Published Dec 01, 2004It may seem like inane bickering to those outside hip-hop culture but battling whether in a freestyle cipher or on wax is an intrinsic part of the culture, directly linked to the African-American oral practice of "the dozens" where respect for verbal dexterity was paramount. As one of hip-hop's most gifted and influential MCs, Nas's word weaving is highly revered. He may be known for his own fierce verbal battle with Jay-Z, but it would be grossly inaccurate to dismiss him as just a battle MC. His reputation was built on his knack for writing vivid and poetically intricate verses, which positioned him as a modern day griot, filing reportage from the vantage of his project window in the infamous Queensbridge housing projects. Yet this blessing has also been his curse. After dropping the classic Illmatic, Nas has struggled to live up to his own standard, wrestling with its influence and his own image, leading to ill-fated career choices, maddening inconsistency and drastically swinging fortunes. Though he's butted heads with other artists and the expectations of diehard fans, it seems Nas's battle is ultimately with himself.
1973 - 1981
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones was born on September 14, 1973 in Long Island, New York to Fannie Ann Jones and to jazz trumpeter Olu Dara. In Arabic, Nasir means helper' or protector', Bin means "son of'. At first Nas lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his mother who worked at United Postal Service and his jazz trumpeter father. At age 4 he would play trumpet on the stoop of the house to the admiration of passers-by. His father told him to stop playing until he was older, because his lip was hanging down, much to Nas' chagrin. However his father often took him to the recording studio and backstage at shows and he would often invite the young boy on stage while he played. The family moved to six-block radius of Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing mass in North America. No longer interested in playing the trumpet, the introverted Nas wrote short stories, drew cartoons creating his own character Sea God.
While many of his friends' mothers in the Queensbridge Houses were crackheads, Nas' mother looked after him and his brother Jabari well. Met William "Ill Will" Graham who lived in the apartment above. He introduced Nas to Chinese food by dropping the food down to Nas' plate held outside the window. Now interested in hip-hop, Nas would go upstairs to Ill Will's place and listen to music. Ill Will had turntables and a fader and he would play the DJ while Nas first began to rhyme over popular tracks making tapes. He also began to tape off the radio studying the hip-hop records he heard and would wake up his brother Jabari practicing rhymes that he had made up. While his parents divorced when he was twelve, Nas continued to write short stories and immersed himself deeper into hip-hop culture. Hanging out with Ill Will he got into graffiti using the tag name Kid Wave, a name he also used when he was a part of a b-boy crew called Breakin' In Action (B.I.A.). At the park, Nas witnessed the legendary Queensbridge hip-hop producer Marley Marl hosting jams with Biz Markie and Roxanne Shante. For a time he wanted to be a producer like Marley Marl and tried Djing and scratching, but wasn't very proficient at it. He also idolized Queensbridge's MC Shan and often asked the MC about the recording process. Fannie Ann Jones and Olu Dara however, divorced when Nas was twelve years old. Soon he became part of a rhyming crew called the Devastatin' Seven and at the same time was reading books on African history, mysticism, witchcraft and was introduced to Five Percenter teachings by older youths. Wanting to be creative, Nas dropped out of high school early in 9th grade, angry at teachers feeling they were suppressing what he wanted to do. He began to smoke weed heavily and with Ill Will and friends he began to become wild, hitting and robbing people running around on trains and hustled briefly on the street corner. Nas absorbed what he was seeing and experiencing intently as he still harboured the desire to rhyme.
1989 to 1990
Having determined he wanted to put together a demo, Nas was introduced by a mutual friend Melquan to a 17-year old producer wunderkind named Large Professor outside a high school. The Flushing, Queens teenage producer was doing uncredited production work on Eric B. & Rakim's "Let The Rhythm Hit Em" album after classes. The two hit it off and Large Professor invites Nas to recording sessions for the Eric B & Rakim and Kool G. Rap albums he is working on, giving Nas the chance to witness arguably two of hip-hop's finest MCs in action. When Rakim didn't show up for sessions, Nas steps into the booth and record under Large Professor's tutelage to work on his demo. Fellow MC Akinyele calls Nas up occasionally to take these recordings to labels to arouse their interest, sometimes with the accompaniment of Kool G. Rap. While these efforts prove unsuccessful, Large Professor gets a deal with Wild Pitch along with two Toronto DJs K-Cut & Sir Scratch who were also brothers,. The group is named Main Source and Large Professor looking out for his protégé invites Nas to appear on the album.
