Nas: Five minutes with a legend
Widely hailed as the greatest rapper of all time, it wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence when Nas announced that he would be doing three intimate UK shows recently. More used to playing huge Arenas and touring with collaborators like Jay-Z and Damian Marley, the set of three London dates at a selection of tiny venues were a rare treat for fans of the icon, ahead of his O2 Arena show in March next year.
After the excitement of his last show, with satisfied fans still filtering out, I am lead to a tiny, inconspicuous room at the side of the stage, and in a dimly lit corner is the iconic MC, lounging casually on a sofa, with just two members of his entourage present. In spite of the modest surroundings, the superstar rapper appears relaxed and unassuming, if a little spaced out.
Despite being responsible for countless hip hop quotes, Nas is notoriously reserved in interviews and when I meet him, conversation is kept to a minimum. My questions are met with short, stripped down replies. He appears aloof from the outset, and as I take my seat in front of Nas, I pick up a sense of vulnerability, even a hint of melancholy about him that makes me discard certain questions before we’ve even begun.
I start by asking Nas how he feels. “Amazing. Good,” he replies indifferently. I try another icebreaker, noting the distinction between tonight and the large venues he usually plays, and how that must really bring up nostalgic memories from the 90s, right? “Great times, yeah” he responds in the same tone, so I ask him if he had an idea when first starting out the extent of how big hip hop would go on to become. “When I first started out I thought hip hop was already big,” Nas replies matter of factly, putting me in my place.
His latest album Life Is Good sees Nas return to the authentic hip hop sound that propelled him to iconic status in the early 90s. This decision would no doubt have carried a degree of risk in today’s musical landscape, where that distinct old school sound characterised by seminal albums like Illmatic would seem arguably unfamiliar to today’s target teenage music buyer. I am therefore interested to know how easy a decision it was for him to take this direction, and whether there was any pressure to add some kind of commercial element to appeal to a new generation.
“No, I think you know the answers to those questions”, he says in a deeply disapproving tone, as if losing patience. “For this album it was important that there was nothing commercial. Commercial has its own reasons to exist that I’m not mad at totally, but this record could not be that.”
I brace myself to ask the next question. “Do you always have full confidence in every single one of your tracks from the start or is there anything that we almost never got to hear, because you weren’t sure about it?”
There’s a big pause. He looks surprised and impressed. “Wow. That’s a serious question!” he says in admiration. Phew. “Of course,” he adds after another long pause, as if he has been using the time to give this point some earnest thought.
“You work and the things that come out great, they come out great. It’s like anything else that you’re working on from scratch. If it doesn’t come out the way you wanted it to, you have to make the decision, should the people hear it, or should you stash it away?”
Although frustratingly he hasn’t elaborated, I move on, conscious that I have been allocated only five minutes with the veteran. Known for his often controversial and varied subject matter, I wonder if there is any topic that he just wouldn’t touch. “I don’t know,” Nas replies categorically, as if the question isn’t even worthy of giving any thought to. Is there anything that he is really eager to tackle next? Perhaps even make a whole concept album on, like he has done on several occasions in the past? “There’s no way I could know that at this point,” he says, putting a firm end to that line of questioning.
Nas seems happier discussing Amy Winehouse, with whom he recorded on his latest single Cherry Wine, saying that he wants people to remember her “with respect”, and that he hopes that her legacy will live on forever; “She was a pure artist. That was my Virgo sister and we shared the same birthday; that speaks for itself”.
As my five minutes in Nas’ company is almost over, I wrap up by asking him how comfortable he is with his legendary status, and whether he ever feels like people expect him to act a certain way as a result.
“No, I leave that for the clowns who get caught up in egos,” he replies in a sullen tone, with an emphasis on the word clowns, as if directed at specific individuals whose names he won’t mention.
“I leave that for those clowns,” he reiterates, snarling. “There are a lot of old school clowns and some new school clowns, but I can’t even call them clowns, because when somebody calls you a legend for so long, a lot of people believe it. They believe their own news clippings. I don’t have time for the news clippings. I got my own mission. No one’s perfect, I’m not perfect, live your motherfucking life; life is good”, he says, referencing his album title.
On that note our chat comes to an end and although it didn’t quite go to plan, I can’t complain, I interviewed Nas. Life is good.Tagged in: Amy Winehouse, Damian Marley, hip hop, Jay-Z, Nas
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