The hip-hop visionary talks about his successful career and the 20th anniversary of the release of his landmark album, “Illmatic.”
Hip-hop artist Nas
Tavis: Nas was just 20 when he put everything he knew into a groundbreaking project called “Illmatic” that had critics scrambling for superlatives then and now, I might add.
On the CD you hear his innovative lyric capturing the confusion and celebration of growing up in New York City in the 1980s. The CD has just been rereleased in a 20th anniversary edition and a documentary about Nas’ life and times just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
We’ll start our conversation first with a look at cut from “Illmatic” called “Half-Time.”
[Clip from "Half-Time"]
Tavis: I want to start by asking, Nas, what it feels like to be relevant in this game 20 years later.
Nas: Wow. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t think about 20 years ago, I didn’t think about it. Just happened.
Like, it just crept up on me, the time. (Laughter) It’s just crazy. I’m happy, I’m elated. I’m enjoying it, definitely enjoying it.
Tavis: I ask that question in part because you know better than I do that this business changes at the speed of light, the speed of sound.
Tavis: To have done something 20 years ago that’s still relevant, that’s still being played, that people still are pumping, that’s a big deal, and particularly in the genre that you’re in, hip-hop.
Tavis: I literally, couple of nights ago, went online just to refresh my own memory about the folk who have come and gone -
Nas: Wow, yeah.
Tavis: – in this game over 20 years. It’s – I don’t want to call no names, but you were there so you know. There’s a lot of folk, man, who came, they came and went, and here you are, 20 years later, still doing your thing.
Nas: Yeah. I’ve just been lucky in a lot of ways. In rap years, I’m up there.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Nas: But -
Tavis: I think rap years are worse than dog years. (Laughter) I think, I think you’re way up there, man.
Nas: Yeah, dogs live longer than rappers, you know what I mean? (Laughter) It’s just bad. Yeah, but hey, I’ve been lucky, man. I just kind of stay out of the way. That’s my whole thing. I get it in and I get out the way.
Tavis: You said rapper, I said rapper, and every time I think of you, though, I think of whether or not it is offensive, small “O,” that you’re still being called a rapper 20 years later when I know that what you really see yourself as is a musician who does rap. But I assume after 20 years you’ve gotten comfortable with the title “rapper.”
Yeah, what are you going to do, you know? (Laughter) It’s what it is. I don’t mind that. I like the term “MC.” Nobody uses that term anymore, like where’s the MCs at?
Tavis: Why is that?
Nas: MC is kind of associated with the old school, or whereas rap groups used to have, it’d be not just a solo artist; it’d be a group, because you always had a DJ. Back in the days it was the rapper and the DJ made you a group.
So that was the MC and that was the DJ. That’s changed. We’re like solo artists now, we got our names. There’s no – there used to be MC Shadee, or MC Shan or MC this guy.
I had an MC name when I was trying to come up in the game – well, just trying to be a young writer, and that kind of just evolved into something else, to rapper. And rapper needs to go. Rapper hung around (laughter) too long. Yeah.
Tavis: When you look back on “Illmatic” two decades later, what do you think specifically of the lyrical content?
Nas: It was bold, it was revealing, it was honesty, it was introspective. It was really painting a picture of everything I seen, everything that was around me, everything that I loved at the time.
I make references to things that are no longer in style on that album. I say words like “phat,” like that’s a phat suit you got on. But today, you say something different, like that’s a nice suit, or that’s a smooth suit.
But I use old-school terms and that and stuff, but it’s cool because it’s, like, right there, cemented in that time.
Tavis: How do you feel when you hear this 20 years later about the conditions that you were living in then versus the conditions, maybe those same conditions, you tell me, that young folk who were their age then have to navigate every day in 2014?
Nas: Well the good and bad. The bad is because those situations that were existing then are, you know, it’s still happening now, the things that we’re talking about, I was talking about.
But the good thing about it is what has changed with just even musicians and rappers and all of that. They’ve become businesspeople and that way we open doors, and -
Tavis: Including yourself.
Nas: Yes, yes.
Tavis: With shoes and everything else, yeah.
