ComplexCon returns to Long Beach Nov. 6 - 7 with hosts J. Balvin and Kristen Noel Crawley, performances by A$AP Rocky and Turnstile, and more shopping and drops.
Secure your spot while tickets last!
Rap’s cutting room floor is full of countless unreleased and unfinished songs.
Sometimes, we’re lucky to get them as leaks. But it’s very rare to see anything like what just happened with “Life Is Like a Dice Game,” Nas’ nearly 30-year-old unfinished track that he finally completed with Freddie Gibbs and Cordae, who were respectively 11 years old and not born when the track was first recorded in 1993.
“Spotify pulled out a leak from the ’90s that I did eons ago, and asked if I could resurrect it,” Nas tells Complex. “I can’t remember where I recorded it, or who produced it—maybe Easy Mo Bee, he was killin’ the game at the time. Carl Chery from Spotify suggested we connect with Freddie Gibbs and Cordae to bring the song new life and I loved it.”
Nas recorded his initial verse for the soulful track during the Illmatic sessions, and it concluded with the affirmation, “When I finish this shit, it’s gonna be a hit.” But for years, he never actually finished it. The incomplete song leaked around 1995, languishing on mixtapes, and later YouTube, as a relic of a bygone era. But thanks to industry vet Carl Chery, who helmed the track’s creation as part of the RapCaviar x Spotify Singles program, it’s finally completed and modernized with Hit-Boy production and verses from two of today’s most respected lyricists.
Chery, who is currently head of urban at Spotify, says he’s always had a love for the song. He can’t pinpoint when he first heard it, but recalls his cousin playing Norman Connors’ “Valentine Love” (which “Life Is Like a Dice Game” sampled) sometime in the 2000s, rekindling his desire to listen to Nas’ song.
“I’m a big Nas fan, so this is one of those freestyles or leaks or whatever you want to call it that I would just randomly go back to, because it’s the epitome of something that’s too short and you wish was longer,” Chery explains.
Like any fan of an artist with an unfinished track, he recalls always thinking, “Man, why isn’t this longer?” But he soon rose through the industry himself, gaining the power and access to actualize his music wishes.
“You start realizing that maybe some of the ideas you had as a fan are something that you can accomplish,” Chery says. “So I went to dinner with Nas’ manager Anthony Saleh, six, seven years ago. I mentioned the idea. I told him, ‘Nas should remake ‘Life Is Like a Dice Game.’ And he looked at me like, ‘What?!’ Because it’s not something you expect to hear.”
Saleh was both impressed that Chery brought up the deep cut and intrigued by the idea. But “the thing is, I didn’t have any platform or anything to make it happen,” Chery says.
“Spotify pulled out a leak from the ’90s that I did eons ago, and asked if I could resurrect it.” – Nas
Now, he has the Spotify Singles series at his disposal. The currently 652-song collection features cover songs from artists of all genres. But the RapCaviar spin on the series curates original collaborations between hip-hop artists. Previous RapCaviar additions have been Mozzy and Blxst’s “Keep Hope,” as well as an LVRN cipher. But as Chery notes, “Life Is Like a Dice Game” may be their most ambitious idea yet.
“The Spotify Singles program typically has artists cover songs from other artists, but I was thinking, ‘What if we put a spin on it and A&R a song?” he says. “One of the first things I thought about was, ‘Oh, man. I have to revisit this “Life Is Like a Dice Game” idea.’”
He says Nas’ team had a meeting with Spotify “a while back” where Carl reintroduced the idea, and Saleh “gave me his blessing to quarterback it and put it together in terms of the production and the features.”
Chery’s first task was to facilitate the remaking of the beat and bring it into 2021. He asked frequent Nas collaborator Hit-Boy to take over on that front, and the producer says he hadn’t previously heard the track, but was immediately receptive to the idea when he listened.
“I heard it and I was just like, ‘This could definitely be something fly to bring to the now,’” Hit-Boy tells Complex.
Chery points out that Hit-Boy “has such synergy with Nas at the moment, coming off King’s Disease,” their Grammy-winning project. And he commends the producer for repeatedly reworking the track, noting that he’s heard multiple different versions and he’s still catching little details that Hit-Boy refined within the beat. The sample sounds newly polished, with the ancillary instruments shining through more than they did on the unmastered original. Hit-Boy says that re-chopping the sample was simple, but it was a challenge trying to figure out the right drums for the track.
“I did like, three different sets of drums that I tried over the song with the vocals,” he recalls. “And the first two sets weren’t striking me as cutting through like they should’ve been.” Up to a couple of days ago, he was still working to “simplify [the drums] and make it a bit cleaner.”
The two guest features, Freddie Gibbs and Cordae, were chosen in order to “have generations of lyricists on the song to speak to the topic” of life’s unpredictability, according to Chery.
