Nas' latest album, Hip Hop Is Dead (December, 2006) debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts selling over 355,000 copies the first week – resounding proof that hip-hop is clearly NOT dead. Nas never meant the title to be taken literally. He's a wordsmith, a writer, an intellectual and a rapper who's pissed-off at the state of his art form. Hip-hop isn't dead, but it's certainly fallen ill.
Nasir Jones, son of legendary jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, was born September 14 1973 into New York's infamous Queensbridge housing projects. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade yet developed a highly educated mentality he would later use to build his remarkably literate music. Nas managed to balance the hardness of the ghetto streets with well-structured, though-provoking rhymes to create a style that allowed him to rule the rap world for several years. Nowhere was this synergy more evident than his 1994 debut, Illmatic.
Illmatic was a shot heard round the world. To this day it is widely regarded as one of the cornerstones of the genre and a certified classic on all counts. Although the watered-down, pop-crossover albums that followed (1996's It Was Written and I Am and Nastradamus - both 1999) garnered Nas a larger mainstream audience, they tarnished his street rep and dissolved his hardcore fanbase.
It wasn't until 2001 when Nas released Stillmatic that he would once again be considered a force to be reckoned with. Dropping the club hits and party anthems, Nas responded to Jay-Z's jabs on "Takeover" (off 2001's Blueprint) and proved he was ready to battle for the East Coast throne left vacant by the Notorious B.I.G.
2002's God's Son and 2004's Street's Disciple brought more fans back, officially ending the long-standing accusation that Nas had sold out. When he joined Jay-Z at Def Jam he sent yet another shock through the rap world. Not only had he ended one of the biggest beefs of the decade, he also fulfilled a lifelong dream to record on the legendary label.
Hip Hop Is Dead may not be an instant classic, but it's Nas' strongest work in years. Sharp, strong and story-based, it echoes his mind-moving glory days, Nas is here to help save hip-hop.
JamBase: What is the meaning behind the title, Hip Hop Is Dead?
Nas: The title is just about the rap game and what I love about it so much. It just shows how much I love it in a weird way. It feels like when this album is over, hip-hop as we once knew it is no longer.
JamBase: I read where you said that hip-hop is particularly vulnerable today. What makes you say that?
Nas: Because it's so international and global and big, people don't know what it is. And of course me being from New York, I really know what it's all about, so who better to speak on it?
Comparing the new album to your other work, how do you feel it stacks up to previous records?
Well Streets Disciple [the last record] was a double-album that was more about my personal life. It was a record that let you inside. My father [Olu Dara] is on one of the cuts ["Bridging The Gap"]. Hip Hop Is Dead has a lot to do with the current state of rap music and stuff like that.
On the song "My Country" from Stillmatic you talked about how our country can't come together until our lives are threatened. In the aftermath of 9/11, where our lives as a country were threatened, do you feel this country has come together at all?
[Long pause] No.
Do you think there's any opportunity for us to come together as a nation?
Yeah, definitely. America is going through what hip-hop is suffering from. Everything is suffering. We could all use a burst of energy and apply that energy to our creative juices to be more creative in politics, science and loving God.
So, thinking about the relationship between hip-hop and society, how do we do that? How do we make this change happen?
Music has always played a serious, important role in bringing all different kinds of people together. I think that gives hip-hop a chance to breathe life into a dead society. When you have more creative writers who can speak on things they can influence politicians and people. Hip-hop started out as something that society shit on, that America shit on and ran from and buried. Now it's like America's cousin that acts up [in ways] you don't really want. But, that's a long way from just something that was shit on. I think hip-hop has a chance to go to the next phase and help things.