It’s been 20 years since hip-hop first heard Nasir Jones spit a rhyme. Two decades since a 17-year-old crack dealer from the Queensbridge projects made his recording debut on “Live at the Barbecue,” from Main Source’s classic Breaking Atoms album. He was known as Nasty Nas back then, and he made an immediate splash with jaw-dropping lines like, “Kidnap the president’s wife without a plan” and “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus.” Three years later, in 1994, he dropped his first album, Illmatic, at the tender age of 20. Since then, he has blown up into a bona fide hip-hop superstar, critically revered, popularly adored, selling more than 13 million albums in his career. Several other of Nas’s landmark works also celebrate anniversaries this year: It Was Written, its 15th; Stillmatic, its 10th; and the controversial Hip Hop Is Dead, its fifth. His last disc, Untitled, dropped in July 2008, so it’s been more than three years since die-hard Nas heads have gotten their dose.
Now Nas is preparing for the release of his 10th official album, Life Is Good, which is set to hit shelves in time for holiday shopping. Released through Def Jam Recordings, it will feature guest appearances from three members of the rising Los Angeles collective Odd Future.
Odd Future, a.k.a. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, is the brainchild of 20-year-old rapper/producer Tyler Okanma, a.k.a. Tyler, the Creator. After a year or so of building a buzz by putting free material on the microblogging platform Tumblr, Tyler and Co. exploded into the limelight in February, after a super-high-energy performance, their first ever television appearance, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. In April, they signed a deal with RED Distribution/Sony, for Odd Future Records, and in September landed a TV show of their own, Loiter Squad, on the cable channel Adult Swim. They also sell their own clothing line through their website.
Tyler, who taught himself to play piano when he was 14, directs all the group’s videos and designs all the album artwork, and he skateboards as much as he can in his free time. His first for-sale solo album, Goblin, came out in May, on XL Recording. It was met with praise in some circles but decried as misogynistic and homophobic in others. While Goblin has sold only 129,000 copies, Tyler’s oversized impact on the pop-culture landscape was confirmed at the MTV Video Music Awards in August, when he won the Best New Artist award for “Yonkers,” a song in which he threatens fellow MTV faves B.o.B and Bruno Mars with murderous violence.
Tyler was four months and 17 days old when “Live at the Barbecue” came out. But he’s been a huge Nas fan since childhood. So XXL thought, What better way to honor a legend with 20 years in the game than by having an upstart newbie interview him for the cover story?
On a warm afternoon, at Siren Studios, in L.A., Nas and Tyler sat in the dressing room, surrounded by racks and stacks of fancy new clothes, while breathing in fumes from Mister Cartoon’s paint cans downstairs, for part one of a three-part interview that ran over an hour and a half.
Tyler, the Creator: God’s Son is my favorite album by you.
Nas: Aw, thanks. Why? ’Cause the word “God”?
Tyler, the Creator: Nah, it’s like, I got… Okay. That came out in 2003, around the XXL issue with you and, like, Jungle and them.
Tyler, the Creator: The [January/February] issue. And I bought it with that. I don’t know. That shit just… Like, “Heaven” is my shit on there.
Nas: Aw, man, thanks.
Tyler, the Creator: “Zone Out.” Your verse on there was fuckin’ retarded.
Nas: Word? Thanks, man.
Tyler, the Creator: That whole album was just legit.
Nas: Appreciate it.
Tyler, the Creator: And my second is probably Street’s Disciple.
Nas: Get the fuck out of here.
Tyler, the Creator: Yeah.
Nas: Because it’s a Last Supper thing?
Tyler, the Creator: Nah, nah. It’s just, like, the beats on there. “Thief’s Theme” is my favorite fuckin’ song from that album. That shit is fuckin’ retarded. I love the video, too.
Nas: Appreciate it, man.
Tyler, the Creator: I always forget the fuckin’ name… “Nazareth Savage”?
Tyler, the Creator: You fuckin’—
Nas: Wow, wow.
Tyler, the Creator: You fuckin’ spazzed on that. I don’t hear people talk about it that much, so…
Nas: I was about to say nobody ever mentioned that record to me, and shit.
Tyler, the Creator: That shit is, like, legit as fuck.
Nas: Nobody ever did. Word.
Tyler, the Creator: I love that shit.
Nas: I mean, I can see how you can get that, man. That’s…your shit. I see what you’re doing, you know? Your shit is, like, honest, like, real. You feel like you question, like…religion? You feel like you’re here to say something, too. And who the hell was King James, you know? I mean, how is he different from who we are today, or whatever? So we tell our story today, the way we see it.
Tyler, the Creator: That’s legit. I think that’s why I like Street’s Disciple. Like, you just spitting on there. Like, you just fuckin’ just going in on each fuckin’ track. Even the one with Maxwell and shit. Like, that’s a party record, but you were just going in.
Nas: Yo, that’s crazy, ’cause I think I might have been the first hip-hop dude to get Maxwell on a track, man. We were label mates. And I’ve always been a fan of his shit, too.
Tyler, the Creator: It came out legit, though. It came out, then I bought Stillmatic, like, a week after it dropped. That shit was legit as fuck. It’s weird. I listen to it all the time. And now I’m, like, sitting here. It’s cool, though.
Nas: It’s crazy, dawg. ’Cause I wouldn’t think that someone your age would even have time to check some shit out from—
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