FCN 03/20/2002

Supreme lyricist
Nas speaks on racism, Islam, hip hop and the legacy he hopes to leave behind

        by Michelle Muhammad

        When you hear the name Nas in the streets, it is synonymous with the title of a supreme lyricist. Who could really argue that point? Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones has come a long way from the Queensbridge housing projects of New York. Who could forget his debut on Main Sourceís 1991 hit "Live At the Barbecue"? The verse was sheer poetry that had everyone wearing out their rewind buttons on their recorders and MCs scrambling for notebooks to try to write a hotter verse to equal his.

        In the nine short years that he has been on scene, he has racked up an impressive body of work. His first album (1994) Illmatic is hailed as a classic, a status that most rappers never achieve on their very first project. He soon followed up in 1996 with It Was Written and subsequently released two more albums (1999) I Am...The Autobiography and (1999) Nastradamus. While the naysayers talked about how Nas "fell off," he was hard at work in the lab on his next masterpiece.

        Stillmatic dropped in the winter of 2001, but not without controversy. Nas found himself at the center of the hottest lyrical beef in hip hop since LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee. Jay-Z attacked Nas in his song "Takeover" and Nas responded with his song "Ether". Nasí answer "Ether" was surfacing on mix tapes all over New York and wound up on radio stations. Street credibility firmly in tact, fans and skeptics worldwide went out and purchased Stillmatic when it hit record store shelves, thereby making it number one on the Billboard chart.

        Even though the music-buying public and the mainstream media are trying to keep the beef going, the popular artist says that he is about peace. While in Chicago on a concert tour promoting his latest CD Stillmatic, Nas sat down to once and for all give his definitive answer to these and other things.

        MM: For readers who may not know, how did you get into the rap game?

        NAS: I was listening to hip hop since I was like nine and my pops was a jazz musician. Between those two things that made me want to get into the music business. I grew up in the early stages of hip hop when it was Melle Mel and The Furious Five all the way up to what it is now. I just have a deep passion for the music.

        MM: It is obvious through your lyrics that Islam has had an influence on your life. How did you become aware of the teachings of Islam?

        NAS: Islam happens to be the only religion that caters to the Black man respectfully, seriously. Itís the only religion that made sense for Black people to me. Iím not sure of the earliest time but there was always a picture of Malcolm X in my household since I was a baby. I just thought he looked like an angry man. I didnít know who he was, I was a small child. I remember learning about the 5 Percent Nation in my projects (Queensbridge). Older guys were putting me on to it and giving me lessons on the 5 Percent Nation. As I grew, I began to learn more about Clarence 13X and Minister Farrakhan. I also learned about it through rap music such as Chuck D. (Public Enemy). It was always around. You just have to notice it at some point.

        MM: With the tragic events of September 11, the world was shocked and horrified. On your new album Stillmatic, you have a song "My Country." Could you explain the message in this particular song?

        NAS: I basically talk about what I see and what people are going through. There are a lot of people who feel like this country has done them wrong. I know a lot of brothers who are locked up that have not been given a fair shot or equal opportunity because of our skin color. A lot of people feel like this country has failed them. Be they right or wrong, they feel that way and something has to be done about that and thatís pain. I write about pain because thatís the pain that Iím around.

        MM: What are some of the social and /or political messages that are in Stillmatic?

        NAS: Thereís a song on my album called "What Goes Around" dealing with the whole self-hatred thing. It deals with Black on Black racism, Jamaicans who think theyíre better than Blacks, Blacks who think they're better than Hatians, dark skin against light skin, Puerto Rican against Dominican and Jews against this one... the whole of humanityís mental poison. Itís so crazy that people die because of this racist poison. Those are some of the social issues on the album. Political issues are on songs like "Rule", which talks about people like Colin Powell and other brothers who somewhat run the country. In the media, they say one thing and in reality thereís something else going on.

        MM: Is it difficult to fuse consciousness with telling the truth about certain things that are going on without sounding too preachy on your records?

        NAS: I donít really think about that! If Iím making a record where I feel like I am preaching too much, right there in the studio I say: "No, no, no! Thatís not a record that I would like to hear!" So I would change it up a little where itís still hip hop music. Itís important for you to make music and express your message but still keep it entertaining.

        MM: Many artists came out in 1994 when you did but are no longer around. What has been the key to your success and longevity in the rap game?