Main Source's album Breaking Atoms is released and is hailed as a hip-hop classic.
Nasty Nas, as he was then called, appears as the first MC on the track "Live at the Barbeque" which also features Large Professor & Akinyele. However Nas' incredibly striking verse grabs all the attention and is the most talked about aspect of the song among hip-hop fans. On the strength of the success of the single "Looking At the Front Door", Main Source go on tour with the UMCs and Jaz and Nas accompanies the group.
At one tour stop in Washington, DC technical difficulties force the show to be cut short prompting an unruly response from the crowd who chase the groups onto their tour bus. Jaz's hypeman, a then-unknown Jay-Z, pulls a gun out of his gym bag in case things got further out of hand, to the shock of Nas and everyone else present. Jay-Z would later recount this incident in the lyrics of "Takeover" to belittle Nas.
While he continued to shop his demo in New York, Nas had been rejected by prominent rap labels of the time such as Cold Chillin' and Def Jam and is on the verge of giving up altogether. Meanwhile one of Def Jam's acts 3rd Bass had broken up and MC Serch from the group was now working on a solo project. At the suggestion of producer T-Ray, MC Serch asks Nas to appear on the posse cut. At the recording session Serch finds out much to his surprise that Nas still does not have a recording contract. He contacts Faith Newman an A&R at Sony who had actually been attempting to find Nas for a while and he is immediately offered a contract. At a party in Queensbridge, a slightly drunk Ill Will gets into an altercation with a girl he apparently disrespects. She calls up some male friends who arrive on the scene and shoot Ill Will in the back and Nas' brother Jabiri in the leg. Ill Will dies in hospital. Nasty Nas sends a rest in peace' shoutout to Ill Will on "Halftime", the first single he records which is featured on the soundtrack to the film Zebrahead that features the on-screen debut of Michael Rappaport. The single adds to the buzz surrounding Nas and when MC Serch's solo album is released later in the year, Nas' standout appearance on "Back To The Grill" only intensifies interest.
While Nas wants the Large Professor to executive produce his album, Large Professor isn't interested and is content with being a producer on the album. MC Serch took on the role of executive producer instead while Large Professor helped to connect Nas with various producers to work with. Based on what they had already heard, New York's premier beatsmiths were very eager to work with Nas who would peruse through 65-70 beats for settling on his final ten selections. Serch contacted Gang Starr's DJ Premier, while Large Professor got Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock involved. A producer named L.E.S. also gets to work on the album when Nas comes over to his house for a casual visit. An MC named AZ is also there and the trio end up creating a song named "Life's A Bitch". This song ultimately also features a trumpet solo from Nas' father Olu Dara. This collection of producers on one project is unprecedented at this time in hip-hop. Before this time most albums were primarily the work of one dedicated production team. The anticipation surrounding Nas' record begins to reach fever pitch heightened by the fact that bootleg copies of his album begin to surface on the street. Puff Daddy who was in the midst of launching his label Bad Boy had taken to showing up at the record company offices claiming he managed Nas and inquiring about his record contract details irking MC Serch who had brokered the deal. Serch makes a deal with Nas that entitles him to royalties on Nas' second album and severs his business ties with the emcee and takes a job at Wild Pitch Records.
In March, Nas' debut Illmatic is released to universal acclaim. The recording receives 5 mics in The Source magazine, a prestigious achievement given the magazine's unquestionable clout and very heavy influence at the time. The album cover features a picture of Nas as a child, taken just after his father had returned home from playing concerts overseas. The original album cover concept was to feature Nas holding Christ in a headlock. Nas' aspirations for the album were to move out of the projects which he did ahead of the album's release and attempt to go to film school. However, the hype surrounding the album and the response to it caught him off guard. His shy personality and shock at the intensity the record resonated with others meant he withdrew from actively promoting the record. Ultimately, the sales of the record paled into comparison with other releases of the year such as Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Doggystyle". Nas began to live beyond his means spending his money on clothes, weed and jewelry and when he performed members of his crew got into fights. Meanwhile Nas' daughter Destiny is born. "One On One" a collaboration with Large Professor appears on the Street Fighter soundtrack and is the last production the duo will work on for some time.
