Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Frank White Seat

Jay-Z. Nas. Say their names separately and classic songs and storied careers are sure to come to mind. Say their names together and you'll eventually end up at the oh-so powerful word "beef." Five years ago to the day, June 28, 2001, Jay-Z took to Long Island's Nassau Coliseum stage and made history. By taunting Nas live in front of thousands, the two rappers became forever linked. Then acrimonious, the relationship between Jay-Z and Nas now has become more cordial, born out of a business move and a mutual respect. And although they would likely tell you the "beef" is played out, as its influence, for better or for worse, has little rival during the past five years in Hip-Hop, it shouldn't simply be brushed aside. Today's entry reflects an honest attempt to accurately depict the important events that led up to the summer of 2001 and everything that came immediately afterwards.

To the cover this saga, we could probably start a timeline in 1992, when, alongside Jaz and the Large Professor, Jay-Z and Nas had their first run-in. Or we could start it a couple years later, when Nas declined to redo the hook on Jay-Z's Dead Presidents nor appear in the video. Or we could hypothesize that The Message and Imaginary Player both took subliminal shots at the opposite rapper. Then we could throw in Carmen Bryan, the mother of Nas' only child, talk about Is That Yo Bitch and Come Get Me, and have more fun that way. However, in an effort to avoid speculation and stretching back too far, let's specifically focus in on the two year-period when the bulk of what happened happened.

On the title track to his Nastradamus LP, Nas lashed out, "You wanna ball till you fall, I can help you with that / You want beef? I could let a slug melt in your hat." This appeared to be a clear reference to the Memphis Bleek song, What You Think Of That, featuring Jay-Z, which contained the line, "I'ma ball till I fall, what you think of that." Nas has since denied that any reference was intentional (or that he was likewise angered by the reported similarities shared between his own Nas Is Like and Bleeks' Memphis Bleek Is). Whatever the truth behind the songs may have been, the battle would soon begin without speculation.

My Mind Right
Not being one to lay down or let opportunity go by, Bleek fired back on My Mind Right, "Only a few fit in, your lifestyle's written / So who you supposed to be? Play your position." By reinterpreting the title of Nas' '96 album, It Was Written, Bleek questioned Nas' authenticity and made the rift official, but still not legendary.

Who Shot Ya Freestyle
Simultaneously, the first edition of DJ Clue's Great Ones mixtape series featured Jay-Z rocking the intro over Biggie's infamous Who Shot Ya beat, "When I get back home / Get your ass up out the throne." While not necessarily a smoking gun, when evaluated in a ROC-Nas feud context, subliminal content is easier to understand. Plus, an interpolation of the melody KRS used on The Bridge Is Over ("but you're still telling lies to me"), a song which once brought QB to its knees, can further be cited as evidence.

Eye For An Eye Freestyle
Leaving nothing left to speculation this time, in part two of the Clue series, over the classic Mobb Deep Eye For An Eye beat, Nas proved he didn't just have his aim set on Bleek:

You on top, what? Copying fuck
I said it first, you repeat it
Your false crown covered in dirt, defeated
Da Bridge 2001
Nas continued. His original verse on the Da Bridge 2001 had been a standard borough salute. However, presumably around the time My Mind Right made it to his direction, Nas changed up and came back with fists clenched. After specifically addressing Bleek's "your lifestyle's written" claim, Nas called out Roc-A-Fella as a staff, record label, and, yes, even as a crew, "your hoe, your man, lieutenant, your boss get found."

Hot 97 Session
Some time later, alongside a number of their ROC underlings, Jay-Z and Beanie Siegel, most notably, took to the Hot 97 airwaves. Funkmaster Flex was spinning and Beans was in search of a beat that ran dark. After Flex tried putting on Nas Is Like, Siegel interrupted, "Flex, I'ma call a spade a spade, if you don't stop playing these happy beats, man . . . I'ma keep it real . . . It's too many flutes in that beat . . . all them flutes and xylophones and all that." Jay-Z too chimed in on the side. Although Quiet Storm eventually satisfied the rappers, beyond DJ Premier, whose relationship with Jay seems to have never been the same since, Nas didn't take too kindly to all the on-air talk.

In the April 2001 issue of XXL, when asked about the Hot 97 situation, Nas let readers know "they woke the lion up." (In the same article, Nas denied that his Nastradamus rhyme was anything subliminal or meant for a particular rapper, e.g. Memphis Bleek, "They paying too much attention to me. They sitting home with their crew thinking about me. That means that every time I come out with an album, they gonna rush and buy it to see if I'm dissing them.")

LA Radio
Although the feud in question has several questionable episodes, what happened next remains the most suspect. According to Jay-Z, when Nas was in California, he went on Los Angeles radio and specifically dissed Jay. No audio or other evidence to verify this reported tirade has ever materialized. Nevertheless, what happened afterwards has been documented.

Queen Bitch PT 2 Remix
Before taking the Summer Jam stage, Jay made a pre-roast appearance on the remix to the sequel of the Lil Kim song, Queen Bitch, "Three niggas got it coming, say May-June / Sixth album drops, cocksuckers stay tuned."

Summer Jam
As you can hear on audio from the June 28, 2001, Hot 97 Summer Jam stage, after the first verse of the Takeover finished, Jayo Felony was thought to be Jay's principal target. Then, not even by the time the second verse was halfway through, Mobb Deep had already been thoroughly handled. However, that all would just be the undercard. When Jay finally called out those now-famous words, "ask Nas, he don't want it with Hov, nooooo", a sudden mix of disbelief and anticipation literally surged throughout the Nassau Coliseum venue. It was out there now, names had been named.

