Aretha Franklin waited for it, Martin Luther King marched for it, and Rodney Dangerfield built a comedy career around it. Hip-hop's Nas and The Sopranos' Dominic Chianese discuss the world's greatest equalizer.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's June/July 2002 issue (a.k.a. Issue #1!)
Nas on Respect
Illmatic (Columbia), a vivid and at times horrifying look at street life. Nas went on to display his potency onscreen, starring in the acclaimed 1998 film Belly, directed by Hype Williams, only to be plagued by a three-year fall from grace. His 2001 joint, Stillmatic(Columbia), reestablished Nas as hip-hopÕs grittiest wordsmith, a man whose rhymes stand up and demand respect.
Who do you respect? Who are your heroes?
Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Malcolm. My moms and pops.
How has being from Queensbridge played into your sense of self-respect?
Because IÕm from one of the largest projects in the world, that allowed me to be around so many different kinds of people. People who had that automatic respect and some people who didnÕt have any respect at all. People who didnÕt care about respect, because they didnÕt respect themselves.
I meet disrespect with the same amount or more.
Do you think there is a difference between fear and respect?
Absolutely, because fear is poison.
You donÕt need to fear someone to respect them?
Nah, because with fear people react out of emotion and they could try to harm you. If they respect you then there is something they admire.
How does hip-hop relate to respect?
Hip-hop and rhymes are the codes of the street. So, you respect the artist because of what words of wisdom come out of his mouth.
How do you know when youÕve been disrespected?
ItÕs a gut feeling.
What is your reaction when you are disrespected?
I meet disrespect with the same amount or more.
Do you feel like Jay-Z disrespected you?
He thought he did. And I think he did, to some extent, but not at the level where he thought he could, or thought he would, or thought he did. I think he knows he disrespected himself. I think he exposed a side that he really didnÕt want [people] to see.
When it comes to battling and the current feud with Jay-Z, can the disrespect limit itself to the microphone any more? Where do you draw the lines?
ThatÕs like asking Ali and Frazier where to draw the line, because off the screen they still wasnÕt showing each other love. I mean, a war is a war, a battle is a battle.
Jay-Z has sold more records than you, has made more money than you, and has more fans than you. DonÕt you think heÕs already won the battle on points?
My thing is thisÑthe whole world listens to Jay-Z, and the streets fuck with Nas. And that explains to you why he wanted to come after me. Because itÕs not what the critics were saying, it was what reality was saying. Jay-ZÕs reality was that he couldnÕt be Jay-Z unless he conquered Nas. ItÕs like you want everything in the world, but you know you have to do this one last thing to really be king.
Do you think people have lost respect for Jay-Z?
[Laughs] Oh man, I mean, I canÕt relate to him because we are just so different. You know? Whatever he expected, however he expected people to react, seems like a fantasy. ItÕs like heÕs created his own false reality and expects everybody else to fall in line with the way he conceives life to be.
Do you think there is any MC that can touch you in a battle right now?
Absolutely not. Nobody.
Everybody's got a little Soprano in 'em.
If you had to battle a contender,who do you think is the most worthy opponent out there?
Lots of fans and critics have hailed Stillmatic as a return to your former glory. How does the success of your new album feel?
It makes me feel stupendous, like my man Biggie says, because I did the undoable, I did what niggers donÕt do, and canÕt do, and what you havenÕt seen in years. People were saying, Is he gonna bring it back to Illmatic, because [the new album] is called Stillmatic? And the hottest rapper currently in the game is callinÕ you out, because he donÕt see nobody else as competitionÑyouÕre the only one in his way. ItÕs incredible.
What do you think about the people who say The Sopranos is disrespectful to Italian-Americans, people who call out The Sopranos for ethnic stereotyping?
I hate when people protest against their own race for something thatÕs not even that serious. I mean, it doesnÕt stereotype anything. Actually it makes Italians look coolerÑand that means no disrespectÑbecause whether we like it or not, the gangster is a super- hero. And there is more to The Sopranos than just whackinÕ peo- ple; the shit is about family, trust, loyalty, and everything.
WhatÕs it like to meet Dominic?
A lot of actors have egos, but Dominic was very cultured and very into his heritage. And that type of thing is knowledge. He has so much wisdom to offer. And to watch him, you know that he is a man who has age and wisdom, and you see that come out in his character on the show. It was real cool that we would even be on a thing together. Because a part of me represents what he represents. I mean we are both artists, and a part of me represents the Soprano lifestyle. EverbodyÕs got a little Soprano in Õem.
Dominic on Respect
Dominic Chianese, better known as Junior on The Sopranos, is the lovable yet fierce elder statesman behind TVÕs most famous crime family. Fittingly, his role as the consummate Italian-American patriarch finds him doing what he knows best. ChianeseÕs upbringing in the predominantly Italian Parker Avenue section of the Bronx wasnÕt a far cry from many of the scenarios heÕs found himself portraying over the years. After earning his stripes doing stage work in the Õ50s and Õ60s, he landed movie roles opposite Al Pacino in The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon. He recently teamed up with Pacino again in an off-Broadway production of Oedipus, and is currently gearing up for the May release of Unfaithful in which he stars with Richard Gere. But Sopranos fans will be glad to note that heÕs also prepping for the showÕs fourth season, which premieres in September on HBO. Acting aside, thereÕs nothing ÒJuniorÓ likes more than to work on his music, which so far has yielded one album, 2001Õs Hits. Look for a new album featuring his favorite Italian love songs soon.
