Today, the pride of Queens, Nas, drops a Greatest Hits album that spans from 1994's Illmatic — probably the best debut in hip-hop history — to 2004's Street Disciple. No tracks from his most recent album, Hip Hop Is Dead, were included (his last label, Columbia, put out the Hits package), but Nasir says not to worry. "I think it's better to start off slow," he explains in an exclusive RS track-by-track analysis. "I'm thinking about doing it again and taking it to another level with a box set. I don't think there's a box set in hip-hop. Maybe mine will be the first." Also missing is "Ether," the MC's brutal takedown of Jay-Z. " 'Ether' is a battle record that was not really appropriate right now," he explains. "That's not where my head is. I was in a different place. The Greatest Hits was about a career, and that's just one piece, so I didn't want to mess it up with that song."
The microphone fiend took us through each track on Hits, from the only new song, "Surviving the Times," on which he recounts the notable people and moments of his career, to "Bridging the Gap," a collaboration with his jazz musician father, Olu Dara.
"Surviving the Times"
"Actually, I had it done a good while ago. I forgot I had the record. It was just perfect to go with the Greatest Hits. It just came from a conversation. I needed people around to remind me of certain things that happened, so I got a lot of information from somebody that was hanging around while I was in the studio. It's crazy, because when I talk about people from a whole other rap era, I don't know if people understand how much that meant to me, just coming up around legends like Kool G Rap and Eric B and Large Professor and people like Akinyele who was around in the early stages that I met through Large Professor from a rap group named Main Source that most cats today never even heard of."
"Less Than an Hour" from Rush Hour 3
"I thought that Rush Hour 3 was dope, and there was no soundtrack — that was a track in the movie, and there was no way for people to get it other than the DVD when they watch it, so I felt like giving that record a home."
"It Ain't Hard to Tell" from Illmatic
"That was one of the records that jump-started the commercial success for me on my first album, the Michael Jackson sample ['Human Nature']. That was my introduction to the world, my first official single, so I had to do that."
"Life's a Bitch" featuring AZ and Olu Dara, from Illmatic
"I asked my dad to play on the end of it — I told him to play whatever comes to mind when he thinks of me as a kid. I think he's really proud to see me coming up and really taking my life serious and doing what I want."
"N.Y. State of Mind" from Illmatic
"That one right there is one of my favorites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else at that time. I'm about eighteen when I'm saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I've been through it all. That's just how I felt around that time, and the track does that for me."
"One Love" featuring Q-Tip, from Illmatic
"Q-Tip used to come and hang out with me in my projects from time to time. I remember him coming out there and hanging out, and I remember him letting me hang out at his session when he was working on Midnight Marauders. I thought he was just the most incredible, so to have him producing my album, for him to even do the chorus for me is a blessing. The song just came from life, it's a song about letters to prison inmates, friends of mine, shout-outs to childhood friends and their uncles and people who were like family to me. I was, again, too young to be going through all of that. That's what I think about when I hear that album. I was too young to be going through all of that."
"If I Ruled the World"featuring Lauryn Hill, from It Was Written
"That was my second album. Obviously, if you have a strong impact, you get a lot of people sounding like you, so it made me feel like, 'Man, I'm just a grain of sand on the beach now.' I used to stand out on the first album, but now everyone was talking about the same thing in the same kind of way, coming out of New York, so how could I change it, how could I be a million miles away from everything that was coming out so you could know who the originator is? 'If I Ruled the World,' that's when I teamed up with Trackmaster, and I figured I needed a change, so I teamed up with the best at the time, and they cut the track together and just needed someone to sing the chorus. When Lauryn Hill came to mind, it was just right on time. It's funny, because when we released the record, people didn't know it was Lauryn Hill, because I guess we just white-labeled it at first and didn't want anybody to know — anticipation for my second album was so great, we didn't want any distractions from people to keep them from listening to me. At that point, the Fugees album had just come out and blew up, so we left her name off of it, and for about two to three weeks, by the time we let people know who was on the record, it was already taking off. So when they found out it was her, forget about it, man. Forget about it."
"Street Dreams" remix with R. Kelly
"That never made an album, that only made the single. That was mostly the label who reached for that one, so I'll just leave it at that. I think maybe I was the first rapper from New York to rap with R. Kelly. I used to call him the R&B thug, and we used to see who had the most chains every night when I went on tour with him. There's some history there, so we just threw that on there."