Airport Story
As later told by Jungle, Nas' brother, the day after the Summer Jam incident, with Mobb Deep heading towards the grave and Nas grazed by the warning shot, Jungle ran into a basking Jay-Z: "the first thing I said [to Jay-Z] was, 'yo, you know we going at you.' . . . Then he stuck his hand out, gave me a five, he was like, 'yo, I spoke to your man, I spoke to duke', he told that LA story . . . So I was like, 'alright, cool, we gonna do it for the fans.' And I left it like that, but I told him it was war."

Stillmatic Freestyle
Nas' next move, approximately three weeks past the Hot 97 show, came in the form of a freestyle over the all-time great Eric B. and Rakim Paid In Full beat. Aside from getting a little at Cormega and chalking out some early project memories, in a clever play on words, Nas also went at Bleek, Beans, and Freeway. For Jay-Z? "I rule you, before, you used to rap like the Fu-Schnickens / Nas designed your Blueprint, who you kidding?" Despite building up a some buzz, before the diss could do too much damage, the Roc-A-Fella camp got Hot 97 to essentially ban the song. Jay's move was next.

With all the defiant swagger of The Doors' sample backing him up and the rush of the rap world to his side, Jay repeated the first and second verses of the Takeover, as heard at Summer Jam, and then drew back door number three in a blitz of venom. Assailing Nas line after line, Jay advanced the standard diss strategies of "you fell off" and "your lifestyle's written" an extra step further: "you fell off so bad your Bravehearts lackey outdid you"; "you plagiarized your lifestyle from me." You aren't getting paid, I one-upped your own concept, you haven't made a good album since your first, and let me just intimate for a second that I bagged your baby's mother. Yes, before "ether" became the go-to battle cry in the lexicon of Hip-Hop, Jay-Z set the bar very high himself. And, for a minute, with not a lot of bets going towards Nas, many thought Jay set the bar beyond what "Esco's trash" was capable of achieving any longer.

The General
Prior to any definitive response, Nas next spoke generally about the art of the battle on The General. A remix came out a year later on a Swizz Beat compilation, but the OG version carries the stench of the '01 trenches undeniably, "I'm coming for y'all blood, make room for the king." However, except for one reference to the Stillmatic Freestyle fallout ("Got ya label all scared / Calling up the radio, don't want my records to air"), Nas primarily focused on laying out the designs of his would-be attack, his pre-Ether state of mind, "I'm much more smarter, much more strategic . . . Too eager you lose / patience, plan your attack then you move." While there were great numbers who thought Nas couldn't come back at all, those maintaining faith must have been pressuring him to return fire immediately. Nevertheless, as laid out on The General, Nas wouldn't be rushed. Days went by without an official response. Weeks. Jay-Z reigned, the world waited. Months. Then, one December 4th, something happened.

To be continued . . .

Rebel To America: The FWS collection
Includes: Jay-Z - Takeover; Jay-Z - Takeover (live @ Summer Jam); Jay-Z - Who Shot Ya (freestyle); Jungle - Airport Story; Lil Kim f/ Jay-Z - Queen Bitch 2 (remix); Memphis Bleek - My Mind Right; Nas - Eye For An Eye (freestyle); Nas - The General; Nas - Nastradamus; Nas - Stillmatic (freestyle); QB's Finest - Da Bridge 2001; ROC - Hot 97 Freestyle Session; XXL - April 2001.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

1 Beat, 2 Songs

The unreleased Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive features a piano-laden beat and the in-and-out sound of some kind of musical shaking device. The unreleased You Don't Know Me also features a piano-laden beat and the in-and-out sound of some kind of musical shaking device. In fact, their beats are essentially the same. Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive is one of the lost I Am double-LP tracks, while You Don't Know Me can be placed, to the best of my knowledge, at least before Stillmatic's release. Moving past their matching production, Nas attacks each beat differently.

Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive was a casualty of Sony's decision to not let Nas put out everything he wanted and bootleggers' insistence that everything be heard early. It's floated around on mixtapes and online for years and was the initial showcase for the some-kind-of-musical-shaking-device beat. Moreover, proving that however maligned the post-It Was Written period of his career has been, circa 1999, also holds many of Nas' most daring and creative concepts and stories, unfortunately too many never to be released or only years down the line. Here he lays out two stories that both end with a rather simple conclusion, "things only go so well until they go really bad." In the first story, Nas plots the path of a player on the rise, who "used to be a bum till he had a six-month run." With a bit of success to his name, our killer in focus later overplays his hand and takes a bad trip to the barbershop. He finds out, say it with me, "the hardest thing to do is stay alive."

In these raps, as Nas provides the audience a sense of the scene and play-by-play like any good ball game broadcaster, the details are generally the most impressive aspect of his stories. Beyond merely describing the gruesome barbershop execution or the type of weaponry sported by the leads, geography also plays an important role. In name-checking Gary, Indiana, Nas gives the story context, a location that grounds the happenings in a kind of familiarity. These episodes aren't going down in some abstract, indeterminate alternate reality; they're towns with names and street signs, stories themselves. This same effect is accomplished in the second story, "coke head Saundra, she grew up in Gowanus." Breaking down the specifics in the opening line, Nas lets us follow along on a trek from the rags of these Brooklyn projects to later Long Island riches, "house in Dix Hills, next to Brooke Shields." BK's Bergen Street is referenced as well.

