Nasty Nas is still a rebel to America. Rob Marriott bears witness.
It ain’t hard to tell, all this week Complex has been celebrating Nas week. On Monday we dropped our Nas cover story. On Tuesday, we gave you Nas’ 25 Favorite Albums. On Wednesday we went deep with Large Professor, who broke down the stories behind Nas classics like “Live At The Barbecue” and “Halftime.”
On Thursday we checked in with producers Salaam Remi and No I.D. to get the scoop on the new album Life Is Good. And yesterday, we get up with Nas, Trackmasters, and Steve Stoute to bring you The Making of It Was Written.
The only way to wrap up an epic week like this is to give you the raw uncut—so here’s the full 10,000 word transcript of Rob Marriott’s epic Nas cover story. So read on to hear Nas talk about New York in the 90s, how Distant Relatives re-energized him creatively, and why his life is so good right now.
Interview by Robert Marriott (@Tafari)
DAY ONE: MEMORY LANE
On the set of the video shoot for “The Don,” Nas took time out to reminisce about New York in the ’90s, back when the city was more gritty.
All of those guys needed guns. So when those guys need guns, everybody needs guns. Then it’s guns, guns, guns, guns, guns, and the shit got too hard. Everybody was just way too hard.
People were just too strapped, man. Too strapped. That’s why you can’t hang out in the streets of New York no more. It’s too fucking crazy. Man, in the ’80s, there wasn’t guns everywhere. In the late ’80s, you had to have guns because everybody was getting rich.
But in the early ’80s there wasn’t guns everywhere—not at all. There were shootings, of course, but it wasn’t like everybody was on some shoot-’em-up bang-bang shit. I saw the transition from not a lot of guns to way too many, and then now, they’ve cleaned it up.
The Albee Square mall had an energy in that shit. That mall? The fact that you were there was a big deal. Like, “I’m in Albee Square mall.” You heard all this sh*t about it. “Don’t go there. They’re going to rob you. But they’ve got the best sneakers.”
Everywhere you walked, you had to be on point. Like, we used to come down to Delancey Street when we were kids, looking for leather bombers and sheepskins and shit like that. And you knew that you had to bring your guys with you, because somebody would rob you or...
That’s the edge that you had on you, and you felt cool, like, “Yeah. I’m here. I’m on Delancey. What you want?” Every year I’d shop there around this time for Easter, which was the scariest time, because that’s when they know people are shopping.
The Albee Square mall had an energy in that shit. That mall? The fact that you were there was a big deal. Like, “I’m in Albee Square mall.” You heard all this shit about it. “Don’t go there. They’re going to rob you. But they’ve got the best sneakers.”
“Don’t go there. They’re going to rob you. But that’s where the fat gold chains are at.” “Don’t go there. They’re going to rob you. But Big Daddy Kane was standing in there.” So how could you not go? It was an adventure to walk in that motherfucker.
In Brooklyn, at that time, petty theft was like a rite of passage. Cats would move 40 deep and just rob everyone in their sight.
They’d take the sneakers off your feet, Cazals off your face, your bomber jacket.
They’d look at you like, “Oh word?” Once they’re lining their feet up with yours, you know it’s over.
They were sizing up your feet to see if they fit. Once somebody goes, “Hey, what’s your size?” “Your size, punk.” They’d punch them in the face. That was the shit.
I remember, I don’t even know if it was urban legend or what, but there was two guys and they were taking his sheepskin, and they said, “You got anything else on you?” One guy said, “No” and the other guy smiled. He had gold teeth in his mouth, so they killed him.
So you’re hearing shit like that, yet you’re going to the store to buy gold teeth.
New York was ill, but you felt like you were part of something. The whole city had this energy.
All the booksellers.
Clothes vendors outside, car shows. In ‘89, if you went up to where the Apollo was at on Saturday and Friday nights, you’d just stand outside all night long, watching the illest cars and the most beautiful girls. People driving not even one mile per hour.
Like how they do in California on Slauson or Crenshaw. That’s how 125 was.
Except not old Chevys. It was foreign cars. The most exotic shits. Like, Mike Tyson in a Lamborghini truck. That kind of shit. Like, “What the fuck is that?” “Oh, that’s Mike Tyson in a Lamborghini truck.”
DAY TWO: THE Q&A
Life Is Good will be your 10th solo album. Is this a watershed moment for you, or is it just another album?
Yeah, this is different. The way you work, your approach, it’s different each time. So now, I’m definitely at a cool, mature, easy place.
Like Jordan, in his latter days, where it was just the essential moves.
You’re coming off of Distant Relatives. You’re one of the few cats that I know that can do gangster and Rasta, can hang out with both, and still kind of maintain your frame of reference. How do you negotiate that line? It’s like, the Nas problem, actually. It almost seems contradictory—Rasta and gangster—but is it?
Nah. “The Don” actually came from hanging around Rastas. That’s how we would greet each other when I was around the Marleys. That’s just big boss business. From the Rasta culture is where I started saying “don” recently. But nah, I feel like it shouldn’t just be a Nas thing. It should be that everybody who does music should feel free to do whatever they like to do.
With me, I’m an artist. I like to make the music that I like to make... If not, then you’ll be stuck making-believe to be a character, instead of being you. And I’ve seen that happen to a lot of artists.
When people put on images or they stick with one thing that they’re promoting, like just being a gangster or just being a street guy, then you’re really limited to what you can be doing. You’re your own worst enemy, because you feel like you can’t do music that you like to do.
With me, I’m an artist. I like to make the music that I like to make. You don’t think about it like, “I’m doing this one day, then I’m doing that.” You’re doing you. So there’s different layers to what you do, and you have to explore those different layers. If not, then you’ll be stuck making-believe to be a character, instead of being you. And I’ve seen that happen to a lot of artists.
Yeah. You become a caricature of yourself.