How do you define respect?
Respect has a lot to do with really listening to peopleÑreally looking into their eyes and listening to them. One of the first things I do when I meet people is to try and get their names straight, and if I have the opportunity to listen to their second name, I try to pronounce it well.
So a personÕs name is important?
My grandfather was a stonemason and he was very proud of his name. IÕll never forget when I was 19 years old and I was asked to go up and sing [at an audition]. [Talent manager] Charlie Rapp said, ÒDominic, you could have a career as a singer, but we only have one little problem: Would you mind changing your name?Ó I remember walking out of the office kind of sad, because I knew I couldnÕt do it. My life flashed before my eyes when he asked me that. Now, itÕs just a small thing to some people, but to me it was important because I respected my grandfather and my father.
The answer to self-respect is to find out who you really are.
How did you learn about respect?
In my culture, respect was the number one thing. I learned most of it by watching my father. When I was a kid in the subway, when a young woman came on, he would give his seat to a lady and to an older person.
Is there a difference between fear and respect?
Well, respect is not based upon fear. Respect is really based upon love, and thereÕs a very fine line between fear and love. But youÕve got to feel that you are loved and that you love back for there to be respect. Respect is very important, because itÕs really about love.
Do you react differently to disrespect now than when you were younger?
IÕve never been a confrontational type. When I was younger I would withdraw and brood about it. But as I get older, if IÕm disrespected as a human being, I walk away. I realize there is no sense in confronting it. If anybodyÕs gonna disrespect you, the best thing is to walk away. I think itÕs very important to walk away if youÕre disrespected.
Do you take it as disrespect when people call you Junior?
I donÕt feel itÕs disrespect. Even my own family, my own cousins, my own sister will tease meÑÓYouÕre being Uncle Junior again,Ó they say. I understand it, and to me itÕs gratifying and a sign that youÕre doing your job right. Junior is a mask, and theyÕre looking at the mask. You know, Luigi Perendola was a great playwright who realized that we are constantly playing roles in life, and different people can perceive us so differently. If you could take off a mask, thereÕs gonna be another mask there. We play roles in life, and weÕre different at all times, and the answer to self-respect is to find out who you really are. ItÕs like Socrates said thousands of years ago: knowing yourself is whatÕs important.
What do you think of people who criticize the portrayal of Italian-Americans in The Sopranos as disrespectful?
There is a very easy answer to that. ItÕs called freedom of speech, the First Amendment. I disagree with 99.9 percent of censorship. If a man wants to write a story from his imagination, like [SopranosÕs creator] David Chase did, heÕs got the perfect right to do that.
But isnÕt the storyline disrespectful to Italian-Americans? DonÕt people have a right to feel disrespected?
Well thatÕs a loaded question. A guy has to write what he wants to write and the subject matter is his alone. ItÕs about respecting the artist and the writer. The important thing is to tell a story and tell it well. If you start criticizing the subject matter, where does it end? And anyway, The Sopranos is about a familyÑa guy with a wife, two kids, a mother, an uncle, cousins, aunts. ItÕs about his predicament in the modern world. ItÕs a story about a man.
Do you know much about whatÕs going on in rap and hip-hop?
IÕm learning about it. I love it because there is a musicality to it. I think there is a commonality amongst all people. I mean, everybody raps, whether they know it or not. Everybody has a rhythm, a music, and something to say. And as Nas taught me today, when you say something in rap music, itÕs gotta have a meaning. ItÕs not just for the sake of rhyme, itÕs for the sake of meaning, and thatÕs an important thing.
Have you heard about the Nas / Jay-Z beef?
No, I donÕt know about it, but IÕm not much one for gossip.
What will respect mean in the future?
The future really is about learning. There are so many different cultures with different ideas of respect, so we will have to learn and teach each other. ThereÕs no question about it. There are more opportunities to meet different kinds of people and the world is becoming a family. We should get more understanding of each otherÕs cultures. ItÕs gonna have to be that way for survival. ItÕs idealistic, but at least itÕs better than nothing.
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Jason Farrer. (HAIR) Dennis Lani at Frame. (GROOMING) Marcos Smith. (MAKEUP) Devra Kinery at Frame. COVER AND FIRST IMAGE: (Nas) Leather shirt and jacket by Issey Miyake Men / (Dominic) Suit, shirt, and tie from Y's For Men by Yohji Yamamoto / hat from Savoia NYC / sunglasses by Selima. SECOND IMAGE: (Nas) "Necessary Means" sweatshirt by SSUR / coverall by Dickies / hat by Kangol. (Nicola) Leather lace-back shirt, trousers, and sunglasses by Versace. THIRD IMAGE: (Dominic) Shirt by Commes de Garcons Homme Plus / trousers, cane, hat, and money clip by Savoia NYC / necklace by Versace. (Nicole) Bustier and trousers by Versus / sunglasses, earrings, necklace, rings, and bracelet by Versace. FOURTH IMAGE: (Nas) Suit by Francis Hendy NYC / shirt by Issey Miyake Men / scarf from Y's for Men by Yohji Yamamoto / cane and hat by Savoia NYC. FIFTH IMAGE: (Dominic) Shirt by Sean John / tank top by CK Calvin Klein / hat by Kangol / necklace by Versace. SIXTH IMAGE: (Dominic) Shirt and jacket by Comme Des Garcons Homme Plus / sunglasses by Cazal. (Nas) Leather jacket by Avirex / hoodie by SSUR.