You Don't Know Me is more brag-oriented, with a bit of menace thrown in for good measure, "we gouge out your eyeballs if you've seen too much." (The only copy of this track I've ever found has an intro by DJ Absolute, where he gives props to LES. Because of this, we can probably assume LES is the producer behind our some-kind-of-musical-shaking-device beat.) Part of Nas' menace seems to be sent in the form of a subliminal to his one-time sparring partner, Jay-Z, "fake rappers in doo-rags get shot up at their concert." Recall how Jay was doo-rag friendly for a time, though not as often after the beef. The song is also memorable for its opening lines from the second verse, "I smoke weed like them 60's rebellions, hippies on heroin / spliffs inhaling, what I speak strictly for felons." Not only does the simile used instantly give you this great idea of a gang of Berkeley flower children knee deep in something hemp outside the Chancellor's office, but an "h"-sound alliteration, an understated visual, and a clear mission statement further enhance the rhyme.

Additionally, Nas does with You Don't Know Me what he often does on tracks with a more brag-filled center. Yes, there's the Mercedes-commercial tie in and the murderous threats, but his stream of consciousness ultimately takes us to what many fans would call "conscious rap." From paying a sort of macabre tribute to the lost souls of black folk ("they let us off ships, the soul of man was lost and trapped in / but every ghetto, every hood, no matter where the town / it's all haunted, all on top of slave burial grounds") to preaching his particular brand of spirituality ("people rich and poor, without God to worship / see, we would be more lost / gotta believe in something or there would be no laws"), Nas hits up both sides of the aisle. Cynics would likely scoff at these or similar lyrics, maintaining a standard "Nas is a hypocrite" plea. However, as to reflecting both an occasionally socially-aware and an occasionally socially-regressive point of view, isn't having more than one side, a dual nature, simply part of being a human? Beyond the chromosomes and the skin cells, contradictions make us who we are.

Nas: Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive
Nas: You Don't Know Me

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Escobar Season PT III

When we last left off, our hero, Nas Escobar, was atop the rap game, but danger lurked ahead . . .
The Escobar story's second act, where complications arise, came in 1997. While It Was Written offered generic pop samples production-wise and floss lyrically, it at least did so in a balanced, often thoughtful, and overwhelmingly successful way. A year later, when The Firm album finally came out, Esco was still on stage but the beats and rhymes were altogether stale, uninspired, and overwhelmingly poor. The Firm flop would prove to be the first noticeable dent in the Golden Child's stride. Without going too much into why that project failed (beef, record labels, politics, Teena Marie), let's narrow in on why specifically the Escobar persona met its demise.

Almost a decade since The Firm, the only song you'll really hear heads reference in any positive manner is Phone Tap. Everything beyond that is bad memories and a dope Canibus verse. What's more, even in circumstances where Nas puts out a poor LP, mixtape and mp3 fanatics can usually point to a number of a unreleased gems and say, "look, it really could have been better if . . ." Unfortunately, with only a couple minor exceptions, there's nothing from The Firm that demands another installment of The Lost Tapes series. In fact, beyond the already-posted Time, the one other example of such a track is really just an average verse from an alternate version of Desperados.

On the unreleased sequel, Desperados II, Nas starts things off decently, gets in a few good lines ("kill bitches with the dick, then call Cochran"), but, ultimately, makes Escobar seem like a shadow of yesterday's neon-studded shine. In comparison with the delivery and rhymes that had just come from It Was Written, Nas was clearly getting lazy. There he had done the boasting thing well, while still providing a keen street sense and a legendary lyrical precision; however, with The Firm, the brags were for brag's sake, by-the-book, and hollow on the whole. Perhaps the best example of this is with the line, "horseback ride hoes / these black desperados / in 4.0's." If you'll also recall another line from '97, Jay-Z, on Imaginary Player, immortalized, "you bought a 4.0, you better get your change." While any on-point MC is capable of turning coke stories and fashion labels into memorable raps, with his flow tempered and words neutralized, the whole entire Esco steez had turned bland. Then particularly compared to a guy like Jay-Z, who, on Imaginary Player, epitomizes doing the most with boasts, when The Firm album hit stores, Nas no longer sounded comfortable, no longer stood alone at the top. Not only does Jay shrug at the very suggestion that Nas' ride is worth the tall talk, but his delivery is more memorable, his rap more creative, his swagger still intact.

Even if Nas didn't admit at the time that the Escobar luster was fading away, he would soon. The Rise and Fall, unreleased but recorded post-It Was Written, is Nas' story from humble beginnings to excess, from excess to distress, from distress to closure. Using a vocal sample from Take It In Blood, coincidentally, and then Slick Rick ("the rise and fall of my fast lane style"), the open and reflective beat provides ample room for four minute's worth of revelations. Thematically, Nas traces the give-and-take of his success with a look at cars. In the beginning can-it-be-all-so-simple times, "it was cool, wasn't mad, I had to take cabs." Next, after contracts were signed, "eyes popped when I drove my first ride on the block", and the wealth spread, "Infiniti's for my girl for giving birth to my queen." However, finding out just how foolish minds become when the color's green, Nas laments how this lifestyle soon attracted the usual cast of sharks and snakes to his side, "so-called mans would plot on my chips." Here his ride has gone from a mere method of transportation to a status symbol, then, suddenly, becoming a liability and, finally, a last line of defense, "pistol in my car, full clip." But it wasn't just the streets out for theirs.

In what is Nas' most anti-Escobar confession, he admits, "I was frontin', niggas thought I was rich . . . repo looking for my Lex, back then I wasn't buying." The extravagance of the era, that every bit of extra, he's telling, was all just a pose, a way to look. Unfortunately, in doing this, in playing up the Forbes magazine profile, Nas expanded not only his pockets but also the bullseye on his back. He would soon see the corner traffickers' jealousy and eyes growing at the same exponential rate, "woke up in cold sweats, thinking about all these murders that know where I rest." In the midst of trying to grab twice as tough for what was just beyond his reach, Nas had left himself exposed and, in the process, risked losing everything he worked to secure in the first place. A borough of threats and an appearance too demanding to maintain forever soon took their toll. Deceit tore away at trust, excess corrupted substance, fame invited foes, and an image distracted a man.

