This Saturday, Nas’ magnum opus Illmatic turns 20. The Queensbridge native’s journey into becoming a legendary MC all started with a groundbreaking debut that captured his worldview of the projects through a sharpened lens. XXL is celebrating the monumental anniversary with Nas Week, and we are proud to present you with every cover the iconic rapper has appeared on. Now let us take a trip down memory lane.

Cypress Hill did it. Eminem too. But Nas isn't just burning magazine covers for fun. He's bringing the fight to all media who haven't told his story right. The real Drama King has done it again.

Words: Jermaine Hall
Images: Piotr Sikora

"I don't care about burning these magazines!"

Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones shouts, to whomever might be listening, in his signature hoarse pitch. Standing in a photo studio in Manhattan’s tony Chelsea neighborhood, he pauses to inspect the foreground, where national pubs such as Vibe, The Source, Complex and Fader are scattered around a mock campfire setting, their ends charred like passed-over Fourth of July hotdogs. After careful analysis, he deems the set incomplete. The show will not go on without a medium-rare XXL, he says. And Rolling Stone, the 36-year-old music rag which sports White America’s latest 15-minute infatuation, Ashton Kutcher, on its cover, needs to join the ceremony as well.

Done. With all props in place, Nas picks up his point. “Rolling Stone don’t know what the fuck rap is. Vibe don’t know what the fuck hip-hop is. The Source and XXL are barely on it, you know what I’m saying? Hip-hop has been misrepresented since it’s been on the scene. Hip-hop has never been properly represented 100 percent.”

He who laughs last, as the saying goes, laughs the loudest. And while it’s with more of a smirk, really, than a full-scale guffaw, Nas is raising a sharp and pointy middle finger to the mighty print media. No one publication in particular, but rather all of them. (Ummm... all of us?) All the smarty-pants critics who, nine years ago, anointed his 10-song debut, Illmatic, as hip-hop’s Sistine Chapel, but then slammed its followup, It Was Written, as an over-orchestrated reach for commercial acceptance. Those who chose to dwell on the negative, deeming his twin 1999 albums, I Am... The Autobiography and Nastradamus, artistic failures, even as they both found commercial success. Those meddling muckrakers (Ummm... that’s us again) who feed a celebrity-obsessed public’s hunger for gossip and dirt of the basest sort.

Nas has an elephant’s memory. So the wave of media dick-riding he’s received lately won’t alter his mission. Crown Stillmatic a classic. Praise God’s Son as a work of genius plus passion. Raise his right hand and call him the victor of what was arguably the greatest lyrical competition of our time. It means nothing to the MC who said “Hate Me Now,” the man who believes “the first shall be last.” He’s shootin’—straight at you. (Yup, straight at us.) This is Nas’s revenge.


In our Jan/Feb issue, you were saying that you went on a rampage last year, and that you wanted to start a revolution. But then you realized that, “It was the wrong revolution at the time.” What, in your mind, would be the right revolution right now?
Today’s revolution… It’s so many that’s needed, you know what I’m saying? One in particular—maybe not the most important— but one in particular is a revolution in the music industry. This is a gangsta business, so it’s like all artists go through it. And the shit is straight slavery. It’s supposed to be business, but it’s some real fucking crazy shit. It’s really fucked up, you know? It’s fucked up when you got legendary artists that gotta do fucking alcohol ads. I understand though, a nigga gotta feed his family. He gotta feed his family. And you got artists that’s coming up with hot shit, and some asshole blazing neo-soul. Like, what the fuck is neo-soul? Fuck neo-soul. Music is music. They tried to insult the music years ago and starve artists out and not give nobody credit, and now look. They think it’s a good time for muthafuckas—think it’s a good time to reintroduce it as neosoul, and got muthafuckas doing Coca-Cola commercials and shit just to eat. And these muthafuckas is talented as a muthafucka, but real artists suffer.

So you’re saying that artists are forced to sell out?
The mainstream always likes the cardboardcopy fake shit, that’s the shit that’s the biggest seller. That’s the shit that’s marketable, but it has no real substance. That’s the dumb shit, the fake shit. I mean, not to say that real shit don’t pop. Real shit does pop, you can’t stop real shit from popping. But it’s so many niggas that suffer and wind up having to do shit just to eat—and my heart go with any nigga that gotta feed his family and do what he gotta do. I don’t knock nobody.

It’s disturbing to think that artists like James Brown and Chuck Berry don’t own the publishing rights to their catalogues.
In those days, they was fucking niggas like you wouldn’t believe. In those days… It’s the same shit, man. They break illusion, make their money off Black music and then kick you to the curb at the end of the day. That’s why you gotta get in it, and get your money and be all about your paper.

