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Nas: ‘Cause I’m Black

Having spent half his life in the game, NAS is officially a hip-hop elder statesman. What’s he gonna do? Name his next album the most inflammatory word in the English language. Oh, and to those who think they’re sly: Don’t call him it, Whitey.

2008 marks a personal and professional tipping point of sorts for Nasir Jones. Come July, it will have been 17 years since a 17-year-old “Nasty Nas” made his recorded debut on Main Source’s Breaking Atoms. The man has spent half his life on wax. He’s famous for contradicting himself, but that’s just as much a product of going through his entire adulthood with people hanging on his every word as it is any inconsistency of character. What always has been constant is that, ever since he introduced himself as the “street’s disciple” on “Live at the Barbeque,” rap fans have paid attention to what Nas has to say.

This past October, Nas announced to an audience at New York’s Roseland Ballroom his plans to release his ninth album in December. The title? One word: Nigga. The reaction was immediate. Jesse Jackson accused him of “making a mockery of racism.” NAACP spokesperson Richard McIntire said, “We will not support, and we will not continually be assailed by other individuals who want to use that type of term in our presence.” Fox News took up the banner, reporting (erroneously, it was later revealed, to no one’s great surprise) that Nas’ record-label head, Def Jam chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid, was putting the kibosh on the idea.

It wasn’t the first time that hip-hop found itself in the crosshairs last year. In the wake of Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hoes” remark, rap music came under fire for its language (apparently, Don’s a very impressionable old man), with Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton leading the fight to banish the B-word, the H-word and the N-word from hip-hop. A month before announcing Nigga, Nas became the target of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, when he performed at a free concert for the students at Virginia Tech, whose campus had been victimized by a mass shooting the previous spring. Repeatedly referring to him as “Nazz,” O’Reilly cited gun references in Nas’ lyrics and called his performance an “abomination” and an “atrocity.” (Nas, in turn, jokingly offered to bite the shockcaster’s nose off.)

Nas originally intended to use the Nigga title for his previous album, 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead. Def Jam did in fact veto that decision, however, perhaps thinking that the incendiary word, combined with Nas’ reconciliation and subsequent signing with his former nemesis Jay-Z, was a little too much for the record-buying public to handle. Of course, that’s another story. Since sharing a stage in October 2005 at the landmark I Declare War concert, Jay and Nas have been dogged by rumors of strain in their relationship—particularly after Hip Hop Is Dead’s November 2006 release date was pushed back and replaced by Jay’s comeback, Kingdom Come.

A week after announcing Nigga, Nas upped the ante, changing the name to the full-bore Nigger. By that time, L.A. Reid had publicly come out in support of Nas’ creative license and was joined by hip-hop vets Method Man, David Banner and Common. (50 Cent demurred, calling it a “stupid name.”) That wasn’t the only controversy, though. For the second year in a row, the release date for a Nas album was delayed (this time from December to February) while a Jay-Z project was rushed into production. (As XXL went to press, Jay announced that he was resigning the presidency of Def Jam. When asked over e-mail for his reaction, Nas said, “I can never predict what the effects will be when executives are moved around. It happens all the time in this business. I always do my own thing when it comes to my projects and have many plans. He will be good, as I know I will be, for sure.”)

With all that in mind, Nas steps out of a winter night that’s spitting freezing rain on the streets of Manhattan and arrives alone at a bustling bistro in the Flatiron district. Dressed simply but stylishly in jeans, a brown leather jacket and a newsboy cap, he walks unnoticed through the after-work crowd around the bar and settles into a corner booth in the back. For the next hour and a half, he’ll hold forth on a host of topics over a dinner of mahimahi, asparagus and scalloped potatoes. Gripping his glass of pinot noir by the stem, he’ll discuss politics (“’08 election coming, and part of America getting scared”), cable news (“Sly Fox, I call ’em”) and, of course, the word, and the album, “nigger.” (And “crackers,” too.)

But, first, there’s a little record-industry business to get out of the way.

Are you satisfied with the relationship you have with your record label right now?
Yeah, it’s my last record with them.

Have you thought about what your next move is gonna be?
I have. But it’s too early to talk about.

Does the fact that people never seemed to be able to get over your old beef with Jay affect your thinking?
[Long pause] I think that the history was made with that move, and now I’m just exploring different things, just thinking about what I wanna do next. It’s the illest part of my life, again. I’ve always run into great times. This shit gotta be fun for you. Whatever Nas situation will be great for Nas, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. It’s not about nothing that happened in the past. It’s about moving ahead, finding new ground and going to the next phase.

