What a difference 15 years make. Upon its release on July 1, 1996, Nas’s It Was Written was met with mixed reviews. The complaint was that the Nasty MC—who now fancied his Escobar nickname—had traded his gritty sound in favor of the Trackmaster’s more radio-friendly backdrops. The approach worked, commercially at least. Featuring the Lauryn Hill-assisted “If I Ruled the World” and “Street Dreams,” the record sold 2, 557, 455 and stands as Nas’s best-selling album to date. Now, a decade and a half later, It Was Written is considered one of Nas’s best works. Rolling Stone Magazine, who initially rated the LP two stars, re-graded it with four stars in 2004. XXL recently sat down with Nas to discuss going platinum for the first time, working with Dr. Dre in the middle of the East Coast/West Coast feud, the song that caused his issues with Tupac Shakur and being the first rapper to work with Lauryn Hill and R. Kelly.—Carl Chery (@cchery)
XXL: Illmatic eventually went platinum, but at the time It Was Written was your first time going platinum.
Nas: Unreal. Unreal. It was like, I got that platinum. I can get out the game or I can do whatever. That’s that.
That’s also you transitioning into becoming a superstar, a new level of fame. How was that adjustment for you?
It was good. It was perfect because it was perfect timing for me. I had a lot to say. I had a lot of things I wanted to express. I had a lot of styles I wanted to put into the game. I had a lot to give the game and I was ready to give it to ‘em. So it was perfect timing.
Was it at a point where you couldn’t walk down the street without causing a mob?
The first album, funny enough, was that way. The first album and second album was like that. Yea, definitely.
You worked with Dr. Dre in the middle of the East Coast/West Coast feud. What was the response on the East Coast?
It was unbelievable ‘cause Dre had The Chronic, he had Doggystle. And really that was it. So it was unbelievable. It was crazy.
So nobody was like, “Why you working with dude?”
Nah, they thought, “Wow, it’s amazing. It fucked ‘em up. Then Biggie had him and Bone Thugs. Nice move. I was like, “Wow, nice move.”
Do you feel like the Lauryn Hill has gained even more value over the years considering she doesn’t work with rappers anymore?
Yeah, yeah. That’s one of the reasons. All records gain value through the years, but definitely that. Lauryn’s one of those. True to the core at this shit. Everything about her, from her performance… she’s last of a dying breed.
How did you go about getting Kellz on the “Street Dreams (Remix)?”
We was the hottest shit in America so that was easy. We probably could have got Mike [Jackson]on the phone back then. So Kellz was cool with it, he was ready. That made the introduction with him and Trackmasters probably right around that time and then they started working together and shit. So it was just good times. Everybody was happy.
For “Street Dreams” what was the process like to clear the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” sample?
Oh, they took everything. They took everything. Word. For real.
Did you ever get a chance to meet Annie Lennox or did you get feedback from what she thought about the song?
Not really. You know, that song is such a huge record. I’m glad that it did get cleared, that’s all. I admire them. I admire her. It’s all love. I don’t think… I may have met her years later in passing, but it’s all love.
That song also partially led to ‘Pac taking issue with you ’cause he had the same track on All Eyez on Me that he released that same year. What was your reaction when you heard that ‘Pac accused you of taking the same track?
See, I was always into ‘Pac early before his controversial side blew up all over America and the world. I was already into his music. I saw him as a kindred spirit, I saw him as a brother, so it was like beefin’ with your brother. Not even beefin’, it felt like, your brother over there’s a little mad. This is an issue right now, so you gotta deal with it.
What was your inspiration for “I Gave You Power?”
A Premier beat. Just a beat from Premier… in the studio. Back then I was around a lot more guns and my reality was that. There was no armed security back then, it was just us moving around so that was a lot more in my world.
I remember you had “Silent Murder” on the cassette. What made you put a bonus track on cassette at a time where things were moving to CDs?
Well, the cassette still wasn’t dead. They was still sellin’, so we figured, the cassette is what we grew up on. CDs is takin’ over so we need an extra attraction to get people to not buy the CDs, and also try to keep the cassette alive. We needed something to help keep the cassette alive so that’s what we did with Stretch and that was his last works, that was his last works with me. I miss him. I do. I think about him from time to time. Great dude. He was a real good dude.