Nas: Yeah. So kids see me open a sneaker store in Vegas, they might want to aspire to do something bigger and better. They might want to design their own shoe.
They know it’s possible now when they see it. Back then, that wasn’t happening. When that record dropped, a lot of things wasn’t happening that’s happening now. So there’s more hope now when they see us, and we see a better, we see more doors opening than we saw back then.
Tavis: What’s the up side – I know I can ask you this question and you’ll give me an honest answer, as you always do – what’s the up side and what’s the down side, the good and the bad, the sunny and the slummy side, of hip-hop being so mainstream now?
Actually, mainstream – let me explain what I mean by that. Let me back that. Even if you don’t think that hip-hop has gone mainstream, and I could debate you on that all night; we ain’t going to have that conversation.
Even if you think it hasn’t gone mainstream, it has been accepted by the mainstream, and those are not necessarily one and the same thing, you feel me?
Nas: I got you.
Tavis: So what do you make 20 years later of the fact that hip-hop is so accepted now by the mainstream?
Nas: Anything that’s really good, everybody wants to put their hands on. The multimedia puts their hands on it and everything happens that makes it global. Then people forget the roots of it and people forget why they care about it, and then it gets torn apart and turns so commercial that you don’t even know what the essence of this art form is even about.
The thing about that is no matter what’s going on in the mainstream world, I’m almost the guy who tries to tell the people I meet, like, never focus on mainstream, never focus on the pop world.
Do what you do, and that world will come to you. Don’t run to that, because that, I don’t even know what that is out there. It’s big, it’s lights, it’s glittering, it looks like it’s everything.
But if you don’t focus on that and you just focus on what you’re doing, we can stay in control of the art form. Then we continue to push each other, and the rewards are better anyway than chasing it.
With the mainstream, you got big, successful acts that become household names overnight, and the guys who stick to their guns may not become household names overnight, may not ever need to become household names, but within a great circle of great people who admire great work, you’ll have their respect.
So while there’s mainstream, it is what it is. You’ve just got to continue doing what you’re doing.
Tavis: I guess the question is whether or not hip-hop music, as an art form, can be mainstreamed -
Tavis: – and still have the truth -
Nas: And still be real, yes.
Tavis: – at the epicenter of it.
Nas: Yes, it can.
Nas: Yes, it can. Biggie did it, Tupac did it, Jay-Z’s done it, Eminem’s done it, I’ve done it. Yes, of course. Run-DMC has done it, you know what I mean? But after Run-DMC’s generation, I think that generation got caught there, because they invented it.
They invented rock with rap and getting all this wide audience, and then we brought it back to the street. Then that world, the outside world, came to us anyway. We didn’t have to put guitars in it.
We didn’t have to do anything to cross over. They crossed over to us, with our generation – mine and Wu-Tang and all of that.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that you have survived an industry that has, at times, had its own level of violence, in part because you chose to stay out of the way? Is that what you meant by that, or did you mean something else?
Nas: Yeah. No, you got it. It’s the same way in the streets. If you feel like you’re on to something that’s going to be big and there’s a lot of distractions, there’s a lot of people that’s not going to want to see you get there, then you have to navigate yourself around that.
You’ve got to – it was the same thing, those same rules apply to rap music, because it was the streets; now we’re record deals, you know what I’m saying? So you have to live by those same rules, and sometimes when you’re working, B.I.G. was out there working his new record.
We weren’t used to having bodyguards. I didn’t have real bodyguards at the time. I don’t know if he had real bodyguards. So he was just out there, and it could have been me.
It could have been me out there, but he was dead center in that beef at the time. But overall, just moving around all the unnecessary stuff – when you know there’s a higher goal in your life, there shouldn’t be nothing that holds you back from reaching your goal.
You have to be right on your thing, you know what I’m saying? Steadfast. You can’t break away; you can’t try to chill with this crowd for a little while because this crowd might be mixed up with something that you don’t want to be mixed up with.
Stay on your course. That’s the only way. Take the money and run was a phrase made by a wise cowboy or something. (Laughter) Somebody knew something.
