Every now and then there comes a pivotal character in any culture, someone who disrupts the norm. Some people call them prophets. In hip-hop, we call him Nas. Since his emergence in 1991 with a verse on Main Source's "Live at the Barbecue," heads knew they weren't ready for God's Son. From "snuffing Jesus" to "seeing dead birds flying through a broken sky," Nasir Jones was always one to "paint Scriptures for lost souls at a crossroads." Who better to guide us through hip-hop's postmodernism, even its post-mortem, than our most poignant poet?
From nonsensical choruses by money-hungry artists to major-label mendacity infiltrating the content of many new releases, hip-hop culture currently finds itself somewhere between life and death. The role of the MC had become a reflection of many societal ills—crass materialism, self-prostitution and vanity.
Given the ever-expanding market success of what strikes many elder hip-hop heads as junk-food rap, people in the industry and the hip-hop nation at large found this truth hard to swallow. Nas, with the hunger of his first release Illmatic intact and the experience of a seasoned veteran, decided it was time to take affirmative action, releasing the momentous Hip-Hop Is Dead late last year.
Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, UGK and Talib Kweli perform Tuesday, August 7, at Smirnoff Music Centre.
What were you doing when you got the call that hip hop died?
Aw man, I was probably just buggin' out. It happens, when you see a great thing coming and it turns into a commercial, a money thing for big companies. It made me realize, this thing started out to be something else. It makes you look at life like you have to grab ahold of things you think are important. You have to be in control of who you are and pay attention, because someone else will hold on to it tighter if you don't.
I read in an interview that Hip-Hop Is Dead is a parallel to American society being dead. What would you say created this environment?
It's just the stealing and taking and the old way of thinking. The savage way of the world. So when you look at music before rap, like jazz, there's no new jazz that stands out like it used to. It's just not what it was at that point when it was incredible. Not that something should sound like the past, but it should be growing. The music used to be what the streets dictated. Now the music is dictating what the street should be doing, because the streets aren't giving the music anything anymore. Which means, in a way, the streets are dead. The whole country is fucked up, man. These motherfuckas are more advanced when they tricking us now, so they don't really see it. They don't even know why they are in the condition they are in. They think this is life. Then radio and television plugs the bullshit, and kids think that's what life is.
Knowing that, do you feel pressure being Nas?
Yeah, time to time there are pressures, but I take on that pressure because it makes me who I am. I say I'm happy I'm Nas, not because I'm feelin' myself but to say, with that pressure, that's what makes me who I am as a man.
The name Nasir, in Arabic, means the victor, the protector. And your MC name comes from Surat An-Nas, the Verse of the People from the Koran. Do you feel that is your role in hip-hop?
Yo dawg, I couldn't have planned that out! [laughs] It's really bananas. All these things are God's will. It's a beautiful thing that I'm here and I can do what I'm doing. I guess that's what makes me proud to be me.
Living better isn't always better living
A lot of MCs lose their spiritual ground in the industry. Where do you find yours?
I mean, not to sound too petty or nothing, you look at what's going on? I take that and the reason I would write a song like "One Mic" is to be like, "Yo dawg, with all this other stuff going on—yeah, I love the cars and the toys and all that. But with the mic, that's one hell of a weapon, you don't take that for granted."
Hip-hop reflects that power, and everything that happens politically one way or another, because it came up out of a political situation, if you will—a social situation. What do you think about international hip-hop? I came up in the Middle East and we bumped the Wu records, your records, and related to them.
It shows you how we can connect with each other when we aren't from the same part of the world. It shows we are brothers from here to where you're from. And it means that you guys have a responsibility to do it right. Imagine Nas made a classical record. They won't play it, because I didn't care ut the art when I made it. But if I really love it, I would really study and I wouldn't want it on the radio unless it was great. Rap is different. You want it played on the radio because you don't respect the next artist that just went platinum. He says a corny line and catchy phrase, and now he's living better. So people are thinking about how to be famous and live better, as opposed to making the music better or really being true to it. Here's the question—someone told me it was illegal to make rap music in Iraq.
The pop packages will come through MTV. They got satellites. I mean, the voice is there, but I don't know if the culture is. I don't think it was illegal, but everything in society was sort of illegal when Saddam Hussein was in power. I guess there is no place for it in Iraqi society when there is no food or shelter.
Loving hip-hop right this time
On "Who Killed It," you spit, "Before she dropped the money bag on the floor and died/She said, 'If you really love me, I'll come back alive.'" How do we love hip-hop right this time?
Aw man, it's something you can work on, but you can't force. You can't fake it; it just takes you over. It's nothing you can try to do. When Michael Jackson was on top, anybody could have came and danced, but they didn't know where it's from or understand what he's doing. It kinda grabs you, once you know.
If you ruled the world now, what would you do differently?
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You know what I would do? I would give people the truth. Give people the understanding that life could be better. I'd break down each reason why and hire the right people for the right jobs. I'd change things a whole lot. We probably share the same views. We grew up liking the same music. I'm sure what you would like to change, I would love to change too.
Reviving the struggle
How come we have no more Bob Marleys or John Lennons, musicians that spit the truth and create a shift in popular thought? The closest thing to that now would be Tupac, or even you—people in hip-hop that are unsatisfied with the status quo. Revolutions have been commodified. They take that antagonistic force and integrate it to make it nothing, similar to how hip-hop has been commercialized. Why do you think we don't have anything close to a musical force that moves people?
That's real. Everything you said, you just said it right there. I think it's, in a way, that we have overcome. A lot of people think we made it. There is nothing to fight for. People slowed down. They're cool with little achievements, but they feel like their fight is over. Leave it to the new generation. But the new generation doesn't get excited or sparked. They need something crazy tragic to be committed, so it doesn't happen till it's too late. When the older generation fought in their time, the new generation never saw the fight, they just reaped the benefit. So they come up and everything is good. They don't know what they are fighting for anymore. They don't see the tricks that are happening.