It's been years since Nas and former manager Steve Stoute formally worked together, but when the two reunited on-stage at a keynote Q&A at South by Southwest Friday it was as if little time had passed.
Stoute, a former exec VP at Interscope who now runs advertising agency Translation, chided his one-time management client about the early 2000s when Nas was competing with ringtone rap - a period that would ultimately inspire him to proclaim "Hip Hop Is Dead" on his 2006 album. (Stoute also set off much controversy with an editorial criticizing the Grammys in 2011.)
"I have to be totally honest," Nas said. "I didn't feel anything about Chingy or anybody else's success during that time. Tell you the truth, it kind of gave me some time off. Time off to not have to keep coming and coming and coming. It just balances things - you can't have everything… It is messed up for that real stuff when the pop-fluff stuff is everywhere; that does damage to things. But when you have faith in the artists that you love, you know they gonna pull through and bring something to the table."
Stoute had similar reasons for exiting the music business at the age of 29 to start a new career in advertising. "You couldn't know what was good and what was garbage, and I can assume you were going through that as an artist," he said to Nas. "When artists who are not as talented or executives who are not as talented are getting big deals and all these things, they're bragging about it. And I'm saying, 'but why them?' Is it because it's new? It's the same thing like a Ponzi scheme. At some point it runs out and somebody's gonna get caught with the bag. And I didn't wanna be around when that took place."
Even before "Hip Hop Is Dead," Nas had begun to lose faith in his genre after 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. were both slain within months of each other in 1996 and 1997. "At some point I felt the whole thing was dead after Biggie and Pac were killed. Once I knew we'd never get a chance to see where they were headed, it just died for me for a bit there."
Nas credits his 2010 album and tour with Damian Marley with getting his career as well as his personal life back on track. "The reggae tour - what made you go there?" Stoute asked. "Cause I got divorced," Nas said, referencing his split from ex-wife Kelis in 2009.
"And I didn't know what to do with myself. I'm now by myself and in that home that's a quiet home by yourself, and I realized I don't know how to do nothing. So I'm by myself, it's emotional, it's crazy right? So Damian and I, we were talking about doing this music and it happened at the right time. It took my mind off everything I was going through personally…Damian is a great dude. He's something so refreshing that's great to be around. We went to places I'd never been as a solo artist, like New Zealand and Australia. It gave me peace, you know what I mean? It gave me peace."
One collaboration that never fully came to fruition was a planned recording session with Amy Winehouse, a personal friend of Nas' who wanted to record a sequel to her song "Me And Mr. Jones" from 2007's "Back To Black." When Winehouse passed away, Nas reluctantly agreed to record a guest rhyme for the song "Like Smoke" on her posthumous release "Lioness" in December.
"Part of me didn't want to do the song," he said. "Amy and I share a birthday, so she was my sister. And she was just so much fun to be around. She would say things about well-known people in the industry that she didn't like and it would just crack me up… We were all hoping she would pull through and come back."