DJ Green Lantern Channeled Public Enemy for Nas’ Controversial ‘The N***er Tape’
Nas has forever been one of hip-hop's most coveted artists on the underground mixtape circuit. Yet 10 years ago, he decided for play along and dropped an official tape of his own.
Back in 2007, Nas announced plans to call his ninth studio LP Nigger, a controversial title that faced backlash both within his Def Jam record label and amongst some of the general public, causing a series of release date push-backs. He conceded and released the Untitled project the following year, but not before getting his point across on a street/online release. One month before the official album's release, Nas dropped The Nigger Tape: a DJ Green Lantern-hosted mixtape that combined a few album tracks ("Hero," "N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)") with a slew of edgier unreleased cuts ("Cops Keep Firing," "Association" with Stic.Man of dead prez) and skits that integrate everything from Richard Pryor routines to Seinfeld actor Michael Richards’ recent racist tirade.
A decade after its release, the tape is more relevant than ever, with a white supremacist president in office, police brutality rampant in and out of the news and Colin Kaepernick out of a job solely because of his political views. XXL spoke with Green Lantern about the creation of the mixtape, why it gets lost in the conversation about Nas’ best works and why so much of God’s Son’s quality music ends up in the vault. —William Ketchum III
XXL: We don’t see Nas as a rapper who makes mixtapes. How did The Nigger Tape come about?
Green Lantern: Around May 2008, I got a call from my boy Young Sav at Def Jam. They were getting ready to release what would become the Untitled album. They wanted to heat up the streets a little bit, which was industry practice—put the mixtape out before the album. I’ve had history doing the mixtape before the album, so they hollered at me and we took it from there. I think he was still finishing the album. I was working on the tape, I would go to check in at the studio, so I feel like he was still working on songs here and there for his album 'til the last minute.
Before, Nas wanted to call the Def Jam album Nigger, not Untitled. The cover of The Nigger Tape shows him with his mouth taped shut. Did you get to speak to him about how he felt about Def Jam denying that title?
We didn’t have that convo, but I knew that by the time we were doing the tape, it was already news that Def Jam wasn’t going to allow him to use that title. So when they said let’s do the mixtape, I said, “That’s the title!” Of course that’s the title, because that’s what he wanted to do.
The tape is also one of the first major projects that features your production so prominently.
You’re right. On the first phone call to see if I wanted to do the tape, I was like, “Yeah, but I’m going to need some exclusives. My best-case scenario is if you could give me some acapellas that never came out.” A lot of the time people will record over a beat, and then they don’t end up using the song and the producer sells the beat. Sometimes, people have those type of scenarios. I said, “Give me the acapella, I’m going to make something new out of it.” Every song that you see on that tape that says produced by me—I won’t say all of them, there’s a couple of them where there’s a verse that they gave me that was acapella, and I made a beat and a hook out of it, and he did a second verse. There was a song called “Like Me” that ended up going on Untitled, he liked it so much. [Ed. Note: "Like Me" appears as a bonus track on the UK version of Untitled.] It started as an acapella verse from one of the songs, it was an extra verse from the first single that he put out, “Be a Nigger Too.” I made a song out of it. Then he ended up doing a second verse to the beat. That one right there probably showed off more production than other tapes that I’ve done.
Did you get to work with Nas in the studio at all, or was this just something where you were given everything to do yourself?
There were a couple of times when I went in. They gave me the source material first, the raw material, which is the acapellas. I put a bunch of that together and I went to the studio to play it, to see if he dug it, before I went and put the whole thing together. [Laughs] His words were, “I want to make a whole new album now.” He literally said that. I cherished that, because that’s a legendary artist saying that to you, and I had never worked with him before. He was digging it, and from there, he was like, “I’m going to put a new verse to this, I’m going to put a new verse to that.” Adding extra verses to it. I was there for some of that, it was cool. Especially since we were in Jimi Hendrix’s studio, Electric Lady. That added a whole 'nother layer of cool to the vibe.
What did you play that made him say that?
I think he was half-joking, but he was saying that to say, “Wow, that’s some powerful shit.” I just took the theme and just went crazy with it. That’s just what I do. By the time I got in there and played stuff for him, it was, “This ain’t no blend tape.” No diss to blend DJs at all, because that’s what I come from, but this ain’t no blend tape. These were brand-new songs. He’s not a guy who listens to his music like that, so these are acapellas from the vault. He’s hearing them, like brand new, with different beats behind them. I don’t know whether he even remembered the verses. It was very cool.
One of the illest parts of this whole thing: We were at the mixing board, playing the mixtape. And he leaned over and was like, “Yo, you want to go on tour?” I was just thinking about this the other day. That was 10 years ago, and we’re still on tour. It’s been 10 years to the month. He probably was in a space where he wanted to do something different, I just happened to come in with this tape and this music. He might’ve known that I have DJ’d on tours and stuff, I don’t know. I just know he leaned over and was like, “You want to go on tour?” I was like, “Yeah!”
Where do you rank The Nigger Tape in Nas' discography?
Best album of all time! Nah, honestly I put it up there. I try not to say that because I did it, but because it’s so aggressive. That’s the type of shit that I like. I’ll say Illmatic is my number one, Lost Tapes right after that, and then this.