For Nas, as soon as success stumbled, as it inevitably does, it all came crashing back down to that cold concrete, "my cars were auctioned off, now I catch rides with kidnap niggas." Zero-to-sixty-in-seconds had become too fast a life to keep up with any longer. He would later separate himself and, eventually, his rhymes from this invented character, returning the poet to his rightful place and honesty to the forefront once more, "Not from Columbia or Nicaragua / Don't distribute coke from Antigua that shipped out to Panama / Pablo Escobar's bloody reign came to an end / Far from my life, a kid who made his fame through a pen."

The Firm f/ Canibus: Desperados II
Nas: The Rise and Fall

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Where Y'all At

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program . . . Nas has new music!

Salaam Remi on the beat. Nas back in lean mode.

I slow dance with the devil
Snow setting in the bezel
Mo' sipping, Phantom
Bumping Aaron Neville
Polo Black scented
Eyes squinted
Air Force One's
With my own patent in it
Crescent in the star glowing up in the galaxy
Pagan holidays are way far from my reality
Fart through Evisu jeans, lethal green
Oliver Peoples shades when I creep through Queens
With no AK's, I'm the ambassador
Robin Hood in the Aston-Mar'
Lotta blood gonna splash in war
Task force, homicide, federalies gonna harass, but y'all
Ain't never seen nothing
Not a word, not a hint
On the kid from the project bench
That went -- Sony BMG
To that new conglomerate
Island Def Jam
Guess how many dollars was spent
To get the best man
Y'all niggas ain't silencing shit
Ya bitch been wanna polish the dick
The big Benz, I'ma model ya chick
With Zac Posen, cash froze her
Cat stroker, once I smash, it's over
Cold like ice, more chains than slaves
Dangerous ways, Poltergeist
Change the channel, roll the dice
I bring change when I gamble
I could sell sand to a Arab
Hiding my gun handle

The ill whip pusher
My spit wet ya
If you stand close to the woofer
Bet'cha get sprayed by my lecture
Any club where ladies are dimes, I'm a regular
Give it up smooth, I ain't begging ya
Intelligent brainiac, brains maniac
Back of the Maybach
Taste that, don't waste that
Eat with my elbows top of the table
Street etiquette with speech impediments
And still see presidents
No matter who paid
Cause you ain't take the last dollar made
Long as they keep printing it, there's chances of getting it
Money's my bitch, and we stay intimate
Ask about Nashawn, could ask about Jung'
Ask about Bravehearts, and ask where I'm from
Q-Boro, specifically The Bridge
Don't ask no more question, y'all know what it is

Whether chrome-sparking or loan sharking
Busting ratchets or numbers rackets or drug traffic
My funds are wrapped up, no concerns who has what
Financer, skull doo-ragged up
Mob life, prizefights
Plasma TVs or first row
Diversify dough in my circle
Amid the most sickest groom
The proof swiftness
Numero uno, annuit cœptis
That's the language of our Latin ancestors
On the back of a dollar, the plan and the message
In a Rolls Royce like the King of Nigeria
My criteria -- smoke cigars
Change rap like Jimi Hendrix
Changed rock and roll with a broke guitar
Diamonds flashing
Almost put a million cash in
My mommy casket
Seen more green than St. Patrick

Nas: Where Y'all At

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Escobar Season PT II

While several of the tracks from It Was Written featured obvious pop loops, the Live Squad production on Take It In Blood stretched back to the soul of the Fantastic Four and the voice of Kool Keith, of the Ultramagentic MCs, to propel the hook. Although concept and storytelling songs were frequent from Nas at this point, Take It In Blood is really just three verses of pure swagger, "put poetry inside a crack pot and blow." As well, here an out-for-gusto attitude is highlighted once more, ".45 by my scrotum / manifest the 'do or die' slogan." This was a common theme for Nas in '96, if only for the fact that, on a professional level, he was trying to stake out the major career that Illmatic had failed to establish. Success was a "now or never" proposition. But beyond merely saying something memorable in his raps, It Was Written proved that his rhyme schemes would push their effect even further. Standing as his most stylistically-inclined and pose-heavy portrait of the world, Nas perfected both the what and the how: saying something dope and making it sound even better.

There are movies with such bursting visuals that you can literally watch them on mute and appreciate how they work just the same. Similarly, on Take It In Blood, you can choose not even really to listen to the words but rather simply focus in on Nas' vocal patterns, his flow, and appreciate the skill just as easily, "Rossi and Martini sipping / Sergio Tacchini flipping / Mad pies / Low price / I blow dice / And throw 'em." "Rossi and Martini sipping" is a reference to the Turin-based vermouth manufacturer, with "Sergio Tacchini", also an Italian creation, being a nod to the renowned garment designer. It's Nas with a glass in his hand and foreign threads on his back--that's the what. The how, the actual rhyme scheme, is best described as a line of dominoes, where words become these malleable units, one merging into the next, and setting off a reaction down the way. "Sergio Tacchini" is a separate idea from "flipping mad pies", but by merging them together, "Tacchini flipping", Nas accomplishes the rhyme with "Martini sipping", connects two separate concepts together in a rhythmic structure, and sets the narrative on its way down a new direction, like dominoes falling in a row.

However, if Nas' rhyme scheme changed up after Illmatic--a response to basically all East Coast Hip-Hop jumping on his '94 style--he never allowed it to cloud the observant eye and visual imagery that had previously sent him to the land of 5 mics. On Take It In Blood, Nas still paints a picture, a scene in slow-mo, where "city lights spark a New York night." Watch as the sprawl of skyscrapers and the treasure of towers zooms in a single man standing defiantly against the evening, "bloodshot, red eyes, high." He holds "yellow envelopes of lye", his other hand cutting back the head of an imported vice, "opening cigars, let tobacco fly." Add in another apt simile, assisted by a well-placed sound effect, "spraying shots like drum roll", flashback to Memory Lane, "sunshine on my grill, I spill Remy on imaginary graves", and, all in all, you would be hard-pressed to find another MC whose descriptions were so vivid, whose language was so precise, whose world was so clear.