On “Made You Look,” you said, “They appointed me to bring rap justice...” Do you see yourself as the hip-hop savior?
I think I have been, but everybody plays that part. Cash Money has played that part, Neptunes has played that part, DMX has played that part. So you got all these niggas that’s done it, everybody does it at some point.

Do you really think that everybody’s done it at the level that you have though? I think listening to one of your songs like, “Black Zombie,” leaves someone in a very different state of mind than “Back that Azz Up.” It seems like you’re trying to teach the hip-hop audience.
I think we all play our part, just we have different messages. But we’re all coming around to the same things—living and enjoying this life while we’re here and keeping it real with your niggas and your family. That’s what it’s all about. I’ma say what I feel, that’s just me. I say what I think about, what I talk about, and I just say shit. And that’s what I been spitting from day one.

Is there ever a time when you feel like you’re alone on the crusade?
Yeah, I may be alone on certain situations, but that’s what I do, that’s what I love to do. I love to bring shit to muthafuckas. If more muthafuckas was saying what they really was feeling, this shit would be... ’knawmean? We’d all be teaching. You know what I’m saying? People are too obsessed with their position of being a superstar. I don’t really hear niggas doing anything out of they mouth. There’s so much that can be said. When Muhammad Ali had the mic, he had something to say. I’m not saying it’s everybody’s job, but it should be a lot more muthafuckas that’s doing a lot more so that we can take the game in our hands and own it. All we got is words, but words are powerful. All a nigga gotta do is say it. Muhammad Ali had something to say, I don’t see nobody saying nothing no more. Niggas ain’t saying shit.

You’ve said that you’ve been disappointed in the way that Black people were living—citing Black on Black violence in particular. Do you still feel that way, or have you
seen any improvement?
The shit still goes on. The economy is down so the guns is coming back out more than they was. Shooting somebody else is not the answer, but niggas always want to beef amongst themselves and shit. Always want to bring it to the jungle. I think we’re past that. I think this whole country is run by hip-hop. It’s the whole country, but yet a White dude own the name. A White dude owns that name, “hip-hop.” I think we so close, we right here, we run this shit. But it’s still we ain’t take the crown and put it on our heads yet.

I want to make a statement and you finish it out. Whether it be true or false, you finish it out: Nasir Jones does not want to be a superstar…
I’m underground, man. I mean I sold records, I did a lot of shit, but I’m still underground. And that’s how I like it. I could do records on your pop stations, I could do records like that all day long, but still Nas is underground. I got no control over it, that’s just the reality.

That superstar shit, it’s a double-edged sword. Playing with the limelight, cameras and shit. It’s no joke, you gotta be strong and really get what you want out of it, and leave with a straight head. ’Knawmean?
Basically, man… Anybody can be a superstar. I love what I do, and because I love it muthafuckas can feel that I love it and that’s what’s keeping me around. Every nigga’s a superstar, I think, that shit is whatever. But you gotta pimp it, you gotta get paid when you do it and get power when you do it. You gotta pimp yourself, ’cause the game gonna pimp you for sure.

Let’s switch gears here for a bit. What are your thoughts on the current atmosphere in hip-hop—with battles being so prevalent?
We’re at a time now where it’s time for new niggas. And the only rappers that’s gonna survive is the ones that really do this shit for real. The new rappers coming up, they taking it from what we did, when we was in the ’90s. Just like I came from the ’80s. I came from the ’80s and brought it to the ’90s—and I’m still bringing it. And now the niggas that was brought up off the 90’s shit, off my shit, is coming out and trying to get in the game now. So it’s a good day, it’s a beautiful day. But it’s like, if nobody’s giving no new direction, which way do you go? It’s like, this is the only way you know how to do it. This is how the game was popular from the get, boom—when these niggas battle. Now, where do you take it from here? Niggas wanna be Tupac and Biggie.

So you feel like MCs are thinking, “The game was hot when Nas and Jay-Z were battling, so we gotta keep it going.”

But the stakes seem to be even higher now. People are talking about people’s children, people’s wives. That doesn’t make you like nervous?
Yeah, it does. It shouldn’t be like that. And I pray this shit will go away. Because niggas is for real with it. Niggas out there is for real. Like Ja and them... Ja ain’t playing, you know what I’m saying? And he got other niggas hot. Let’s just be real about it. Shit could get really ugly ’cause it’s a street thing. When it’s a street thing there’s no sense of rhyming, it’s just handle it in the streets. The shit is crazy, it’s fucked up. I just hope the situation will cool out and stay on a hip-hop level, ’cause all of them is my niggas.

Now that your own situation with Jay seems to be calmed down, would you ever do a song with him?
Next question, B.

No? ’Cause I always saw your battle as more competition-based, like an alphamale dogfight. So I thought that when this is all over, you two would probably come together and do some music.
I don’t want nothing to do with him.

