Thursday, July 27, 2006

Summer Reading

RTA is taking a week-long vacation. Come August though, business will back in order. However, so as not to leave you completely empty-handed, here's some light reading.

Bobbito's 1994 interview with Nas, from RapPages magazine, and Jon Shecter's "The Second Coming", from The Source, are both pieces I have referenced multiples times over the past few months, and for good reason. Because while there can be debate on how Nas' music compares in terms of overall quality with what he's making now, there should be little argument that, strictly as an interview subject, early Nas comes off as all the more engaging compared to the Nas we've become accustomed to. Bobbito's interview is especially notable for getting the usually reserved rapper to open up. Here he breaks down his past, on a personal and musical level, lunch tables to Jah Eddie, answering with a great level of history and spontaneity. Then Shecter's article receives its own classic status from being an at-the-moment making of special on Illmatic. Published at the same time that Nas' debut hit stores, "The Second Coming" shows how Illmatic didn't need a decade to warm up to critics. As instantaneous as the rush on NY State of Mind is, Shecter and his interviewees underscore the album's immediate entry into the annals of Hip-Hop history, and more than do its coverage justice.


The RapPages
(courtesy of
By Bobbito Garcia

Representing Queensbridge, New York, and the future of Hip-Hop, Nas is in his own state of mind.

Queensbridge's own Nas represents more than meets the eye. No doubt, Nas represents New York. His deeply-etched rhymes live and breathe the tough East Coast city streets, injecting images of hyped-up corner cyphers on cold NYC nights. And Nas definitely represents the gifted select few born to wreck mics with absolute ease. Since being featured on Main Source's "Live at the BBQ," Serch's "Back to the Grill Again," and then releasing the single "Halftime" off the Zebrahead soundtrack, Nas has followed no other MC's lead but his own. Nas' rhyme style, flow, phrases, concepts, reflections and voice are all distinctly his. The only artist that he parallels is Rakim; they both have that air of mystery about them.

I have to admit that it's Nas' mysterious demeanor that made me apprehensive about interviewing him. You hardly ever see him out at parties or functions, and when I have, I've noticed his mode of operation. He is not unfriendly, but he is definitely far from outgoing. He is the epitome of someone on the low, always to himself, which makes people around him wonder what the phukk he is thinking or feeling. Listening to his album almost clues you in. His perceived passivism is a paradox, because his attitude is really one of true active observation. Couple his acute observational skills with an ability to command the English language, and you end up with brilliant lyrics. Mix that up with a powerful delivery that does justice to beats by Pete Rock, Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip and L.E.S., and you end up with a classic debut album.

But more importantly, Nas represents Hip-Hop. He has the potential to push this music to another level, just as Rakim has done in his career. This young street disciple was raised on breakdancing, graffiti writing, park jams, DJ mix shows, beat-boxing the whole nine. Nurtured by a culture of heartfelt expression and blessed with a mastery of words, Nas' vivid music embodies Hip-Hop's positive energy. The massive buzz on Nas' debut album, Illmatic, among those with their ear to the street reflects on both local and universal levels. It's a true testament to the kinship of Hip-Hop when someone like Nas makes it. You can feel that desire to make it from both the mega-talented artist from around the way and the peoples around him. Inevitably, the game's about going for self, but at the same time never forgetting to give props where props are due to the family (blood or otherwise) and neighborhood (especially the projects) that raised you. That's not just some "New York shit," because living the real life is universal.

RAPPAGES: You're no longer called Nasty Nas, just Nas. What's the scientifics behind that?

NAS: I had crazy names. I've been MC Nas, Rapper Nas, Nasty Nasall type of shit, so I'll just leave it as Nas. Straight to the pidoint.

RP: The first time I heard you was in early '91 on "Live at the BBQ," then "Halftime" in '92. Now it's almost three years later and the public is still awaiting your album. What's been the hold up?

NAS: You know how that is. I didn't even think I was gonna make [an album]--was gonna give up. I was trying to make them shits back in the days, phukking with Large Professor when Eric B was paying for studio time. It goes back to when we was in the lab doing shit when I was 15. That was '88 to '89. In ‘89 I was 16, and we had some raw shit. I was gonna come out through Eric B and them. I was young and wasn't on top of shit, so I kind of faded from everybody. I missed out and lost contact. So later on I got back in touch with Large, and me and him started working hard. I had some demos for a year I was trying to shop and I was phukking with mad niggas, trying to get signed. Then Large got a chance to put out his album. I didn't put mine out. He said, "Phukk it, just be on my shit," and that was on "Live at the BBQ." Boom. After that I was chillin', cuz I thought I had caught enough wreck. I just wanted to have my clientele on the street. I met Serch one year later, and he thought I had a deal. And I'm like, "I don't give a phukk. Just get me on wax and all respect due and good looking out." He pulled a couple of strings and got a nigga on. Boom, then [came the] "Back to the Grill" joint. Then I got signed to Columbia. I came to see you when you were A&R at Def Jam and you fronted on me and shit. But you still my man.

RP: I remember that. It's funny, cuz seeing you develop from "Live" to "Back" to "Halftime" to where you are now, you've definitely grown as an MC and as a personality too. In '91, when Akinyele, Kool G Rap and you came by my office, it seemed like on paper and on wax you were this quiet--not shy, but to yourself--almost mysterious character. I knew you would develop, but you weren't there yet. At that point, I knew Russel [Simmons] wouldn't be interested. I was more looking out for you. I didn't want to waste your time.

NAS: Like you said, I had to progress into me, into Nas. I was crazy young. I'm still the same person, but now I got a little knowledge, so I can handle my business.

RP: I've noticed you uphold a lot of mystery in your character. It seems like you're on the mad DL--you really don't say much to people. You leave a lot to people's imaginations to figure you out. Is there a reason for that?

NAS: That's just me.

RP: You've never been the outgoing type?

NAS: Never. Only time I was outgoing was when I was whylin' in high school. Running around the train hitting people in the face with a bunch of niggas. Like we couldn't be stopped. That's the wildest I ever got--that's part of growing up. But even back then I was to myself.

RP: Your pops was an accomplished jazz musician. What's his name?

NAS: Olu Dara. My whole name is Nasir Ben Olu Dara Jones. Nasir is Arabic. It means "helper and protector." Ben means "son of." Jones is the slave part. Niggas weren't trying to say my name back in the days. When we used to tag up on trains and high places, we'd climb up--I didn't want to write Nasir, you couldn't even say it--I'd just write Nas or Kid Wave. I wanted to write riddles and rhymes and make it mean something, but niggas would say we didn't have time for that. But, yeah, [my pops] got a little busy. He bust my head. Mile Davis wrote something about him in his book. My pops used to bring me up to the studio. This is when they had no belief in rap. They didn't even understand it. Just like when we was breakdancing, they didn't understand. But it's gonna stay in effect.

RP: You used to breakdance yourself?

NAS: I used to pop. I was Kid Wave. I was down with Breakin' In Action. We had the shirts, white gloves and hats that said B.I.A. My man Will used to do the windmills.

RP: It seems like on your LP, conceptually, Nas represents a lot of different stories. You have entire songs that are thematically metaphorical. Before, you just did metaphors in one verse on your posse cuts, but now there's an outgrowth.

NAS: I knew what I had to do if I was gonna rhyme on a "Symphony" jam. The only way to catch somebody's attention is to say the right shit. That's how you gotta get off on posse cuts. But when you get a chance to put a whole album together with a format, a nigga isn't gonna want to sit down and listen to some ill shit all day. He wants to get some mental gain. Like reading a book, he wants to put the tape in and feel it. Before, I knew I had to come off real quick on the mic. But now it's more like letting my shit flow. Now people are ready to focus in on me. But I wouldn't have had a chance to do that if I didn't come off before.

RP: What is your process of writing?

NAS: I used to tape off the radio. Play it the next day, all day, then for the whole month straight. After the month was up, I'd feel it and write a whole bunch of songs. Then I taped again and [I would do] the same cycle. I tape other people's songs--Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Shan, Shante, Kool Moe Dee, LL, Run-DMC--and I build off them.

RP: Is that where you draw most of your inspiration?

NAS: I listen to their style. I'm not trying to sound like anybody, but I'm hearing while they're teaching--everybody's teaching each other. There are mad different flows, and then you get your own. You see how everyone rides the beat, and then you see how you ride it. You put your whole heart into it.

RP: Who would you say your favorite or most influential MC's?

NAS: First, I think New Edition made me want to come out. I seen them and was like, "Phukk them niggas--I want to get on and be a star." I heard Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde talking about "Magic Potion" and said, "That shit is clever." Run-DMC was ill. Shan. Marley Marl used to do jams in the park. And Biz performed; Shante too. We didn't know who the phukk Biz was, and he came out doing the beatbox. It was fat. Marley on the tables, right there. You didn't pay nothing. At the end of it, somebody's ass was out. But that's how it was. It was butter, cuz we all had shows. If you was a little muthaphukka who didn't know shit about rap, but they said there was a show in the park, you were there, so now you gonna know something. The foundation was right there.