Illmatic brought in a hoard of critical praise, but sales seemed like suicide. Led by his Escobar persona, Nas came back with something different. It would have been so easy for him to just rehash the style and sight of that '94 classic, but it also would have been a copout and most likely meant poor sales again. So he took his gift as the game's best narrator, got a team of hitmakers, injected a dozen medics' worth of adrenaline into his flow, and came back hungrier. On It Was Written, Nas has the mindset of a man who's acquired some fame but hasn't achieved all his goals yet. It's Nas at his most charismatic, reflecting the hustler who not only wants the whole world but knows he's owed it too.

Nas: Take It In Blood
BONUS: Fantastic Four: Mixed Up Moods and Attitudes
BONUS: Ultramagnetic MCs: Ease Back

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Escobar Season

Escobar Season has returned . . .

Hip-Hop CEO and Proactiv advocate, Sean "Puffy" Combs, immortalized these words on Nas' 1999 hit Hate Me Now. However, while that I Am disc did feature hints of yesterday's gloss, it was really anti-Escobar, especially with the closing track ending in a gunshot to the head, after a final trip to the lights of Vegas. Escobar, an instant name check of cocaine and riches, was an alias Nas was much more comfortable sporting back in '96, with It Was Written, and on a handful of featured verses from the year 1995: AZ's Mo Money Mo Murder; Mobb Deep's Eye for an Eye; Raekwon's Verbal Intercourse. Although Illmatic had peppered itself with references to this lifestyle earlier (Dom P, Tony Montana, etc.), now the dreams grew much bigger, the weight moved much more, and the gloss was turned to ten. In the process, feeling like he had let excess sour his rhymes, some of the core crew of fans from '94 grew to resent the glam, coke, and platinum that become ever more prevalent in Nas' raps. They felt bored and soon parted ways with the man they had once heralded as "The Second Coming." On the other side, for listeners who stuck by, and for those who have revaluated the Escobar era of Nas' career in recent times, this period of his music, at the very least, rivals the legend that came before it.

The first time Escobar reached solo status served as a wakeup call to the game: "Escobar Season Begins", Nas named it, "repent your sins", he implored. Produced by The Trackmasters, as were many of the notable songs from this era, Escobar Season Begins features a familiar breakbeat sound that opens up to a throwback Eric B. & Rakimesque backdrop. From this position, Nas sets himself up in the tradition of Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord and the namesake of Nas' alter ego, "Que pasa? / Pablo's throne / Cabron / At the airport, the Mobb picked me up in the truck / Jewelry chunky like fuck / Never scared to get stuck / So what's the deal, papi? / Heard the Feds could of knocked me / Had the Cuban posse / All up in my room and lobby / Negotiating." As was the norm during this period, and really throughout much of rap music in a post-PSK environment, these scenes proved larger than life, the type of drive that buries the needle and leaves a blur in its path. Further epitomizing the bravado that often catapulted a careful swing to great levels of swagger, Nas' promise of "fuck a job, I'ma die scrambling" illustrates not only a fatalistic outlook, but demonstrates how he couldn't be satisfied simply eeking through a 9-5, lower-class lifestyle. If Illmatic captured the corner mentality, Escobar had his sights on the whole block.

As Nas' goals grew bigger in size, his vision, the way he described these targets, likewise took on an accelerated and cinematic approach, "The white numb on your tongue / I bought it from Dominicans / A suitcase of Benjamins / Swung tight in his fingers / Had The Firm gunslingers / Hit the lights / Grab the white / Murder every thing in sight / And jet in the Beamers." Scarface, the movie most usually linked with this coke and rhymes genre of rap, hardly has an edge on Nas' descriptions. His words themselves are like a director's tools: the close-up on the henchman's briefcase, swinging every so slightly; the mise-en-scene element of lighting jarring the look of the action; and then, like any good tracking shot, Nas surveys the setting to detail the origin of the coke and the brand of getaway car. However, as many often do in telling these Scarface tales, let's not forget the end, where a strung-out, delirious Tony Montana inches ever so closely to death, until, finally, total ruin sets in. Nas is just as mindful that however grand this world seems, everything has its price, "Praise the Lord / I've been scarred with hot water / Days are shorter / Next court date's around the corner / Money ain't the same / Shit is out of order / Since the days of Rich Porter." That final reference is to one of the most infamous Harlem crack cocaine kingpins, himself killed in the haze of the 1980s.

This is part one of a three part look at the Escobar era, beginning here with how that persona got its start. Next we'll look at Esco's rise and then inevitable fall.