Tavis: Take the money and run.
Tavis: Since you have stayed on your grind, to the point you’re making now, you stayed on your grind for these two decades since “Illmatic” first came out, what does Nas think of his gift 20 years later?
The goal, to your point a moment ago, is to get better. We want to stay focused and we want to improve, we want to keep advancing. When you hear your stuff – “Illmatic” is awfully good.
Nas: Thank you.
Tavis: There are two ways to look at this. You started at the top and you could have gone straight to the bottom. When you put “Illmatic” out, everybody’s like, “How’s he going to top this?”
So your career could have gone straight to the bottom, or you have to really challenge yourself to keep pushing forward for another 20 years. How do you think you’ve done over 20 years?
Nas: I did okay. (Laughter) I did okay. Failure is not an option, and I always felt like I’m a man who doesn’t have regrets, and I don’t live with excuses. I can’t take excuses.
I can’t blame anything or person for the reason I didn’t get here. I couldn’t live with myself if there was – if I didn’t make it to where I wanted to make it, I have to live with that, and that’s it.
We’re men. So I approached my music that way, because we have a lot to say in the words. There’s so many words that’s in each song; in each verse, there’s so many words.
So we’ve got a lot to get out there, so we’re revealing a lot about ourselves and what we feel and who we are. I got to live by that word, so if it doesn’t work, then I’ve got to bow out, and that’s it, but there will be no excuses. So that’s how I lived it.
Tavis: Artistically, do you think you’re better now than you were 20 years ago?
Nas: I don’t know. Sometimes I think about 20 years ago, where what I wanted to do if I wasn’t bombarded with the business of the music business.
There was a lot of different ways I wanted to go with it that I never got a chance to do. But today I’m more learned, I’ve figured out some things, and I can see myself doing things, some real good things, moving forward too. So yeah, I was cool back then; now I might be better, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. When you hear yourself in the studio or on stage, your flow, your stylings, your writing, on balance, do you think you’re better now than 20 years ago?
Nas: What are you getting at? What are you trying to say, Tavis?
Tavis: I’m just trying to – I’m trying – I’m just trying to get your own assessment (laughter) of your gift over 20 years, because this was such an iconic and seminal piece of work.
Nas: Yeah -
Tavis: See, if this had been – let me put it another way. If this had been or turns out to be – “Illmatic” – if this had been or turns out to be your magnum opus, are you okay with that?
Nas: Yes, I am.
Nas: One hundred percent.
Tavis: There you go, I got my answer. (Laughter)
Nas: One hundred percent, 100 percent.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Nas: I couldn’t ask for a better record. When I approached it, I approached it trying to be the best. I tried to – I was really young, but I had a lot to say, and I knew what I wanted to do, and I’m proud of it.
I’m glad I can be proud of it now. Again, I’m lucky because I can hear the imperfections in it, but that’s also what makes it a cool record.
Tavis: You can hear that?
Nas: I can hear that.
Tavis: See, I ain’t heard none of that.
Nas: Yeah, I can hear it. (Laughter) Most people -
Tavis: I ain’t heard no imperfection in “Illmatic,” yeah.
Nas: Most people, I talk to actors, and some of them haven’t seen some of their movies, and it’s because of that. They know where they were bad to them, but to us, it was amazing, Oscar award winning type of performances.
So I can hear it. I would never say what -
Tavis: What it was, huh?
Nas: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So you’re not going to tell me.
Nas: Nah, nah.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m not going to ask you anyway, because -
Nas: You’re my man, but no. (Laughter) I want you to enjoy it the way it is.
Tavis: I’m not going to ask you because I don’t want to know, because it sounds awfully good to me. (Laughter) So you put the rerelease out, and you got some new mix stuff on here too, though.
Nas: Yeah, well what we did was we found a demo, too, called “I’m a Villain,” and I must have been about 16 years old when we went in the studio and did that. We were hustling back then and were able to get in the studio with that song.
So I’m surprised it popped up. I don’t even have a copy of it, so I’m happy that the label found that song, “I’m a Villain,” produced by Jay Supreme from my neighborhood.
