Interview: No I.D. Speaks On Producing For Nas’ “Life Is Good”

Interview: No I.D. Speaks On Producing For Nas’ “Life Is Good”

No I.D. has been responsible for more than his fair share of classic hip-hop records. The Chicago-born shot caller made his name with Common, and went on to helm records like Kanye West's "Heartless" and Jay-Z’s “D.O.A.” But when the legendary producer got down to working on Nas’ new album Life Is Good, he says he was “first and foremost a fan.” We already caught up with Salaam Remi, but Nas Week wouldn't be complete without speaking to No I.D. too. So we got him on the phone to talk about the making of “Daughters” and the difference between working with Nas and Jay-Z.

Interview by Robert Marriott (@Tafari)

Complex: Maximum respect. So you're from Chicago—Southside?
No I.D.: Southside.

Born and raised or Southern transplant?
Nah, nah. Born and raised.

 

What [Nas] is to hip-hop is a real true ambassador, a game changer. A staple for really standing for and believing who you are regardless of money... Damn, without him I don’t know if hip-hop would be where it is today.

 

Why do you think Chicago, in terms of hip-hop, was later to the game than most cities?
Chicago?

Yeah. When did hip-hop really pop in Chicago?
Technically when Common and Twista came out with those projects.

Before that it was a House-ruled city.
It was a hip-hop scene but really it was a small chosen few.

Right.
And it wasn’t breaking out of that region. But house music was the music of the city.

I remember visiting Chicago ten years ago and the ghetto techno was so advanced.
Yeah, that’s been in Chicago culture since really the beginning of House music.

Frankie Knuckles.
Absolutely.

The first thing I wanted to ask you about this new Nas project is: Who is Nas to hip-hop and who is he for you—cause I know you were a fan before you started working with him.
Absolutely. Well for me, first and foremost I’m a fan. Well with that being said, as great as he is, I always take everything from a perspective of I’m just a fan in general. What [Nas] is to hip-hop is a real true ambassador, a game changer. A staple for really standing for and believing who you are regardless of money... Damn, without him I don’t know if hip-hop would be where it is today.

He is one of the pillars.Absolutely.

What was the first project you worked with him on?
Actually it was a record. We had worked on the Nigger album. The first thing we worked on that came out was the song “Success” on American Gangster.

You did a lot more songs on this album. How many songs did you work on and can you tell me what was your mentality going in?
We worked on maybe ten songs, at minimum. It was an interesting thing because the first week of sessions—if we could have recorded those conversations... My engineer would be in sometimes and he would pull me to the side and be like “Yo, what y’all said to each other, and just that exchange of information should be in a museum.” Those conversations just were so important and damn near—you could put it in a movie. So it was all the information we were exchanging and me being a cat that when he was coming in music trying to establish what he was doing and me coming in at the same time trying to establish what I was doing... I would sometimes tell him something and he would be like, “Well I was there when this happened.” And Eric B would go there and so on and so forth. But it was all setting the stage for me to say, “Look I know they want to get something for the kids and the kids want this and that, but for me? I just want Nas.” That’s it. I don’t even have a calculation on what’s going on right now. Because the people that love Nas didn’t die. They didn’t disappear. They just want you to be you.

 

My engineer would be in sometimes and he would pull me to the side and be like 'Yo, what y’all said to each other, and just that exchange of information should be in a museum.'

 

Right.
That was the premise of our discussions before work: Hey, I’m hear to provide a soundtrack to allow you to be you. No trying to reach these people and no trying to reach those people. Let’s just do what we do. So in that aspect, I felt like I had to let him lead and know me. Not just the music he’s heard from me so then after that we became friends so to speak...

He mentioned the conversations you and he had. He said the breadth of the conversation was so profound that the songs kinda came out of that energy.
Yeah. I feel like and I’m a person that gauges music by how it ages. Not just how it jumps out immediately on the charts. Probably my most respected record was “I Used to Love HER,” which didn’t jump out immediately but it ages so well it ends up on a lot of people’s top ten lists of all time. So when me and him get together we are trying to go there. We’re not trying to make the latest banger.

It is a long game.
Yeah, exactly.

So did you do “Daughters”? It seems a lot of the work seems drenched in the blues tradition.
Yeeah, I mean I’m into that. Absolutely being from Chicago and growing up around that kind of music—but for me it’s a certain emotion I want from my music. Like with him it’s like, we know you can rap, now let’s know you as a human being. Because he’s not the guy that‘s out. He’s not on TMZ. And when he comes out he has our attention, but now on this I was like, Let us in. And that’s where my music strength comes in, like when an artist opens up about something...

Right. Was there a particular sound you were looking for with this project?
Nothing pre-concieved. It was definitely not me sending Nas beats trying to get on his project.

[Laughs.]
This one record—we don’t know what we are going to call it, we just call it “The Train.” You know, I don’t even know if he knows how good he is when he puts his input in, but I was showing him what I do when I make music and it just so happened that we were having a conversation about Illmatic, and he was talking about the ideas he would have and he would just sit with the producers sometimes and share his ideas and I would start messing around with the beat—not necessarily that it would be something that I was going to put on the record, but I would just do what he is saying while he was talking. And so at one point he was like, “Man, it would be crazy if, like, a train came through and then the next thing you know a train appeared.” So songs would develop like that.

We would be watching movies, talking. That again, is where my strength as producer is. I honestly don’t really deal by sending people beats. I really deal as being someone who can pull something out of an artist that’s there. And you can’t pull something out of someone that you don’t know. So sometimes he’d be sitting there and we’re talking, I would just put the headphones on and start playing with the beat so by the next session I’d be like “I got that.”

 

Nas would write multiple, incredible verses and not think that they are good enough. Jay knows what he wants in life pretty much. He’ll come with a song real fast. And that’s it. And Nas will write a whole song and be like 'Nah, I don’t like that anymore.' And then write another three verses. Not with Jay. Jay won’t let you in his process.

 

How would you compare working with Nas to someone like Jay? Do you have the same approach with someone like Jay, in terms of drawing him out?
No. You can’t draw Jay out. Mainly because Nas would write multiple, incredible verses and not think that they are good enough. Jay knows what he wants in life pretty much. He’ll come with a song real fast. And that’s it. And Nas will write a whole song and be like “Nah, I don’t like that anymore.” And then write another three verses. Not with Jay. Jay won’t let you in his process.

What songs from the Nas cannon stuck with you or inspired you?
For me it was always about his first two albums. The affect that Illmatic had on us at that moment was serious. I know that this generation didn’t get that. They have to go back to hear that. Some people say don’t go backwards, go forward but I’m trying to make what I’m doing in music from back then and go forward with it.

Touch the ground, touch the foundation and then you jump.
Yeah absolutely. So for me that is his foundation. So I’m like let’s beat that if we can beat it. I know that’s a tough thing to propose, but aim for the stars, land on the moon.

Tags: nas, no-id
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