"Hate Me Now" featuring Diddy, from I Am…
"It was a track for Foxy Brown, and she didn't want the record, she didn't like it. It fit with my album, I Am…, so I did the track and it sounded perfect for Puff to be on, so I gave it to him, went to the studio, and he rocked it, knocked it out. I wanted him to talk that shit on there, because that 'Victory' record was my favorite record, with him and B.I.G., and I just wanted him to talk some of his shit on there. I had him screaming a whole bunch of wild shit on here, and cats were slam-dancing to it in New York. It was really crazy, out of this world. At that point, I started wearing a huge chain, and I think me and Puff at that point started that bling shit and took it to the next level, and we did the video, and it was out of this world. There's a play in New York City where a black man played Jesus, and caught a lot of flak. I think, even the mayor at the time, Giuliani, was against it. So my thing was I wanted to be crucified like Jesus in the video, to get back at all those people that don't want to see a black man doing his thing. Me and Puff got hammered to the cross, but after Puff expressed his religious beliefs and speaking to his pastor, he wasn't ready to take that stance, so it was really my idea anyway, so we took his part out. For some reason, I think [my former manager] Steve Stoute let it fly with Puffy still being crucified to the cross, so there was that fight at the office, where Puff jumped on Steve or some shit like that. Both of them were friends of mine, so I kind of stepped in and squashed the whole thing, and it's all in the past. Just growing pains. We were all growing up. That brings back a lot of memories. Even when I throw it on now onstage, it still kills."
"One Mic" from Stillmatic
"I'm a huge fan of Phil Collins and I just wanted to take the vibe from 'In the Air Tonight.' 'One Mic' is just about the power. It's almost like Hip Hop is Dead in its infant stages, saying how much this is a blessing to be out here, speaking about what's happening in my neighborhood, having the whole world understand and relate. I can't understand how Bill O'Reilly can be angry at a song called 'Shoot 'Em Up.' If I didn't have a microphone, I could never talk about 'Shoot 'Em Up,' and I was talking about Queens, New York, being shot up. What do I have to do to get somebody to turn around and hear what I'm saying and take it serious? I'm not here just to be in your face talking nonsense, we're talking about reality. For him to be upset or people like him to be upset is insane to me. It just shows how ignorant people are. 'One Mic' just gives me the ability, no matter how much ignorant people are mad that I'm exposing or talking about our country, no matter what the language is, I'm talking in a language that the people can hear, I'm not sugar-coating it. So if it scares people and people feel guilty, people feel like they've got to make up excuses to why the world's this way, no matter what they say, like they've got their mic, I've got mine, and that's what that song's about."
"Got Ur Self A Gun" from Stillmatic
"Made You Look" from God's Son
"Coming after the success of Stillmatic, I just had so much more in me to get out, so I just wanted to come back with some more shit, and I came back with Lost Tapes, and a month or two later, God's Son. So I had a lot to get out around that time, a lot of energy."
"I Can" from God's Son
"That was a groundbreaking period for me. That was my biggest radio record I ever had, and like 'If I Ruled the World,' it was used by tons of schools for their graduation. A song like that helped me because I have a daughter, and because I make so much music that when she was younger I didn't want her to listen to, I owed her and other kids something, something real, something real that's up their alley, to show that I cared, that I'm a human being, that I'm not just about giving you a tune about what happens in the 'hood and all that every day. I've got to be a real human being, and that was one of my real human being records right there, for my daughter. So yeah, that's one of the most important records I ever made."
"Bridging the Gap" featuring Olu Dara, from Street's Disciple
"I got to know [my father] more in that whole period, I got to learn more about him and his life and his career and why he made certain decisions, things that I never asked before. It brought me closer to him, and also just made me look at life different, just watching him and how he'd come up, and the musical decisions that he chose to be where he is. Most kids in the 'hood don't have their fathers around or didn't have their fathers around. The ones I grew up with had dope fiend fathers and shit like that, crackhead fathers, convict fathers that stayed in jail, like the story goes. Treach had this rap, 'Never knew my dad / motherfuck the fag.' If you played that in the club back in the days, all you had to do was turn down the music from 'Never knew my dad,' and the whole crowd would scream, 'Motherfuck the fag,' because everybody can relate to that, even me. Not with my father, but with my friends. I thought it was important to put a record with my pops is just, out there. It was just important to me."
"It was Steve Stoute's idea [to sample Alabama 3's 'Woke Up This Morning,' The Sopranos' theme music]. When he told me, I thought it was the craziest thing ever. What's more gangster than The Sopranos? At the time, that was the shit, and for us to have that hook, and then find out it was some black choir who came up with the song, that whole thing worked out great."