Nas, “The Biography” (Originally Published February 1999)
Another day, another dollar. On an unseasonably warm autumn Tuesday afternoon, Nas sits at the head of one of those rattletrap Ikea desks in a Soho photo studio. Bright flashes of light pop off every so often at the other end of the loft, as a wiry, stringy-haired photographer meters a few exposures. Mia X and the Geto Boys both released new albums today, and Nas requested that their beats bang on the CD scrambler in the background. Mama Mia gives her own spin on the ghetto-centric allegory with “Ghetto Livin’” as Nas passes a fatty between his boys.
En route to the studio, I managed to bump into that quintessential high school senior, the 17-year-old hip-hop consumer, bounding out of Tower Re-cords on Broadway. Tims, baggy jeans, Discman. I stepped to him to ask about Nas’ origins; removing his headphones, he shot me an incredulous, indignant look. “Serch discovered Nas,” he said. “That white boy from 3rd Bass,” he added for clarification, before bopping off to “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” “It’s unfair to say that,” says Michael “MC Serch” Berrin from a cellular phone. “I’ve never taken credit. Large Professor discovered Nas. I met Nas about a year after that.”
Misinformed folklore credits Serch with brokering Nas’ Columbia Records deal. Or something like that. “I was working on ‘Back to the Grill Again,’” Serch says, recollecting his first meeting with Nasty Nas. “Akinyele and Nas wanted to be down, so I was gonna do a version with them and O.C. Nas just hung out for the three days we was in the session. We got twisted and talked. He asked me to help him.” Not with lyrics, heaven forbid. “He wanted to make sure that his deal was correct, that he didn’t get jerked. I went in to see Faith [Newman, former Director of A&R], and she knew what she had to do. If anything, I just wanted to make sure Nas got a better deal than all of us artists in the 80’s got.”
Nas knows that within the half-hour, he’ll be asked to strip out of his green SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS-emblazoned T-shirt, baggy nylon Army sweats and mint Nikes to be styled in suits for the shoot. He puff puff passes the blunt to his man from Queensbridge, the hulky Lenny Santiago Horse of the Bravehearts, to accommodate some questions. The thing about interviewing Nas, even from the very beginning of his career, is that he’s often a soft-spoken cat of few words.
Ask about his contributions to the screenplay of Belly (which had grossed a scant $8.84 million after a month in theaters): “There’s a scene in there that I took out of a real situation that happened with me, and there’s another scene. There’s a few joints in there.” Ask about his earth, Carmen, or their four-year-old daughter, Destiny: “Let’s leave that, all my life shit, alone.” Ask the location of his residential fortress of solitude in Long Island: “I got a nice little spot out on the Island. Definitely dig it.” Wyandanch? Amityville? “A nice little secluded part. It’s not far from the city at all. In the cut.”
This sort of thing makes Nas an enigma, because however guarded his attitude, millions of worldwide listeners will pop in I Am…The Autobiography and hear telling verses detailing Nas’s childhood with his father, jazzman Olu Dara:
Him and moms relaxing / Next thing you know he packing / So then I asked him/What’s that white shit on that plate and your face and / Poppa, why you butt-ass from the waist / And who this lady I’m facing? / Darkskin, you not my mommy / He grabbed me up to run some smooth words by me / Promised me things that he would buy me / If I kept my mouth closed and don’t tell Mommy / He said one day I’ll understand / “Little me, what’s in you’s inside me…”—“Papa Was a Player”
Olu Dara, born Charles Jones III in Natchez, MS, married Fannie Ann Little of Mount Gilliard, NC, back in the 60’s. They met on Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn, on an enchanted evening at club 521 when Gladys Knight & the Pips performed. “I was in the Navy,” says Olu Dara, from his brownstone in Harlem. “I had just left Africa and the islands, and I came to do my last year in the military here as a musician. I was discharged right in New York. After I met Nas’s mother, I stayed.” Nas’s father underscored three scenes for Belly, played trumpet on Illmatic’s “Life’s a Bitch” and recorded “Jungle Jay” with Nas for his own album, last year’s In the World.
Nas loves his father. And that’s not as rare a thing in hip-hop or Black life as many might think. “When I was young,” Nas reveals, “he would be traveling a lot and then come home where we was, in the projects. We was happy to see him, and he basically tried to provide for us every chance he got, but all we really wanted was for him to be home.” Nas will get open off his pops; these are the ties that bind. “Now that I got a daughter and I’m in the same business, I see where he’s at. ’Cause it’s hard for me to be out on the road.”
Rasheed, an old acquaintance of Olu, brought the name Nasir to his friend’s attention in time for September 14, 1973—baby Nas’s birthday. His younger brother, Jabari (Jungle of the Bravehearts), was soon to follow. Eleven-year-old Kiane, Nas’s youngest brother, is already a proficient djembe drummer and violinist, with a role in director Wes Craven’s upcoming 50 Violins. “We were living on Eastern Parkway [in Brooklyn] when they were born,” Olu remembers. “Fannie went to Queens when they were in daycare. Man, we didn’t have a good relationship at that time. I had stopped playing music the day I was discharged. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be a musician now,’ and I think that’s what started our relationship to go down.”
Nas’ grandfather, Charles Jones II, was a singer touring with a quartet when Olu Dara was born, and everyone in his family was raised playing instruments. The phenomenal rhymes of Nasty Nas spring from his talented genes, his nature and nurture. “I used to go to the studio with him as a kid,” Nas shares. “He said, ‘Be your own boss. Don’t answer to no-fuckin’-body.’ He was on some ill shit like that.” Be your own boss, sun. Start your own Firm.