Fair enough. Let’s talk about the significance of this book-burning ceremony. What’s this all about?
My whole career magazines treated me bad—except for the first time I came out. I’ve been getting it bad from magazines to the point where I don’t even have to read. I know what they say because it’s so predictable. It concentrates on my personal too much rather than concentrating on the path that I’ve laid or the path that I’m on—the positive shit. I don’t knock the bad shit. It just got boring after awhile. It’s like, I stopped caring years ago.

After my first album—the excitement, I was good. It was cool. The magazines gave me love. After that, all I cared about was getting myself to a wider audience. And after I got to a wider audience, I saw how things started…

You realize that there might be repercussions to your actions?
Fuck the books. Let all of them starve. I ain’t worry about that sucker shit. All that shit is a joke to me anyway. Of course, it’s great publicity. But I personally don’t give two fucks. At one point in my life I did, but these days I don’t know who does care. It’s a fuckin circus. Sometimes it’s cool. It’s flashy, and being published is cool. But for the most part I don’t give a fuck. That’s not to say I won’t do a cover no more. I’m on the XXL cover right now. I’ll still be on covers if niggas want me to be on their covers.

The image will be a strong message to the industry. What would you want the average reader to take from this?
That there’s two layers. There is the business side and there is the creative side. The magazines have nothing to do with the creative, though. Today’s game is: a lot of muthafuckas is looking for overnight success. The way they see it happening is, they think that it was easy for the niggas on the covers. They think it was real easy. And it’s frustrating, because they see you on the cover with the big chain. It’s not the magazine’s fault all the time… It’s sometimes the people looking at the guy or girl on the cover and wanting to be that. But I’m showing you that I have a life before this shit. I have a life that has nothing to do with this. Sometimes I’ll get in a zone where I’m not even thinking about this shit. I’ll go somewhere and forget what I do and only be reminded by watching people’s reaction when they recognize me. Life comes before the music—people should always remember that. People going to school should know that there is other things outside of this shit. Don’t be a slave to illusion… A magazine doesn’t make or break a real nigga.


How do you feel about the other types of music industry media, like MTV?
The first nigga on MTV was Mike Jackson, right? And that’s ’cause Rick James said some shit like, “What the fuck is going on? Why the fuck I ain’t getting no love? I’m killin’ this shit.” And Mike came at the right time and got on that muthafucka. I don’t know—What’s fair? Maybe them muthafuckas is White. Maybe if I was White, maybe I would try to hold on to my power. And you gotta look at it that way, maybe they White and they trying to hold power. Niggas should learn from it and understand the game and flip it on everybody. Why would you want somebody else to take your shit over? We busting niggas down every day with this music—MTV, everything. But people take bits and pieces of it that’s safe and play with it, and put it on TV shows. But they’re really scared. America is so scared of Black power so much. They’re so scared of this shit. Not just hip-hop, but just true shit. They’ve been holding our shit back so fucking long. You gonna fear whatever’s threatening your shit. They really fear the results of a Black power movement.

How would you define the “Black power movement?”
That’s like… not no Colin Powell muthafucka, but a real nigga right there jumping up into office. Hiring real muthafuckas, changing this shit around. If you want to rule something, you gotta really play by some rules. It’s crazy, but that’s just the way it is. Women just been voting for like 68 years or some shit like that. So muthafuckas been on some real shit just by maintaining.

But people get stuck on old rhetoric. A lot of muthafuckas talking about old stories and shit that happened back in the ’60s and ’50s and they ain’t talking about what’s happening right now. I mean, you don’t have to go out there and cut your left nut off in front of the courthouse where Mumia was. Or go run in there and try to free the nigga with a gun or whatever, but I wish we could go out of our way to make a difference right now.

Let’s talk about power in terms of business. You’ve been signed to Columbia Records, a division of Sony, for ten years now. What was your relationship like with Tommy Mottola?
I hardly had a relationship with Mottola. I don’t know how artist-friendly Columbia is. Dead prez got released from Columbia ’cause Columbia don’t understand them niggas. I have friends at Columbia, you know what I’m saying? Donnie, David, my publicist Miguel—who’s a revolutionary muthafucka himself. I got people there. But at the end of the day, it’s a business. It’s a day of business. And they’re not artist-friendly and I don’t want to be friends.

Tommy was giving niggas like Boyz II Men fucking airplanes and shit. He called me up and offered me a house one time, but I buy my own shit. I ain’t never had no fancy shit from the label. I have what I have from what I generate from sales, shows or whatever.