The rest of them are remixes that came out back then, old, ’90s-sounding remixes that were B-sides and stuff like that, and we just compiled all the stuff on there for everybody that might remember some of that.
Tavis: Speaking of the producers, and this is really kind of inside the game, but I want to raise it with you because I have an appreciation for it.
Nas: Thank you.
Tavis: Which is that you were early on with putting three, four big producers on one project.
Nas: Yes, yes.
Tavis: Back in the day, when most people were hustling, it’s them and they crew and they go in and do the whole thing top to bottom.
Tavis: But you had some -
Nas: I was thinking outside the box.
Tavis: You had a big – you were thinking, yeah.
Nas: Yeah. Well you know what, I knew it was my time. I think a lot of us know when it’s our time. No matter what profession you’re in, you get a feeling. If you worked on it long enough, you know when it’s ready.
I felt like it was ready, and it would be a shame if I would not do – I saw so many people make the wrong moves with their records, and I needed my stuff to have the right music with it.
So I knew someone who knew all those guys that could help me put the record together, and made it happen.
Tavis: That’s big stuff, that’s big stuff. You mentioned movies a moment ago. I want to come to your documentary. There’s a line in a movie, “Broadcast News,” a line, I loved it the first time I heard it, and the line is, “What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams.”
Tavis: “What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams,” and for years, I wrestled with that question. I finally figured out for myself, when your life exceeds your dreams you ain’t got but one choice: You got to dream bigger dreams. That’s the answer to me.
Nas: Right, right.
Tavis: I just got to dream bigger dreams.
Tavis: When you’re sitting in New York and Robert De Niro walks on stage to introduce the film, (laughter), “Time is Illmatic,” about your life, like, how do you – you’re a kid of the city of New York.
Tavis: Like, how do you process that? How does that feel?
Nas: Well I was hitting my boy, I was hitting my brother, (laughter) I was hitting everybody, like, “Yo, Robert De Niro just said my name, he just said, ‘Illmatic.’ Robert De Niro said, ‘Illmatic.’”
Tavis: At Tribeca, I should say.
Nas: At Tribeca Film Festival.
Tavis: Opening night.
Nas: Opening night for the film festival.
Nas: It was surreal. I watched “The Godfather.” “Godfather II” is my favorite movie, and my brother said, “Yo, tonight, the Godfather’s watching you.”
Nas: I was like, “Who gets to do that?” I was like, “I’m done, I can retire. I’m done. I’ve done it all.” At that point, just because Robert De Niro said “Illmatic,” I’m done. It’s over. (Laughter) It was, I’m like, “I’m good. I don’t have to do nothing else again. I need a break or something.”
Tavis: For folk who are maybe hearing about this for the first time, I don’t know where they’ve been for the last 20 years, but maybe folk are hearing it for the first time, that name, “Illmatic,” I-L-L-M-A-T-I-C, how’d that become the name of this project?
Nas: It was just beyond me. It was the word that was used in my neighborhood in the ’80s. I was a kid, and I hear the older guys saying, “That’s illmatic,” or “Those sneakers are illmatic.”
Then there was this dude on my block named Illmatic that everybody knew, and he was the big dude on the block. The whole neighborhood knew him. He had the most respect, salute to Illmatic out there, wherever you are. You inspired an album. But it was just the terminology in Queensbridge, you know.
Tavis: What do you make – I get kicks out of this sometimes, because Madison Avenue has become really good at – they always have been good at this, but they’ve become really good at it in the age of hip-hop of just siphoning off the language.
I’m looking up on CNN or it could be the most bland news network, and I hear the anchor or I’ll hear the voice of a voiceover specialist in a commercial, it just cracks me up that the stuff we come up with just finds its way into the most interesting mainstream places, even all these years later.
Nas: Right, and then we’re Black and then we still hear words like, “What’s that mean?” Every day I hear a new word and I feel like maybe I’m out of touch, like what’s that mean? “You don’t know what this means?”