Nas: Escobar Season Begins

*NOTE: For contributions to and the inspiration for this three-part series, much thanks to Ill E.--Fletch

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Roundup PT III

Around the way for more Nas-related news:

  • You may have heard that Nas has so far decided to name his next album, "Hip-Hop Is Dead." This is different from the one-word-many-reactions choice of "Nigger" or the even earlier and equally questionable "Nasdaq Dow Jones". We'll see what happens.
  • It has been reconfirmed that Nas will be working with, of the Black Eyed Peas, in some capacity in the future. Oh, I get it, Hip-Hop is dead.
  • Although the show came and went and it's been some time since, perhaps the most lasting impression left on Hip-Hop audiences after the day one Roots concert at Radio City Music Hall was not what happened but what really could have. While Nas did show up, as billed, and, by most accounts, represented well enough, that was not supposed to be the end. According to The Roots' own ?uestlove, Nas was also to be reunited on stage with Pete Rock for a special The World Is Yours performance. Then, later in the night, Ghostface and Raekwon were scheduled to grab the mic, with Nas again, to perform Verbal Intercourse. Unfortunately, Pete Rock didn't show up, nor did Ghostface, nor did Raekwon. Way to let her go, guys!
  • In that same confessional post, ?uestlove also broke down how, after all these years, Nas and The Roots finally linked up on stage and Nas was shown the light that so many satisfied fans could have attested to all along, "he shrugged but sheepishly admitted like...damn...these 'niggas was real'."
  • Nashawn's album, Napalm, featuring the previously-posted Level 7, was released earlier this month. Nas is credited on three tracks: Level 7; about 1/8 a bar on Money Machine; and the hook of Choir Song. Money Machine is trash, Choir Song is about three years old, Hip-Hop is dead.
  • Rap Beef: Now 95% less filling! Loon has words for Nas. Jim Jones is always talking. No pulse to be found.
  • DMX has announced that a sequel to the hate-it-or-tolerate-it Belly is still on its way. According to Mr. Dark Man of the Unknown, his character, Tommy, makes a trip to Africa to locate Serious (Nas). DMX says that, "we got a sick story and all that." DMX also has a history of being on crack.
  • Busta Rhymes' The Big Bang came out today. While two songs featuring himself and Nas were leaked in recent months, only the Dr. Dre produced Don't Get Carried Away made it to the retail. On 106&Park yesterday, Busta remarked how the beat gave him this instant throwback, New York summer nights vibe, whose call could only be answered by one other rapper. Rough Around the Edges is strictly for mixtapes it seems.
  • Going over some earlier entries, those from before I really had a sense of where this blog was headed, I see I might have missed an opportunity or two to up a couple worthy links, some supplemental material. For instance, I would like to get in the way-back machine, to the very first post, and edit in a clip of the unreleased Live at the Barbeque rhyme, as heard on the Living Legends mixtape. However, that would be like admitting I've been slipping up since the start.
Rap radioactive
Attractive, hyperactive
I drop bombs, my rhymes are massive
I work fantastic, realistic
My raps are drastic, not simplistic
Nas: Leftover Barbeque
BONUS: Nashawn f/ Nas: Choir Song

Friday, June 09, 2006

For The Right Price

On the first Hip-Hop song most people were introduced to, Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight, the often-confusing subject of ghostwriting also left its mark. Big Bank Hank, with lyrics reportedly stolen right from Grandmaster Caz' notebook, charged into music history without so much as even bothering to modify the rap's reference to Caz, "I'm the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A." As many know, while this may have been the first such case, it certainly wasn't the last. Guys like Dre and Puffy, albums like Eazy-Duz-It and Mecca and the Soul Brother, all benefited from outside assistance. In the process, Ice Cube and Grand Puba furthered their legacies, The DOC did what his voice couldn't, Sauce Money got a couple extra checks, and so-called Hip-Hop purists stood arms crossed, a defiant b-boy pose. In practically every other genre, a co-writer can potentially play a large role in the crafting of another performer's lyrics, and be accepted. It's not a dirty secret, Jerry Butler never threatened to out Otis Redding, and life goes on. However, in Hip-Hop, where we're taught to believe that everything we hear and see out of these rappers is the essence of real, that those jewels aren't rented, that those girls aren't either, and that those rhymes came right out the mind of the MC moving his mouth, ghostwriting is perceived as a sin almost worse than snitching. But really, once you look at how far this tradition stretches, back to Rapper's Delight, say what you will about it being "a bad thing," just don't gas yourself up that it's a tactic reserved for a scant few. Other folks, rappers that we put in our top ten lists and call "legends", the Ice Cube's and the Biz Markie's, for instance, to varying degrees, had some of their writtens written by some others. Will Smith too. Just ask Nas.

In 1997, as popular as Nas was, the sounds of Will Smith's Getting Jiggy Wit It were everywhere. Nas however played a role in the success of this new Fresh Prince just the same. According to the Big Willie Style credits and ASCAP database, Nas co-wrote Yes Yes Y'All and Chasing Forever, and then Just Cruisin' off the Men In Black soundtrack. (Technically, "ghostwriting" would imply a co-writer not being credited, but, again, in Hip-Hop, where we're led to assume a rapper writes everything he recites, that's really a semantics argument.) Beyond those three, in a 2002 interview with Carson Daly, Nas also reported that he did indeed contribute to that oh-so-unavoidable '97 anthem, "we worked on Get Jiggy Wit It, . . . You know, but he'll put it together. I was just there vibing with him." Speculation also says that Miami bears the influence of the Esco'd one. While some of Nas' other extracurricular activities have been rather obvious (Puffy getting dark on Journey Through The Life, Foxy getting mathematical on Affirmative Action), we should evaluate these aforementioned Will Smith songs for their traces of Nasisms.

On Chasing Forever, the first verse finds Will namedropping Prada and Gucci, and asking of an anonymous female if she would stick around when all those fade away. Although these themes are found in several of Nas' rhymes, they are also standard in rap music, most music really. Nevertheless, the delivery on the second verse sounds particularly like Nas on the Street Dreams remix, from around the same time, with the well-executed double on "chasing the dream / casing the scheme" lending further support to Nas being present. Next, the Trackmasters produced Yes Yes Y'all certainly suggests a great likelihood that Nas was involved, as he and Poke and Tone were a steady 1-2 punch ever since the release of It Was Written. Plus, with its random female celebrity brag, it seems reasonable to suspect that the line "accidentally spilled a drink on Naomi" could come from the same man who would soon after say, "Halle Berry blew a kiss at the Barbra Streisand concert." Then, on Just Cruisin': "Intro / the maestro / nice flow / hot like nitro / cool as ice though"; "zero to sixty / flossing / ninety degrees / Sony cartridges / ten CDs / each." Yup. Also, "female-attracter" stands as a possible variant of the later Hate Me Now boast, "model-dater." So, for the songs with explicit credit given to Nas, it's believable that he was around, but what of the other two?