Well, you really start to sell an image that died a long time ago, because you didn’t grow, instead of being real. When I think about that, I say, “Damn. Am I more musical than most of my peers? Is my love for music and my affinity for it way bigger than my peers’? Is that the case?” I question myself, when I don’t see more people doing more with their music.
When I first heard about Distant Relatives, I was very excited about it. And I thought about a lot of arguments I would have with die-hard Nas fans. Did you feel that pressure, when you were making that move and starting to open up into that other realm?
Not really, because there is artists that came before me that people didn’t understand or who people thought should be what they wanted them to be. I call them fantagers. That’s just what it is, but I’m not the first. If I was the first one to have different points of views and want to share that with people and music and catch criticism for it, then I would be feeling myself like I’m...
The end-all be-all.
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s not the case. There’s tons of artists before me to do that. The thing about it is that as much as the people want you to be a certain way, you can’t suffocate like that. If you suffocate like that, then I hope it pays off for you, by feeding the people what they want, all the time. That’s just not in my DNA. I’m just someone who’s enjoying the journey of life, and I’m having a good time doing what I do.
When you did “Memory Lane” you were 16 or 17, and it’s like, how are you going that deep? You were so precocious, you spoke like an elder. Now that you are an elder in the game—a veteran—do you feel like a circle has been completed at this point? Like when I listen to “The Don,” it smells and tastes like when I was first hearing you on those first three or four records. I think of “Ghetto Prisoners” when I hear “The Don.” All of those records had this real metaphysical touch.
Like, on this last one, “The ink of a scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr.” Where does that come from? And what moves you to write stuff like that now?
Well, I would say to the young aspiring artists who are just starting, and the novices of rap: say what you want to say, and speak what you really feel. If people don’t get it at first, or it seems too heavy for people, that’s just what it is. I ran into it, where I, at times, toned it down. I started to tone it down, throughout my career.
I would say to the young: If you tone it down, still make it come off beautiful. Not everything I did came off beautiful. It came off as if I was trying to still be relatable to some people who don’t really get me.
When you go from those words in, “True in the game as long as blood is blue in my veins...” I wanted to tone it down, because the things that were really selling and winning...I started to feel like kind of a nerd, when I was a young dude, and that wasn’t what I wanted to get across to people. I wanted to be relatable. And that was part of my mistake, because I toned it down a lot.
I would say to the young: don’t. If you tone it down, still make it come off beautiful. Not everything I did came off beautiful. It came off as if I was trying to still be relatable to some people who don’t really get me, because I saw the bigger picture. And in order to exist, I felt like I had to tone it down. So for a long time, I did.
Was there a moment where you said, “I don’t have to tone it down anymore?” Was it one moment, or was it a gradual thing? I remember thinking, like on God’s Son, when your mom died, you opened up.
Yeah, definitely. That was my reconciliation with God. For a minute—as a young man, who questions everything about life—I thought, “If there’s a God, why are people suffering?” I was rebellious. Extremely rebellious.
When the God’s Son album came, that was me at the foot of the most high, just saying, 'I’m your child, and I need you, right now. You don’t need me. I need you,' like Muhammad Ali said. That’s what I was going through.
So when the God’s Son album came, that was me at the foot of the most-high, just saying, “I’m your child, and I need you, right now. You don’t need me. I need you,” like Muhammad Ali said. That’s what I was going through.
So songs like “Heaven (Was A Mile Away),” people weren’t really used to hearing hip-hop artists really have a hardcore record dealing with God and heaven. I’m not the first, I’m sure, but to me, that was a great song, dealing with heaven and all of that.
Yeah. It reminded me a little of Scarface.
He also...his spirituality is so profound.
Oh, man. Yeah.
He’s more a preacher than a rapper.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. So at that point, I started to feel like, “Yo, I don’t care no more,” but even then, I kept it a little toned. So it’s at this point here, with this album, as I’m finishing it, it’s about to be just free. Like, I’m saying what I’ve got to say, and that’s what it is.
It’s partly like a right you earn. You don’t have the same options when you’re coming up, because you’re still trying to establish yourself or whatever.
You know, they say you’re once a man and twice a child, because children and old people tell the truth.
Let me ask you this, when you said, “My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails/I reinforce the frail with lyrics that’s real/Word to Christ.” When I hear that, I hear that kind of God-body ...Like, you understand what words really are, what the magic of it is. You know, Christ was the word made flesh. Do you feel that, in your body of work, you’ve used the word properly? Is it a gift you’re given, and then you choose how you use it? Or is it like you’re not really making any decisions on that level?
Yeah, I’m not making those decisions. You just let go, and let it flow. Whatever comes out, that’s what comes out.
I just heard the song “Daughters.” I’m curious, what’s the most important thing that you want to teach your son, for example, about women?
Well, the thing about life is that you never know what words someone is going to hold onto. Like, he has to have his own life. My experience could be the wrong thing for his life and what’s ahead of him. A lot of older people are giving people the worst advice, based on the problems they had.
I think each generation should have it better than the last, and I think he’s born into a new world, where the information age is out of control, and no matter what I say... What I say is based off of what I’ve seen in the ‘80s, the ‘90s and my life currently. What he’s going to see, I’m going to need him to tell me what to do.
I just want [my son] to hear what I’ve got to say, and then make his own decisions. That’s the best thing he could do.
That’s what I’m looking forward to. He’s going to know what it is. Because if I’m here, we’ll talk. If not, he’s going to figure it out on his own. I think he’s going to pretty much look at... He’ll take his mother, he’ll take her words, he’ll take my words, and then there’s the truth. So whatever he feels, he’s just got to go with his heart, and just know that... Just be a man, in every occasion.
Okay. So the same would apply with like, money? In terms of the lessons that you feel like you must show him?
I just want him to hear what I’ve got to say, and then make his own decisions. That’s the best thing he could do.
“Daughters” was an emotional record. It hit me hard, just now. What made you so honest about it?