        NAS: My pops is a musician and he asked me when I was about nine: "Who do you want to work for? Do you want to work for a White man busting your behind for 30 years, paying on a house that you just retire, get old and die in? Work a nine- to-five doing something you donít want to do for somebody else? Or do you want to live your life to the fullest? When I say that Iím saying my thing isnít just to make a record to buy a car to show off. I donít expect people to love me forever because they love my record for five minutes. Itís not personal to me. Iíd rather you like my music; itís going to stay around longer than me. A lot of artists came out and thought they were stars and didnít understand that when their style played out they were weak and couldnít deal with the challenge. So they start saying that the grapes are sour, and that people donít know what good music is anymore and they gave up. Me, I love music more than Iím stuck on myself. If you donít like one song of mine, thatís cool. Iím making music and Iím not perfect. I strive and I am a perfectionist and have a deep human passion for hip hop. The music is more important than me as an artist, the name, and the person who is in the spotlight. Thatís one of the reasonís why Iím still here.

        MM: We must touch on this beef between you and Jay-Z since it is so prevalent in the mainstream media. The people out on the street (record buyers) take this lyrical battle between you and Jay-Z as being "real". How do you help the fans (youth) see whatís really going on with that?

        NAS: I didnít expect the beef to become what it has become. So in my record I explained that "I love you Ďcause youíre my brother. I think at one point ,it became serious and nervous for the both of us because neither one of us expected it to be like this Ö so big. What it did do is show how weíve grown as a people because not only did it help revert or turn hip hop back to its old school battle stage, but it also shows that you donít have to make pop records to sell records anymore. You can battle with lyrics. It also shows the world that two Black men can disagree without violence. Thatís the thing that I do with my show. I say my weapon is my microphone and I donít want to kill my brother or anybody. We can argue, disagree and even insult each other and not have to take it to violence. It definitely wasnít planned and I respect the views of Minister Farrakhan and I feel the same way, that we shouldnít be attacking each other. So that wasnít something that I would plan. Once I was called out I just stood my ground and now I make sure that people know it's peace.

        MM: When Minister Farrakhan was talking to the rappers, he said, you all are the greatest audience heís ever talked to. He also stated that you all have the "collective ears" of the whole world. In your opinion, where do you see hip hop going?

        NAS: Hip hop has been dealing with a lot of sensationalism for the past decade. Itís no longer about whoís the best rapper, itís about who will really whip somebodyís behind and pull out a gun. Unfortunately, some of the reason it is like that is because of us, our generation. We came out and showed one side of the street. We showed a mirror image of the street people that are out there. There was a thin line between the streets and rap music, and it was being crossed all of the time. We are still stuck on sensationalismógangster sensationalism, materialism and womenóbecause thatís the American dream. Thereís more of that on television, books and in real life there are rappers who can give a positive message. I do think there are some people who are watching, and are knowing what this (rap) game is lacking, that in the future there will be more creative artists like there were back in the days like Poor Righteous Teachers, Just Ice, NWA and Slick Rick.

        MM: I know that you did some acting in the Hype Williams film Belly that you also co-wrote. Do you have any plans to do more acting or writing?

        NAS: I like film, and Iím inspired by all the dawgs like Spike Lee and George Tillman. I did a film called Sacred last year and spent some money on it and, hopefully, it will be out later this year or next year. Every rapper who has a hot name can get into a movie today. But thatís not really my objective. My whole goal is to learn what filmmaking is about so I can really make something I can really be proud of. Thereís definitely some more writing and ideas that I am thinking on, and working on every day as we speak.

        MM: There are not many artists who have hit records, and also impart wisdom to their listeners without being chastised by their record label, peers and fans. You are one of only a few artists, with the exception of Public Enemy, who has continued to do that. What advice or message do you have for young, aspiring hip hop artists coming up?

        NAS: My biggest message is that whatever your views, knowledge, wisdom and understanding is, put it out in your music. If you donít blow up overnight, itís not the end of the world. The mission is bigger than your status and how you want to be looked at by your peers with your gold and jewelry, so donít worry if it doesnít happen overnight. If it does happen overnight, donít get big-headed and lose control. If you start from the bottom, itís all good. I started from the bottom and I maintained it and I took it seriously.

        MM: Mary J. Blige wanted a song she sang on called "Braveheart Party" taken off of Stillmatic for "personal reasons". What was the deal with that whole situation?

        NAS: Mary sang the hook on "Braveheart Party". The song was produced by a cat who originally did it for her, and she had supposedly known about it, and it got on my album but she really didnít know it was there. Mary is a good sister, but she wanted the song off my album. She wants it off and thatís how we had to do it. Thereís no love lost for her or nothing.

        MM: You are the father of a 7-year-old daughter named Destiny. After you have retired from the rap game and after all is said and done, what do you want your legacy to be for your daughter and your fans?

        NAS: I want my daughter to know that I taught myself, more than any school, and I came from the streets, and did my thing without handouts. I want my fans to know that my music will remain longer than my body. I brought people closer to spirituality, and most of all, closer to God through my music.

        MM: Thank you.

        NAS: Youíre welcome. Please let Min. Farrakhan know my prayers are with him and give him my best regards.

        (Michelle Muhammad may be reached via her email address at: [email protected] )

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