The influence of Illmatic is being heavily felt and Nas' rhyme style inspires a slew of imitators. It also inspires a revival in Queensbridge hip-hop with the emergence of Mobb Deep as vital players on the scene with the release of The Infamous, an album on which Nas appears. Nas also shows up on AZ's album Doe or Die, after the Brooklyn MC snagged a record deal from his Illmatic appearance. Nas also makes guest appearances on Kool G Rap's "4,5,6" and is the first non Wu-Tang member to appear on one of their recordings when he appears on Raekwon's "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" contributing another memorable verse. Nas begins to dub himself as Nas Escobar on these appearances. Meanwhile Nas' lack of focus on his spending habits leaves him with little money and he has to ask for money to buy something to wear to the Source Awards being held that year. The awards show is dominated by Puff Daddy's act Notorious B.I.G who wins four awards, sending a clear message to Nas that he needed to change his approach. Soon he hires Steve Stoute as a manager.
While Illmatic attains gold status, Steve Stoute convinces Nas to aim his efforts in a more commercial direction. He enlists production team the Trackmasterz known for their mainstream success to assist him. The only producer to return from Illmatic was DJ Premier who contributes the awe-inspiring "I Gave You Power". The single "If I Ruled The World" with Lauryn Hill from the Fugees, signified the new accessible Nas. Nas' talents are still evident when It Was Written is released, but the increase in subject matter on materialistic excess leaves fans of his early work dismayed. This direction is underscored in the glossy, expensive videos that parody gangster movies like Casino, accompanying the project. Nevertheless, the record proves to be a commercial success, selling over 3 million copies. The record also featured the debut of Nas' new group The Firm. The group consists of Nas, AZ, female MC Foxy Brown who is heavily influenced by Nas and Cormega a revered MC and former drug kingpin from Queens who had recently finished a prison term and was referenced on Illmatic's "One Love". Nas also teams up with Dr. Dre on "Nas Is Coming", a significant collaboration given the simmering tensions between East Coast and West Coast rap acts at this time, but this doesn't leave him immune from the situation. Tupac disses Nas on a song called "Against All Odds" on his Makaveli album feeling Nas had dissed him on It Was Written's "The Message". The two eventually meet to squash their differences and agree to have the dis removed. Two days after the meeting, Tupac Shakur is shot and killed and the dis remained on the song.
Nas focuses his attention on working on the Firm album. Nas' manager Commissioner' Steve Stoute wanted Cormega to sign a production deal that apparently dictated he had to put money into the group something Cormega refused to do. Cormega had also grown impatient with Nas' desire to ensure his financial success ahead of the group and didn't care much for the Mafioso image the group was cultivating. Cormega was eventually ousted from The Firm and was replaced by Nature, a little known MC who apparently had attended junior high school with Nas. Despite the fact the Firm album featured some notable production work from Dr. Dre, The Firm album arrives overdue and overhyped by the time it was eventually released and proved to be a very disappointing on all levels. Meanwhile Cormega releases a white label entitled "Fuck Nas & Nature". Nature retaliates by writing a verse dissing Cormega on a DJ Clue mixtape. The two eventually swap blows in Queensbridge and then squash their beef. Meanwhile Nas does ghostwriting on Will Smith's Big Willie Style album and appears on R&B singles by Mary J. Blige & Allure, moves which do nothing to dissuade the growing opinion he is rapidly falling off.
Nas co-writes and stars in Belly, a movie directed by video music auteur Hype Williams, playing Sincere a conflicted drug dealer along with DMX and Method Man. While the movie is more style than substance one scene re-enacts Nas' final verse from Ilmatic's "One Love". Nas appears on his father Olu Dara's critically acclaimed album In the World: From Natchez to New York, rhyming on the song "Jungle Jay. aspires to open upscale lounges called EscoBars".Nas begins work on a double album to be released by the end of the year. When he turns the material into the record company it is deemed too street' and he's asked to create songs with more universal appeal. By the end of his sessions, he has recorded over one hundred songs.