Well, this is the first time I’m dealing with a teenage daughter, and it blew me away. I don’t know that you’re ever prepared to be a parent. Once you become one, that’s your responsibility. It’s more like me talking to myself, about how I could have been there a lot more. I guess. I kind of beat up myself, in a lot of ways, for not being the best I could be. A lot of times, I would ask her: “Am I a cool dad?” or “Am I good dad? Am I OK? Did I fuck up?” And she would be like, “Nah, you’re good.”
She would tell me that, but it’s something that’s really important to me: just being the right parent. That’s important to me, because I started as a teen. I was a teenage parent. I was around 19, when her mother was pregnant, and probably 19, maybe 20 when she was born.
How can I be mad, when I still have something else to say and the opportunity to make music? That alone...That’s why my Life Is Good.
What’s interesting about “The World Is Yours”—and she wasn’t pregnant when I wrote the words—"Thinking of words best describing my life, to name my daughter/My strength, my son, the star, will be my resurrection." I couldn’t control what I had.
Right now, they have all kinds of drugs to alter the gender of your baby, but I never had that. For me to say this in my music, before it happened, it really blew me away. So all these things are segues back to what the most high laid out, before we were born. She means a lot to me, man. It’s just a record that came from the heart.
You talked a little bit about regrets, and looking back. I always wondered, do you feel like you got punished for surviving, on some level? Like, Big and Pac have this untouchable thing now, and as you and, say, Jay, get older, there’s a lot more hate on your image and on your legacy, in a sense, because you’re still here. I always wondered how you felt about the expectations after Illmatic, and your life as an artist.
My thing now is that, I think I’m really blessed to be here and that I can go into the studio and record another album. If someone has a problem with how I’m doing my thing, how I’m living my life, how they see a legacy of mine going down, that’s none of my business. They’re free to have that. How can I be mad, when I still have something else to say and the opportunity to make music? That alone...That’s why my life is good.
So do you ignore the internet?
What do you mean?
What’s your relationship with the blogs, the commentary, Twitter?
I hear people get mad at things that people say, and I don’t really get that. If I was on Twitter, talking about an artist, than that’s just what it is. I don’t understand how artists get pissed off at people on Twitter. Me, I’m someone who appreciates a good joke. I grew up, we joke. I think people should do what they do.
I mean, who are you? Not to say that people should have the toughest skin, and nothing bothers them, but how do you really...? Maybe it’s just my age. Maybe I just don’t get it. I love anything someone’s saying, because if someone took the time to think about what I’m doing, I’m in awe of that—still. Even if it’s negative, man, because they’re talking about me. That to me is amazing. I mean that.
Even now, 10 albums later?
Well, the thing is also that I know who I am. I know what I’ve survived, and I know what I’ve done, and I know that shit wasn’t easy. So for someone, who doesn’t know anything about that, to make a comment on it, you can’t be mad at them.
I don’t understand how artists get pissed off at people on Twitter. Me, I’m someone who appreciates a good joke. I grew up, we joke. I think people should do what they do.
You shrug it off.
Of course, they don’t know any better. They’re supposed to say those things.
Talk to me about how you were initiated into hip-hop. When did it go from something fun to something very serious? I remember when I first heard “My Melody,” for example, my world shifted. And it wasn’t just music to memorize or have fun on the bus with. It turned into something that was of value to me, on a deep, kind of spiritual level. I can think of certain basement parties, where I felt initiated into a secret knowledge, almost. Do you have those moments?
For myself as a fan?
Yeah. I guess it was 92 KTU, jams in the park, DJ Hot Day, the Orr brothers, who lived in my building. They would build speakers so big they couldn’t even bring them outside their apartment, so they would just blast it. The whole building would be rumbling, from inside the apartment. Different people, man.
Different people. Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, Run-DMC, the “Rock Box” video, and of course, MC Shan. MC Shan was everything to me. “Marley Marl Scratch,” all of that shit, “Beat Biter,” of course “The Bridge,” the anthem. Marley Marl and MC Shan were probably the hugest influences for me in hip-hop.
Rakim shows up a lot, in terms of influence. In a weird way, Slick Rick.
What was special about them for you? Kool G. Rap, Rakim and Slick Rick.
They were the illest. They were just the illest. I think when I heard Rakim say, “Marley Marl synthesized it.” that let us know that we were listening to QB music. Me being from QB, and him mentioning Marley Marl, and Marley Marl having something to do with his first record, to us, we felt like we owned it. “Eric B. Is President,” we felt like we made up the wop in Queensbridge, because the record was recorded there. When MC Shan said, “This is a place where stars are born,” it didn’t just mean people from the neighborhood. People would come to Queensbridge, because of Marley Marl, to start their thing off.
Hip-hop music was educating America, and Rakim adding seven-times-seven-times-three was such a big deal. It showed you how his mind worked. It showed you the intelligent side. That appealed to me.
And you listen when Rakim said, “You take seven emcees and put them in a line.”...The human race has developed nicely over the years, but in the ‘80s, there was a lot the human race was ignorant about, and that was multiplication, STD’s, so on and so on.
Hip-hop music was educating America, and Rakim adding seven-times-seven-times-three was such a big deal. It showed you how his mind worked. It showed you the intelligent side. That appealed to me. With Kool G. Rap, his wordplay was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard in my life. Slick Rick was Dr. Seuss meets Sherlock Holmes meets the Bronx.
Yeah. Like, where did he come up with that character? I used to hate Dana Dane for just even sounding like him.
I used to be like, “Nah, that’s Slick Rick’s lane, even if I like those records.”
Then you find out later that they were in a crew.
Yeah. Just the pure unadulterated creativity.
“La Di Da Di” didn’t even have a...
Video, a record deal...
They didn’t even have a beat.
It was Doug E. Fresh.
“La Di Da Di” is one of the most brilliant records ever recorded.
For him to just break out in song, he was definitely the first guy to add this little...
