Nas - The Stool Pigeon

Nas could have quit music after his first album. Some wish he had. He started too early, he says. Dropped out of school in the eighth grade, deciding to educate himself at home in the high rise blocks of the world’s largest housing project: Queensbridge, New York. He pored over the Bible and the Qur’an, studied Africa profusely, never imagining that he’d record an album about it one day.

Back then Nas was desperate to record a demo, so he bought recording time from a “heavy metal dude” with a studio and rounded up every beat-maker he could fit into the car. Large Professor was one of them, though at first he wouldn’t even speak to Nas – he just wanted his tunes in circulation by whatever means necessary, even if he didn’t get paid, even if it was via some kid he’d never heard of. But he was impressed by Nas’s hunger and lyrical deftness.

When Large told Nas he was producing beats for some big names, he didn’t believe him. But then he’d sneak Nas into studios on the recording budgets for Kool G Rap and Rakim whenever they didn’t show up. He’d teach Nas how to get on the mic, how to hold himself, and eventually found Nas a spot on Main Source’s ‘Live at the Barbeque’ in 1991. Nas was out of his mind with excitement, bum-rushing through the backdoor of clubs so that when it got to his verse he could take in the room, sipping ginger ale from a champagne glass. If only they knew that was him, he thought.

But it didn’t take long for the buzz to sweep through New York. MC Serch offered to be his manager, netting him a record deal with Columbia, and soon the best DJs in the business were queuing up with the beats of their career. It would have been easy to choke under the pressure. Instead, Nas delivered one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time. Arriving in 1994, Illmatic was a cohesive blend of sharp rhymes and crisp production – a peerless guide through life on the streets that still sounds fresh today. The reception was unanimous: hip hop’s teenage saviour had arrived and already the world was his.

“When I did Illmatic,” Nas says, “I took a trip to Europe for the first time to promote the record and the label overworked me to the point where I got sick. It was just press after press and I never experienced anything like that. What I did realise was how big the record companies were and how they had Europe on lockdown. I saw where my music was startin’ to reach people. But when I created it, all I thought about was my ’hood and my city, basically. I figured that anywhere people loved hip hop, they would like it. But I had no idea how big it would get, had no idea I’d be talkin’ about it over 15 years later. No way.”

Illmatic’s impact went to Nas’s head, but it didn’t sell well. With It Was Written, Nas returned with a cocksure crossover album that rocketed to number one, kicking hip hop into the mainstream. “It was a young music; it still is,” he continues. “And it’d been held back from the mainstream for so long that by the time it reached there, everyone got excited about this new phenomenon. [Hip hop] is what it says, what it talks about. I’m an MC to the truest form. I like to think of myself as carrying on the traditions of MCs before me.

So I talk about everything I feel. One day I want money. So it’s life in the fast lane: materialism, violence, sex. The next day I… I hate money! I’ve learned a powerful lesson about money. It’s like, ‘Woah!’ So if an artist can express all those different experiences, that’s what I call the real shit, you know? I appreciate the guys who tell all the experiences, not just fake it with one – like it’s all bad every day. Haha! I try to be as real as I can be.”

The purists didn’t see it that way. Those who celebrated Nas’s initial success were offended by his assault on the charts. But Nas had studied others’ careers, saw the ceiling they hit, and convinced himself that he wasn’t going to get caught out doing the same thing. He saw it as his responsibility to do something different, to fill the void of whatever people were leaving out. So he cooked up a new persona inspired by Scarface, calling himself Nas Escobar. The analogy – the determined street urchin who hustled his way to the top only to grow complacent in a fog of excess and egotism – proved more fitting than he’d admit.

Rather than continue to examine the world around him with intelligent ghetto narratives, he churned out simplistic gangster tales that celebrated the trappings of his flashy new lifestyle. People kept saying that he couldn’t top Illmatic, so he kept reproducing the same style of album cover, kept assigning a hot producer to every track, trying in vain to reproduce that initial burst of magic. “I got greedy,” he admits. “I’m a fan of several different producers and I wanted all of that. Nah mean? I wanted all a’ that. And that’s what I needed to do.”

Each release would be preceded by a teaser track that seemed to herald the return of Nas, only for fans to discover it was one of few album highlights. The sales kept coming and the anticipation never dimmed, but after a series of flops and non-events, Nas couldn’t recover his standing in the minds of those who mattered – not with albums like The Firm (1997), a slick but unimaginative outing in corporate rap, or Nastradamus (1999), which featured uncharacteristically emotional numbers such as “Some of Us Have Angels” or “God Love Us”; not with his own line of Fila sneakers; and certainly not with a music video where he was crucified alongside P Diddy. Yet Nas revelled in it, claiming he was a lone soldier waiting for the game to catch up, believing that whatever damage he caused would inspire the next crop – even if his own reputation suffered.

