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 drawiní 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 ainít 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 likeÖhe 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.