Nas Remembers the Making of Stillmatic & Hip Hop Is Dead
Nas's career came full circle in 2011. On "Nasty"—the lead single off of his 10th LP, Life Is Good— fittingly titled after the nickname the Queensbridge MC favored during his early years—God's son spits raw lyrics over stripped down Salaam Remi production reminiscent of hip-hop's golden era.
This year, the babyface MC also celebrates a quartet of anniversaries—each milestones reflecting a crucial stage in his stellar career. His introductory verse on Main Source's "Live At the Barbecue" marked the arrival of rebellious new school lyricist looking to leave his mark in the game 20 years ago. It Was Written, released 15 years ago, was the official coronation of a rap superstar. Stillmatic—released in the wake of a series of commercially successful, yet critically panned LPs, 10 years ago—finally saw God's Son find his footing between record sales and acclaim. Meanwhile, Hip Hop Is Dead documents Nas evolving into an elder statesman holding MCs accountable for what he perceived to be a declining rap scene at the time.
Mr. Jones briefly spoke about the two latter offerings in XXL's November issue. With Stillmatic and Hip Hop Is Dead respectively celebrating 10 and five-year anniversaries next week, XXL offers outtakes that didn't make the magazine. Here, Nas says he and Jay-Z never talk about "Ether," remembers getting Game on a Dr. Dre track when the two were at odds and reveals that Natalie Cole appeared in his "Can't Forget About You" video free of charge.—Carl Chery (@cchery)
XXL: You started calling yourself 'God's Son' on Stillmatic, 10 years after “Live At the Barbecue.” So in 10 years, you went from going to hell for snuffin’ Jesus to being God’s son.
Nas: That’s what that was for me, big time, 100 percent.
How do you feel about the word "Ether" transitioning from being your song title to becoming slang?
That’s what hip-hop has always been. We have our own. It’s a culture thing. It’s a community thing, but it’s also a young people thing, and it’s also, it’s just the way. It’s the way things are. That’s how it’s always been in hip-hop.
Even though Eminem came out with the song “Stan” first, after you called Jay-Z a stan on "Ether," people started using it in that context.
I never even thought of that. Wow! Yea, man. I don’t even take credit for it. That’s hip-hop. That’s what hip-hop does.
You and Jay are friends now. Do you ever talk about "Ether?" Like, “Oh, you got me with that line.”
Not really. I mean, I think right now anybody who’s made it from the '80s era, the '90s, got into hip-hop and still stickin’ around and still here, still feelin’ great about life… I think that’s enough. I think anybody today, any peer of mine is just appreciative of the life that we’ve made for ourselves. We didn’t know anything. We didn’t know that this was gonna be the outcome, that we’d be around at this time doing what we’re doin’. I think everybody’s just on that page.
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With Hip Hop Is Dead, do you feel like that album marks you becoming an elder statesman in the game?
I didn’t go for that. That’s not what I was looking for, but for an MC point of view and a competitor point of view as an MC, yea, I was with that.
Did you have any reservations about sampling “Iron Butterfly” for the second time because you did it on “Thief’s Theme" before?
No, that was the joke. Hip-hop is dead. I’m gonna do the same beat again from my last album that was my last single. This is gonna be the shit again. And will didn’t even know it at the time, will.i.am when he played it for me and I told him that’s why I have to do this record. For me it was perfect. I know people didn’t get it, but it was my little joke.
The album also marks you working with Dre for the first time in 10 years. How did you guys reconnect?
You know, just hounding Dre 'til you get him. I just had to hound my man, you know what I mean? Once he opened up, he had a moment. I jumped right in there. I flew right in, got in the studio. [I'm] always excited to see him in the studio.
Game was on the track, but that was after he got kicked off Aftermath. How did that happen?
That almost didn’t happen, but again, hounding Dre. Staying on him, staying on him, staying on him. “Come on, I need this." You know, [I] stayed on him.
Was he initially like, “I don’t want to put Game on the track or something like that?
Nah, he never said that. It was just, we wasn’t gettin’ any response. We needed a mix and master the song, so we wasn’t gettin’ any response on anything. We had to stay on him. He’s a busy man.
You also had the “Black Republican” joint with Jay on the album. What was that session like?
It was a party. Not like tons of people. Easy party. That was actually us warming up to working together. We never got a chance. Maybe I over-thought it. I needed the beat. I mean, we needed the beat to be crazy. We wanted Dre to do it, then we wanted 'Ye to do it. And I had a timeline and shit. It never would have came out, so I go back to the thought of, “This is rap music. This is bangin’ on the lunchroom table and makin’ a freestyle, so, don’t over-think it. Here it is. Take it, guys. This is what it is." We wanted to get off a crazier joint, but never got around to it.
I know your fans wanted a video for the song.
Yea, we sat down with Spike Lee about it. We had a lot of controversial, crazy Spike Lee ideas. It was a moment, but we never got around to doin’ it.
Speakin of videos. I was watching the “Can’t Forget About You” video and you had Natalie Cole. How did that happen?
She was kind enough to bless us with her presence. The estate was kind enough to let us use Nat’s vocals on the record. At the same time, we did a swap. I did somethin’ on an old Nat King Cole record, so, we were able to make that swap and it was cool. It was somethin’ I was proud of. I wish that if Nat was here, he’d be proud.