Instead of releasing a double album as first intended, Nas resolves to release two albums in the year. As he is preparing to put the finishing touches on the first, bootleg copies of the record are leaked forcing last minute changes. Nas and Steve Stoute substitute five hastily recorded tracks for others. Meanwhile the release of the single "Nas Is Like" produced by DJ Premier has hip-hop fans excited that Nas was on the brink of a return to form. Unfortunately when I Am The Autobiography is finally released its echoes of Nas' early work and Nas Escobar alias give the record a schizophrenic unfocused feel and the record receives accordingly mixed reviews. Soon the album's second video "Hate Me Now", a vitriolic missive aimed at Nas' critics featuring the by now ubiquitous Puff Daddy is filmed. While the video's crucifixion theme is controversial in itself, more drama follows. When the video is premiered on MTV, Puff Daddy realizes the scene of him being nailed to a cross remained in the final version is still in the video despite his request that it be removed. Incensed, Puff Daddy visits Steve Stoute's office with two bodyguards. After they leave Steve Stoute requires admittance to hospital for a broken jaw and arm after being hit with a champagne bottle, chair and a telephone. One day later Nas meets with an out-on-bail Puffy at Trump Tower and agree to have the scene cut from the video. A few months later, Nas fires Steve Stoute as his manager and focuses his efforts on his new label Ill Will Records and releasing his second album of the year called Nastradamus. The title track with its lyric "Nasty Nas to Esco to Escobar/Now he is Nastradamus" attempts to indicate growth but the concept falls flat and the record is Nas' worst received record by music consumers and critics alike. Around the time of the album's release Nas' mother reveals to her sun that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
With his grandmother's death and his mother's health issues, Nas resolves to spend more time with his family. He also dabbles in his hobby of metal detecting in his friends' backyards, explores going back to high school and thinks about studying archaeology.
He is offered and declined an audition to appear in the movie Save The Last Dance. Nas releases QB's Finest, a compilation album featuring many of Queensbridge's new and legendary artists, yet the record is received indifferently. Meanwhile Memphis Bleek a Jay-Z protégé inserts a coded reference to Nas' album "It Was Written" on his single "My Mind Right" convinced Nas had dissed him.on his "Nastradamus" single.
"Oochie Wally" a raunchy track by the Bravehearts featuring Nas' brother Jabiri aka Jungle and Nas himself from the QB's Finest compilation becomes a hit single and Nas begins work on his fifth album as rumours of a beef between him and Jay-Z begin to surface. Jay-Z visits New York hip-hop radio station Hot 97 with a few Roc-A-Fella recording artists. During a freestyle battle Memphis Bleek and Beanie Siegel take verbal shots at Nas. A week later Nas appears on the same station stating "They woke the lion up". Performing at Hot 97's Summer Jam concert Jay-Z disses Nas stating, "Nas don't want it with Hov!", a reference to Jay-Z's nickname Jay-Hova. In response an invigorated Nas records a response entitled "Stillmatic" dissing Jay-Z in oblique fashion referencing his single "H to the Izzo". Jay-Z releases his album The Blueprint on September 11, containing "Takeover", produced by Kanye West which features a searing verse dedicated to dismissing Nas' post-Illmatic career and declining fortunes. Nas brings more controversial attention to himself when he releases his single "Got UR Self A Gun" and mystifiyingly chooses to re-enact the murders of Biggie & Tupac with Nas playing both rappers in the video. When the album Stillmatic is released in December, Nas disses Prodigy , Cormega & others. But "Ether" is a track dedicated entirely to Jay-Z and his label. As "Ether" is leaked ahead of Stillmatic's release Jay-Z responds again with the track "Super Ugly" In which he graphically details having a relationship with the mother of Nas' daughter, something that was actually true. But Jay-Z is roundly criticized for this move, and earned a rebuke from his own mother. Jay-Z appears on Hot 97 in an apologetic mood and this is seen as a triumph for Nas. Meanwhile, Stillmatic itself is considered Nas' best release in years, as it features collaborators from Illmatic such as Large Professor and AZ and finds Nas in a rebellious lyrical mood, addressing social and political matters.