RP: Who out there now would you give stats to for being progressive?

NAS: I like just about all of them right now.

RP: Any MC's that you don't like?

NAS: Nah. [He winks at me] I just won't even listen to them. Or my people's won't even play them, so they might as well not even exist to me if they're crazy wack.

RP: You came up to the Stretch Armstrong Show that I host on WKCR and rhymed off the top of your head. You surprised me.

NAS: What I did with y'all was good for me. I haven't done that in a while, but your show is for real. I put mad niggas in my projects up on the show.

RP: It seems like there are a lot of meaningful things that you write about. What is your motivation?

NAS: I write the shit that I'm going through and what I see niggas go through. Just what's in me. It's rap. When you look back in the days when niggas was rhyming, what made them grab the mic and start talking ill shit? Check Wild Style the movie--that's the Bible. They just expressing themselves. Young Africans and Latinos trapped in a cell of hell, screaming and telling somebody, "We still surviving out here and I'm doing my thing and nobody's stopping me, but I'm gonna do it my way." If I'm writing a letter to my man in jail and he's writing me back, and shit is stressing me cuz he's doing hard time and he's mad at the world, and I'm like, "Damn, I wish he was home so we could be chilling," I'm thinking about that, so I might as well put it in a song. Everybody rhymes about smoking weed 24-7, so I'll try to not even phukk with that. But it's in my lyrics cuz it's part of my life, but it's not the focus though. The focus is universal. There are so many things to rhyme about. There's not one particular thing, like it's gotta be guns and shooting niggas and smoking weed. I just rap.

RP: You haven't confined yourself to a gimmick or one theme. Nas is like a whole...

NAS: Life. It's life and death.

RP: Some of your close friends have passed. How do you perceive death and the afterlife?

NAS: X. Unknown. X equals unknown. I can't even build on that, that shit is deep. A nigga been with you all your life, since you was young. I grew up in my man's Will crib. He used to have a big speaker. He'd play records like "White Lines"--that bass line, he'd slow it up and we'd rhyme. He'd cut it up. We used to listen to Awesome Two, Chuck Chillout on 98.7, Mr. Magic on BLS, all the old-school shit. As we heard rappers come out and progress, in our little world we was making tapes for only us to listen to. As years went by, we had like little albums, so we were progressing right along with them. Will was my DJ, but he used to rhyme. He used to do everyone's style you hear now. He used to bug and rhyme like B-Real, start whylin' like Onyx, then slow it up like Rakim. He had crazy styles off the top of his head. I was the one who would sit down and write, so it took me longer to come up with shit, but we were making tapes. You grow up, we slinging, making a little bit of cash, just the average shit. He got locked up, then he came home and then he was blowing up and shit. I had these pictures of how shit would be when he grew up. How shit would fall into place. The cipher is incomplete now, cuz my man is gone. Even though he's under, I'm still standing--that's understanding. Now I go to his crib and his moms is there, and I just feel him. Something that he left there. I look at his clothes, his equipment, his turntables, and I can feel him. So it's still there. I'm gonna represent and keep it real.

RP: Do you subscribe to any religion?

NAS: Nah. It's good to do research and study what the ancient Muslims or the ancient Christians were about and how the religion came about. Even if you're not a Five Percenter, it's good to look at the lessons and see how they tried to educate each other. I studied lessons. I have knowledge of self. I don't have no religion, but I studied my Black African History. I read up on Asian and Oriental spiritual rituals. They all similar. Right here in America, it's all about living and doing the right thing. Do the right thing, and that's righteous right there.

RP: What motivated you to do all that reading? Were you in school, or did someone guide you?

NAS: My man Jah Eddie was crazy smart. Everyone knew him in the projects as being a baby genius. He was doing crazy good in school and he hung out and drank beer and smoked weed. He always had a book on him, and had a bag of fruits to give us. Always came around giving us lectures, and niggas would be like, "Go ahead with the bullshit, Jah." But he was a cool nigga and he understood and we used to laugh. He used to catch me on the solo tip and just drop it on me. Show me a book if I didn't believe his accuracy. He put me onto a few books. At one time, I was getting real Afrocentric, real into self. At that time, I dropped out of school. I wasn't doing shit. I didn't want to be dumb, so [I was like], I'm gonna learn something while these other niggas is whylin'. If I'm not in school, I'm gonna be DL reading shit. Helping out my dome.

RP: You make a lot of references to religious figures. Do you have animosity towards them, or what's your motivation behind that?

NAS: Me and my man Bo-he's locked up right now, one love, kid, if you read this magazine--we used to read books on mysticism, real eerie type of shit. We used to play jokes on niggas when we were little, like put an egg on top of a refrigerator and tell 'em if the egg moves he got to get out the house as soon as possible. Reading up on ill witchcraft shit--it was bugged. We used to scare niggas and tell them fake stories. In junior high school, kids would bang on the lunchroom table and rhyme. When it was our turn, we used to say shit like, "Jesus came/He asked my name/I pulled out some roach spray and a lighter and burst a flame in his face/Then I chopped him in the face" and niggas used to say, "What's wrong with y'all?" We'd tell them we the devils, take our middle finger and chase them. Me and Bo used to write that deep shit, taking it one step further, but not dwelling on it too hard. I didn't feel there was that much wrong with it. I know his name wasn't Jesus Christ. There's more science to it than what we see in the Bible. You gotta do mad research to be accurate, cuz there are lies in books. If you are really praising, you'd find out who he really was and then praise him for what he did. You can't just accept what you hear readily. Before somebody tells me not to talk about Jesus, they should find out who he really was. I know that at times went on, people added little pieces, omitted others to the Bible, so it's not completely accurate. I could say, "I went to hell for snuffing Jesus." Phukk that, what has he done for me? I'm out here in Queensbridge. Jesus ain't coming to Queensbridge. If he is, he's not Jesus Christ, he's something more powerful and much deeper than that. That's all.

RP: Where do you see your future going? Do you want to produce, bring other people out?

NAS: I want to be the first Black President. The President of the world. Somebody's gonna have to take me out. I'm not gonna reveal my secrets. I'm-a just rhyme--be the rapping President. Be up on a chair telling mad poems all day till I get old. Even if I don't have a record deal, and they stop putting records out, and they don't put nothing on the radio and said "Phukk rap" and drop me, I'll still be rhyming. I'll just bring it back to the essence in the parks, where the real niggas survive, and clown that shit where niggas want to be different and talk bullshit when they wouldn't go to the park cuz they scared. I'll be there, 29 years old.

The Source (courtesy of noz)
Issue #55 April 1994 pp. 45, 46, 84
"The Second Coming"
By Jon Shecter
Producers interviewed by Matt Life

In hip-hop, as in life, perfection is hard to come by. When a rapper makes a full-length album, he bares his mind, his soul and his skills for the world to digest. Usually, we hip-hop fans can find parts of that whole that speak to us--a thumping track here, an ill verse there, this or that sequence of cuts. But every so often--and it has become more and more fare as this music develops--unique talent and a powerful creative vision combine to create utter potency.

The term "hip-hop classic" is not one we at The Source take lightly, but Nas is no lightweight. A product of the infamous Queensbridge Housing Projects, this is an MC injecting intelligence, creativity and soul back into hip-hop. Nas captures poetic images so intense they force you to take heed, then once you're in his grasp he takes your mind deep into the essence of surviving, maintaining and dealing with life in a vicious society. His debut album, Illmatic, brings together the cream of the crop In hip-hop production--Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip-for an all-star excursion that lends new meaning to the phrase "looking for the perfect beat."

Nas got his rep with an ill voice and shocking religious imagery: "When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus…I'm waving automatic guns at nuns…" The original idea for his album cover was to depict Nas holding Christ in a headlock. But his talent lies much deeper than mere shock value. Like the legendary Rakim, Nas is a true poet and a true MC. The lyrics themselves are technical masterpieces, full of layered rhythms and meanings, and his delivery is deft, changing cadence and flow like a musical instrument. He has the attention to detail of Slick Rick, the urban realness of Kool G Rap and the vocal presence of Big Daddy Kane. But don't get me wrong, Nas (real name: Nasir, or "helper and protector") is a complete original. With a mere 20 years on this Earth, Nas has already raised the stakes in the hip-hop game, putting New York back on the cutting edge where it belongs. This is the story of the building of a hip-hop classic.

NAS: The first time I heard rap was in my projects. In the park, outside, summertime thing, when I was crazy young. They had them old disco records and shit, cuttin' that shit up. I witnessed all that shit, the beginning, you kno'm sayin'? Mad niggas, Private Stocks, blunts, fights, music. The first time I grabbed the mic was at my man Will's house--bless the dead. He lived right upstairs from me on the sixth floor, I was on the fifth. So I used to go up his crib and shit, in the morning, when his moms go to work. He used to hook his shit up, speakers and shit. We used to rhyme on "White Lines" and that old shit. Then later on, he bought equipment, like turntables, fader, we was makin' tapes like that.

