Nas, “The Biography” (Originally Published February 1999)
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.
WORDS & IMAGES XXL STAFF
He Is…THE BIOGRAPHY. True heads love him because he’s Nasty Nas, creator of Illmatic. Gangstas love him because he’s Nas Escobar, creator of It Was Written. With Nasir Jones’ third album, I Am...The Autobiography, the two become one.
To tell you the truth, the true admiration that I got is for the old school. I appreciate the new school; I admire the old school. The old school is niggas like [Big Daddy] Kane. Rakim. I even consider Nas old school. When Nas came out, it was “Live at the Barbeque.” I consider that old school. Nas was on the edge of new school, but when the nigga came out, he came out in the old-school era and shocked the whole fuckin’ world. Nas was somebody that I admired because of the time he came out.—Canibus
Director Hype Williams’ visually stunning morality parable, opens nationwide today. Deep in the winding catacombs of Sony Music Studios, Studio D, a principal star and screenwriter of the film cautiously empties a brown paper bag containing several Dutch Masters cigars onto a 48-track control board. Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones unsheathes a Ziploc bag of herb, briefly glances up at mounted twin televisions displaying Batman Forever, then fixes me with an intent, drowsy glare. “It’ll be funny for a guy who’s going against my album on the chart to say, ‘I’m inspired by Nas,’ because I’m the competition still,” he says. “They don’t wanna say my name. If you say ‘inspiration,’ nobody’s gonna wanna say my name, because I’m looking like the nigga that just came out last week.”
Nas is only 25 and has managed to captivate a dual coterie of fans since debuting on the mic in 1991. It’s hard to tell where the fork in the road began, but the average age of the hip-hop consumer is 17, and that quintessential high school senior was all of nine years old when Nasty Nas, Akinyele and Joe Fatal skewed the track of Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque.” SoundScan reports that Breaking Atoms, the solitary Main Source album, has moved 62,000 copies over the past eight years, and nine-year-olds in ’91 tended to fuck with Kris Kross and MC Hammer. Bottom line, there are Nasty Nas fans and there are Nas Escobar fans. And the twain shall meet on February 23, when the collective catapult his third studio album, I Am...The Autobiography, to the Billboard 200 top spot.
This sort of thing makes Nas an enigma, because when you say you understand Nas, which Nas are you understanding? Some swear by his Illmatic debut, have an intimate knowledge of the Fateful Verse that set hip-hop on its ear (“Verbal assassin, my architect pleases / When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus”) and lost their minds to Main Source gems like “Looking at the Front Door” and “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” banging through house party speakers. Others thrilled to the double-platinum stats, sleek beats and rhymes of It Was Written, connect with materialism and the Mob overtones on The Firm—The Album and have never heard of Main Source. (For the record—lead MC Large Professor, backing DJs Sir Scratch and K-Cut.)
So, is Nas old school? Most hip-hop purists wouldn’t dare designate anyone past the rise of Run-DMC with the title. Nas himself weighs the inherent contradictions while pulling on a hastily rolled blunt. “I like when people acknowledge that I’ve been rhyming since I was 16, busting the shit out at my pace. I think I’ve influenced a lot of people, and that I should have that title as old school, but it would look funny callin’ me that in a way.” Asked to characterize his 1995 “Fast Life” collaboration with original gangsta wordsmith Kool G Rap, Nas begins fiddling with the ostentatious gold QB (for Queensbridge) medallion around his neck. “That’s a reason why it wouldn’t be fair to call me old school,” he says, his voice rising. “Because it wouldn’t be fair to put me in that rank with Kool G Rap, Kane, Rakim. I feel that I’m the offspring of them as far as lyrics. That makes me feel good, though. A lot of people ain’t up on the whole history of how I been rhyming.”
That familiar understated cadence perpetually makes Nas sound like he just rolled out of bed, but if he says he feels good, you take him at his word. Still, you get the feeling that if Nas were a true old-school artist—like Coke La Rock or Busy Bee—he wouldn’t be the type to rant about his underappreciated pioneer status, fishing around for overdue props. Nas is on some Zen shit. He seems to learn from life lessons (like, say, the meager sales of his classic debut, Illmatic) when and wherever they present themselves. Whether his lasting legacy is Nasty Nas or Nas Escobar, old school or new school, Nasir Jones projects the contentment that comes with the confident mastery of any talent. His reputation as a stellar lyricist and sterling MC has long since been cemented. Nas is laid-back for a reason.
“I got a lot of good fuckin’ memories, man. If I die today, I’ll be like, whatever.” And you believe him.
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.
Escobar was born in 1995, in a sweaty session of “Verbal Intercourse” between Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. Nasty Nas was the reinvention of a hungry Queensbridge MC named Nasir Jones, but what does it say when you reinvent the reinvention? Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...—a 90’s masterpiece equally esoteric and in-the-pocket—set it off for the hip-hop appropriation of the Mafia mentality and manifested hedonism to the hilt. RZA, the architect of sound behind the album that birthed Escobar, uses Bobby Digital these days to give voice to his baser instincts. Some folks would rather Nas hadn’t given in to that, hoping he’d assume the great responsibility that accompanies his great lyrical prowess.