Nas appears on Hot 97 and disses The Roots calling them porch monkeys' for their appearance in Spike Lee's movie Bamboozled, probably because of their appearance on Jay-Z's Unplugged album. He also disses State Property a crew affiliated with Roc-A-Fella records and the violent film they produced of the same name. After finishing touring to support Stillmatic, Nas returns home to be with his ailing mother Fannie Ann Jones who is failing to respond to chemotherapy treatments. She passes away in April and this has a devastating and depressing personal effect on Nas. Nas throws himself into work, linking up with underrated producer Salaam Remi who had also recently lost his mother and begins recording. Scheduled to appear at Hot 97's Summer Jam, Nas is told his intention to mock lynch a Jay-Z robot' figure will not be allowed. An angry Nas goes to visit rival station Power 105 to vent his frustration, dissing the station and Jay-Z's label Def Jam labeling them as part of an evil empire'. He also complains that the materialistic content in the songs being played do nothing to uplift the community, while calling out MCs Cam'ron & Noreaga. A week later news breaks that Nas is apparently signing with the label Murder Inc. known primarily through main act Ja Rule leaving many aghast at the puzzling and apparent ill-fitting situation. In the end Nas only records a remix for the label and does not sign with them. Steve Stoute who has apparently re-entered Nas' business dealings notifies him of MTV Video Music Awards nomination for Stillmatic's "One Mic". Reluctantly, he attends the awards show and at an after-party he is introduced to eclectic R&B artist Kelis, who had actually had a crush on him. While a slightly intoxicated Nas appears not to know who she is at first, when he realizes who she is he says "I've been waiting to make you my wife for years". While she thought the line was rather corny, Kelis responded, "That's great cause that's what I wanna be". Within days they are dating and they attend a Nancy Wilson concert with their surviving parents finding out that Kelis' mother knew Nas' father from New York's jazz scene and that both their fathers had played in the same jazz bands. Nas doesn't respond to Jay-Z's proposal to have a pay-per view rhyme battle and works on his album. His mother's death definitely influences the mood of the album and on "Heaven" about his mother, Nas collaborates with Toronto R&B singer Jully Black who he meets at an Orlando recording studio. The Lost Tapes, an album made up of the many tracks recorded and jettisoned because of the bootlegging of the I Am and Nastradamus sessions is released and proves to be among his best material. Nas appears on Hot 97 again to apologize to all the people he dissed in interviews earlier in the year and squashes his beef with Jay-Z. The well-received God's Son album he releases at the end of the year however does reveal that Nas had an ongoing low-key lyrical battle with Notorious B.I.G. Nas & Kelis buy a house together in Atlanta and on Christmas Eve, Nas proposes to Kelis at her mother's house and she accepts.
Nas feels like he has moved on past the battle with Jay-Z and tells XXL it was the biggest rap battle ever. It's history'. God's Stepson, a totally remixed version of God's Son, produced by underground hip-hop group Little Brother producer 9th Wonder turns up on file-sharing networks and online hip-hop stores. Nas appears on the cover of XXL magazine in September burning The Source, XXL and other prominent music magazines in an interview to symbolize his attitude towards the media that have often criticized him.
Fiance Kelis releases her third album Tasty and is featured on the lascivious duet "In Public". The album's artwork reveals Nas' arm sports a tattoo of a naked Kelis. Nas along with Rakim collaborates on an Alicia Keys recording "Streets of New York" which musically borrows from Illmatic's "New York State of Mind".
On the 10th anniversary of Illmatic's release, Sony issues a platinum edition of the album which features a second disc of newly commissioned yet inferior remixes and a couple of new and notable songs. Nas announces plans to release a new album entitled Street's Disciple, a reference to the first words he uttered on his debut appearance on wax with Main Source in 1991 and releases the moody "Thief's Theme". Nas performs a free show at New York's Central Park that draws thousands of fans. Many are turned away and some of whom who try to gatecrash the concert are hit with disorderly conduct charges.
Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Saul Williams. Mobb Deep and AZ al perform with him. At one point in the show Nas says "This is the real hip-hop. Not that fake shit. Not that 50 Cent", prompting 50 Cent to Nas on a mixtape. Nas also appears on the remix to Jadakiss' "Why?" remix in Nas reveals that he has written two screenplays, one of which has been optioned for a movie and begins to dabble in oil painting. Reiterating a previous comment Nas apparently commits to Columbia records that his final record on his contract will be entirely produced by DJ Premier. Meanwhile Nas releases "Bridging The Gap", a blues-influenced collaboration with his father and pushes the release date of the double album Street's Disciple to November 30.
The Essential Nas
Nas's mastery of the mic on this debut recording is stunning. Showing wisdom beyond his 20 years, Nas casts an unerring eye on his bleak surroundings with resigned nonchalance, his arresting voice and laid-back delivery couched against the gritty soundscapes of a precedent-setting dream team production squad. Simply put, Illmatic is one of the best hip-hop records ever.
God's Son is more cohesive sonically, but this is when the newly reinvigorated Nas emerges. Teaming with his most reliable collaborators, he defiantly holds his ground against Jay-Z and other foes. He tosses in a Memento-inspired yarn with typical visual flair, builds on his political consciousness and expertly paces the centrepiece epic "One Mic."
The Lost Tapes (2002)
This collection of unreleased tracks and bootlegs is proof positive that Nas never lost the plot as badly as we were lead to believe. Containing some of his most riveting personal work, he touches on his father's infidelity, sepia-toned back-in the-day reminiscences and rocks dramatic rhymes from his mother's womb.