First month of ninth grade, that was my last month. School ain't shit, the teachers is full of shit, the whole system is bullshit, to me. I'm in there riffin' with the teachers, dissin' the teachers. I mean, I wanted to finish school, I didn't want to drop out of school, I wanted to finish school and do something. I was drawin' and shit, I wanted to do that, or write a movie, some ill shit. I used to write all type of shit when I was young, I thought I was blessed. But they crushed that type of shit, they crushed that in my head. I dropped out of school, start to smoke weed, that's what that was all about. I seen the other life, you kno'm sayin'? That's when we used to be runnin' around on the trains, beatin' people up, robbin' niggas and shit, on Queens Plaza, catchin' foreigners, Hindus, take their money. Young shit, wilin', drinkin' Old'Gold, you know? Me, Will, a whole bunch a niggas from my projects. That's when I did all that dumb shit, all them years.

I was just writin' on the down low. I ain't never tell niggas too much about it, 'cause for what? If I wanna rhyme one day, then they'll hear me. I just told my mans, 'cause we had a crew back in like '86, the Devastatin' Seven. They knew I could rhyme, but after them days, when the crew died out, I was just writin' on the dolo tip.

I met Large Professor in '89. And he was doin' shit for Eric B and them niggas, Rakim, G Rap and them. I met him 'cause I wanted to do a demo and shit with my own money. I was like, let me do a demo for myself, not even to shop. I ain't know what shopping was, I just wanted to do a tape for me. My man Melquan hooked me up with Large, and he had managed to get me in Power Play during the time he was workin' down there, in '89.

LARGE PROFESSOR: All along since even before "Live At The BBQ" , I was trying be on Nas' side in this game. You know, I was tryin' to tell him, "Yo, if you want the ill shit, go to these certain people." I was hooking him up with these people so it wouldn't be some formal shit where the record company sets it up.

NAS: That nigga Akinyele was callin' my crib, "Yo, Nas, man, what you doin' man? Let's go, you gotta get your shit on." And me and him used to meet up, and we was goin' all over shoppin' my shit. That's the weakest part, shoppin' your shit, tryin' to find niggas who trust you, believe in you and like your shit. I knew niggas couldn't fuck with me in certain ways, I knew I had the potential to do my thing. But shit wasn't happenin' for me. I was like, kinda givin' up.

We went down there to Serch, when he was in the studio, and he was like, "Get on this joint!" So I kicked a rhyme I had right there, and "Back to The Grill" put a nigga on, gave a nigga a little leeway again. Right there, Serch like, "Who you signed wit'?" I'm like, "Ain't nobody fuckin' wit me, man." So he was like, "Let's do this!"

MC SERCH, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Nas was in a position where his demo had been sittin' around, "Live At The BBQ" was already a classic, and he was just tryin' to find a decent deal. And I think Nas didn't know who to trust, and it seemed that no one was teaching him the ropes. So when he gave me his demo, I shopped it around. I took it to Russell first, Russell said it sounded like G Rap, he wasn't wit' it. So I took it to Faith . Faith loved it, she said she'd been looking for Nas for a year and a half. They wouldn't let me leave the office without a deal on the table.

DJ PREMIER: Everybody that really know hip-hop will always remember that record "Live at The BBQ." Just hearing how his flow was on that record let me know that he was destined to be out here to last for a while. When I heard "Half Time," that was some next shit to me. That's just as classic to me as "Eric B For President" and "The Bridge." It just had that type of effect. As simple as it is, all of the elements are there. So from that point, after Serch approached me about doing some cuts, it was automatic. You'd be stupid to pass that up even if it wasn't payin' no money.

When it comes to beats, Nas is super picky. It's many times when I gave him tracks, and he'd call the next day and say, "Yo, I can't get with that." But it don't bother me 'cause I told him, "I want you to be happy, it's your record." There was many times when he liked a track, and then he was like, "Naa, I want to change it." I'd go back in there and change it, which is what happened to "Represent."

MC SERCH: Nas was very picky--no lie, we went through at least 65, 70 beats on this album to find the ten that made the album. The most enjoyable sessions for me were the Primo sessions. I mean, Primo and Nas, they could have been separated at birth. It wasn't a situation where his beats fit their rhymes, they fit each other.

NAS: Then Large introduced me to Q-Tip, and he played some exotic shit. I was like yeah, he understand where I'm comin' from. I mean, everybody could make a rhyme about bein' a ill nigga with a ill, rough, rugged beat. But I like to take a nigga to another part of this shit, you kno'm sayin'? Get away from all that mass hysteria goin' around in the projects. That's how my music was, that's how the vibe was. When you chillin', not buggin' out like a little wild adolescent. I mean, when you mature over all of this, when you got a little common sense in the game--I try to make songs like that.

Q-TIP: Large Professor told me that Nas had wanted to work with me, so one night he brought Nas and Akinyele by my crib. I played him a couple beats, and he just said, "That's it right there." Later that night, he called and told me the concept for "One Love."

NAS: My man Will was up north--bless the dead. He used to write me, call my crib collect, or I write him. All my peeps got locked up, my brother too. I never got locked up. I was in jail one time, in a cell, a little ass cell, 'cause a dumb ass, stupid punk cop wanna tell me I can't smoke weed in my own projects! My whole projects is on probation, man. And that's all they talk about, is who they seen in there, who they left in there, who they was chillin' with, who they had beef with, who was makin' noise and how they tryin' to survive now that they home.

The Bridge is the biggest projects in the whole country--and that's a fact, you can look it up. Stars is bom out there. We got some NBA players from out there and the whole shit. Queensbridge added a lot to hip-hop--we just put more science into the whole chemistry. Marley Marl was on some ill shit back then. MC Shan, "The Bridge," that's the anthem right there.

So when I was a kid, I just stayed in the projects, that shit is like a city. I ain't never go nowhere. Everybody's mentality revolves around the projects, just trying to survive. Everybody gotta eat, you know what I mean? It's just the attitude out there, it's just life. You can't be no sucker.

L.E.S.: I live in Queensbridge--been around for a long time--used to run with Shan and Marley back in the days. I knew it was just a matter of time before a brother would look out. Being that he had all these big name producers on his album, I felt kinda good that Nas picked me to do something. I was never really presenting shit to Nas though, and he ain't really come to me for a beat. We was just in the crib chillin', playin' shit, you know, going through shit, and he was like, "Yo, that's it." What we was really doing was trying to put something together for an interlude, but Nas was just feeling it. The kid AZ, who's on , was there at the time, so he felt it when Nas felt it, and it was all right on time.

NAS: Large took me down to Pete Rock's basement years ago, back when Pete was DJing on Marley Marl's show. When we went to the studio , he laid the beat down to "The World Is Yours," but he had to break out. And me and my man stayed, I laid one verse down, my man made up the chorus, sung it. Then the next session we had to finish it, Pete Rock came, he checked it out, he was like…he felt that he could sing it better.

DJ PREMIER: After I heard brothers like Q-Tip and Pete Rock's joints, I was like, "Oh shit, I gotta go back to the lab." Them niggas represented with they shit. When we did "Memory Lane" towards the very end, he said he wanted something that was way different from the other stuff they did. Q-Tip's track kinda set a new tone for the album, along with "The World Is Yours" and "Memory Lane." Not anybody could rhyme to that. Most MCs would probably reminisce about situations like he did, but the way he did it is the way the niggas like to hear it, and we the hardest ones to please.

NAS: I knew that I could take this shit right here and put it in niggas' heads and have them listening to me. This is my hustle right now, this rap shit. When I'm bored, stressed out, no money, no bitch, no fuckin' nothing, no friends, I'm by myself, I'm like damn. Or I might be fucked up in the game--my man get killed, or my man get robbed. Now we gotta go over here and do what we gotta do with them. Shit like that gets stressful, and you can blow your whole fuckin' melon thinkin' the shit, buggin' out. You could just go outside and just bust somebody--you know, that's how a lot of shit happens, stressful shit. When I was young, I was writin' rhymes like three songs a day like it wasn't shit. Now I don't hardly write no fuckin' rhymes, shit is different now. When I'm bored, and I'm thinkin' about all the shit that's going on, I get back to my old hobby. I just start writin' things down in a poetic form, you kno'm sayin'? My little talent on the side. My whole thing is this: me gettin' established in this game, and then get my moms right, so then my brother could be all right. I'ma be all right regardless. My pops? That nigga broke out when I was like six. But we always stayed in touch, he a cool nigga. He played the horn on "Life's a Bitch," at the end of that shit he played the trumpet. He played jazz and shit.