Rap fans looked at your situation at Def Jam, and they saw your albums getting pushed back twice in a row and Jay coming right before you twice in a row, and they always assumed there was something more going on there.
People gotta give me more credit than that. That’s not fair, if I push my shit back, to blame it on somebody. This is me you’re talking about. This is not somebody that just signed yesterday. This is somebody that’s been in the game a long time, put out a lot of albums. I know what I’m doing. So when I push my shit back, deal with it. I think a lot of people get caught up in rumors. It’s not fair to Jay, either, the way it’s put on him. But he gotta handle that. You wanna be president of the record label—he gotta handle that. He gotta handle the pressure. He gotta handle the negative talk.

I never needed it. I could pocket my marketing money. I market myself. Sold records on my last album on the strength of my own movement. My record this time will move or not move on the strength of my own movement. I’m not doing a Budweiser commercial. No diss to Jay and them niggas. Whatever. Do what you do. I’m not doing a Budweiser commercial. I don’t want to. If rappers wanna do Budweiser commercials, if they wanna sell the records Jay selling, they need to put the time in that people like Jay put in. I put in Nas time, and I get Nas results. If I got any more, I would feel funny. Everything that happened for me was planned—by me. So people should just realize these are my ideas. This is what I’m doing.

You say you’re satisfied with the situation at your label. It’s no exaggeration to say that puts you in a minority among Def Jam artists.
I don’t know. I can’t find too many people that’s happy anywhere in the state of the business right now.

Yeah, but at Def Jam in particular—
At Sony in particular. Shit is fucked up over there.

But longtime Def Jam artists have been complaining about the way things are run there.
I see where Ghostface shit definitely supposed to have been bigger. It’s just…things are the way they are for whatever reason. I can’t sit here and tell you Ghost’s situation. I don’t personally know it. I just know I would love to see his shit everywhere. But at the same time, Ghost reaching who Ghost supposed to reach. Nas reaching who Nas supposed to reach. Jay reaching who Jay supposed to reach. It’s not gonna be easy for nobody out here.

Ghost came out and did 35,000 the first week. You’re not going to be happy with that.
The marketplace is bad right now. If you want to do big, real business, you’ll wait ’til the market gets better. That’s not my mission right now… Since I said “hip-hop is dead,” I think a lot of niggas is starting to take this shit serious. It ain’t about sales no more. When Kanye killed 50, it was to show you this shit is about something real now. No diss to no rappers I’m talking about right now, but it ain’t about just selling no more. I said hip-hop is dead, and if that helped, then I’m a bad muthafucka. You can’t take that from me. And I feel like this record is the next chapter, going into something bigger. It’s a recession… People are going back to being humble again. Because everybody is not gonna get a big multimillion-dollar advance.

So the downtimes for the record industry are gonna help hip-hop?
Yeah, thank God. People do what they do. I ain’t knocking nobody. But I know one thing: This recession that’s going on—everywhere, not just hip-hop—is gonna produce better artists.

Hip-hop was very much under the microscope last year, beginning with the Don Imus situation. What’s curious about that is that, here we are, nearly a year later, Imus has his job back, and somehow hip-hop continues to be examined because of what he said.
I think Imus was just trying to be cool, trying to be down. And it was a win-win situation for him, because it wasn’t handled properly. I believe in Don Imus’ freedom of speech. Because if we don’t know what people are thinking, how can we solve any problems? If you don’t know what Nas is thinking, how do you know what the people that listen to me are thinking? People tell their kids, “Don’t listen to that.” But you can find out who your kids really are if you listen to what they’re listening to and watch what they’re watching.

Do you think people like Cosby, Oprah, Sharpton or Bill O’Reilly have ever actually listened to a Nas album all the way through?
Hell no!

Can you imagine that?
I don’t wanna imagine that. My shit ain’t for them.

But could they get into it?
If they got into it, maybe that’s telling me something I don’t know. Maybe I don’t know what I’m saying, but I think they would be scared to death if they heard some of the shit I’m saying.

You say the Imus situation wasn’t handled properly. How do you think it should’ve been handled?
When I say that—the same guys come out in every situation. Al Sharpton, I should send him a new pair of gators, ’cause I know his shits have got to be worn out, with all that marching he doing. They need a different approach, a different way of handling a problem that’s now a 21st-century problem. They need a 21st-century approach.

THIS IS ONLY A PREVIEW!
To read the full Q&A with Nas, check out XXL‘s 100th Issue Spectacular (March 2008), in stores now!

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