“The Spotify Singles program typically has artists cover songs from other artists, but I was thinking, ‘What if we put a spin on it and A&R a song?’” – Carl Chery
“My thought was, ‘OK, I have to find someone who is from this newer generation,’” Chery says. “Lyricism isn’t something that’s as prevalent as it used to be, so there’s a short list of artists that make sense. I wanted to make sure we had some fresh blood, someone that really represents this streaming generation, which Cordae does.”
He adds that Gibbs “is more someone that came of age during the blog era. I feel like, between the three of them, they’re compatible, but they hit on different pockets. Gibbs is a very street dude. Obviously, Nas touches on the street, but he’s always been a storyteller, observer, narrator. And I think Cordae wants to be thought-provoking. I think he wants to be someone who provides substance whenever he can.”
That’s the exact energy that comes across on the track, with Cordae rhyming, “I live life on this earth to complete what’s assigned,” and Gibbs telling one of his patented tales from the pyrex, qualified by proclaiming, “Streets cold, ain’t nothin’ cuttin’ throat like the rap game.”
As most fans of Gibbs or Cordae could guess, they were both immediately down with jumping on the track with Nas.
“My Trentwood neighbor Carl Chery put me in this process and I’m glad he considered me for a record with such a great rapper as Nas,” Gibbs says. “The fact that he thought I could rap as good as Nas on a record is very much appreciated.”
Cordae expresses a similar sentiment, noting, “My dog Carl Chery hit me up and said Nas wanted me and Freddie on this record. And I was like, ‘Fuck yeah.’ I cut my vocals for it as soon as I got the MP3.”
It all came together over a span of a couple of weeks in “April, May,” according to Chery, who says they initially wanted to get everyone together at LA’s Chalice Studios, but couldn’t line it up. And when Hit-Boy told him Nas was going out of town and would record the verse when he got back, he got a bit anxious.
“Carl Chery put me in this process and I’m glad he considered me for a record with such a great rapper as Nas. The fact that he thought I could rap as good as Nas on a record is very much appreciated.” – Freddie Gibbs
“With this being such a big idea, I’ll be honest, part of me kept on thinking, ‘What can go wrong? What’s going to happen? He’s not going to like the beat, he’s going to take forever to do his verse. What can go wrong?’” Chery remembers. “But a couple of days after Hit-Boy told me that Nas was going to record his verse, he sends me a video of Nas in the booth recording his verse. And I was like, ‘Wow, it’s real. It’s happening.’”
After Hit-Boy finished the first version of the beat, “Nas pulled up, heard it, immediately recut his parts, and added some new parts,” the producer says. A week later, Gibbs came to the studio, vibed out to the track and constructed his verse within “15-20 minutes,” according to Hit-Boy. Within a few days, Cordae contributed his verse and harmonies.
“They all did them at different times, but it still sounds cohesive just because everybody got to build off the last piece,” Hit-Boy says. Cordae adds, “I love how everybody killed their verses in their own unique way.”
Now, it’s finally streaming on Spotify. This July seemed like a fitting time to release the track, as it’s the 25th anniversary of It Was Written Friday, and the 30th anniversary of “Live At The Barbeque,” his first feature, on July 23. It’s also the 15th anniversary of Hip-Hop Is Dead in December, making 2021 a prime time for the rap legend to celebrate his legacy.
Ultimately, it’s a groundbreaking moment in rap to have a legend revitalize one of his original tracks with two artists and a producer who broke through decades later.
“To see everybody embracing each other, the OG embracing the young boy, the young boy appreciating the OGs, then Freddie coming from his era, it’s just dope, man,” Hit-Boy says. “I feel like it’s a nice little moment for hip-hop.”
“To see everybody embracing each other, the OG embracing the young boy, the young boy appreciating the OGs, then Freddie coming from his era, it’s just dope, man.” – Hit-Boy
Chery is more than satisfied with how the track came together, as well. “I’m a big Nas fan, so it does feel amazing,” he says. “I think it’s a little surreal for me, to be honest. It’s like, ‘Wait, you basically A&R’d a Nas song.’ It’s funny, because I reached out to Anthony Saleh, and I was like, ‘Hey, man. I want to make sure that I use the right language to represent my contribution to this song,’ because I don’t want to be one of those guys that says, ‘I did this, I did that,’ and then next thing you know, it’s like, ‘Hey, man, relax. Thanks for the idea, but don’t go around using words like A&R.’ But the second I said that, Anthony said, ‘But you did A&R it.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ So I feel great.”
He is carrying the momentum of “Life Is Like a Dice Game” into future RapCaviar x Spotify Singles. “The next thing that I’m working on is something that’s more—I don’t want to call it contemporary, because that would age it—but if we pull it off the right way, it’s going to feel very now,” he reveals, saying it will be an “homage” that features “all artists from this generation.” They’re currently in the production stage, and they’ll soon reach out to the artists they want to contribute to the song. And the ball will keep rolling from there.
“I have a few more ideas for [Spotify Singles], not necessarily completion, but just things that will continue this new spin on the Spotify Singles program,” Chery says. “There’s a few things that we’re working on that I hope we can pull off, because I think there’s a chance that, if we do, we’ll be able to create some pretty cool moments in the future.”