Young guys ask me, “Yo, I don’t think young guys get the credit that the old guys get, because the old guys came first,” and I just laugh. I say, “The young guys deserve the credit that they deserve, and the ones that came before them—the Slick Ricks and them—they deserve the credit that they deserve. Don’t compare them. It’s just different.”
Biggie went platinum. That changed everything... Biggie and Diddy figured that out for us New Yorkers. They were saying New York is dope, but they don’t sell records. Biggie changed that, and I was a part of that movement. So what happened was all these artists are now in a business where you can actually make a big difference in a shorter time period. So it was the gold rush.
To this day, no one has ever done anything like “La Di Da Di.” To this day. It just is what it is. I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen. Like, “My Melody” helped the human race evolve. It contributed to us evolving. The records today are helpful, in a lot of ways, but those records are what they are. You can’t take nothing from them.
From my perspective, I saw almost like two wings of hip-hop, intellectually. There’s like this Islamic five-percenter wing, that had this influence straight out of New York. Then, there’s the more west coast, Chicago gangster philosophy. But it’s really from the same root. So the Rasta, five-percent New York influence, and then the Chicago, west coast black panther kind of thing, built this intellectual kingdom. I feel like Rakim was kind of like a Solomon. Then, you came next, but one of the builders was Kool G. Rap. One of the builders was KRS-One. And it really shifted society with these words. Did you feel aware of that, when it was happening?
I was fully aware. I was a kid, but I think everybody was fully aware. I was a kid, but the way that I was bugging off of “My Melody” was the same way that the older dudes were bugging off of “My Melody.” We were on the same thing.
We were bugging together. We were learning together. So yeah, maybe in school, we didn’t pay attention to what seven-times-three was, because we didn’t care. How does it apply to our lives? But when a rap artist says it in our language, we learn faster.
After It Was Written, there was a lot of distraction in Queensbridge. Things had kind of come together during that period, like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, you, Nore. A lot of artists came together and built this thing, and then the energy dissipated, almost. There was a lot of politics that got involved. What happened?
It was our first gold rush of our generation in hip-hop. Biggie went platinum. That changed everything. When the guys that came before us’s sales weren’t as great as they once were, and you didn’t hear as many records as you used to from all the guys that came before us, it was a new turn for a new artist.
And with that new turn, the world’s different, and there’s ways to sell more records now. Biggie and Diddy figured that out for us New Yorkers. They were saying New York is dope, but they don’t sell records. Biggie changed that, and I was a part of that movement. So what happened was all these artists are now in a business where you can actually make a big difference in a shorter time period.
So it was the gold rush. Everybody was like, “Yo, this could happen, for real.” So I think everybody just ran to one gold mine and it got cluttered at the door, and everybody’s pushing, and people like myself had to just find a different hole so that everybody’s not running into one hole. Everybody should just follow their own self and do their own thing. That was around ‘96.
That was also around the birth of the real king of New York push and pull. I remember that line you got at Biggie, “There can only be one king” kind of thing.
That’s when the KONY crown was formed, and then obviously it manifested into Jay-Z versus Nas. In retrospect, do you feel like there really is a big difference between you and Jay, in terms of philosophy and how you approach your music?
I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t really have an answer for that. I don’t want to do too many Nas/Jay-Z questions. He’s him and I’m me.
Coming back into more recent times, I like that “Triple Beam Dreams” record you did with Rick Ross and the new one you did for the album. When was the first time you worked with him and how did these last two records come up?
The first time, I think, was on one of his albums for a song called “Usual Suspects.” These songs recently, he sent me a track and a title and I sent him a track and a title. It’s just that simple. I like his music. I mess with the guys whose music I like, so that’s why we get down.
I think he’s really one of the most gifted A&R rappers. He gets the right artists on the right tracks.
Yeah, and his delivery is crazy.
He’s got that Biggie quality, where it’s cinematic.
Do you feel competitive with artists, even if they’re friends, when you get on a track?
Nah, never. My whole thing is to just do a great performance, so that the record is great, and so that I contribute to a great record.
Did you feel that Distant Relatives re-energized you, creatively? It felt that way.
I can only imagine you building with the Marleys in the studio and where those conversations would lead.
Yeah. It was all of that. It was the conversations. It was the music that we were choosing to get on. Those things opened me up. I wanted to be on music that was good. It took me to a different place, and it freed me up. It freed me up from the bullshit out there. It kept my shit real. That’s how I approach everything now.
I don’t waste any more time with entertaining you with a verse. I just want to keep the shit real. We’re all in the entertainment business, and you have tons of entertainers, and I’m in that game, but what I’m saying at this point is that I’m at a point where everything is going to be really close to my life. It’s going to be a lot closer to my life—not just rhyming acrobatics.
I don’t waste any more time with entertaining you with a verse. I just want to keep the shit real. We’re all in the entertainment business, and you have tons of entertainers, and I’m in that game, but what I’m saying at this point is that I’m at a point where everything is going to be really close to my life. It’s going to be a lot closer to my life—not just rhyming acrobatics. It’s just a lot closer to me and how I feel.
That record you did about Kelis...It’s funny, because one of the questions that I was going to ask was what made you fall in love with Kelis, and what made you want to marry her, and you kind of answered it on that record. How hard was that break-up, and what was the feeling when she had your first son, and you were already separated?
Well, there was a point where we were trying to hold onto a relationship that was finished, and she was pregnant, and she was in the studio while we were recording Distant Relatives every once in a while, and he would move when the music would come on.
That was a great feeling for me, just to have that feeling of family. So when it ended, that was around the time the record was being done. It was done. So the record kind of helped me focus on something else other than myself during that time.
There were times when it didn’t bother me, and there were times when it bothered me a lot. There were times when I was thinking to myself, “Damn. I had this shit all planned out, and now I’ve failed.” With this relationship, we failed.
That was hard on me, because you don’t like to fail at anything. So just accepting that I failed at this relationship—and it was really public—was really...it messed me up. You start to feel like that person was cold; How could that person be so cold? And I’m sure she felt the same way about me; How could he be so cold? It was ugly.
