Review | Nas on the past, present, and future of rap

NasThe 92nd Street Y’s Upper East Side theatre has played host to exclusive lectures, performances, and interviews with anyone from Bill Clinton to Pattie Smith to Steve Martin, and has nabbed an indisputable reputation as one of the most inclusive cultural hubs in New York.

Last night, rap and hip-hop aficionados filled 92Y’s 917-seat, Kaufmann Concert Hall, during an intimate, live streamed chat with celebrated Queens MC, Nas.  A night that could have easily played like a mundane episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, proved absolutely spellbinding as Nas, the natural storyteller he is, dished about everything from his early days on stage and criticism over the years, to growing up listening to John Coltrane and Marvin Gaye.

Nas, who is currently nominated for four Grammy awards, had no qualms with answering all of Rolling Stone scribe, Anthony Decurtis’ prodding questions, and seemed especially eager to open up about how he dealt with the pressures of being compared to some of hip-hop’s great names, and where he thinks the future lies for the rap game.  Check out some of Nas’ direct responses to questions from last night’s 92Y discussion below.

Let’s talk about Illmatic. How did you piece together the tracks that made it onto that album?

What winds up happening, is that I will hear a track that I like and I will just write something to it, and complete a song to that track. That song winds up being a record that makes it to the final cut, when really that was me just trying to warm up. I’ve got a lot of criticism over the past thirty years for not having the best beats, and you know I get it because I like to exercise; I like to work on a song. Even though it’s a song that for a lot of people, shouldn’t even make it to the final cut, to me its like when I do things like that and its not great, that’s when you get the real me. The flaws, the mistakes I make, or whatever, that’s the real me, its not so polished…. it’s not a hit. But still to me, l got something off my chest. So sometimes I just pick tracks that just speak to me more than anyone else. So when I find things that speak to me and also everyone else that hears it, it’s a win-win.

After Illmatic came out, you immediately got a reputation as a writer and a lyricist and compared you to the people like Rakim, did you feel the pressure of trying to live up to these comparisons? How did it make you feel in terms of the next things you were going to do?  

 I knew that when I got compared to the best of the best, it was great compliment, but I knew it was way to soon. So I didn’t listen to that because that’s not what my path is. It’s great to be compared to these great artists, but I have my own thing to do my own thing to say. I started to get fans that wanted me to continue to make music that reminded them of their favorite artists that came before me. So I knew I would lose people along the way, because that’s not what I came to be, I came to be me. I didn’t know where I was going but I knew I was going somewhere.

With regard to your guardianship and sense of responsibility to hip-hop tradition, can you sum up what you see is the state of hip-hop at the moment?

I started to dislike the fact that people were making money, like more than liking the state of music. I started to appreciate that maybe that guy may not be great, but maybe he can feed his family now. I feel like the young guys really want to make a difference and really want to make careers of themselves and really care about the culture, not all of them, but there is a really good group of young guys. I feel there is a group of guys from my period that have given up.  They don’t feel appreciated anymore and have stopped making records, which makes more room for a lot of the younger guys to grow. There is a lot of confusion in the game for younger guys, they want to start out and go straight to Tupac level. If they would take the time to appreciate that path to go they would realize they don’t want to miss going from 0 to 60, they don’t want to miss the dash in between. That’s a good time. It might be a little scary, but at the end of the day, once you make it, you’ll appreciate the struggling times. If you go straight from A to Z, there’s nowhere else to go.