How Nas has been able to stay relevant through 20 years in hip-hop.
This feature is a part of Complex's Nas Week, presented by Hennessy.
Like professional sports, hip-hop is often thought of as a being a game for the young. Teenaged wild boys with a knack for poetics practice their sixteen bars in the mirror patiently waiting the day when they too will be plucked from the dense crowd of competitors and placed, as Frank Sinatra once sang, on top of the heap. Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known to his fans and clan as Nas, has been on top for many years. Indeed, it has been twenty-two years since his debut his lyrical poetics on “Live at the Barbeque.” Yet, the kid who once put “Nasty” in front of his name is now a full-grown man turning forty.
While forty might not seem so old, especially with folks trying to proclaim it, “the new twenty,” in the world of hip-hop getting older hasn’t always been a good thing. Unlike blues artists or jazz cats, it was once thought that with rappers it was best to lie about their age or duck out early.
Although some older rappers have parlayed their skills into different entertainment mediums, like co-starring on television cop shows or supplying voices for cartoon characters, others resentfully curse every new face they see on BET, every fresh verse they hear on the radio.
“Ain’t nobody more bitter than an old rapper,” I once overheard Jay Z joke back in the late nineties. Yet, brothers like Jay Z, Dr. Dre and, of course Nas, have managed to stay vital within the hip-hop community even as they slip into middle age. Whereas once rappers, as well as DJs and producers, might have been forced to hang-up their mics, these artists are still recording serious music while also courting a substantial fan base.
“Nas proved with his last album Life is Good that he still puts a level of quality and artistry into his music that most can’t touch,” Fab 5 Freddy, who has known the rapper since early in his career, says.
A painter, ﬁlm producer and former host of Yo! MTV Raps, Freddy also directed Nas’ prison song “One Love” video in 1994. “Yet, for him to be able to touch forty and still be signiﬁcant, speaks of a quality that most rappers don’t have.” Like his hero Rakim, the legendary rapper many compared him too early in his career, Nas has always been about constant elevation as an artist and a man. Back in the early 1990s, there were many fresh-faced hip-hop boys dreaming that their lyrics might change the world. However, while there is no such rhyme animal as the humble MC, not every kid sloughing in the pissy staircase or leaning against the Chinese take-out walls had what it took to break out of the hood.
Unfortunately, for the rest, Nas proved to be the best.
Making his professional premiere on the posse cut “Live at the Barbeque,” a track on Main Source’s 1991 debut Breaking Atoms, when he was only sixteen years old, Nas set it off from the ﬁrst verse, dubbing himself a “verbal assassin,” as he lyrically slay co-stars Fatal, Akinyele and Large Professor.
“After hearing 'Live...' and a two-song demo he did with Large Professor, I signed Nas to Columbia (now Sony) Records,” says Illmatic executive producer Faith Newman. As director of A&R, she worked with Nas for six years. “I knew from the beginning that he was a genius. Talking with him, he had ideas even then of what he wanted his legacy to be. Like anybody with a twenty-year career, Nas has had his ups and downs. Still, at forty-years-old he is at his most creative and thought provoking.”
Former Columbia records rap promoter Tyesh Harris also worked with the gifted rapper early in his career. “From the beginning, Nas was a hard worker who grew from project to project. While other rappers were keeping it real, Nas was putting in the hours. At the same time, he refused to be boxed in by the label or his fans. Nas was more the kind of person who would say, ‘Hey, grow with me.’ He’s made mistakes and had stumbling blocks, but he also had a foundation that he stayed true too.”
Jean Oliver (aka Poke), who serves as half of the production duo the Trackmasters, has also known Nas for two decades. Charged with the job of making Nas’s sophomore record It Was Written (1996) into a pop success story, he clearly remembers going to visit a humble abode in Queensbridge. “At that point, Nas hadn’t made a lot of money," Oliver says. "And when I walked into his apartment, he was feeding his daughter from a can of spaghetti. He’s always been a great dad, one that gave his kids lots of attention. He might not have had a lot of money at that time, but he was ambitious.”
Unlike so many young men who spread their seeds, but pull disappearing acts when the babies begin to bloom, Nas relished being a dad. His own father noticed. “Of course, most people know he is a great lyricist," says pops Olu Dara, now 72. "But much of his drive came from wanting his kids to have more. Financially and emotionally, he’s always been there for his kids.” As a jazz musician, Dara belongs to a profession where getting older is expected. In the world of jazz, forty-year-old players are still considered young, with the real seasoning coming a few years down the line. “Some people don’t expect maturity to happen to hip-hoppers," Dara says, with a chuckle. "But if you stay human, you’re going to get older." Dara has played on several of his son’s records over the years—the most famous example being the cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” Nas penned the track “Poppa Was a Player” on The Lost Tapes disc, which he talked frankly about pop’s numerous inﬁdelities as well his nocturnal jazz man ways.
“To tell you the truth, even I’m amazed that Nas is hitting forty,” Olu says. “It’s nice to see your son getting older, but it’s also a little frightening. But, in the world of rap, it’s good for them to see that getting older doesn’t mean you can’t be relevant.”
Writer, musician and publisher Sacha Jenkins met Nas in 1994, when Illmatic ﬁrst dropped. Putting the emerging MC on the cover of Ego Trip magazine’s ﬁrst issue, a legendary zine where Jenkins was the editor-in- chief, the two have maintained an almost twenty-year friendship.
“When I’m around Nas, it’s obvious that he’s comfortable with himself as a man,” Jenkins says. “In person and on songs, his perspective on real life is always honest. For MCs who came out during that 90s classic era, he is our elder statesman. New jacks like J. Cole look up to him because of his intelligence as well his style and substance.”
These days, though it seems as though some MCs are getting into the rap genre at a later age than back in the day. Dudes like Juicy J, Danny Brown ain’t exactly teenagers. “There's enough room for old heads and young kids to battle,” Ericka Blount Danois, author of Love, Peace and Soul, Behind the Scenes of Soul Train, says. “Macklemore shows that you can even start a rap career at any age while Nas's longevity at forty-years-old proves that hip hop, like blues and jazz, is timeless.”
As forty-one year old rapper Tech N9ne adds, “Music is the fountain of youth. Aging gracefully just comes with the territory of staying creative and being at the top of your craft.”