 10%, who knows what a real hip-hop classic is. So no, that stuff doesn’t bother me.

Well, what’s your definition of classic?

My definition? “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” “Midnight Marauders,” “Death Certificate,” “Black Album,” “Licensed to Ill,” “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”

When did hip-hop shift to the point where you thought it was dead?

Hmmm, 2002 to 2003. It just did another drastic change, and change is great. But out of the change, what did we get from it? It became more global, there was a lot of people that got into it as imitators, as other great artists, and they never had the chance to be original.

Around that time a few people jumped into the game and were copies of other people. There was a lot of the battling, and part of that is because of me — I had battled. I think at one point we had all saw me go through a battle, and everything about New York was about a battle. “Hip Hop Is Dead” is basically toward my city New York, I made that because I’m a New Yorker and I was talking to them.

Not saying get back and run the rap game because anybody can run rap — I don’t care if you’re from Mississippi or Mars. But it was just saying you guys here have so much, and you’ve built it and now it’s back to the basics of the battle, but it’s only the battle. Artists weren’t developing albums, they were just battling on street corners. Battling is an important element in hip-hop, but that’s all it was. It felt like the spirit was dying.

You’ve had your share of rap battles, and it’s been great to see where you and Jay-Z are now. What are your thoughts on the younger generation of rappers igniting beefs on social media?

I have a Twitter account. Do I have them connected to my phone? Hell no. Do I have a team that runs it for me and sends me a question for me to answer? Hell yes. But I’m not directly in contact with my Twitter, or any of those things. I hear about tweet beefs and it’s crazy to me. But I understand because if I was younger, I’d probably be caught up in it. It’s disheartening. Social media is the devil. But it is a part of the game.

There was so much controversy around 2008’s “Untitled” and its original (and unprintable) title. Do you think that stopped your fans from connecting with the record?

I feel like I was not strong enough to handle making that album. I feel like I actually allowed outside forces to affect the music. I knew by announcing the title, [it was originally called ‘N-word’], I had to shut down and not talk to anybody and just do it. I should have did that.

Last question: Fifteen years from now your son comes to you and says ‘Dad, I want to jump into the game.’ What’s your answer?

Well … I’ll let him know, it’s gonna be a roller coaster ride. However it goes. Buckle up, enjoy, do what makes you happy. And whatever you do, be the best at it.

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