When Hollywood royalty Baz Luhrmann, the visionary behind Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge, approached Nas to get involved with his upcoming Netflix series The Get Down, the veteran rapper simply couldn’t pass it up. The show, rumored to be the streaming service’s most expensive production to date, tapped into a part of Nas’ adolescence—developing his rap skills as a teen while navigating the rugged terrain of New York City—that encouraged him to not only serve as executive producer, but to record original music for the show and serve as its rhyming narrator as well.
“I was watching some of the scenes and it gave me goose bumps, because he took it right there, back in those days, and I saw myself in most of the characters,” says Nas. “So that was a trip all in itself. New York doesn't even look like it did back then.” The Get Down, which sees its first half of a dozen episodes premiering on August 12, follows a core team of teenagers (played by Justice Smith, Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr. and Jaden Smith) who come of age in the burning Bronx of the late 1970s, the time when disco began to fade from the charts and hip-hop started to take form. It’s one of two projects that Nas is concurrently overseeing, following his executive production credit on the recently released film The Land.
While it’s been a sudden, notable pivot into film and TV, Esco is also steadily plotting his return to music. In addition to guesting on “Nas Album Done,” the standout on DJ Khaled’s recently released Major Key, he confirms that the project is in fact finished, and that he’s in the marketing stage of figuring when he plans to drop it. Shortly after the track’s release on Friday, Nas spoke with Complex about why The Get Down made sense for him at this point in his career, what to expect from Mass Appeal Records, and how he got Ms. Lauryn Hill to personally approve the Fugees sample on “Nas Album Done.”
What made you interested in executive producing The Get Down?
It came at the right time. I was working on a show of my own right as it came to me, and it had to do with music and stuff like that. When I talked to Baz about The Get Down, and he was explaining the whole story to me, I was blown away because I was just hearing about the old days, the days before all that rap is today. It was the beginning days, that's what the focus is. I was like OK, this is what I wanted to do. I'm a fan of a lot of the pioneers from those days, so to work on a story from that time period, for me, was perfect. Great. Let's do it.
Why do you think it’s important at this point in time to tell this story about the origins of hip-hop?
Because people forget. People don't care about history, and history is so entertaining. It's great to dig up those treasures and polish them off and give people something that came before even they got here.
Were you always attached to do some of the music for it?
I began as an executive producer, and talking to Baz about the whole thing, it started to just develop more and more. I think Baz always wanted me to do music, and as we sat down with it and started living with it, he knew what he wanted from me musically. I could see his mind working when I was talking to him, and he started coming up with things and then music ideas and more music ideas. I just took his lead on it.
I could imagine you saw yourself in the main character Ezekiel. You said, "Writing in my book of rhymes" on Illmatic, and we watch him write rhymes in real time and see his ideas come to fruition. Did you identify with him the most?
I would say so. Writing for him was like a second me; another me in a parallel universe. He definitely reminded me of me and I think that lots of people out there who see themselves as writers or musicians or whatever they become in life, right there, that came in the Bronx—that kid there represents so many people.
Baz talked about how there were some production problems during filming and on the inside, it was called "The Shut Down" because people were fearing that. What sort of challenges did you face while going through this process?
Oh man, my challenges were actually inside the show, and matching up my words to the character and his life and him reminiscing on his early days with his friends, his brothers, the Get Down brothers. I was busy enough with that. That was my world.
One of the most important things about the show is that the cast is predominately black and Hispanic in starring roles. Ten years ago, this show maybe couldn’t have been released. Do you think that this show's existence is a direct reflection of what's going on in the world?
I think it's timing. I agree with you. Ten years ago wasn't the time. It was still 10 years younger, that time period was a little closer to us back then, it wasn't as forgotten. It got away from us. We needed some time to let that time get away from us so that we could do it now. That's how things go. I think now is really a cool time for it to come out for those reasons.
The release of The Get Down coincides with the release of The Land. Did you consciously make an effort to get into film and TV more at this point in your career?
Yeah. I don't know what I was writing first: stories, in my imagination to be made to film as a kid, or if I was just writing lyrics. It was a simultaneous thing. Music took me by storm and took me out and gave me this beautiful gift, but the film [interest] never went away. It was about finding the time in my life to do it and dedicate myself to it. It had to be the right time and also the right things. You don't pass up an opportunity to work with Baz Luhrmann. It's the right project, it's hip-hop, and I'm a simple fan of vanguard hip-hop. It was just an energy thing.
Musically, the internet is going crazy over "Nas Album Done." Tell me about the genesis of the track. Did DJ Khaled come to you?
Khaled hit me up and said that he wanted to do this and we had planned some studio days to sit down and we cleared some studio days just to go over records. He knew exactly what he wanted. He had a couple of ideas, but the one we put out, that was the one he really wanted.
Was it your idea to sample Fugees’ "Fu-Gee-La?"
No, that was all Khaled. I texted Ms. Lauryn Hill to ask her if she was cool, she said she was cool. She signed off on it, she gave me the approval. I don't have the rest of the Fugees' phone numbers, so I hit Salaam Remi who worked with the Fugees and he signed off on it. I just wanted to get her blessing and we were good.
So is it true then? Is the album done and ready to go?
All we're doing now is plotting when we're dropping.
Do you have a title and an idea of when it might come out?
Yes, but it's not time to put that out there.
The Land soundtrack is coming out on Mass Appeal Records. How has it been running a label?
I'm just in a better place in my life for it. At one point, it was just music: Music, live my life, don't bother me. But then, I started to have all these ideas to open up that portfolio further and started meeting with interesting, smart people. Once that happened, it was all about picking and choosing which ones to get involved with. It's cool, it's a challenge, but that's life.
You put out the Dilla record as well. Do you have any other releases planned for the rest of 2016?
We're working on Dave East, he just finished up with his new music that he's about to release in a couple of weeks. Fashawn is working, DJ Shadow's working, I have The Lost Tapes 2, that's further down the road. A lot of stuff that's just laying around that's going to be released: Lost Tapes 2, and a couple of things I can't remember.
Being executive producer on these two projects, would you consider going in front of the camera again and acting?
It has to be the right thing. I'm having fun, though, staying behind the scenes as of now.
At this point of your career, it seems you have total freedom in your choices. How does it feel to call all the shots?
It's real cool. You had the luxury before of sitting back for the most parts, because on other labels, I had a bunch of people who did everything for me. Now, it's more hands-on. It's a relief. It's a great feeling.