Unless Nas said it himself, I would not have thought to credit him with Getting Jiggy Wit It. Yes, the '97 time was Nas' most jiggiest, iced out and excessive, but, lyrically, Jiggy features very little in common with the man who once was crowned "The Second Coming." But I guess you also have to recall that as that excess did take over, especially notable on The Firm album, Nas' rhymes became bloated with not much beyond uninspired materialism, the type of stuff that might be found alongside, "women used to tease me / give it to me now nice and easy / since I moved up like George and Weezy." Miami follows the same template of Jiggy, with a couple double rhymes and a bizarre shoutout to Sly Stallone being especially Nas-like, so maybe it counts as well.

Here's what you can say about these fives songs: 1) Nas really didn't surrender a greatest hits worth of rhymes; no loss there 2) Nas helped a legend; that's always a good look 3) Nas got paid; ditto 4) We got Escobar 97; success.

While Nas couldn't quite pass on any paycheck and personal satisfaction he received from this work, fans could partake in the Men In Black-soundtrack only Escobar 97, the final result of these collaborations. Because it appeared on Will's project, the only ever officially released version of this track is edited, but here we at least find Nas speaking for himself, "from Nasty to Nas to Nas to Escobar." We also get a sense of what The Firm album could have been. While, lyrically, Escobar 97 is a slight step down from It Was Written, a buoyant flow and creative tongue bounce brags with ease. Moreover, a head-nodding, comfortable Trackmasters beat propels the rush of swagger, "El Dorado Red, sipping Dom out the bottle."

If you've ever seen the Firm Biz music video, there's a performance shot of Nas and AZ and crew on a ballroom floor, with glasses in hand, all tuxed out, and noticeable smiles spreading across their faces. Although, musically, not much to be happy with came out of this project, that look they had, like they were some kids finally able to enjoy themselves, wild out and just grin, was both infectious and hard to discourage. Escobar 97 is the closest song we have to capturing that percise vibe, Nas living it up and writing it down.

I mean, before this
I used to rock a Taurus with the donuts
Now I've grown up, I got it chromed up
Got the rap game sewn up, sho' nuff
Nas: Escobar 97
BONUS: Will Smith: Chasing Forever
BONUS: Will Smith: Just Cruisin'
BONUS: Will Smith: Yes Yes Y'all

Monday, June 05, 2006

Don Ferquan

Quan. As of now, Virginia's own is just another rapper who's done jail time, came out yapping about how these other dudes aren't real, and, subsequently, hasn't added much beyond generic trigger talk to a genre that already has it on bulk supply. And ever since he partnered with Nas on Just A Moment, Quan has moved from two full verses and some buzz to the point where that second verse was cut down and his buzz has gone the same way. Epitomizing his "career" thus far, back in late 2005, when Nas and Jay-Z first shared that Jersey stage together, Quan himself had just reunited with the Feds. After that, like his camp took a "stop snitching" oath, mum's been the word and his name has hardly been mentioned. Quan was once lined up to work with The Neptunes and Missy Elliott, and a solid move to Atlantic, alongside a cosign from God's Son, seemed like good times. Now, he's a D-list weed carrier at best. But let's look at some of his past work to see if there's any hint of a future at all.

All For War
LES' crunk-inspired production reminds us that Virgina is still part of the South. And with its thick percussion and headstrong title serving as a battle cry, appropriately, Quan pounds his chest hard. Quan, who did hook duties on Just A Moment, has a voice smooth enough to sing but with enough gravel to avoid being overlu R&B. Unfortunately, on All For War, there's not enough variation in his flow or a hint that he's doing anything but garble a Cliff Notes version of Shook Ones. It's hype, but that's to LES' credit. Quan's just being carried to war. 3/5

G Tight
Musically, G Tight is more tempered, with a guitar sample calling on the blues. Here we get the hook before any proper verse. Quan harmonizes about cases and coke in an awkward fashion; turning the block's hymns into the equivalent croon of a high school graduation class' closing song. Once that's set aside, a "Dear God" story sounds entirely more convincing, his anger and resilience crossbred with conviction. Then, on a technical side, you have to appreciate the use of alliteration and internal rhyme. 3.5/5

Off The Top
This freestyle, over Lil Wayne's Hey DJ, pairs Nas with his would-be protégé for some back and forth. For Quan, his flow works much better than on All For War, as there's enough room for his voice to move. And as opposed to moments on G Tight, swagger has taken over his need to sing. Moreover, while he is sounding off about the same old same old, it's done with a bit of flair. Quan's added color to the usual gun spray, "Son, you ain't even got to tell 'em / I'll put 'em in the woods where the dogs can't smell 'em." 3/5

Simply Ridin'
As a restrained snare is decorated with a sparse soul sound, Quan finally meets his perfect pitch. Relaxed but encouraged, it's a confident approach that avoids his usual turns to melodramatic subject matter and delivery. The layered vocals of the hook take some of the potency of his voice away, but the bridge, where he's solo once more, fairs much better. Quan's spitting the generic "Ramada / Prada" sex raps, but his style succeeds to the point where any bland substance can be accepted with an enthusiastic nod. 4/5

Nas, Quan: Off The Top
BONUS: Quan: All For War
BONUS: Quan: G Tight
BONUS: Quan: Simply Ridin'