So being on records with sounds that were beautiful, I think the music on Distant Relatives had some really nice therapeutic sounds, and some great topics. It was mixture of rap and reggae. It just gave me a better feeling about the future. It made me really happy about being able to continue to do what I do and do new stuff. That helped my whole life out, man.
You did a lot of touring with that, too.
Yeah. The Jamaican culture, their whole thing is peaceful. So the way that Damian rocks, how he talks, what he is—it’s all real. It’s all relative, and it’s insightful. Just being around that gave me a different side of life. That opened me up to a different spirituality, and I was so engulfed in what I was experiencing touring with Damian that it subsided the divorce thing. I was having a great time.
I remember when we talked in Miami, you said you had actually gone to Chichen Itza—the pyramids in Mexico—and you obviously just went to Egypt, not too long ago.
My son just went to Egypt. I was in Egypt about four or five years ago.
Do you study ancient civilizations? Is it something that you read about? Your information on it is vast.
Yeah. I always have.
Just accepting that I failed at this relationship—and it was really public—was really...it messed me up. You start to feel like that person was cold; How could that person be so cold? And I’m sure she felt the same way about me; How could he be so cold? It was ugly.
Who introduced you to that?
Both of them?
Yeah. Those were the books that were in my crib. Those books were in my crib, the book of the dead.
Do you see the world changing the way they talk about it with 2012 and the calendar?
I’ll just say that those people weren’t primitive. Those people were more advanced than we are, and if they left something behind for us to read up on, we should read up on it. I don’t think all things repeat themselves all the time. I believe there’s changes in the universe. Do I believe the world is going to end right now? Not really, no. I don’t. I feel like things are going to end, but I think that we’ve got a lot more life to live, the human race.
That video with Damian, where everyone’s kind of marching like an exodus, I saw it as a metaphor, like a state of consciousness.
What are your expectations with this new album?
I don’t know, man. The streets are into the street, and the songs on this record are not all street. Again, we talked about the fantagers, who want to see you do it a certain way—and if not, it’s to hell with you. So that’s up to them to decide. I just hope that people just remember that it’s music. Enjoy the music. I’m always going to push myself to do stuff that’s honest. That’s what I do. So I hope that it gets the appreciation. That’ll be cool. That’s it.
Do you like the state of hip-hop now? Do you get a good feeling from the new records, the new artists, the new approach to hip-hop?
I’m just happy that hip-hop has embraced the new artists in such a way that they can see all their dreams come true, because this is not something that I want to go to the grave with—just me, in a selfish way, to experience.
I wish that for everyone, to really be embraced by hip-hop the way that Drake is being embraced and to have that, because you can take that experience and give so much back. It’s just a beautiful thing to see your dreams come true. That’s what it’s about.
Being, “Oh, he’s the best. His show was amazing. He uplifted people. He inspired people.” I wish that for everyone, to really be embraced by hip-hop the way that Drake is being embraced and to have that, because you can take that experience and give so much back. It’s just a beautiful thing to see your dreams come true. That’s what it’s about.
Do you know how many artists died angry or disgruntled? Do you know how many older artists walk around disgruntled now, because they didn’t achieve what they... Athletes who didn’t achieve the money or the fame or the credit that they deserved. So when I see someone become successful, I’m like, “Yeah. That’s another one that made it.” I love it.
What do you listen to in your private time? Are you a soul head? Do you listen to hip-hop?
I listen to it, when I get in the zone. I listen to it. It gets me in the zone. But yeah, I’m listening to Frank Sinatra. I’m listening to Isaac Hayes. But then, I just bought Let The Rhythm Hit Em, and I called Eric B. and just asked him questions about it, the recording process and things like that. It’s whatever I feel during that day.
Who, from other genres, do you like right now?
I like Gotye. He’s got this electronic sound, but it sounds like Herbie Hancock. It’s something that’s refreshing to hear again. I like...
Do you fuck with The-Dream?
I like The-Dream. The-Dream is serious.
Tell me about working with No I.D.
We did a block of work. I don’t know how much of it will be on this album, because we did a lot of stuff. Maybe it can be on The Lost Tapes 2, or I can tweak it, and it’ll be good for the next album. But it was dope, because No I.D. is an artist himself. He’s a producer, but he’s an artist. He thinks like an artist.
No I.D. is an artist himself. He’s a producer, but he’s an artist. He thinks like an artist. He thinks ahead. He thinks about what’s good for music, and he’s true to what he believes in.
He thinks ahead. He thinks about what’s good for music, and he’s true to what he believes in. You want to talk about conversations? You should interview him one day, man, on any topic, and he’s right there, sharp. So it was dope working with him, because he gets it. He gets what I want to do, and he’s right there with me.
And Salaam—your musical brother—some of your greatest records, I think, have come from that collaboration.
Salaam’s easy to work with, and he’s not in any competition with the current thing that’s happening. He’s not trying to do the current thing. He’s always has his sound to whatever he’s doing. And he’s in my age group, so we’re both Queens dudes who grew up on Rap Attack, Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, snorkel coats, Green Acres Mall, coliseum, Jamaica, Queensbridge. All of that shit is our relationship and that’s what makes it so much fun to work.
I always thought, like, you don’t need more than a break beat, generally. That sound—like late ‘80s, early ‘90s—that’s your sweet spot.
Yeah, and I would hate to see that era go away. I want to always keep my foot in that. Not both feet, but it’s important for me to keep that going, just for myself and the people that enjoy that.
That was the “Made You Look” lineage. There’s a couple of records that are in that line. “Ghetto Prisoners” too.
Tell me what different about that era and this era for you? I always wonder, was the music better, or were we younger?