FAITH NEWMAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Nas has an old soul, you kinda get the feeling he's been around before in the way he observes life. His mind is always kind of operating at a very mystical level. The people who are the most respected producers in hip-hop have a certain sense of awe when it comes to him. I have never, in all the 15 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.

NAS: This was '92, in May, May 23rd. Outside on my block, on Vernon and shit. We was throwin' a party the next day, and everybody had to give up money to contribute to a party for us. We was gonna bring the speakers out, have a cookout and everything. This dumb bitch was runnin' her mouth and shit, and Will was drunk, so he did whatever, I think he snuffed her or something. And then she wanted to call some niggas on the down low out here and gas them up. Corny niggas, they came out here. Came to my projects and just started wettin'. They seen Will, they was like, "What's up?" They wet Will up, shot him in the back, then they shot my brother in the leg. He layin' down there, dumb-ass police lookin' at him, ain't doin' shit. And then we see an ambulance come, cool, we jump in a cab. We get to the hospital, Astoria General. We get in there and we chillin' like "Yeah, I hope he all right." Then 15 minutes later they just gettin' him in there! So now we dissin' 'em. Then like an hour later they come and tell us he ain't make it. And then them bitch ass niggas got locked up the next day, snitched on each other, scared like bitches. Still, it ain't over until it's over.

Q-TIP: Nas ain't got no gimmick to his style, you gotta sit and decipher what he says. He got a little Old School in him too, but his shit is just raw. Aside from the shit that he writes, his voice is what's so ill about him. His voice is just butter.

NAS: I used to read lessons, Actual facts, Solar facts. I read books on African history. I used to read books on Egyptian times and shit, how they had shit locked down back in the days. And motherfuckers from all over the world was comin' to Egypt to learn, that was college for the world. Back in the breakdancin', Zulu Nation, ballbreakin' days, there was this kid, this God, that was enlightenin' all of us that we was God. So we took heed to him, and then I took it upon myself to seek more knowledge, and that's how I started leamin' lessons and shit like that.

My moms used to make me and my brother go to church, when we was little kids. I used to look at them like jokes, screaming around like fuckin' clowns. I'm like, if you wanna get technical, Mr. Preacher Man, let's go all the way back to the origin of all of that. You gonna sit here and talk about Jesus Christ and do this. We wasn't even up on it until Black people came to America.

MC SERCH: If you trace hip-hop, every three or four years there's a group that breaks the mold. Nas is the new heart of what hardcore hip-hop is going to be about. Besides being the most prolific artist I've ever heard in my life, he is pound for pound, note for note, word for word the best MC I ever heard in my life.

NAS: This feels like a big project that's gonna affect the world, that's what it feels like we're working on. We in here on the down low, confidential, FBI type shit, doing something for the world. That's how it feels, that's what it is. For all the ones that think it's all about some ruff shit, talkin' about guns all the time, but no science behind it, we gonna bring it to them like this. We got some rap for that ass.

Nas: Represent (original beat)
Nas et al: 1993 WKCR Freestyle

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Buggin' Out

Why do you choose to listen to R&B? -- Pharoahe Monch (Stress)

I know I'd be the man if I cold yanked the plug
on R&B, but I can't and that's bugged
-- Q-Tip (Buggin' Out)

Never mind the fact that both Q-Tip and Pharoahe Monch nearly sing as much as they do rap now, their point is still felt. An unnecessary and distracting nuisance, R&B is the Scrappy Doo of the game. And while the worlds of the singer and rapper have been star-crossed ever since the days of Melle Mel and Chaka Khan and Rakim and Jody Watley, with a crooned hook and a marketing scheme being built into every rapper's next song, the boom bap's been virtually cut off at the balls by a menace named melisma. Now I'm not saying you have to separate the two sides and keep them apart forever, but the inbreeding needn't be a fulltime commitment. The formula shouldn't read "featuring Ne-Yo." Remember, a falsetto isn't the fifth element. Moreover, rappers and record companies, please resist to urge to sign over a cliché sixteen to any R&B act that hits you up. And later, if their song really needs a remix that bad, at least come correct when the check is cashed.

While the R&B album feature can be ugly, the infamous R&B remix is much worse to me. For starters, 90% of these tracks that call themselves remixes, with the same beat and just an added verse, really aren't much more than blends. Secondly, while I'm sure non-remix collaborations are not without their commercial intentions, the motives behind these blends are ever more blatant and desperate. However, those first two points are really secondary when it comes time to measure the track's overall worth: Is it dope? And with that as the standard, many times the R&B remix can't muster a passing grade. For example, just look at some of the names from Nas' own outreach program: 3LW, Brandy, Jagged Edge, Jennifer Lopez. The only hood they've ever got play in came with a Hello Kitty design on the front. And were you really fiending for a Bobby Valentino collabo? And so on. But Nas has a couple good ones too--well, some notable ones--okay, a few that aren't bad. In the following five examples, the singing is more or less negligible, but the raps may at least conjure some interest.

Ashanti, Ja Rule, Nas: The Pledge (remix)
Yes, The Pledge remix was a bad look for Nas in a couple ways: 1) Ashanti singing "murder" in the background, with Ja Rule riding shotgun. 2) The graverobbing 2Pac thing after telling Jay-Z to let another "late great veteran live." 3) Partnering with Murder Inc., even if the partnership did fall through eventually, business-wise seemed like a step backwards for Nas (and if you want to throw in that Murder Inc. financer, Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, allegedly ordered the murder of Nas' long-time friend, E Money Bags, there's that too). However, staying strictly on paper, Nas' verse, riding triumphant following his battle with Jay, produces an interesting, swagger-happy lyrical appearance, "ask another rapper how it feels to lose his whole gangsta."

Kelis f/ Nas: Popular Thug (remix)
Replacing Pusha T, Popular Thug's original popular thug, Nas gets three verses with his now-wife no less. While this might have simply come off as a predictable A&R move, the perfect trap for some trite Bonnie & Clyde content, the energy alone that the beat provides should knock off all cynics. Plus, Nas starts the song with a crafty double-internal-rhyme combination, something not many of these remixes can offer, "ladies love what I been through / blood on my Tim boots / snub noses, club closes / down when my men shoot."

Lyfe Jennings f/ Nas: Must Be Nice (remix)
Nas hit the remix circuit a couple times last year, the one notable R&B connection being on Lyfe Jennings' minor hit, Must Be Nice. Nas' "thug love letter" is outlined in two verses, the first beginning with a mixed metaphor concerning mixed drinks, "written in mimosas for ink / pen wobbles on paper - Hypnotiq, I'm chaser." Led by Jennings, whose tempered production adds a hint of honesty to the happenings, Must Be Nice is an ode to the break after the day's hustle and the woman who centers all of that day's extremes.

Mariah Carey f/ Joe, Nas: Make It Last (remix)
A chart topping go, Make It Last scores points for being a remix in more than merely name (although, conversely, it stars not one but two singers). As Nas addresses his girl, in that oh-so clever rapper way, it's another chance to brag about what he has, "you taste like banana cake / you shaped like the number '8'." While the lyrics are manageable, Nas' confident but casual delivery is the real highlight. Recall the video for the song, where a laidback Nas sat in a club's back booth, with drinks in front of him, and a likewise lounging friend (DJ Clue) to his side. His voice here reflects that level of comfort, and the song keys into this tone appropriately. But Mariah's always done these collaborations better than most.

Ms. Dynamite f/ Nas: Dy-Na-Mi-Tee (remix)
Here's the real gem of the bunch. Because their LP collaboration Afraid 2 Fly fell through and never found any official pressing, Nas and Ms. Dynamite made sure their work on the Dy-Na-Mi-Tee remix came together. The track captures the sound of summer, in the old school block party sense, with Britain's own b-girl leading the way. And by the time Nas' verbal twists hit the speakers, there's more than enough momentum to ride, "since I came in the game / I started putting faces with names." Perhaps this remix's greatest strength is that it's not about love or male-female relationships. It's just about being fresh, something R&B hasn't been in a while.

Ashanti, Ja Rule, Nas: The Pledge (remix)
Kelis f/ Nas: Popular Thug (remix)
Lyfe Jennings f/ Nas: Must Be Nice (remix)
Mariah Carey f/ Joe, Nas: Make It Last (remix)
Ms. Dynamite f/ Nas: Dy-Na-Mi-Tee (remix)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Vinyl Reanimators

When Nas linked up with Kool G Rap for 1995's Fast Life, it should have stopped the world. There was the Golden Child in the midst of his smoothest stride doing a track with the man who, after Schooly D laid the foundation, had perfected the street epic and developed the mold of the East Coast gangsta rapper. However, the beat that carried them both wasn't nearly as hard as could be hoped for. Instead, it turned out more bubbly than bubbling and was further assaulted by an embarrassment of singing. For fans who had awaited a meeting of one of the greatest with one of the grittiest up-and-comers, the sound was all backwards. Enter the remix. Although Salaam Remi's Norfside mix eventually received the official label go-ahead, the remix done by the Vinyl Reanimators couldn't be so easily brushed aside. Replacing a light touch with a menacing grip, the Boston-based production crew added in scratching and the raw energy that the original had been missing. More than ten years later, while the OG production continues to sound outdated, the VR remix holds up still. Recently, I had the opportunity to kick a couple questions back and forth with DJ Shame, of the aforementioned Vinyl Reanimators, to ask about the Fast Life situation and more.