Then in 2001 he took exception to Jay-Z assuming the mantle of king of New York, launching a full-on attack with mixtape track ‘Stillmatic (freestyle)’ – a foolish move, perhaps, when Nas was the only one who believed he was still on top. Jay-Z struck back by dropping ‘The Takeover’, dissing him for going soft and falling off since Illmatic [“Went from Nasty Nas to Esco’s trash. Had a spark when you started but now you’re just garbage. Fell from top 10 to not mentioned at all.”] It was the catalyst Nas needed to raise his game, inspiring a return to form with Stillmatic and, in particular, the retaliation track ‘Ether’ [“How much of Biggie's rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips? Wanted to be on every last one of my classics”].

“We naturally get wiser and softer,” says Nas. “I mean that comes with life. But with rap music there’s no chance to get soft! You have to fight for your moment to be different because it’s so street. You kinda get soft on ’em just as bait. You bait them in and once they start talkin’ shit, you trap ’em and you finish ’em off. So the competitive spirit of hip hop never goes away.

You may get wiser, you may become more mature, your understanding of music may get better; you may get smarter and it may give you a more poised, patient way of recording. But at the end of the day, once you step into the ring – it’s on. It’s so competitive you can’t get soft even if you wanted to.”

Given the break-up of Nas’s first marriage and the death of his mother, the timing of the feud couldn’t have been worse. But it also provided an opportunity to step out of the game and reflect. He went through old notebooks, cringing at the arrogance but reassured by the potential. It was time to end his ‘fur coat era’, time to rediscover the introspection he made a name for himself with. God’s Son (2001) acted as a harbinger of maturity, ushering in a new phase where he began exploring emerging aspects of his personality.

Then 50 Cent blew up, taking a pot shot at Nas on ‘The Piggybank’ [“Kelis said her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Then Nas went and tattooed the bitch on his arm”]. But by now Nas had grown tired of petty feuds, believing they were eclipsed by a far more pressing issue: the increasing enslavement of rappers to the record business.

To the fans who believed that confrontation is hip hop, Nas’s public make-up with Jay-Z upon signing to Def Jam was considered a convenient cop out. But Nas argued that the gesture was bigger than the battle, that it was meant as an antidote to the industry’s politics and power struggles. So he declared that Hip Hop Is Dead in 2006, just to shake things up again.

These controversies always bought Nas more time on the mic and, two years later, Nigger (later renamed Untitled) was another chance to impress those who hadn’t lost faith. But he knew he couldn’t go on like this. Even after five number one albums, a new tact was necessary, if just to make it interesting for himself.

“I have to prove myself every day, man. Every day. Probably the only one of my generation who has been out there as long or longer is Snoop or Wu-Tang. Outside of that, I’m the one ahead. Pow! If you look at the lifespan of the ones who came before me, a lot of them were short lived. No matter what people say about the art form of hip hop as a fad or a gimmick… I’m still here. I’m here and I’m kickin’ ass! I got more ass to kick.”

Enter Damian Marley – son of the man whose status in music Nas has always dreamed of achieving. Marley grew up listening to tapes of Biz Markee and Slick Rick that his cousin would supply him with and developed a thorough understanding of hip hop as a consequence. He saw something of his own style in Nas’s and became convinced that they’d make a formidable cross-genre partnership.

“Something I respect a lot about Nas is that he’s always been an artist with a sense of responsibility,” he says in a near-undecipherable Rastafarian accent. “He’s always risen above the money and bitches level, never been afraid to say something different, and can appreciate the impact that can have. Because it’s not all about money and bitches.

That’s still there, and you need to have it, because where they’re comin’ from they don’t have money and they want girls to look at them. There’s a lot of that in reggae and dancehall too. It’s all about competition: rhyming about who’s the better MC. They’re just followin’ their dreams and nothin’s wrong with that. It’s a part of the culture. Nas has been through all that and he’s still hoppin’ up dem stairs. It doesn’t leave you once you find success.”

The invitation to collaborate on a reggae-rap fusion album about Africa represented a chance for Nas to switch his style up, to infiltrate the mainstream from a new angle and to finally work with one just production unit. It was also a welcome distraction from his public and costly break-up with Kelis… and her lawyers. “Lawyers will be lawyers, man. Everyone’s getting’ their money. Working on this record got me through that. But let me not speak too soon.”

As a best-of-both-worlds collaboration, Distant Relatives is an accomplished if uneven release, but it’s the undeniably fresh tracks like ‘As We Enter’ that may be enough to finally win back those who had written Nas off. Still, it’s no Illmatic and, with a hearty chuckle, Nas admits that that weight of expectation is likely to linger.

“I have no control over it. My real fear is if people were to turn around and say, ‘you know what? Illmatic was bullshit.’ Because there are so many fans of that album, including myself, that if it turned out that the album wasn’t what people thought it was, that would be my biggest fear. It’s like people showin’ me a photo album.

Anytime someone mentions Illmatic it puts a smile on my face because they hear it as an album, I see it as my life – a part of my life I never thought I would outlive because of the conditions that were around me at that time and how ignorant I was to the world. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I didn’t know I was still going to be here today. Certainly not. So when people mention Illmatic, I just have to smile. It almost brings a tear to my eye because I’m still here. I can’t believe it. But I’ve still got a lot of growin’ to do.”