Hip hop emperor Nasir "Nas" Jones otherworldly writing talents have afforded him international fame, glory, and the finest linens capitalist living has to offer. But for Nas, the round‑the‑way vote matters the most. Sacha Jenkins remembers the neighborhood that made theman
BY SACHA JENKINS
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARY ELLEN MARK
ST. AGNES BOYS HIGH SCHOOL, DECEMBER 17, 1998, NEW YORK CITY
In the Beginning
His lyrical buckshot grazed you. Dazed you. On one Lest‑speaking on Main Source's 1991 scorcher, "Live at the BBQ" Wild Pitch) the 15‑year‑old Queensbridge Housing Projects‑reared sage known Nas threatened to "Kidnap the president's wife without a plan," hang niggas "like the Klu Klux Klan," and proclaimed that he'd gone to hell for snuffingJesus." His words were taboo chic, tar realism, sophisticated slum lore. He was a "rebel to Amerikkka." A "police murderer, causin' hysteria." h his lyrics of fury, was the apocalyptic second of Rakim.
Then in 1994 things got a little Ill. Armed with songs like the reflective "N.Y. State of Mind," the blue note moodiness of "Life's a Bitch," and the impassioned prison‑letter reportage of "One Love," Nas' illuminatic (Columbia) was a Bible's worth ofstreetwiseness. On the cover: a rusty‑fro'd baby Nasir's face superimposed over his brown‑bricked reservation. On the LP's inner sleeve: a sullen, crucifix‑wearing staircase poet standing several feet away from a homeless brother grubbing down on a meal kept warm in the winter freeze by one of those disposable Styrofoam lunch boxes. Chillmatic.
On a recent December evening, though, Nas is id subdued while punching the clock at Manhattan's Hit Factory recording studio. In loose‑fitting jeans, a bright orange sweater vest, and knucklehead‑issue Timberland boots, young Mr. Jones could be mistaken for any number of pre‑twentysomething dudes on a Bro oklyn‑bound D train. But Nas, who goes from bouncing in front of a mixing board to a hunching over a dangling football‑size microphone, finally breaks his silence with science.
So Nas is an actor these days.
That's been good. Acting was something I always wanted to do. I didn't think it would happen this soon, you know? When I put out my first album, I was really wanting to see myself more visual‑that's why a lot of my videos have that movie‑type of shit goin' on. Since I was a kid, like, 12, you know, [I was] writin' scripts and shit.
You were writing scripts when you were 12?
It was about a boxer‑sorta like Rocky. Some black Rocky shit. That was the first one. I also had some black superhero shit.
Your pops [multi‑instrumentalist extraordinaire Olu Dara] is doing his thing.
It's good to see. I turn to HBO and watch him on a movie. But it's like, I've been seem' that since I was a kid. He made me want to be in this [business] no matter what.
What'syour earliest musical memory of your pops?
There's so many episodes. We used to live out in BK when I was a baby. He used to play and shit, and he would bring me out on stage. I must have been three or four. I would leave my moms in the audience, walk up on the stage. Then I'd be on the stage, holdin' onto him while he's playin'.
You once said that you "went to hell for snuffing Jesus. But I always see you sportin 'a cross.
I believe in a higher force, definitely. I give praises up to Allah because you've gotta use different terms to reach different people. I praise Allah. I praise Jehovah. I praise everyone's God, because I want [people] to know it's a peace thing with me. I'm a killer, I'm not a murderer, I'm not a gangster. is about writing‑it's about art to me.! make gangster shit‑I'm not a gangster. Escobar (his Firm alias) is [Nas's] shit is regular life, from the pen the heart. It's speaking from what! know I've seen.
Nas is… knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
When It Was Written (Columbia) dropped in 1996 things had done changed for Nas. His new full‑length had won commercial acceptance; he was no longer the underground keeper of literary surrealism. Even folks in Montana loved "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" (which costarred his several‑tmes‑ platinum label mate Fugee Lauryn Hill) and party‑poppin', Euiythmics melody‑having "Street Dreams." But it wasn't a Walmart‑friendly song‑ approach that crossed Nas over ("Street dreams are made of these / Niggas pushin' Bimas and 300 E's / A drug dealer's destiny is reaching the Keys...") it was the pro‑radio, drive 'n' dance savvy of beat‑crafting team the Trackmasters. Their smooth party grooves, coupled with Nas's articulate thug mantra, created a sound bionic enough for average rap‑loving man, sensitive enough for everyday, rhythm and blues‑feeling woma. His lavishly budgeted videos spoofed blockbuster like 1995's Casino‑Nas all Don Willied‑out at the bacarach tables. Illmatic had gone gold, slowly and quietly. It Was Written? Twice platinum.
But Nas's die‑hard fans didn't love the second album because, in all honesty, it wasn't as tight as it should have been. If Illmatic was a virgin‑innocent, curious, hot, then It Was Written was a whore‑overexposed, easy, more flash than substance. These are the breaks. At any rate, the legend grows, right? Zillions of CDs are sold. A rapper is paid. Old friends' become new foes. Neighborhood fades to enemyhood. The night comes quicker. Rapper raps about these experiences on third album (the tentatively titled I Am...theAutobiography). Rapper promises to
ring back the realness, the foundation that was on his premier disc. Rapper fares okay on screen in poorly plotted flick (Hype Williams's 1998 Belly). Rapper reps clothing line with a name boosted from one of his aliases (Willie Esco) and plans to open a chain of ;ports hotspots called EscoBar's "because things get boring. People need something to do." Rapper also cowrites Will "the Fresh Prince" Smith's 1998 Grammy‑winning single, 'Gettin'Jiggy With It." Not )ad for a high school dropout from Queens, son.