The music was definitely better. Let’s not even have that as an argument, because if you compare just a third of the music from that era to half of what’s going on now, there’s no competition. That music wins, hands down. When you’re in the club, and that era shit comes on, you feel like, “Okay, this DJ is well-rounded. He could take me in any direction. I’m safe. I’m going to have a good time, right now, if he goes into that little section of his spinning.”
You know he’s informed.
He’s informed, and he’s got that feeling. I think today, the conversation starts...We’ve heard people talk about Benz’s before, but I like to hear it when Ross talks about it, because his experience in the Benz or in the Maybach is different from my experience in the Maybach. He makes me relive riding around the city in the Maybach. He reminds me of what’s so fly about it, because it’s his first time experiencing it, and he’s doing it to you. He makes it cinematic. So I love hearing dudes today, who just got their first chain or just bought their first house.
Because it’s still realness.
It’s still realness, and their explaining the experience, and you could never get used to that.
Yeah. It’s always going to be fresh, when it’s coming from a fresh perspective.
Yeah. My conversation is going to be different than theirs. So I need to go hear what they’re saying. Our conversation can’t be the same. On the album, every song is going to be what I’m living today. And I’m sure, at some point, those dudes will take a listen, to check out what I’m talking about, what’s going on over here.
I think that’s what makes hip-hop eternal. It resurrects itself, and it corrects itself.
Yeah. I don’t have the energy for the women that Wayne fucks in his songs. So I need to hear his songs, so I can reminisce like, “Yeah. I was a bad boy back then.” I can listen to Wayne and reminisce on that [Laughs]. I don’t have that energy no more.
How has your relationship with women changed, now that you’re older and you’ve been divorced?
When I see them now, I’m just taken aback by the beauty of women. Yeah, there was a time when I only saw big breasts and thick asses. Now, I see the beauty in the subtleties. Those are even better than the tits and the ass. The aesthetics have just changed, for me. They became something else.
It’ll be how a woman smiles or her specific shape.
Michelle Obama, to me, is the most beautiful woman on the planet.
It may just be something that you don’t see often. She might not be the prettiest or the most video, but there’s something super special about her...
That makes her pretty. No disrespect to women when I say bad bitch, but my definition of a bad bitch is not always the video vixens. A bad bitch could be a younger woman, in her early 20’s, but wise beyond her years. It could be a woman in her late 30’s, who’s cool as hell and smart and has great motherly qualities, or she’s great with her children, or has great motivational skills or is a powerful mover and shaker in her own career.
Like Michelle Obama is sexy to me.
Michelle Obama, to me, is the most beautiful woman on the planet.
Just her presence.
You can feel that she feels.
Right. She cares about people. Like, all first ladies have their jobs to do, but you can definitely feel her sincerity.
Those are the new aesthetics, for me, that I love about women.
You always seem to have an awareness about energy. Do you read people’s energy? I see vampires, sometimes. I see a person, and I can just sense that I’m not going to win in this exchange, if I stay too long.
Right. That’s a gift. I feel that I’m gifted in that way, maybe cursed in that way, too. I definitely see it for what it is. I sense energy, big.
Why do you say it’s a curse?
Because sometimes, being oblivious to things—ignorance is bliss. You just go about your life and mosey on along, and nothing bothers you, and it’s cool. But when you see it, it bothers you. It weighs on your mind, and then it becomes a matter of your decisions. You have to make decisions, based on this energy.
One time, I was with some Japanese cats, and we were talking some business. We were talking about meeting some financiers from Japan, and we were going to go there to meet them. And he gave me some insight about what we were about to walk into.
He said, “Listen, these guys don’t care if you’re the biggest star in the world or how you do this or that, or that people are into your brand. They want to sit down and check your aura and your energy. That’s how they’re going to do this deal. They’ve got money. It’s not about making money. They just want to be around great energy.” And that’s always been a part of me. Once I sense wack shit in people, I’m off of it. I don’t care how they look at it. I’m off of it.
I feel like, there’s too many artists that are stuck in the ’90s, and they feel like, if it doesn’t sound like the ’90s, it ain’t hip-hop. That’s bullsh*t. That’s them making excuses for themselves, because they didn’t know how to evolve, and their sh*t is a wrap
You spoke about brand, and I think about all these rappers that got stuck in the ‘90s. Technology changed a lot of it, communicati
ng with your fans, being in the spotlight. The rules are changed, in a lot of ways.
How do you negotiate the new media?
First of all, I feel like, there’s too many artists that are stuck in the ’90s, and they feel like, if it doesn’t sound like the ’90s, it ain’t hip-hop. That’s bullshit. That’s them making excuses for themselves, because they didn’t know how to evolve, and their shit is a wrap. Their career is a wrap. They know their shit’s a wrap, and they’re trying to make excuses about why they don’t like hip-hop. They should retire. There’s so many artists, I should list them. I should list them. There’s so many who should retire, and I think it’s obvious that they should retire. I think today, if you’re an artist, if you really love music, we’ll know. We’ll see the things that you are doing, we’ll hear it in your music.
We’ll judge a tree by its fruit.
Yeah. Like, when I did “Nasty,” I did that on purpose. That was done purposely to sound ’90s, just because we wanted to. We didn’t expect to be hailed as whatever, because we did that. We just have the ability to do it. I’m from that era, so we just wanted to do it. That doesn’t mean that everybody else should do it.
That just says that I have something to offer to people, that I’ve got something coming. Don’t expect an entire ’90s album necessarily. That’s not this record, but if you feel like it’s ’90s, if it means ’90s to you, if ’90s is everything to you, then I’m glad I can give you that. But that’s not what I’m here doing.
I’m just doing what feels good. With the technology and the way things are today, you could embrace it and have a great time by embracing it, or you could sit back and say, “To hell with everybody. I’m going to be a caveman and do things my way.” It’s whatever makes you happy.
For me, I participate with the new wave. I’m down with that. It’s cool, even though I don’t always love it. I’m not crazy about the internet. It’s amazing.
Do you find yourself researching stuff?
Are you crazy on YouTube?