Friday, June 02, 2006

Rappaz R N Danja

In late 1996, months after Tupac's trip to Vegas and in the midst of what was being billed as a battle between coasts, Dr. Dre's Aftermath record label and album began public trading. One of the few memorable cuts from this otherwise forgettable album joined Nas and KRS-One with B Real and RBX, aka East Coast and West Coast. This was Dre's attempt to follow through with the mission statement he had laid out just earlier on Nas Is Coming, "all these niggas out here just talking this East Coast, West Coast bullshit. Niggas need to kill that shit, make some money." In this context, for whatever noise the bicoastal posse cut, East Coast, West Coast Killas, did or did not make, it's notable for at least doing something other than playing into the media-laid bear trap of divide and conquer. However, with that beef past gone, and "East Coast this" "West Coast this" passé, or at least evolved, perhaps the power of the track isn't what it used to be. Nevertheless, for any fan of Hip-Hop, it must retain its status simply because it joined The Teacher with one of his finest pupils. It was Nas and KRS on record together, for their first and only time since. But let's call on perspective.

Almost 10 years ago, Jay-Z said where he's from, kids argued all day about who's the best MC: himself, Biggie or Nas. But when those three were growing up, having that conversation without mentioning KRS-One would have been ridiculous. Matter fact, KRS more than earned a spot in that conversation back in '97 and still has a reserve seat today. For many MCs, longevity doesn't stretch further than the rear end of some flashy foreign sports car. Then those rappers who do manage to stick around the game for a couple albums like to talk about how they have a "career." In reality, most of them are just putting out songs, a club single there, a street single if we're lucky, jumping from trend to trend. KRS-One has had a career. 20 years and 15 albums deep, it's safe to say he's seen and done it all.

"It used to irk me when these critics had opinions / Scott would say, 'just keep rapping, I'll keep spinning' / We had a fucked up contract, but we signed it / And dropped the Hip-Hop album Criminal Minded / We told the critics, 'your opinions are bull' / Same time Eric B and Rakim dropped Paid in Full / Hip-Hop pioneers, we didn't ask to be / But right then Hip-Hop changed drastically"

Standing at the threshold of a changing style in rap music, and defining the Golden Age with intensity and James Brown loops, KRS' work was the very foundation of what we take for granted in Hip-Hop today. As the voice of Boogie Down Productions, he became known as one of the top MCs. And for molding an education on beats while never ceasing to entertain, he became known simply as the "The Teacher." But even when he wasn't educating, heads still had to react. Responsible for some of the most venomous diss rhymes ever recorded, the Blastmaster earned an even greater rep. Specifically, by taking shots at the Queensbridge Projects of MC Shan and Marley Marl, and later Nas himself, KRS set the standard for how a rap battle on wax would go and be won.

"We don't complain, nor do we play the game of favors / Boogie Down Production come in three different flavors / Pick any dick for the flavor that you savor / . . . I finally figured it out, Magic's mouth is used for sucking / Roxanne Shante is only good for steady fucking / MC Shan and Marley Marl is really only bluffing / Like Doug E Fresh said, 'I tell you now, you ain't nothing' . . . / You better change what comes out your speaker / You're better off talking 'bout your wack Puma sneaker / 'Cause Bronx created Hip-Hop / Queens will only get dropped / You're still telling lies to me"

Some people might find it odd that as an MC who was one of the first to seriously promote knowledge and understanding, KRS spent a lot of the time ripping into other rappers. And not just the nameless variety: MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, X-Clan and Nelly are a few who have got to the bad side of The Teacher. PM Dawn even managed to get tossed off the stage during a show by KRS for questioning what he stood for in a magazine article. As curious as this behavior seems, one could argue that KRS has a very strict set of guidelines of what Hip-Hop should be, and to enforce this view, he'll simply take it to physical levels.

"You small time, you ain't a pro / Yeah, you kick the raw rhyme / But your show and your flow, that's all mine / Oh silly me / If I call on my lyric ability / I'll bring it right straight to your door, free delivery / Get with me, now I spit rap / I represent peace and knowledge, but I will contradict that"

Beyond the battles, KRS, also known for his stage presence, fittingly released one of the premier live Hip-Hop albums in 1991. Two years later, breaking "solo" for the first time, he invited rap along for a Return of the Boom Bap, an ode to the thump that had catapulted himself and Hip-Hop into its Golden Age. Next he started the Human Education Against Lies and Temple of Hip-Hop organizations. Following these moves, KRS left his longtime label home, Jive, and explored himself beyond the physical with Spiritual Minded.

While in some circles he's now become more of a caricature of his past self, like by petitioning the UN to make Hip-Hop its own nation state, when the story of KRS-One is eventually told--as Nas has planned to do with an Unauthorized Biography sometime soon--he should be remembered for educating the Hip-Hop generation in ways their high school textbooks would never have. Ideas like Moses and Jesus being black were unheard of back in the early '90s. But it was with this message of empowerment and education that KRS influenced legions of fans, a number of who would themselves emerge in the decade afterward as some of the greatest MCs. KRS taught a generation of listeners to question the status quo. From the classroom to politics, the streets to music, he made Hip-Hop stand for something, made Hip-Hop stand for itself.
Know this, I'm evil like the exorcist to the locusts
Ferocious thoughts, emerging at night
Like Jehovah towards the virgin in white
I'm wrapped in the turban for spite
Group Therapy: East Coast, West Coast Killas
BONUS: Boogie Down Productions: The Bridge Is Over
BONUS: D.I.T.C. f/ KRS-One: Drop It Heavy
BONUS: KRS-One: Outta Here

*NOTE: Thanks to Jesse Ducker, music editor of Shout Magazine, for the assistance on today's entry.--Fletch