Nas begs to differ. “You gotta be real to yourself,” he reasons, sitting in Sony Music Studios. I ask Nas Escobar if the day will ever come when he retires the goodfella, and comes instead with 100 percent knowledge, wisdom and understanding. “Nah, never. I’m uplifting shit. I want shit to rise up, too. But it’s not about nothing else but you and your people around you, how you affect people around you, man. I’m not with nothing except my family and shit.”
I don’t feel the need to play the whole part of the entire movement. But yo, if I just raise my family right, live righteously, I’ll be aiight. My whole life is dedicated to change. — Sincere, Nas’s character in Belly
The Bravehearts close out the Belly soundtrack with “I Wanna Live,” produced by Nas’s It Was Written/I Am collaborators Tone and Poke, of the Track Masters. In time, they’ll be debuting on Nas’s own Ill Will Records, as will Nature of the Firm. The Brave-hearts themselves—Queensbridge native sons Lenny Santiago Horse, Wiz and Escobar’s younger brother Jungle—create their own ruckus in the carpeted backroom of Studio D, drowned out by Noreaga spitting verses on a soon-to-be-released collaboration with Nas. Nas will step into the booth to lay vocals when the muse arrives. Right now, he’s about to tread into a mental chamber, defending the fine points of Escobar excess.
I Am...The Autobiography was originally conceived as a two-CD set, a double dose of Nas for 1999. “I feel like you could waste songs with a double-album,” says Nas. Instead, disc two is scheduled for a late summer release. “I don’t wanna overdo it right now. I’m not sure, when I was 16, if I was able to buy a double-album and also buy whoever else my favorite artist was at the time.”
An overpriced double-CD of tracks including contributions of pilfered-loop cuts by the Track Masters would seem right up Nas Escobar’s alley. Escobar is not the Devil—don’t get it twisted—but after being commercially jerked over Illmatic, Nas has been much more amenable to play the game, so to speak. Fans who discovered Nasty Nas in 1991 didn’t expect future rhymes with Mary J. Blige, pop-targeted singles like “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” or the fuck-enlightenment metaphors of “Money Is My Bitch.”
But that’s the conundrum of the underground. Because if Nas has sold out in any way, shape or form, at least the Firm will never suffer the anonymity of Main Source five years from now. “Mary J. Blige, to be on her single is a honor for me,” Nas reasons. “I don’t see the problem with that at all. Unfortunately, a lot of people did like my second album more than my first album, but a lot of them aren’t from the streets. I think those ones that liked Illmatic, they looked for the same on my next album. I couldn’t make the same album. I hate when a rapper rhymes with the same style, the same story. It shows me that he gon’ be gone tomorrow, basically. The ones that are from the streets respect It Was Written as a maturity level, as growth.”
Nas has reached the point where an MC like Canibus (the first since Nas to receive Rakim comparisons until his Can-I-Bus debut became a bust) can begin to consider him old school. And yet, lyrical connoisseurs who ingest rap stanzas like fine cuisine place Nas with Jay-Z and the late Notorious B.I.G. as top choice. This sort of thing puts Nas in an interesting position, when shameless shams like the Firm’s “Firm Biz” and “Hardcore” (which fully jack Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” and Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore”) can be blown out your mentals, gone and forgiven, with a taste of something like I Am…’s “Blaze a Fifty.”
And the Firm ain’t going nowhere. Earlier in the day, Nas announced to New York City radio personality Angie Martinez and millions of Hot 97 listeners that a sophomore Firm album looms for late 1999. The first was plagued by too many cooks in the kitchen, many substandard Dr. Dre co-productions and the awkward transition from former Firm affiliate Cormega to Nature. “It was more business, no zone,” admits AZ, from the offices of his own Quiet Money Records label. “We all just went in there and laid what we had to lay down. It wasn’t like we sat down at a table and came up with a plan.”
As a Nas Escobar vehicle, it seemed that maybe, in the end, Nas’s heart just wasn’t in it. Maybe the Scarface/King of New York shtick was wearing on him. “When The Firm came out, it was so many people involved with it,” he recalls. “The artists on it, the crew that we started, was on a whole different page. With all the hands involved and things going wrong, it didn’t slide the right way.” Nas is clear on the future direction for the Firm. “It won’t be no Corleone, niggas won’t be yelling out Corleone. I kinda started the gangsta shit and we had to finish it. But nobody’s trying to go to jail, nobody’s trying to live gangsta lives no more. We just music straight for the head.”
Nasty Nas. Nas Escobar. Maybe there’s not such a dissemblance between the two. Expecting a gritty street MC to stay gritty and street is similar to requiring a made-it-big brother to keep living in the projects, forever. Some of Nas’s newest songs—“Project Windows,” “Kids Have All the Fun”—recall the autobiographical poetics of Maya Angelou’s four memoirs, even with the populist gangsta shit woven in. Is there any true cause to be torn? “I try to be a hip-hop purist,” Nas says before finally penning his verse. “But it’s hard to be pure in anything you doing. I’ve been true to the game since I’ve known the game of hip-hop, for whatever that’s worth. If that’s being pure, that’s what I am, ’cause I can only stick to what this shit is. When it changes, I’m changing with it. And I make some of the changes. I can do that, too.”´