RTA: You hail from the Boston area originally. In the early days of Hip-Hop, how did the music trickle down from New York?

DJS: For me, it was at the local roller rink, and then I started searching the radio, as well as record stores. First rap record I heard was Rapper's Delight at the roller rink. I was immediately hooked! Then, when I heard Adventures on the Wheels of Steel by Grand Master Flash, I knew that I wanted to be a DJ.

RTA: You remember the first equipment you ever used?

DJS: Yeah. It was a pair of Technics slq200x, I believe, and a 2 channel Numark mixer. About 6 months later, I had to upgrade to SL1200 MK2's, and I still rock the same pair! The mixers have changed though, and couple more Numark's, Realistic, the good old Gemini 2200's, finally ending with the Rane mixer (for the last 6 yrs or so). The first sampler I had was a Numark 8 sec sampler, I got that in like '88. Then I got the MPC 60II in '90. I use a bunch of old analog synths as well.

RTA: Speaking of first times, your first time on wax was with the remix to Tim Dog's Bronx Nigga, how did that come about?

DJS: In 1990, I was spinning on college radio in Boston. Ruffhose Columbia was having a contest for the best radio remix of Tim Dog's Bronx Nigga, so I sent one in. I won first place, and the prize was a Numark dual CD player, as well as getting the remix pressed on vinyl. It was definitely a good feeling having your name on wax for the first time.

RTA: Beyond getting your name out that way, you also made some noise with Traveling Through Sample Land, a mixtape often credited as being one of, if not the first, tapes to unlock some of the sample secrets of Golden Age classics. What was the inspiration behind this tape?

DJS: I used to spin a segment on my radio show once in a while where I'd flip through a bunch of originals that had been sampled. I figured it would be nice to have a full 90 minute tape flipping through all originals, so one day I pulled out mad records to use and hit the record button.

RTA: You ever feel like you were breeching any DJ ethics by revealing these "secrets"?

DJS: Nah, I never felt like that because I didn't reveal any info, except maybe for friends that were also into the same thing.

RTA: Why wait almost a decade to release a sequel?

DJS: Well, in '98, I did half of a 90 min tape, and Sean C was supposed to do the other side, but obviously that never happened. Just after that I started going through a custody battle for my daughter which lasted for a number of years. I didn't really do much music during that time.

RTA: Since the first installment, digging has changed. With the internet, instead of making that ceremonial trip to the record store, samples can be found in just the time it takes to download. You think this has taken the luster away from what once used to be an almost rite of passage for many Hip-Hop heads?

DJS: I have mixed feelings on the whole internet thing. Before all that, you had to do your own research, digging through all the record spots you could find and maybe trading info with friends who did the same. There were always joints that you told nobody about because you used or were planning on using a sample from it. It was all about paying your dues. A lot of that element has been lost with the internet. It's funny to me that there are now cats that are considered "internet diggers." That's definitely not Hip-Hop, but I must admit that it's nice to find certain info once in a while by pressing a few keys.

RTA: What were the origins of the Vinyl Reanimators?

DJS: I first met Joe in '90 through EdO G & the Bulldogs. Joe produced all but one or two tracks of Ed's first LP. I met Sean the following year at my boy Jamieson Grillo's crib in NY. We were both staying there during the CMJ Convention.

RTA: How did the three of you work together?

DJS: Most of the time we each did beats by ourselves at our own spots. Once in a while, we'd work together on something, putting samples together, or maybe drums or something like that.

RTA: The first VR-produced record was Scientifik's Jungles of Da East, correct? Any different feeling when you had done the first time thing solo with the Tim Dog remix previously?

DJS: Yeah, that was the first. That was a track that Scientifik was feeling as soon as I played it for him. It was cool, but the first is always the best, right?

RTA: The Fast Life remix? First, the OG version is all glossed up. Then you added scratching and flipped the whole entire vibe. It sounds paranoid, more thoughtful. For your remixes, is that move so conscious? Like, "let's do the complete opposite"?

DJS: For me, at that time, when Nas had killed the streets with Illmatic, to be on a track with motherfucking G RAP and be rhyming over Happy by Surface just wasn't doing it! Don't get me wrong, I love the track Happy, but these were two of the most respected MC's on a street level, and it completely lacked the element of raw Hip-Hop. I had already done that track and the acapella fit it perfectly, so I added some cuts to fit the track as well.

RTA: What was the campaign like to get Epic to accept your remix?

DJS: We figured we'd blow the remix up on radio which would hopefully force the label to pick it up. We also went through a couple cats we knew that worked at the label as well . . . but nope.

RTA: On your myspace page, you mention an "idiot A&R" being the downfall of your record. Is this indicative of your usual experiences with A&Rs?

DJS: My personal experience at the time was that A&R people I had met didn't really know Hip-Hop or what they were doing. And I remember thinking, "what idiot put them in that position?!" I don't think we found out until we got the remix in the mail.

RTA: How much of a missed opportunity did it feel like?

DJS: It was unfortunate, I guess . . but oh well. I also had a chance of doing work with Nas prior to that while he was still on Ruffhouse, but he switched to straight Columbia.

RTA: What did you think of Remi's remix?

DJS: It was alright, but I don't think it compared to the remix I did. And it didn't make nearly as much noise either.

RTA: You've done official remixes, but then also, like with the Fast Life situation, had to resort to white labels. Can you talk about the importance of that avenue for your music?

DJS: It was just a way of putting out stuff without having to deal with some of the record company morons. We tried dealing with a bunch of A&R people but found that most didn't know what time it was.

RTA: Beyond remixes, such as with Scientifik, you've produced a joint from the ground up essentially. And then with L the Head Toucha, later on, you did two songs. How is the process of supplying the original beat for a rapper to go over different than it is to come in afterwards for the remix?

DJS: It depends. With Scientifik, he found a beat of mine that he liked and also sounded good over it. With L, I put together tracks that I knew would fit him perfectly. When doing a remix, I like to find something that will fit the artist and the track as well. So I guess I treat remixes and regular tracks almost the same way.

RTA: More Vinyl Renanimators regular tracks came in the form of EdO G's slept-on EP Dedicated, whose entire production was credited to VR.

DJS: To be honest, all I did on that project was the cuts on Acting. That was all produced by Joe, and I think Sean C did one track. That was right about the time that I started to step back from the music stuff. If it is slept on, I'd have to guess that would be due to a relatively low number of pressing, because I actually liked most of the tracks.

RTA: How beneficial is it in the crafting of an overall sound to have a single production core behind a rapper's tracks?

DJS: You have an LP like It Takes A Nation Of Millions by PE that was produced entirely by the Bomb Squad, and you have an LP like Illmatic by Nas that was produced by a bunch of different cats. Both LP's were incredible in my opinion. A good producer/artist relationship will result in quality. Like I said, Joe did almost all of the tracks on the EP, so it more or less reflected Joe's flavor at that time. Joe basically did ED's 1st LP (except for 1 or 2 tracks) and about half of the 2nd LP. I think they worked well together and came up with some great tracks.

RTA: Around this time, as you mentioned, you started having some family issues that took you away from New York and the music for a while. How did this effect your focus on music?

DJS: I wasn't focusing on music anymore. Things were just too stressful to be able to focus and be creative with the music. I only did a couple things for Raptivism Records during that time.

RTA: Now more recently you've worked with rock musicians. Does this reflect a change in your personal preference of musical genres?

DJS: Not at all. I've always been into all types of music. Working with bands was something I hadn't done, so I figured it would be cool to explore that avenue.

RTA: But has modern rap music lost any of its appeal to you? Has the remix "died"?

DJS: I don't really listen to modern rap music. Modern rap music is complete garbage except for a few artists here and there that still put out quality Hip-Hop. I don't think that the remix has died, but rap music, on a whole, . . . definitely has.

RTA: However, sticking to your DJ roots, you're still pushing music out there, on XM radio. What is the world of satellite radio like?

DJS: It's really dope to be heard throughout the entire U.S., as well as Canada, compared to when I did college radio, which had about a 10 mile radius. It's also cool on XM that there is no censorship at all, and we don't have to do station drops or any commercials. Most regular radio is worthless, as far as I'm concerned, because of the crap they play.

RTA: What's the name of your show?

DJS: The station is XM 65 "The Rhyme." My show is titled "Vinyl Reanimations."

RTA: Your mission statement?