Crazy on YouTube. I’m crazy on Google. It’s just information. I may be looking for something, and I might not find the answers I’m looking for, and a month later, it’ll finally get up there. So I always check on things. I was obsessed with Bumpy Johnson, and just learning about him.
He was an important figure, socialite in New York, who happened to make his money from illegal business, like a lot of New Yorkers back in his day. And he was an incredible figure and historical figure. There was a book by Mayme Johnson—his wife—and that book is basically a Black history book. So when that book came out, I saw it online, and I ordered it. So yeah, the internet gives me a lot.
You always had admiration for prophets and criminals. You’ll talk about Gandhi and Fat Cat. How do you negotiate what people may sometimes see as a contradiction? Having admiration for a criminal and a prophet.
That’s like saying Scorsese shouldn’t have made Goodfellas, if he worships God or believes in Jesus Christ. That’s like Robert DeNiro not doing A Bronx Tale.He wouldn’t be true to himself. He would be a false, holier than thou, waste. No way. Anybody who tells you that you can’t love God and still write about the world that you live in is crazy.
A well-rounded artist gives you life. He doesn’t hide anything. I can’t hide it. I can’t hold anything back.
That has been my strong point, the ability to reach people in the street, but also people who never were in the street. I connect them. People who weren’t in the streets were misinformed about us. They’re scared of us. They believed that we’re all rapists and crazy people, who walk around killing for nothing and selling crack to kids.
The Trayvon Martin problem.
Exactly. That’s the problem we had, and that’s what hip-hop has done. It’s reminded you that, yo, this kid is from Queens. He’s seen the drug dealers in Mercedes Benz’s. He knows them. He grew up around them. If I deny that, I’m lying. A well-rounded artist gives you life. He doesn’t hide anything. I can’t hide it. I can’t hold anything back.
I recently did a “Behind The Music,” and I cringed as I watched it... Seeing it, depressed me, in a way, because today I know which spoon goes where and with what. I know which fork is for salad. I’ve got some type of etiquette. But I forgot. Even though I rap about the shit, looking at your life and seeing where you grew up—and the “Behind The Music” is not even half of how things went down. It messed me up, at first, but then it made me proud. I can’t even believe today...
That you came through it.
I can’t believe it sometimes. But then, I better believe it, because I’ve got so much more to go. I hear dudes saying, “Yo, I’m from the projects.” Which one? I see rappers saying, “Oh, I’m from the projects,” but they never named the name of the projects. You can’t go to their neighborhoods and hear of guys that knew them back then or grew up with them or anything. So I think it’s just a cool thing to say you’re from the hood.
It’s like your song “Accidental Murderer.”
Yeah. So with me, it’s so much different. There’s so much that I left out of “Behind The Music,” and I’m working on a book, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. How do you tell the truth about your life, without exposing things that don’t need to be exposed?
Do you ever feel shame or fear? I feel like, growing up in the projects, I spent a lot of time hiding shame, most afraid of being humiliated.
You know what? No. I was pro my neighborhood. I was pro changing the rap game, when I first came out. I was pro-reality. I was pro “Look at where I’m from.” There’s no hiding this. This is what it is. This is a systematic slaughterhouse, that we were growing up in. That was my point: to give a voice to the voiceless.
I was pro my neighborhood. I was pro changing the rap game, when I first came out. I was pro-reality. I was pro “Look at where I’m from.” There’s no hiding this. This is what it is. This is a systematic slaughterhouse, that we were growing up in. That was my point: to give a voice to the voiceless.
I’m just saying that as I grew as a man, my battles have become different, because there are not enough black men in corporate America doing their thing. And I’m someone who’s coming up, and I’m winding up being the only black dude in these big meetings, and they’re not used to dealing with that.
It’s a different fight for me, now. Not that you turn your back on where you come from, but I’ve just realized with all the recent challenges, growing in life, I forgot—until I saw the VH1—that I’m not that far from where I came. I’m not that far.
So it just made me re-evaluate. Who am I today? What have I really accomplished? Am I still... Am I just a hood dude? And if that’s what it is, then I came to grips and said, “Then that’s what it is, and that’s all I want to be.” That’s all I want to be, forever. I’m going to always have that with me.
You’ve talked about how you’ve connected people from the streets with people who have never been to the streets.
And vice versa, through the music.
What is rhyming to you now? Is it the same as it was? Or is it a new kind of relationship with words?
It’s all of those things, but more. It never ceases to amaze me what I can do. It’s about me being surprised. Like, when I first started, and I completed a song that was good, I was like, “Wow.” I was proud of myself. You never know what’s inside you until you keep digging.
So it’s that same feeling. It’s me sitting back and thinking, “Yo I just aced this song, just now.” And I needed to do that. I accomplished another feat, and I’m like, “Wow. Alright, cool. What else is there in me?” I still don’t know. So that’s what it’s about: the mystery of not knowing what you’re about to bring out of you, and how that was already written before you even wrote it, because it was all about can you find the zone to pull it out of you?
And I think that’s what we’re all searching for: that zone, where we can pull the best of ourselves out of ourselves. Because it’s not just for fans, it’s for even ourselves to go, “I did it.” So that’s strong with me, definitely.
Once you feel that, and you’re still able to do it here and there...Like, with “Daughters,” I feel like I did it. So it’s like, “Alright, cool.” There’s a lot of people, who talk about kids and their kids, but I wanted mine... Mine will be this record that will just represent, and that’s what I accomplished.
Do you feel like it’s easier to accomplish in life or in music?
Life is the bigger challenge. That’s not to say that music isn’t a challenge, because it definitely is, but without question, life is the harder challenge.
The title is Life Is Good. Have you gotten to the point where you feel you’ve gotten some sort of mastery of your life?
