If Nas and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives doesn’t accomplish anything else, at least it made me realize that that song on Nastradamus that samples “Africa” by Toto was almost certainly Nas’ own idea.
The other day, I was reading a story in the New York Times about how Distant Relatives (which I’ve yet to hear) apparently has a lot to do with Africa, rather than, say, Nas’ native Queens, or Jamaica, or wherever Damian Marley grew up (wherever it was, I’m sure it was mad swanky), and it got me to thinking about how Nas has been fascinated with Africa throughout his career.
I tried to think of all of the various times Nas has made reference to Africa. It wasn’t easy, because I’m not one of these Nas stans. I’ve probably heard everything he’s done at least once, just from being an aging hip-hop head, but as I recently told some dude on my formspring, it could very well be the case that I haven’t heard It Was Written since the 1990s. And I’ve probably only heard either of those albums he put out in 1999 once, period. Which was bad enough. I don’t have anything against It Was Written, I just haven’t felt compelled to listen to it. Anyone else remember back when It Was Written was considered merely good for what it was, i.e. a well-executed sellout maneuver, but hardly a great rap album on a par with… I don’t know, an Ilmatic? Back before the inmates took over the asylum. The elevation of Nas’ post-Illmatic oeuvre is obviously part of the same trend in which the return of Shyne is something we’re supposed to be excited about. I don’t know if it’s because people who actually have a proper frame of reference with regard to the late ’90s have long since given up on rap music, or what.
But I digress.
Up until just now, I figured that Nas song where he sampled “Africa” was part of the late ’90s trend of rappers sampling any ol’ song from the 1980s. Remember the rap version “Electric Avenue,” or the rap version of “99 Luftballoons?” Wyclef Jean was behind a lot of that BS, but Diddy, who invented most things in hip-hop (he was even the first person to travel to Europe), was the one who kickstarted the trend. He had Biggie rhyming over a lot of random ’80s records, but that Biggie tribute song was probably the one that touched off the free for all, when people realized that you didn’t even have to be a good rapper, you just had to have a beat that dumb people and white people found catchy. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But it turns out that “Africa the Nas Song” was probably part of a separate trend, of Nas’ silly, inexplicable fascination with Africa. Nas probably told LES, who, as I recall, produced “Africa the Nas Song,” to come up with a beat that conjured thoughts of the motherland, and LES remembered that there was an actual song called “Africa,” whose groove he could wantonly pilfer, similar to how he came up with the one beat he contributed to Illmatic, and probably everything else he ever produced. How else to explain picking that song, of all the things you could sample? Even by late ’90s standards it seems like a retarded idea for a rap song.
Would Nas and LES have thought to sample it, if it had been a song about how Rosanna Arquette’s cans jiggle when she walks? (I mean, if that had been obvious from the title – that might actually be what the song is about.) Nas has always seemed fascinated with Africa, if not since Illmatic, at least since It Was Written, in which he spoke of freeing every prisoner in Attica and sending them to Africa. I realize this is a reference to one of the demands of the hostage situation that took place at Attica back in the 1970s (er, at some point before the film Dog Day Afternoon took place), but how would Nas know that? I doubt he’s familiar with the HBO movie about Attica, from the early ’90s. Even if he is, he probably shouldn’t admit to it. People who live in the projects shouldn’t have HBO anyway, on GP, but if they do/did, it makes you wonder if they’re really as bad-ass as Nas described them on Illmatic. You know Nas couldn’t have read about it, or anything else, in a book, because he admitted yesterday on 106 & Park that he hasn’t even read the book Michael Eric “Cornholio” Dyson wrote about him, and who in the fuck doesn’t read a book that was written about them, unless they can’t read? Don’t let me find out there’s some truth to that post I wrote about Nas being illiterate, because he plans on “studying” to get his GED. As if.
The most famous and perhaps most hilarious Nas reference to Africa was in the film Belly, in which he planned to “go back to Africa,” per the demands of so many racists over the years. Again, we can’t be sure this was Nas’ idea without calling and asking him (which is impossible), since the movie was directed and presumably conceived by Hype Williams. But the movie was obviously heavily influenced by Nas’ music. Take for example the cringe-worthy scene in which Nas smokes weed (probably real weed) with an eight year-old boy, which is right out “One Love,” from Illmatic. The idea to go back to Africa may have been a reference to Nas lyrics I’ve long since forgotten, because I only like Nas’ music when it’s worth a shit.
Which brings me to my point (yes, there is a point): Why is Nas so fascinated with Africa? In his songs, he speaks of Africa the way a kid whose parents don’t care enough about him to make enough money to take him to Disney World speaks of Disney World – as if it’s the cleanest, most magical place on earth. Disney World is mad clean, but otherwise it’s kinda gay. I didn’t even care for it that much when I was a kid. Six Flags had better rides. You get the idea that Nas’ fascination with Africa is based on a similar ignorance. I probably shouldn’t begrudge him his desire to learn more about the motherland, just like I probably shouldn’t mock people who were denied a childhood, but I wonder what Nas really has to tell us about Africa. Has Nas even been to Africa? We know Jay-Z’s been there, because there was that Rocawear ad with him carrying buckets of water to starving babies with flies on their faces. Similarly, if Nas had ever actually been to Africa, I’m sure we would have known about it by now.