DJS: I don't really have any particular agenda or mission. I just like being able to share all this music I have with so many listeners. A lot of the time I like to dig out stuff that never really got much airplay but was still top quality.

Rebel To America: DJ Shame collection
Includes: EdO G - Acting; Kool G Rap f/ Nas - Fast Life (Vinyl Reanimators remix); L the Head Toucha - It's Your Life; L the Head Toucha - Too Complex; Scientifik - Jungles Of Da East; Tim Dog - Bronx Nigga (DJ Shame remix).

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Missing Features

We all know that Nas has plenty of Lost Tapes. And we also know that sometimes he'll do a guest verse and pass on his destined-to-be-unreleased curse to the tracks he's merely featured on. Then there are the instances when what goes down falls in between either scenario: songs recorded with Nas but released without him. Two of the best examples of this type involve dudes from Nas' own backyard of Queens.

1995's On The Real, produced by Marley Marl, featured Nas' vocals first and then those of KL and Solo, aka Kamakazee. The story goes that Nas is chilling at Marley Marl's place, hears the beat, spits his verse over said beat, and then Kamakazee joins the ranks, with it set to be their song. It gets the B-side treatment and mixtape love, but Nas gets cold feet, backs out, and has his vocals taken out. (A Tribute To Ignorance has a great Blaq Poet interview saying this much.) While there is speculation that Nas did a 180 over some cash, what is certain is that when the Y2K album eventually hit stores, Cormega and Havoc wound up as replacements on the then-released On The Real. (Later, in 2004, as a solo track, Nas recorded a slightly updated version of his first verse, accompanied by two new ones, for the 10th Anniversary Illmatic bonus CD.)

The story behind the Buckwild-produced Holler Back ("Holla Back") I'm less certain about. The version of the song that showed up for sale on Kool G Rap's The Giancana Story was credited to G Rap, of course, then AZ and Nawz, who are both listed on the copy I have, and, finally, Tito, the apparent newcomer of the bunch. As to why Nas was removed, while it could have come down to money once more, the fact that Giancana Story had been heavily bootlegged months before it ever neared release likely also added to its biggest guest star exiting stage left. Lost for good, what maybe is most disappointing is that this particular verse showcases one of Nas' most memorable closing lines:

I opened up Shakespeare's tomb, stole his remains
And grinded his bones, then smoked it and got in the game
Kamakazee f/ Cormega, Nas: On The Real
Kool G Rap f/ AZ, Nas, Nawz: Holler Back
BONUS: Nas: On The Real

Monday, July 17, 2006

Babies Being Born

I don't remember being born--makes sense, I was like ten seconds old. And unless you have really amazing recall, chances are you too don't remember your own birth. However, let this not stop the artist, for he creates, envisions, and writes, and then writes about the time he was created and first gained vision. Several of these creative types have indeed turned their pen to poeticizing first-person narratives of the journey from feels to fetus to fruition. While there have been notable contributions to this form within rap music, one of the earliest such musical creations came from outside the genre.

Recorded in the final months of his 27-years but released posthumously, Belly Button Window is Jimi Hendrix's take on the beginning of life. Though a demo, however unfinished the song may be, a couple important characteristics are established that will be carried over in later attempts on the same subject: 1) It's told in the first-person 2) Jimi starts the story before any delivery room, actually narrating from the early stages of the womb 3) A level of personal trepidation is present, for instance, regarding if his parents really plan to keep him or not. However, the Hendrix approach to music and lyricism, a Voodoo Chile laidback groove and a mystic meets blues quality, are all his own. Hip-Hop would bring a different edge to the concept.

Aside from Rakim's brief description on In The Ghetto of coming from "cream with no physical form", the first major foray into the birth song for the boom bappers was Ice Cube's The Product. From his Kill At Will EP, Cube uses the idea of "the product" to trace his life from inception, as a product of a man and a woman, to incarceration, a product of a failing school system, quick fixes, and low self-worth. Specifically focusing in on his opening verse, we get the same first-person layout as Belly Button Window, but, unlike with that track, Cube rewinds past the womb stage to when "the nut came gushing." Also, his trepidation is not exactly the anxiety of "will they or won't they keep me", because birth is never really questioned; in fact, it's like the whole entire story is predestined, hospital room to prison cell, the inevitable. Then, contrasting greatly with the almost reclined feel conjured by Hendrix, Cube delivers the details with his trademark raw intensity. This isn't a gentle birth.

Next came Organized Konfusion's In Vitro, where a jazzy but solemn sound fittingly introduces Pharoahe Monch's verse. Appearing on OK's Equinox LP, 1997, Pharoahe's turn, like Cube above him, hits on this idea of a baby being born as more curse than miracle. With his mother stuck on toxins and TV, and his father only referenced in passing as being there for conception, birth becomes a swollen belly and a splintered boy, "two and a half weeks old, already thoughts of stabbing men." And, in a passage of especially brutal imagery, Pharoahe even contemplates turning his umbilical cord into a final noose. Later, Prince Poetry's verse deviates some from the established form. It's the second half of his partner's story, though not explicitly about a particular pregnancy. He still however reinforces the idea that drugs and deception can be as much a birthmark as any other blemish a baby receives, but urges that, through religious faith, a way out, a rebirth, is possible.

Carrying the torch for Queens MC's, Nas actually did two takes on the baby being born song, the first as Belly Button Window, a scrap from the lost I Am 2xLP. Immediately, this name should call into mind the wonderfully descriptive title first introduced by Hendrix, as does the acoustic guitar that features heavily. An opening bubbling sound effect then sets a delicate but spacey, almost ethereal, tone. The major lyrical difference between Nas' two versions, the latter redone as Fetus on 2002's The Lost Tapes, is found in the first verse. Here Nas further illustrates Hendrix's influences with references to a "Spirit Land" or "Spirit Town", the imagined point before human shape materializes. Several more nods to Hendrix are made throughout: 1) Both describe "frowns" sensed on the face of parents caught in the midst of an important decision, suggesting to the unborn that they may not be wanted around any longer 2) The use of the phrase, or a variant thereof, "coming down the chute again" 3) Jimi sings, "if you don't want me now, give or take, you only got 200 days", while Nas raps, "you got a 120 days, do what ya want." But this is not to suggest that Nas is merely piggybacking off a three-decade-old idea. Instead, a highly poetic use of rhyme and a detailed, almost month-by-month look at the process show Nas expanding the concept into his own.

With the first verse on Belly Button Widow being changed for 2002's Fetus, most of the major references to Hendrix were also removed. In addition, this change turned what was merely a creative exercise into a subtle but appropriate tribute to Nas' then-recently deceased mother, Ann Jones, "I'm not worthy to come from a women so pure, Ann Jones / flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood, her blood and bones." People say that the relationship a mother shares with her son, especially her first-born, is unlike any bond two other people can know. Likewise, the connection felt by that first-born to his mother, when he was raised primarily by her, when they had outlasted the projects together, when she was there to watch him become a father and her a grandmother, when he stayed bedside to try and make her forget about the tubes and treatment her cancer required, and himself forget too, cannot be stressed enough. He literally etched out his very existence from her body and spirit, and as the cancer grew deeper, like the change in his music, you sense a change in Nas' own figure begin to emerge. While both versions are worthy candidates by themselves, in this context, as a remembrance of his mother, and with the emotional resonance Nas fosters, while avoiding much of the melodrama that would besiege God's Son, Fetus proves the most effective.

Finally, RZA's See The Joy is yet again another song in this conceptual tradition. Released a year after The Lost Tapes, See The Joy is the closing track to 2003's Birth of a Prince. With RZA setting aside his digi production and persona for a second, the keys and manipulated sample he utilizes create an atmosphere that is instantly part soul, part melancholy. That melancholy is derived from the narration of a journey to birth, the unlikely struggle of a sperm cell. While someone like Ice Cube focused most of his drama taking place after conception, RZA switches it up; for him, the real distress begins much earlier, where, since fertilization only requires a single sperm cell, for the remaining millions, "the womb is a grave yard."