How do you feel about The Firm experience with Foxy Brown and AZ?
I feel like it was a trendsetter. We be doin' trend;etter shit, or we do inspirational shit for other :ompanies to do, other groups to do. ‑
And you toured to support it, right?
Yeah, the Puff Daddy [No Way Out tour. I seen how Puff was just on some Michael Jackson shit‑bigger than the world. It was the hip hop tour of the 9os.I had to be on that shit, man.
Tell me about that newjoint, "We Will Survive." On it, you warmly address B.I.G., Tupac, and the speculation on who's lyrically the best...
I'm just voicing something that stuck in my head iwhile ago that I just wanted to get off my chest. I felt, like, on some rhyming shit, me and B.I.G. ripped his shit up‑along with a lot of other niggas. But me and B.I.G. was ripping this shit up since Snoop and hem came through. Me and B.I.G. came to crush his shit, leading the path for a new style from New York to come out. Rakim, Kool G Rap, L.L., KRS‑ niggas is the greatest. In the '9os, after that era with the West Coast, we came with the thunder. Boom! I knew [B.I.G.} back before niggas was really gettin' money. Puff comin' out to Queensbridge, ringing B.I.G. Or me and B.I.G. just kickin' it, me comin' out to BK.
Nas is ... never asleep
230T-055-020 Nas is… serious
Nasir‑plastic cup fulla Hennessy in one hand, tight pro‑rolled blunt in the other‑is at ease within the Hit Factory's padded walls (The prodigy himself once rhymed, "Nas's raps should be locked in a (padded!?) ell..."). Now on bass break, he's sitting in a leather hair in a television lounge, stroking his well‑mainained waves, surrounded by five of his boys‑close associates, neighborhood hard‑asses‑goodfellas on he payroll who love and respect their benefactor, their man.
Stories insane, criminal, ironic, ridiculous‑float through the thick weed haze. These tales, tail or or, are the beef cubes that all good hip hop is made of. Nas listens. And he adds on. "You can write whatever you want, just no names," the rapper says calmly. So I listen too. He killed his baby's mother's father‑the seed's grandfather! Stupid mothe rfucker!... Back in the day, you would get pussy and everything in the number spot .... How the fuck is the number man gonna hit the number?
"QB," Nas, 25, declares with the slow, cool funk of a man in his early 70s, 'the fuckin' project walls can speak everything."
So B.I.G. came out to the Bridge once?
He was at [nearby] Power Play studios. I came to get him; we went back to QB and chilled with my niggas for a little while‑just watchin' the nightlife go on. Another time, I went to his were just smokin'. We talked about how this is shaky. You've gotta get in, knock the bank all the money, and get out. Comfortably.
So is that the plan‑get in, get what you can, and get out?
From the gate. Definitely. Come in and' yours. I'll see a New York rapper walkin' legend‑lookin' fucked up in the pocket. Niggas was like, nah‑we ain't goin' for that.
Now that it Was Written, is twice platinum, how have things changed for you in the old neighborhood?
There was so much I wanted to say, and I don't really think I got it out, but...songs like "I Gave You Power" came and slapped niggas up, like, boom! Come on, where's the art? A lot of niggas, it'll take 'em like five years to catch up.
"Shootouts " (ripe with a swirling narrative involving an lrish cop, a mega‑butted hottie snitch, andbusders ready to bust a move) was my favorite song on It Was Written. Was that story line based on fact‑or was it just bizarro fiction?
I kinda broke it up. The beginning be the real story, then I threw some other shit in there to spark your imagination. Luckily I don't have to be on the street every day. God bless the ones that's still out on the street. I ain't gotta be where I gotta worry about cops, or kiilin' anigga or gettin' killed as a nigga just thuggin' it. But I'm a writer, and I come from that, so I write shit like that. You gotta take it back to "Memory Lane," when I was talkin' about [famed 1980s New York drug kingpins] Supreme Team, Alpo‑niggas wasn't puttin' that in rhymes. I said, "Fuck rap! It's real / Watch the Herb stand still / Never talkin' to snakes 'cuz the words a man killed / True in the game/as long as blood is blue in my veins..." I was talkin' about the streets, straight up and down.
Well,you're the gentleman who told the world that the rap game was similar to the crack game. How old were you when you first fully understood the crackgame?
[Takes a deep breath] About 14.
Break it down for me: How is the corporate rap game similar to the crack game?
You got motherfuckers around that want what you got, that want to stopyou from eating. You got your people that are bloodsuckers who come around. You got the fiend‑type motherfuckers walkin' around‑whether they artists, executives, groupie‑ass motherfuckers, or whatever they is. There's trickery, deceit ...but, you know, I'm past that. I wouldn't call it a crack game no more. Everybody knows it's a crack game now. So the shit is about to become something else.
What do you think it's gonna become?
This shit is gonna be the fuckin' dollar game [laughs]. This is the dollar game, for real.
What is Nas supposed to say, anyw up in the '8os. Drug loot was like Mono Mothers and motherfuckers lined up cheese that Ronald (not McDonald) sa Forty creamy acres worth. Nas wants cents. Before he permanently locked! the vocal chamber, I exchanged good with Mr. Jones. But I taxed a few e moments on my way out. He was working a cut ten‑ tatively called "Niggas With Cash." I couldn't see the iced‑down phantom glassed‑off blackness, I could hear his roar. Nas saw me but marched on through; his process was now exposed. I stayed there for 20 minutes ruffian‑dialected diamond in the rough, from that session feeling like I had lea life's great mysteries. It wouldn't be fair if blow up his spot, but! will say this: His style is free. And even if Nas doesn't create Illmatic part deux, he's still one of the dopest docudrama, v verbal‑performance novelists of generation hip hop X. It ain't hard to tell.