Now, there’s no differentiation between a mixtape and an album; they’re basically the same thing. But back then, that distinction really mattered.
When it came out in '08, it was in a crossover era: It was physical, but we were still online. We still hadn’t gone all the way fully online yet with our consumption of mixtapes. It was kind of a gray area, and Def Jam couldn’t push it like that because it was that title they didn’t want to stand next to. It was just on the music itself to push it. But I’m not mad at having gems that are slept on per se. It’s all about the quality of the project, and I stand next to that one all day long.
How do you think it would be received if it came out today?
It would be highly controversial. I’m thinking about the skits on it that were driving the point home. The space we’re in now as a country, how hard we went with that theme on that tape and all the layers on it, it would definitely turn heads. But musically, it’s powerful music. The stuff they gave me was stuff from the vault, which is also what Lost Tapes was. Look how incredible that music is.
A lot of Nas' great songs have not made his albums—tracks like "Star Wars," "Film" and a lot of songs on this project, including “Legendary (Mike Tyson)" and “Cops Keep Firing.” Why do you think some of his best music doesn't make his albums?
You’ve got to chalk that up to artists. There’s a layer of artists where they make the craziest art, and then have to pick from 40 to 50 songs, sometimes more, and pick 17 or so for an album. Those songs, sometimes they go together. You just named individual songs, but sometimes these artists—Nas in particular—will say, “This is what I want to say with this collection of songs.” For example, “Cops Keep Firing” may be similar to something else that he said on that album, so therefore, he may leave that off in favor of something else that went with a complete thought that these songs encompass. So I just say, “Give me all that stuff you don’t use.”
What was it like getting access to all these Nas songs and being able to play with them?
Kid meets candy store. I had never worked with Nas. To back it up a little bit, around the same time, I was working on a mixtape with Russell Simmons for Barack Obama’s candidacy. I had a song called “Black President” that had sampled Tupac: “Although it ain’t heaven-sent, we ain’t ready to have a Black president.” I had my boy Johnny sing a hook, saying, “Yes we can change the world.” It had snippets of Barack. I had a bunch of people on the song already: [Talib] Kweli, David Banner, everybody. I was interviewing Nas when he put that first song out, “Be a Nigger Too.” That was my first time ever interviewing him for radio, for Sirius. I had a copy of the song on a CD with an open space in it. I was like, “Let me just try to get Nas on this song.” This is like two weeks before I got the call for the mixtape. I told him what the song was, I gave him the CD as he was walking out. I’m not thinking [anything will happen]. I really wanted to play it in the studio, but they were in a rush to leave. I just chalked it up, “That’s a dud.” Because whoever listens to the CD someone gives them? But I literally got a call 15 minutes later from his manager, saying, “Nas wants this song, but he wants it for himself for his album.”
That set the stage for this whole mixtape, too. “He’s also the guy you want to use to get the heat up in the streets.” We knew that was going to go on the tape because that was a joint for the album. All of this Nas work started coming at the same time. He’s an elusive guy, you kind of just bump into him. But I like telling that story right there. You can be in the game for so long, meet everybody and work with everybody, and there’s one person you haven’t worked with, and all of a sudden you end up working with them for 10 years straight. Anything can happen, just work hard and be as dope as you can be.
Were any of the songs recorded originally for the tape?
Not for the tape, but there were songs that didn’t make the Untitled album that were completely done, not just giving me an acapella. “Association,” the one with dead prez, and Will Smith talking at the front of it. “Legendary (Mike Tyson)” was done, that was in the vault. “Esco Let’s Go” was done; that’s a DJ Khalil beat. The original “Surviving The Times” was already done.
What is it like to work with Nas, compared to other artists you’ve worked with?
Nas is the coolest, he’ll give you creative freedom and then he’ll come in and fine-tune afterwards. I think that’s why we’ve been working together so long, he’ll give you the creative freedom to do what you want to do and then he’ll yay or nay it. If you know how to lock in and figure out what the creative vibe will be for something and you knock it out the park, he’s going to be like “Let’s go, we don’t need to do nothing to it.”
What are your favorite songs from the tape?
“Cops Keep Firing,” “Be A Nigger Too” remix with Dante Hawkins, the “Ghetto” remix with Joell Ortiz, the “Association” joint. But also the skits, just because they tied everything together. They made it a complete thought. And the fact that this was underground, so we didn’t have to clear anything. Boondocks stuff is in there, movies that we would have to clear if we put it out on the album. I really just wanted to give a vibe of, what would the Bomb Squad do? I’m a child of the Public Enemy era, so I was always blown away by the layering that the Bomb Squad did for Public Enemy albums. Their approach to Amerikkka’s Most Wanted by Ice Cube—I wanted this to be like that. That’s why you get the skits, the songs stopping and the skits coming in. That’s one of the joints I’m proud of for that reason alone.
Do you have any memories from specific songs?
I remember going to the studio with Joell Ortiz, and him doing his verse for it. I was like, I want you to start it. It was the 24-Carat Black sample that Rakim used for "[In The] Ghetto," and I wanted to flip that. Joell was doing a new verse for it. I was just like, “I want you to start it with ‘Planet Earth,’ just like Rakim does.” It just came together so smooth and so perfect. Good times. Really good ass times. I just love that damn tape.
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