Nas: Belly Button Window
Nas: Fetus (The Lost Tapes)
BONUS: Ice Cube: The Product
BONUS: Jimi Hendrix: Belly Button Window
BONUS: Organized Konfusion: In Vitro
BONUS: RZA: See The Joy

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Roundup PT IV

Back for more Nas-related news:

  • The most recent issue of The Source features a number of lists attempting to detail, year by year, the times of various Hip-Hop acts' reigns or high points of "influence." Nas makes five appearances: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002. However, like all things from The Source, there's a lot to question. Nas being ranked over Biggie in 1994, and Jay being three slots over Nas in 1996, for example, are both suspect.
  • Nas is scheduled to appear on Puff Daddy's upcoming Press Play album. This will mark the second time Nas has been on a Sean Combs LP, after 1999's Journey Through The Life.
  • Ice Cube was maybe the MC whose style and anger mostly clearly represented the cool but bitter edge of Miles Davis, but as far as a single rap artist who has evolved a defining sound over the years, like Miles' trek through many distinct artistic periods, Nas perhaps comes closest. Appropriately enough, Nas will be bringing his lyrics to a "remix" of old Miles Davis recordings for a project to be known as "Evolution of the Groove."
  • In today's episode of reading too much into another dude's wardrobe, Nas showed up to the 2006 BET Awards sporting an interesting fashion accessory. Yes, dookie chains are back! With this picture and the Kane linx of '88 in mind, maybe Nas is not saying so much that Hip-Hop Is Dead, but rather Hip-Hop Is In A Coma And Doctors Say It Needs To Hear A Familiar Voice To Snap It Out Of Its Vegetative State, As Would Be Accomplished, In A Manner Of Speaking, By Wearing Old-School Gold Ropes To The 2006 BET Awards. Kind of a wordy title, I know.
  • XXL magazine spread: Nas Is Coming. Stu, get on the symbolism ASAP.
  • An Internet guy named True asked an Internet guy / rapper / record company president named Jay-Z if Jay will indeed be on Nas' next album: "Absolutely."
  • Speaking of Def Jam, MF Doom, who was last involved with the label for Ghostface's Fishscale, will be returning, reportedly, to work with Nas. The two have most commonly been linked through the Nastradoomus project, a collection of Nastradamus acapellas fit over Doom beats. This project however was put together by one Mr. Max Bedroom. As far as I know, Doom's only direct relationship with Nas' music came thanks to a Special Blends remix of One Love, where he replaced Q-Tip's paranoid xylophone with an after hours jazz club saxophone.
  • Strengthening the promise of at least one Kanye beat on HHIIACADSINTHAFVTSIOOIVSAWBAIAMOSBWOSGRTT2006BETA, last month, Nas was on stage for a special benefit concert that the Chicago MC / producer headlined. Aside from the unaccredited Poppa Was A Player beat, Nas and Kanye, as I'm sure we all know, linked up for last year's We Major, a track whose beat, coincidentally, may owe a little to the aforementioned MF Doom.
  • The man who made Nas a name, Large Professor, recently released a series of instrumental tracks on a compilation entitled Beatz Vol. 1. Check 'em out now and try to decide what MC should get his pick of the bunch, if any. Nas? Whomever, I just hope someone real nice scoops up Out All Night. Also, here's a quick interview with Large Pro talking specifically about Out All Night and then why NY is failing, "New York is not standing up for what it invented."
  • Every now and again I like to see what the status is of Nas long-delayed book, Slave to a Page. This release has been pending for at least a couple years now, and, despite its current August 30th due date, will likely never materialize on a clearance rack near you. However, what may be most odd is that Amazon lists it at 224 pages. If it's never even apparently been close to hitting bookstores, how do they know how long it will be? Hmm . . . Regan Books, get at me.
  • Finally, yours truly wrote a guest blog entry earlier this week, "Keystrokes & Kangols: 10 Tips For The Internet Hip-Hop Head." Oh Word.
Nas: One Love (MF Doom remix)
BONUS: Kanye f/ Nas, Really Doe: We Major
BONUS: Large Professor: Out All Night
BONUS: Puff Daddy f/ Beanie Siegel, Nas: Journey Through The Life

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Best of '05

The following Rolling Stone article has every Internet head this side of a right click exclaiming, "the sky is falling." "Nas is going pop!" "Watch it be his worst album!" "Oh no, gee willikers!" But is it really that serious?

"For his eighth studio album, Queensbridge MC Nas is taking it to the clubs, 'I want it to be bangin',' he says.''And if you want it bangin', you call the dudes with the bangers.' In this case, the dudes are Timbaland, Pharrell, Scott Storch and Dr. Dre and hip-hop's newest 'it' producer of the Black Eyed Peas. 'This one is gonna broaden my audience back up to where it needs to be,' says Nas. It doesn't hurt that he's got rap's reigning king, Jay-Z, behind him; the former foes buried the hatchet, and Hova signed Nas to Def Jam in January. Hard drums and crowd chants rule the title track. On 'War,' a song about the politics of warfare, Nas trades verses with Damian Marley. 'It has the head nod and that rocka bump,' says Nas' co-manager Mark Pitts, who also confirms that Nas has been in touch with Michael Jackson in hopes of recording with him. 'It's gonna show Nas' potential to cross over from hip-hop to pop', says Pitts."

Nas' two best verses from 2005 may be able to shed light on where he'll be going with 2006's so-called Hip-Hop Is Dead.

Bossed Up In Control, from the Dirty Harry mixtape Living Legends, features Nas over Young Jeezy's Soul Survior beat. With Jeezy and Nas now being labelmates at Def Jam, while I do not anticipate any collabos between the two, one has to imagine that Nas will be privy to many of the same producers and beat tapes that his co-worker is, and will be aimed at a similar sound. That sound here allows for the type of bounce that many of the QB rapper's detractors have been asking for as of late, and Nas owns every second of it. With old-school swagger on board, he snipes critics and touts icon status effortlessly. It's brag-heavy, even funny, and, most importantly, well-rhymed. In this way, Bossed Up can be seen as an early version of last month's Where Y'All At.

[Bossed Up]
Riding in my city on haze / eyes on a million and one ways to get paid / and my goose is cooked / rocking gear that some boosters took / either mass market or Target / I maneuver the look / from soul food to Nobu / I'm schooling the cooks / studio old school or pro tools / nigga, I'm O'Douls / that means no booze / I only gets greens / I got a inf beam that lay on the fifth lean / that spray up your click, team / indigenous but frivolous / different whips riding sideways / Nas pay attention to the littlest shit? / mentioned by / itty-bitty rappers with their chitty-chatter / encircle their soul / purple, I smoke O's / perverse verses poke holes / nigga, I birth flows / tatted, fitted hat / savage, y'all aggie / line us up, ask me who fathered their style / I say, "I the pappy" / high in the backseat, flat feet / passerby's think I'm an athlete / Chris Childs or the rapper Lil Scrappy / so I sign their names, just as happy / diamond chain, wrist is flashy / times change, but this nigga's still nasty

Although it's weird that Nas would choose to make songs on consecutive albums both named "War", as reported by Rolling Stone, the inclusion of Damian Marley is rather obvious. The chemistry the two shared on Road To Zion, from Marley's 2005 LP, and what that song brought out of Nas, is undeniable. Zion's medium range beat and dark ambience provides the percise mood Nas was built to write for. Where cops become simply badges and prostitutes become almost militant in their description, Nas hits just the right note of eerie, hopeless, and equally defiant. His verse is political but not a pitch, looking to describe the streets rather than simply indoctrinate them. And if the combo can do it again, even half as good, I'm all for it.

[Road To Zion]
Sometimes I can't help but feel helpless / I'm having daymares in daytime / wide awake, try to relate / this can't be happening / like I'm in a dream while I'm walking / 'cause what I'm seeing is haunting / human beings like ghost and zombies / President Mugabe holding guns to innocent bodies / in Zimbabwe / they make John Pope seem godly / sacrilegious and blasphemous / in my lifetime, I look back at paths I walked / where savages fought and pastors taught / prostitutes stomp in high heel boots / and badges scream at young black children / "stop or I will shoot" / I look back at cooked crack / plush cars that passed by / Jaguars mad fly / and I'm guilty for materialism / blacks are still up in the prison / trust that / so save me your "sorry"s / I'm raising an army / Revolutionary Warfare with Damian Marley / we sparking the irons / marching to Zion / you know how Nas be / NYC state of mind I'm in

Honestly, if Timbaland and Scott Storch come along, based upon Nas' past work with the former and the latter's recent output, I'd be cynical too. If a or a Pharrell are featured more heavily than a DJ Premier or a Large Professor, based upon common sense, I'd also be doubtful. However, I'm not ready to give up hope merely based on a couple surely-out-of-context quotes and a hypothetical producer line-up. What's more, now that Nas is involved with a label that knows his background, legacy, and genre more than Columbia ever seemed to, I'm holding hard on to something resembling faith right now. I'm not going to say this is album will save New York, change Hip-Hop, surpass Illmatic, do headstands in rush hour traffic, or anything of the sort, but I hope it will turn out well, that's all. That's my simple request--it doesn't need to move millions, get 5 Mics, or be heralded a classic. Just make it be quality, and I'll make sure I'm there. Anyway, could dude possibly put out an album worse than Nastradamus? Gee willikers!

