For many, Nas will always be best known as the intrepid soul who trucked his way out of Queensbridge Projects with his 1994 debut opus, Illmatic. Trouncing the competition with his dexterity, all while scripting chilling tales of the inner city, is what allowed the then 20-year-old to reach the apex of rap with his opening statement.
Now, nearly 25 years later, the legendary lyricist isn’t worried about cementing his Hall of Fame career; he’s more concerned with moving the culture forward and in the right direction.
Nas, along with director Sacha Jenkins — who recently partnered up with the Queens MC for their documentary Word Is Bond — joined forces again to create an eight-episode show on Netflix, titled Rapture. The goal of the rap-centric show is to help illustrate the story of other thriving MCs who have successfully moved the needle in hip-hop. T.I., 2 Chainz, Rapsody, Logic, G-Eazy, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and Nas’ current protege, Dave East, all document their respective come-ups and explain how they nimbly maneuvered through the trenches to get where they are today.
For avid Nas fans, Rapture will give you a look into his relationship with his brother Jungle, his current ventures — which includes opening up a Sweet Chick restaurant in Los Angeles, and dispensing wisdom to the burgeoning rapper East, as well as veteran wordsmith, Killer Mike.
Billboard spoke to Nas about the forthcoming documentary (which will debut on Netflix March 30), his admiration for Rapsody and Mike, characteristics he sees in Dave East that reminds him of his younger self, and why this stage of rap caters to the “multidimensional” artist.
Check out our interview below.
You and Sacha Jenkins worked together before on the Word Is Bond documentary, and now you guys teamed up for Rapture. What is it about the chemistry that you and Sacha have that makes it so strong and so organic?
We’re Queens boys. We’re from Queens, New York. Same area, we come up out of the same neck of the woods. We’ve seen a lot. We’re close in age, all of those things. We grew up liking the same music for the most part, but Sacha had a different view. His whole taste of music goes from hip-hop to heavy metal, stuff I’ve never heard of. His take on things is definitely a different stroke of the brush. Together, we both get each other. For the most part, we like the same things. Things that stand out.
How was this journey different from the previous times you’ve opened up to the public?
It’s always different. I think the way that Mass Appeal does things is unique. I’ve done many films but this one right here, I’ve introduced lots of rappers to the game but I haven’t done it in a while. With Mass Appeal and the label, we’re doing a whole thing. Dave East has been the guy that’s kind of been the head of the movement on the label side of Mass Appeal. He was the first one that I was personally involved with. We put the attention on my relationships with my guys, my partners, my hip-hop partners, like Dave East.
You mention Dave, and you said you and him have a lot of similarities. What do you see in Dave that you maybe saw in yourself at his age as far as being an MC, but also a man?
His drive is impressive. Being able to rap is one thing but if you don’t have the drive to go out there and do things that people didn’t ask you to. Go be on call of duty when you’re out there, your duty being your job as an artist to get your art out there. Some people drop the ball. I feel like he had so much to offer before he even had an album out. He takes the ball with his hands, and he handles it.
That’s pretty much what I was coming up in the game. I had to make a lot of moves and decisions that were really crazy, because I was brand new in the business and I didn’t know. I had to make a lot of moves on my own that I knew would carve my way.
There was a line in the documentary that I loved and appreciated that I think a lot of people could use in life. You said: “You don’t get drunk on power. You use it to help others.” With that being said, how have you managed to use your star power and status to allow young artists like Dave to get on?
It’s always been about introducing a new face along with mine. Every step of the way, I feel like I’ve been doing that kind of thing. That’s all I know. Music is all about expression and talent, so the more I can be a part of getting out there, the happier I am. It’s always been my thing. I can’t even understand letting the law of power get to me. I just didn’t grow up that way.
In that same episode, you praised Killer Mike, who I think is — while he’s known for by new listeners for his part in Run the Jewels — he’s very much an underappreciated and underrated MC. Do you remember the first time you got hip to Killer Mike? Was it a record or an album that he had?
