Words by Lily Mercer
Ex-husband, father, rap legend. Step into Nas’ world.
It’s the last days of the London Olympics and Nas is in town. Tomorrow he’ll witness the USA men’s basketball team win a gold medal. But today he’s in Hackney, Dalston, to be exact, explaining why 2012 was the right year for him to release an album.
“It’s an interesting time,” he begins. “[Music] comes out the way it comes out, you know? I never plan it to get it ready; music speaks to me in a way that tells me, ‘It’s time to do it again’. I never know when it’s time.”
After eighteen years of recording, these days he feels less pressure when it comes to the reception of an album. “Nervousness left a long time ago, except for the good butterflies you feel about to do something exciting. It’s just a good feeling and it’s cool to think that every time I put out a record, the sounds are more seasoned.”
Naturally his performance is also more seasoned, as demonstrated the previous night during his show at the notorious 100 Club as part of the Converse ‘Represent’ series. While the packed audience wilted in the steamy atmosphere, he tore through an intense set, complete with his best-loved songs, old and new. Undoubtedly tired from his performance, when we speak the following day he’s somber but amiable as he snacks on crisps, sporadically muffling his words.
With a total of ten solo albums in the space of eighteen years, Nasir Jones, better known as Nas, is undoubtedly one of the most consistent musicians of our time. Rarely taking a break greater than two years between releases, the four-year gap between ‘Untitled’ and his latest, ‘Life Is Good’, has been his longest yet. Though he continued to release music through his 2010 collaboration with Damien Marley, ‘Distant Relatives’, Nas remained unusually quiet as a solo artist until 2012. And with his return came his most intimate music yet.
Quotable as ever, he still writes confidence-filled rhymes that make the world and their mother want to rap, such as the rhetorical question on ‘Nasty’, “You are your car, what can represent me?” Dressed casually in a T-shirt and sweatpants, Nas explains how ‘Life Is Good’ built gradually. “I had a few ideas in my head that I carried around for a while. I write down a few ideas, on my BlackBerry, iPhone. I develop ideas as time goes by and once I start recording, I have those ideas and start new ones.” The process hasn’t changed much since his debut album, ‘Illmatic’, was released in 1994. “I had stuff written for years for that record that I’d worked on. The next albums after your first one, you gotta kind of turn them over in a year. It’s not like the first album. The first album, you spend your whole life from birth to that point working on it and then you have to turn the next one around in a year. But you’re ready after that first album, you’re ready to do it in a year.”
Released when Nas was only nineteen-years-old, ‘Illmatic’ turned him into a hip-hop martyr as he teamed up with the most respected producers in the industry, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Lord Finesse and Large Professor; the executive producer of the album. “I just wanted to ace it, I wanted to knock it out the park, I wanted to do something that was going to have an incredible effect because for one, you only get one first chance. For two, I was just excited to have that chance, to get in to the game. So, with that chance I took it seriously.” His lyrical wordplay and wisdom were unique, but the old soul inherited from his parents caused him to stand apart from peers. With ‘Illmatic’, Nas marked the rise of a new generation of New York MCs, backed up by the release of Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Ready To Die’ a few months later.
Back when rap first became commercialized, Queens was producing many of the most successful rappers, from LL Cool J to Run DMC. “I think Queens, especially in the ’80s, was kinda like the forgotten borough, well Queens and Staten Island,” Nas affirms. “Because people didn’t realise Queens was such an important part of the New York puzzle. When the groups did hit from there, it hit hard and people just flipped on how strong hip-hop was in Queens. I think it was one of the strongest places in New York.”
This is an excerpt from the December 2012 issue of Clash magazine.