Yeah, in some ways. In some ways, not yet, but I’m on my way. Financially, I haven’t fixed that yet. I still have a place to go. There’s a place that I see myself being, financially, by the fall. There’s plans that I have, that I’m close to accomplishing. Those were setbacks. Those things were setbacks that were my fault. No matter who screwed it up for me, it was my fault for letting them screw my shit up.
So it’s getting more precise.
Yeah. I’m starting to see how I can do things and make it mean more... I never liked dealing with money. I never liked dealing with money with friends. It comes between real shit. Money is a business. Money is a different beast.
There’s nothing wrong with liking money. There’s nothing wrong with loving money. Sometimes I have moments when I love it. There’ll be a day that I love money, but overall I just like it.
Friendship, loyalty and love is the real shit. Money is the other shit. I have one way of dealing with money, and then you have educated people, who know how to deal with money, and we have some conflicts there. I’ve made more than I wanted to make, too much more than I wanted to make.
That’s ill. A lot of people would say, “Yo are you insane? How can you make more than you want?”
The thing about it is that I still don’t feel like I’ve made enough or done the right things to help other people, who like money more than I do. That’s what upsets me. I still wasn’t able to help people who need money or like money more than I do. There’s nothing wrong with liking money. There’s nothing wrong with loving money. Sometimes I have moments when I love it. There’ll be a day that I love money, but overall I just like it.
You’ve found things outside of money that you love more.
Yeah. It’s like in the movie Wall Street, my man Gekko says, “Pay attention. Money’s a jealous bitch. Either you’re going to pay attention to her, or she’ll find someone else that will.” And mine has definitely found other people who would appreciate her more [Laughs].
I’ve definitely neglected her and abused her. I’ve let people take her from me. I let a person take her from me, and I don’t mean my ex-wife, I mean some bad business from like, six years ago, that’s affecting me now. And I take responsibility for it, because at the end of the day, it’s my problem.
But I still see something like that as something that I have to fix, because if you don’t fix money, it’ll fix your ass, in the wrong way. I can’t help the amount of money I make. I can’t help it. This is just what it is, and it’s just fucked up when money’s involved in divorce. And I don’t give a fuck. I can’t take it with me, so someone can take the money.
Talking about divorce, it’s like anyone that I’m married to, if I give you my life, I give you my heart, I love you, then my money is nothing. You can have it all. It’s nothing. It’s just sad that when you’re dealing with love and life and marriage, that marriage is a contract. It’s a business deal. That messes up people.
After you say “I do,” everything changes.
You can’t see what people expect out of marriage before you marry them. It only comes out after the deed is done.
Did you see a problem immediately?
Yeah, but it was a problem I was attracted to. It was rock and roll. I saw her as Courtney Love, so to speak, but then I also saw something else in her. I saw her as a mahogany queen. I saw us as a beautiful thing. I saw us as inspiration.
I think we inspired people with love. People saw us get married, and they weren’t really seeing hip-hop artists get married. So a lot of people came at me crazy, and this, that and the other, but I think overall, we were inspiring people to love and that love is good.
Talking about divorce, it’s like anyone that I’m married to, if I give you my life, I give you my heart, I love you, then my money is nothing. You can have it all. It’s nothing. It’s just sad that when you’re dealing with love and life and marriage, that marriage is a contract. It’s a business deal. That messes up people.
It’s the business of marriage, and if you’re not on top of it, it falls apart. It’s a daily work. I saw that there were too many things—because she was younger than me—that she couldn’t handle. There was a lot that was thrown at her that she couldn’t handle. Like I was saying earlier, there’s a lot that I could tell my kids, but they’ve got to fish it out for themselves.
Every night, she was in bed with Harvard. She was sleeping with Harvard. She had all the answers, but on her part, I needed something more from her, that she either wasn’t ready or didn’t know how to provide, and her being younger than me and not seeing all the things I had seen...Me explaining it to her is one thing, but her experience...
It’s an intellectual thing and not an emotional thing.
Yeah. I was on a journey that wasn’t really...She was on her journey, I was on mine, at some point. So yeah, in the beginning, I said, “There’s parts of this that might not work,” but there was a beautiful part of it, too. I had a great time. For the most part, I had a great time being married. It was amazing. She’s an amazing woman.
I thought she handled it, in terms of the media, very well. She was never throwing daggers at you.
No, she was. Over Twitter, and there were things...
OK. In an article, she said that she wasn’t going to say anything bad about you.
That was later, because she saw how bad it was.
Yeah, the response was not good. But yeah, there was bad tweets. I just think she was angry. She was lashing out at anyone, and anyone she would lash out at, people thought she was automatically talking about me.
My daughter would be calling me like, “Dad. I’m on my way to school, and they’re talking about you on the radio.” My daughter wanted to tweet back and shit, and I just told her take the higher road. So yeah, it was ugly.
How is it now?
It’s gotten a lot better.
So there’s no issues? You see your son as you please?
That side is not great yet, but it’s working towards being that way. And I know she’s a new mom, and I’m busy and she’s busy. From what I see, she’s being a good mom, and I feel like it’s working toward a great place. There was a time when I couldn’t see him at all. It was terrible. The divorce was fresh.
There was still a lot of emotions out there.
Did you ever get to a point where you hated her?
No. I got to a point where I was like, “Did she always hate me?” and “Did she ever love me at all?” I’ve got to admit, I did feel like that. But she did. She did love me.
You kind of understand that now.
The backlash is because she loved so hard.
Exactly. They wind up taking it out on you. A lot of divorces are bad because a woman is just being vindictive. She’s not after the money, she just wants you to hurt the way she was hurt.
Could you ever see yourself getting married again?
At this point, not today. Not right now. I’m just enjoying life and taking it each day, looking at each day like, “This is beautiful.” I’m having a good time. I’m not going to bring anybody in to mess that up. You come around looking like you’re going to mess this good time up, you’re out of here, fast [Laughs]. That’s one thing about my patience level. It’s like, no way. I’m not sacrificing my happiness for nobody and their drama. No way.
And you can read it quicker.
I see it a mile away.