So, and we’re Black, and they still could, our people come up with stuff that just throws us sometimes, like now I’m out of touch. (Laughter) Like it’s just young people just got this thing, you know what I mean? It just – but it’s everywhere, and everybody’s using the language, and that’s good. That’s good, because it’s tying us all together a little closer.
Tavis: So I know you’re this weekend heading to Vegas to open up another one of your entrepreneurial enterprises.
Tavis: So I’m going to put you on the spot. Just tell me all the stuff you got jumping off right now, entrepreneurially. Come on, you ain’t got to brag; I set you up for it. So you got a sneaker store – tell me, go ahead, go ahead, break me off, go ahead.
Nas: Well, sneaker store, which is a fun thing.
Tavis: The sneaker store.
Nas: That’s a fun thing.
Tavis: Right, okay.
Nas: I’ve always wanted -
Tavis: You can make money and have fun, I like doing that.
Nas: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: (Laughter) It’s better that way, as a matter of fact.
Nas: Exactly, man. Sneaker store is something that we’re doing now. I’m a venture capitalist now, and this is the first time I’m really saying it on television, so -
Tavis: So you’re a VC.
Nas: Yeah, so I’m teched up. I’m invested in a lot of tech and I’m getting into producing TV. I’m working that thing out right there, a little bit at a time. I don’t want to say too much, but I’m really happy about everything I’m into.
I’m learning a lot. I’m in a whole new world now. I’m 40, feeling good, too. (Laughter)
Tavis: I think Nas just told us if we need a producer for this show he might want to pump some money into our project.
Nas: Hey -
Tavis: Is that what you just said?
Nas: I definitely said that. (Laughter) I definitely said that.
Tavis: Is that what I thought I hear you say?
Nas: I would love – that would be an honor. (Laughter) That would be an honor.
Tavis: No, I got a minute to go; I could talk to you for hours.
Nas: I know, man.
Tavis: I so enjoy – I knew that I had made it when my name appeared in a Nas song one day.
Nas: Oh, of course.
Tavis: All my brothers call me, said, “Negro, have you heard the new Nas track? He mentioned your name,” and I was – never mind cover of “Time -”
Nas: I try to talk about things and people that matter.
Tavis: Well, I appreciate that. But cover of “Time” magazine, cover of “Newsweek,” NPR, PBS, none of that meant anything to my family, to my brothers, until my name was on a Nas track.
Nas: Well thank you, man.
Tavis: So that’s a big deal.
Nas: Thank you.
Tavis: I assume that all things considered, you are just beyond grateful at this point.
Nas: I’m very grateful, I’m very happy, excited about what’s next. I was having a little trouble getting inspired to record until this whole campaign started for this first record.
Listening to it, it took me back and made me kind of remember what my plan was musically, and it made me look at everything that’s gone on since then and it was like it showed me where I was at. It showed me where I was at today, and I got real inspired. So I’m grateful.
Tavis: Well, you are – they say some folks are legends in they own mind; other folks are legends in they own time. You are certainly the latter. For those of us who love music, this has to be in your collection. If you don’t have “Illmatic” in your collection of the best stuff ever done, then your collection is missing something.
It is from Nas, 20 years later, the rerelease, with some stuff on it that you have not heard. I highly recommend it. When I come to Vegas, I’m going to stop by your sneaker store.
Nas: On the house, you good.
Tavis: Well, I’m definitely -
Nas: Your money’s no good there.
Tavis: I’m definitely coming now, then. (Laughter)
Tavis: Definitely. Love you, man.
Nas: Love you too, brother.
Tavis: Glad to have you on.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
Mayor Eric Garcetti: There are a lot of stars in Los Angeles. In fact, this town is synonymous with people who have made a great impact. But I can think of no more deserving star than Tavis Smiley.
I represented the Walk of Fame for 12 years as a councilmember, saw a lot of people come through, but when I heard about your star, you are somebody who has used that fame, who has used that position to actually improve people’s lives.
It’s not so much just what we do in front of the camera; it’s who we are behind the camera. So congratulations. As a native of Los Angeles, I couldn’t be more proud and more excited to go on Hollywood Boulevard, walk all over your name, but look down proudly and say, “That’s our Tavis – an L.A. original.”
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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