Nas: Bossed Up In Control
Damian Marley f/ Nas: Road to Zion

Monday, July 10, 2006

Deep Covers

Ever heard the rumor that Nas was supposed to have purchased a beat from The Neptunes for a cool two million? Ever come across an interpretation of the Nashawn (featuring Nas) song Level 7 rooted in the philosophy of Theosophy? Ever read a Nas verse or two allegedly from a just-leaked first single? Well, if any of those sound familiar, you've already been exposed to the work of the one who calls himself Stu -- Top Dude. Stu recently contacted me for a chance to drop a couple theories on the truths behind Nas' album covers. While some of these may have you saying, "dude is reaching", at the very least they represent a creative analytical exercise, the type of which you seldom see. At best, they may reveal a meaning or message in the covers that you might not have otherwise come across.

We all know the "boy" to "man" to "king" to "prophet" progression that runs parallel with Nas' first four albums, i.e. Illmatic to It Was Written to I Am to Nastradamus. Showing Nas growing as a man and as an artist, his first four albums, and the covers that accompany them, are rather basic in design: 1) Building 4013 in the QB projects, a young poet cut against the backdrop of his Queens borough 2) The project mentality still there, but now grown, a chain and watch examples of the floss the Escobar lifestyle would require 3) Queens still popping up in the back, but mostly pushed aside in favor of the egocentric and gaudy Egyptian pharaoh artwork, Nas the king of a post-BIG NYC. 4) Finally, the so-called prophet of Nastradamus, a harbinger of what would be to come.

The cover of Nastradamus sets up the cover of Stillmatic in an interesting way. It's Nas' fourth album, and he's prophesizing. He's not saying, "this is the end result, this is the top." He's saying, "there's more to come, a turbulent future lies ahead." Stillmatic would be that album, immersed in conflict, political in its post-9/11 commentary, political in the world of Hip-Hop with the Jay-Z, Cormega, Nature, Prodigy beefs, and personal with the split from his baby's mother. Hinting at it on Come Get Me, one can assume that during the time of Nastradamus, Nas knew his running feud with Jay-Z would one day become public. Then, with QB rappers often at odds with each other, he probably also saw where his hood was heading and knew Destroy & Rebuild was imminent. The last line of the Nastradamus LP, from poet Jessica Care Moore's piece The Outcome, "despite the damage to destiny you can't take the best of me - In God we still trust", thematically sets off Nas' next albums. The "damage to destiny" occurs in Stillmatic, and the promise of "In God we still trust" can be found in the spirituality Nas embraces with God's Son.

Simply put, the cover of Stillmatic showcases the downfall of man. It references Nas' artistic downfall, personal trepidations, and the injury done to man in the greater world. It's 9/11, hyper urbanization, crime, racism, poverty, drugs, death, and the rap game Nas plans to destroy and rebuild, "hate to cease y'all plan - it's the rap repo man."

In an interview around the time of Stillmatic's release, Nas reported that for the cover shot he wore just about every piece of jewelry he owned. We see his QB medallion, a host of platinum necklaces, some diamond rings, and an iced out watch. This is the folly of Nas (his Escobar flossing days), the excess of the rap game (The Big Willy / Jiggy / Bling era) and, more metaphorically, the indulgence of a capitalistic American society (think the inflated economy of the late 90s). The garish orange jump suit Nas wears is intentionally loud. The visually offensive display is a purposeful act of irony.

Behind all that platinum, the dark, lightning scorched skies above the NYC skyline represent the apocalyptic world prophesized on Nastradamus. The omission of the twin towers in the skyline is a direct reference to 9/11. The water is very important as well, but I'll get to that in a minute . . .

One of the most interesting aspects of this scene is the pigeon, the ghetto dove, the only presence on the same perspective level with Nas. This is where it gets biblical. (The link to the Judeo-Christian religion is established with the silver cross that hangs conspicuously below the rest of Nas' jewelry.) Taken as a whole, the entire album cover is an allusion to the Old Testament story of Noah. Y'all know it, but, if you don't, here's a recap. In ancient times, mankind had become very wicked. Murder and rape abounded, immorality everywhere. In response, God punished the wicked of the world with a flood. The Stillmatic cover is that moment before the flood. Nas is at once Noah and God, poised for what's ahead and ready to see it through. Stillmatic is Nas' ark, and just as Noah brought himself, his family, and two of every animal to repopulate the world, the 2001 LP, with his little girl even credited as executive producer, was Nas' vessel to carry his own musical family (Large Professor, DJ Premier, LES, The Trackmasters, AZ, QB associates) on to repopulate the rap world after it had been destroyed.

Back to the pigeon. In the Bible, Noah sent out a dove everyday during the flood. The dove would continually return with an empty beak, representing that there was no land and that God's punishment was still in effect. The pigeon stands as Nas' dove ready to be sent out pending the coming storm. Notice those rain clouds overhead are holding a lot of water, the lightning carries the promise of a storm.

Fast forward to 2002. In contrast to the chaotic front of Stillmatic, we have a tranquil, minimalist cover for God's Son. Nas is surrounded by water. The sky and water are both dark blue, hinting at a departing storm. The world has been flooded. The storm hit during Stillmatic, and the water that loomed in the background of that cover has now risen and engulfed the buildings, the wall and Nas himself. Nas stands arms folded, head down, in reverence. In mourning for the loss the storm has brought, and for the loss of his mother, he's humbled. He is also in prayer to God. As Stillmatic was the ark, God's Son is Nas' personal meditation and communication with God.

As the earlier orange velour get-up has been washed aside, Nas now stands unclothed. And except for a covered Jesus piece and a single golden bracelet, the storm has swept away most of the previously photographed jewelry. Nas is bare because he is now naked of sin. On the surface, no more orange jump suit, no more platinum, the self-indulgence kept to a minimum. Musically, within the disc, his style of rap turns down much of the materialism of his past, "I live a clean life - I don't even steal cable." He is no longer the kingpin, the king, the prophet or the hell raiser. He is a spiritual disciple of the streets, a survivor of his own storm.

On the back cover, we see Nas' arms outstretched. In his hands sit two doves, contrasting with the single Stillmatic pigeon. In a sense, Nas and his bird friends are the same. Nas' style transcended from a gritty street aesthetic to the spiritual purity of God's Son, a similar difference seen in the progression from pigeon to dove. And as there are two doves on the LP back, one in either hand, Nas appears balanced, the second dove evening out the first. 2001 was a shaky time as far as the rapper's future in the game was concerned, but, come 2002, stability seemed to have set in, the storm endured.

The Stillmatic-God's Son trinity is completed with Street's Disciple. For this, I'm going to refer to the extended cover featuring King Nas and the full 12 Nas disciples. This is the poster that was included in the Street's Disciple CD case. The actual CD cover shows only a fraction of the larger image.

The cover is grand in its scope and implications. We are in the interior of a stone building with vaulted arches. A single light illuminates the room. This light represents the holy father shining down, the cross above it strengthening the symbolism. Beneath, thirteen variations of Nas are gathered around a table, some sitting, some standing. One is enthroned in the center. He is King Nas, the Nas of Street's Disciple. The other twelve are his various alter egos and personas, twelve disciples that all make up Nas. Around them we find plenty of drink, grapes, oranges, and bread. However, of all the pieces in this tableau, a piece of cake, situated slightly to the left and in front of Nas, remains the most curious.

The piece of cake is a generous portion, fit for a king, you might even say, and there is something written on it. Upon first examination, the letters appear to read "Nas", but, if one looks closer--visible especially on the poster--it's not "N-A-S". There's no "A", and what looked like an "N" is really the Greek lowercase letter Eta, "η", and what looked like an "S" is actually the Greek uppercase letter Omega, "Ù".

In astronomy, which Nas has referenced throughout his career, Eta symbolizes the seventh brightest star in a constellation, and it also is the seventh letter of the Greek alphabet. Without going into too much detail, Level 7 corresponds to the highest possible level of consciousness in almost all spiritual belief systems; Supreme Mathematics, Theosophy, Buddhism, and even Christianity and Islam have variations of this. Specifically in Supreme Mathematics, known as well as The Nation of Gods and Earths, which Nas has also referenced throughout his career, the number seven itself is important because it stands for perfection (the seventh letter in the English language alphabet, "G", standing for "God"). With this reading, the Eta on the cake slice represents Level 7, perfection, the supreme level of consciousness. In other words, it's pure being, the height of creativity, the most total understanding.

Then, as many know, Omega is akin to finality, the end. So being that Omega designates the end, a pairing of Eta and Omega reads "Level 7 - The End", i.e., in a highly coded statement, the cake says this: Nas has reached the highest point of the rap art form. After him there is nothing, for there is nothing above Eta, Level 7. Omega serves as the period at the end of the sentence. Extrapolating this out, the cake slice represents the Street's Disciple album as being an example of the most evolved rap form, its greatest maturation. Finally note how the cake is missing a side, some piece already eaten. We can assume that the King Nas figure, who it sits in front of, has eaten it, its message now inside, a part of him, and, through the music, conveyed to the listener.

Nas: Mastermind
Nas: Stillmatic Intro
Nas f/ Jessica Care More: The Outcome

*NOTE: Stu -- Top Dude all on this one. Thanks.--Fletch