What was your reaction to Michael Jackson’s comments about Mottola being a racist?
First I thought Mike was bugging, ’cause Mike’s a bugged-out muthafucka. But when I saw Tommy was leaving, I said, Maybe there was a method to it. Now Tommy is so-called “fired.” So I don’t know. Mike’s the nigga that did it all, there will never be another Mike. Then you got Tommy— the business nigga for the record label side. So that’s beef on a huge level, ’cause those are two major niggas. Make no mistake, Mottola’s a major nigga.

You’ve been talking about your own label, Ill Will Records, and putting out your brother Jungle’s group, the Bravehearts, for a minute now. How important is it for the Bravehearts album to be successful?
I really just sit back having a ball watching Jungle put it together with his ideas and his direction. That’s the success alone, to actually see this guy who’s always been there now doing his own shit. I love it, it’s already successful to me. Like, just the first stage of this recording. Just seeing that shit, that shit is fun.

Your manager Steve Stoute has somewhat of an unscrupulous reputation. But on your song, “Last Real Nigga Alive,” you said that you’ve grown to trust him. Could you explain your relationship with him?
The nigga—sometimes he’s right, sometimes he’s wrong. But he’s a smart muthafucka that a lot of people have been around, sucking up information. Gaining business just being around him. All types of niggas—rappers, other managers, producers. With me, he’s a smart muthafucka, so there’s some things we see eye to eye. It’s a unique relationship we got, and I think it’s because we’ve been fucking around so long. That was my other half from like ’95 to ’96 on, that was my other half. That was my label, that was my partner. He’s the whole other reason for my whole shit.

You give him a lot of credit...
An artist doesn’t just blow up. He needs a record label, he needs administration. Some niggas is bad on they own, like Dre and LL. Everybody else, we all got our administrative manager, label head, CEO, brainiac, partner, friend who’s involved. Steve is all of that in one nigga. A lot of niggas have a couple of niggas in they camp that help them. I only have one: Steve Stoute. There’s a lot of other niggas that try to manage you, try to work with you or try to partner with you, but don’t even know how to see shit the way I see it.

Have you ever seen the unscrupulous side of Steve Stoute that people talk about?
I don’t air out shit about nobody unless it’s rhyming against them. Besides that, I have to have a real reason to. And that’s why I said what I had to say on “Last Real Nigga Alive.” The nigga get his money his way and niggas can’t understand it when he comes off crazy. To me, Steve’s a friend… Steve’s a money muthafucka. He’s a money muthafucka, and he’s a hilarious muthafucka. Those two qualities make me love him. He know how to get me paper. Likewise, I know how to get him paper. I brought the nigga in to meet R. Kelly. Then Tone and TrackMasters started working with him. I brought him to Dre, I brought him to Tommy Mottola, you feel what I’m saying? I brought him Foxy, I brought him Mary at one point. That’s who we are to each other—we give each other paper. We know the potential we could’ve had if we would have just stuck with each other together, and brought everything else out. We would’ve been two of the most powerful muthafuckas in the word. But he got his life and I got mine and I think we both happy.

Your father, Olu Dara, is a jazz musician. Growing up, you must have learned some things about the music business from him.
Yeah. I’ve been on the road with my pops before, I saw him collect money, I saw him on stage, I saw it behind the scenes. So it’s real. That’s the jazz-playing nigga with a bunch of other street cats. So I saw that, and that alone made me wanna do this for real. I wasn’t never in this shit for play. That’s the difference between me and a lotta muthafuckas. Like Scarface said, last of a dying breed. ’Cause there’s some real niggas left.

And now you’re engaged to be married to someone in the music business. What about Kelis Rogers makes Nasir Jones want to share his last name?
Man, I think only God knows. And probably the fact that my dad and her dad played jazz together. Her dad passed on, and my moms passed on, we both got parents that’s gone. Her moms met my pops, the connection is there. We both some funny muthafuckas, we see life kind of similar, and we got a lot in common and shit. We been through a lot. We both know the streets, we both know the life, so to speak. Her, her way, me, my way. She’s smart, original and creative. I haven’t seen a lot of creative women. I don’t see a lot of creative women with they own shit. They’re all the same. I don’t really see people with their own styles, that’s not scared to do their own thing. So that, I think, made me attracted to her a while ago. I always was like, “Damn, I like that girl. I want that, I want that!” I always felt like that. I had tried to reach out to her. This was years ago, actually. I was trying to record with her. But somebody had put me on the phone with somebody else that wasn’t her. So I gave up on meeting her. So I met her at a time when I wasn’t even thinking about it, it was years from when I was thinking about that. But we hooked up, and it’s like, “Wow!”

It seems like you’re at a point where it matters less what goes on in your career, because you have someone who provides you with peace of mind when you come home.
It’s dope, man. Plus she cooks her ass off all day. You see my stomach is crazy right now. [Laughs] So I don’t care what’s going on. Things are dope, man.