When Illmatic, Nas' seminal 1994 debut, was reissued in April for the album's 20th anniversary, hip-hop fans were treated to countless retrospective reviews, a documentary on the film, a performance by the 40-piece National Symphony Orchestra and extensive interviews with the rapper himself. There was seemingly little left for fans to want and little left for Nas to give.
That was until Mass Appeal — the multimedia website, quarterly publication and record label in which Nas has invested — created a contest that would allow one Nas fan to put their stamp on Illmatic. The contest was simple: entrants pitched a music video concept for Illmatic song "Represent" to Nas and Mass Appeal video director Jason Goldwatch via YouTube. The winner of their choosing would then fly to Los Angeles to create the clip, which had never received a proper video, alongside them at YouTube Space L.A.
The rapper chose 39-year-old Brian Katz, an affable married father and marketing director for a shopper engagement agency. Though his L.A. residency meant trading a plane flight for an Uber ride, he’s an ideal winner. A native New Yorker, longtime hip-hop fan and board member for famed hip-hop documentary Style Wars, Katz distinctly remembers Illmatic’s release. "There was a huge buzz in the streets," he tells Rolling Stone on set. "Everyone knew that this guy coming out of Queensbridge was the next big thing, and certainly [Nas] proved that with Illmatic."
Katz reimagined Nas’ experiences in Queensbridge by incorporating elements from the 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad (now part of the public domain), the soundtrack of which revered hip-hop producer DJ Premier sampled for the beat to "Represent." According to Katz, the plan was for Nas to sit on the couch, drink, smoke a cigar and pretend to fall asleep watching The Thief of Bagdad on TV. The rest of the video, handled in post-production, would then shuttle between the footage shot today, the 1924 film and archival footage of the rapper.
When asked why he chose Katz’s pitch, Nas is quick to answer. "He did something that I probably would’ve thought of," the rapper tells Rolling Stone. "You go back to an old film and the song that was sampled is the music from this old film. That, to me, is the shit."
Far from the gritty Queensbridge projects Nas vividly renders on "Represent," YouTube Space L.A. is tucked behind sunbaked hillsides in Los Angeles neighborhood Playa Vista. An expansive edifice with glass facades and well-manicured greenery, it covers nearly 41,000 square feet of what was once Howard Hughes Airport. Designed for "YouTube creators," the space features soundstages, equipment rooms, private editing suites and more.
On the sweltering day of the shoot, Katz, Goldwatch, and the film crew arrive at the heavily air-conditioned space by mid-morning, setting up and reviewing the script while waiting for Nas. Katz, though he’s never directed before, is consulted for every decision. The equally enthused Goldwatch is there only as a guide. "I’m just covering [Brian’s] bases for him so we get his vision out," Goldwatch explains.
Said vision is realized on a dark soundstage adjacent to the YouTube Space lobby. The stage props are sparse: black leather couch, wooden coffee table, a glass of brown liquor — probably Hennessey, given Nas’ endorsement — and side table with a small case of books.
By early afternoon, all prep work has been done. The atmosphere is lax. Katz walks around the space, making use of the snack table along with various cameramen; Goldwatch sunbathes outside to combat the building’s ceaseless frost; various reps associated with the proceedings answer e-mails. Then Nas arrives, hopping out of an SUV and flanked by his entourage. Everyone stands at attention or rapidly moves back to their positions on set.
In Versace shades, a grey V-neck, slightly sagging camo cargo shorts and blinding, white designer sneakers, his New York swagger is evident; his muscular shoulders slightly hunched and his gait effortlessly slowed. After he reviews the script in private, Nas reemerges. He’s vetoed falling asleep. Given that one of Illmatic’s most famous lines is, "Sleep is the cousin of death," it’s not surprising. However, Nas still wears the same attire. Only just realizing the video is supposed to be set in 1994, he verbalizes the anachronism once inside the soundstage. "No need [to shoot] the sneakers," he says to Goldwatch, his voice soft and raspy, just above a whisper. "I’d rather have Timbs for this."
Nas doesn’t speak for the next 15 minutes. Despite ostensibly watching a movie in the dark, he keeps his shades on — no one mentions it — taking all direction from Goldwatch with a nod. Katz, who has yet to formally meet Nas, watches the footage on the HD monitor behind the cameras.
Whenever cameramen pause to set up the next shot, Nas quickly leaves. At one point, he and a friend stand with their heels to the curb of a smoothly paved walkway outside. They’ve made it their own and reimagined it as the '41st side of Vernon' Nas references in "Represent." Later, when asked about the video shoot’s physical remove from the song’s locale, Nas is both candid and reflective. "It didn’t matter where it was shot because it’s 20 years later with someone else’s perspective, someone else’s whole take… [I]t wasn’t about me. It was about someone’s love for the song," he explains. "If they wanted to shoot it anywhere – Antarctica – it doesn’t matter. That was their dream; what they wanted. I was more than happy."
For the final shot, Nas lights the cigar. Goldwatch asks for more smoke and Nas cups his hands over the glowing end. Upon removing them, billows rise and disseminate into thick, grey tendrils. It looks fantastic on the monitor. Both Katz and Goldwatch are ecstatic.
When the shoot wraps, Nas heads for the door once again, finally confessing that the cold is wearing on him. Before he leaves, he shakes hands with an awestruck Katz for the first time. Then, as if breaking character, Nas flashes a big smile and brings his hand down on Katz’s shoulder. "Congrats," he says, his voice clear and resonant. Nas has now officially turned the album over to the fans. It belongs as much to them as it does to him. Though he doesn’t verbalize as much, Nas knows this too.