Something Outkast-related. I always knew Killer Mike was a lyricist, and I knew he had something to say outside of his music. That stood out to me the most. That’s what made me want to work with him, because not only is he extremely talented as a lyricist, he’s political. He’s for the people, he’s for freedom, he’s for education, he’s for building. I’m drawn to people like that. And I think he’s a smart guy. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s an example of someone who has drive. I use that word a lot. That’s the difference between men and the boys.
How important was it to try to showcase different backgrounds that have been able to thrive and succeed in hip-hop with acts like Rapsody, 2 Chainz, and Logic representing different sides of the genre?
I’ve known Rapsody for a while, and we were talking about signing her for a while. Very interested in her whole thing, so it was an honor to have her — a female hip-hop artist who could spit better than most of the hip-hop artists right now. It was important that we showcase that, especially right now with the season of Netflix and the Roxanne Roxanne movie about a hip-hop pioneer. Someone who comes from my neighborhood Queens, a big inspiration for me.
I’ve been a supporter of all rap, male and female, since the beginning. Antoinette, MC Lyte — Rapsody, to me, comes from that lineage, so it’s important right now and we are so timely and so on point with this Rapture piece. She was just nominated for a Grammy. She just dropped a great album. It’s just her time.
In what ways do you think Rapture can help lessen the divide between the older generation and the new generation of hip-hop?
Oh man, that’s everything you just said right there. You’d be surprised how many young artists don’t know a thing about the people who came before them and opened that door. I always gave love to the ones that opened the door, whether that be on my block or in the rap game. Always give love to the ones that opened the door, because they have that wisdom. They have the foresight to see that this could be something for the next generation and the generation after that.
I think this opens up that vision to artists who pioneered, who don’t rap anymore because they don’t get shown like this. This is for the younger generation, because they need to know why they’re getting into this game that offers so much more than just the music. The music is a major thing but it offers so much more from their time to inspire our communities and people who love hip-hop. It gives them an inside view on today’s game.
You once said that rap is a young man’s sport. Did it ever hit you like, “Shit, I’ve been on my grind for damn near 25 years and my legacy is still intact.” How have you been able to have a legacy that’s unblemished for so long?
There’s different stages of it and you just appreciate each stage and never take it too personal. I’ve seen way too many people take it too personal. They act like they don’t. They make excuses for things too much and they live off of excuses. Excuses become a career for some people. I can’t accept failure. Failure’s not an option. I can’t allow anybody to tell me what I should and should not do. I’m living in my own way and breaking that down to an art form: hip-hop.
How could you tell me something is wrong that I should be doing or that I shouldn’t be doing when no one told me how to get here to begin with? I’m still on my journey and I don’t know what that means to anybody else, but to me as a person, it’s not just about being a music artist that has some shit that’s untarnished. It’s about being a human being. I think that’s what comes first, who I am as a person. Then, the music and art will reflect that. As long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing as a person and a human being, the rest will come together.
If you could title this chapter of hip-hop right now, what title would you give it and why?
“Rapture.” That’s the mood we in right now. It’s that time. We’re going through magnificent change. Whether you watch the show or the show has something that inspires you or reminds you of your weaknesses and strengths, the show really sums up everything that I think is happening in this stage of rap music. This stage of rap music is the multi-dimensional artist. You can’t sit back and say we don’t watch the person a lot. We fiend for it on social media. We look for all the other shit outside of music.
To bring it back to the show, the show put a channel on that. It’s not just a 60-second Instagram thing, it’s an hour-long situation on some real shit. We have so much more to offer the world. It’s time there’s a light put on that side of it, and embrace that light.
The last question is the same question, but applying it to your life. If you could title this chapter of your life right now, what title would it be and why?
I don’t really know what I would title it, but it’s the best part. It’s the most interesting part. It’s become me and you on a phone call about Logic’s life, G-Eazy’s life, Rapsody’s life, T.I’s life, a new artist Dave East’s life. Killer Mike. Just Blaze. It’s about me sitting behind a chair with hands on, cultivating from a more seasoned perspective. I want to see everything happen in this art form grow to its fullest potential. I’m one of those guys that’s not just in the studio but behind the scenes, creating a lot of shit on many fronts. I don’t know what you call that, but it’s exciting to me.