HIP-HOP IS THE STRONGEST, most blunt, most intellectual voice of America, and it’s at a standstill,” says Nas, who will release Hip-Hop Is Dead, his eighth album, in December. Not only is it the “perfect stocking stuffer,” according to the rapper, it’s his first disc for Def Jam, the label run by his former nemesis, Jay-Z. (Last year the two famously reconciled at a Jay show in New Jersey.) On the new album, Nas – who is the son of jazz trumpeter Olu Dara and the husband to R & B starlet Kelis – employs beatmasters like Scott Storch, Dr. Dre and Kanye West, and declares that the hip-hop he loved growing up has lost its way, thanks in no small part to artists who promote themselves by starting beefs and glorifying violence. “What you gonna do next?” he asks. “Blow yourself up and make a record about it?” Nas isn’t done yet, though: “It’s time to get money,” he says. “It’s over, so fuck it, exploit it and piss on it.”
Do you look at this like a comeback album?
Nah. I ran that one in the hole [laughs]. It’s just another chapter, but it’s one of the biggest chapters yet. I’m really excited to finally have a Nas record come through Def Jam. That’s the Motown of rap. Like, I want the Def Jam logo, the old-school logo, the needle-on-the-record shit. I’m damn near ready to wear Def Jam jackets, nigga!
Is it just hip-hop, or do you think all music is dead?
It’s beyond hip-hop. Music is dead. My wife says to me, “R&B is dead.” She’s inspired me more than anybody to call this record Hip-Hop Is Dead. We’re nothing compared to the guys who came before us. Our stage performances suck. We grab a mike, walk back and forth with our hands in the air, which hasn’t progressed since Run-DMC. You used to feel A Tribe Called Quest, but you go see one of the artists today and you get the same regurgitated shit. We were doing something for a minute, but now it’s all fucked up.
Why even make a record?
I’m trapped, man. We’re all trapped. It’s like a boxer who, every time he hears a doorbell ring, is ready to fight. Or the Vietnam vet who hears a truck backfire and thinks he’s back in the jungle. Somebody asked me, “When you gonna stop?” Do I even think I can? Would Marvin Gaye have stopped? B.B. King is old as dirt, God bless him, but he’s still on tour. Music is a beautiful beast, but it’s a beast. And we’re trapped in it. But I think hip-hop can bounce back.
Is there any music that gives you hope?
Gnarls Barkley have the freedom from constraints and restrictions and the trickery of record companies. Their record has given hope to music. Put the crown on Cee-Lo’s head.
It’s got to be hard to ignore other rappers if they talk shit about you. How do you do that?
If I was younger, it would be hard to ignore. But those rappers are just trying to get you to immortalize them by saying their names. Like, can you imagine some artist coming out in the Seventies and talking bad about Stevie Wonder? That’s savage, man. If I can inspire one motherfucker to reach beyond a beef, or reach beyond going platinum just once, then I’ve won. I got a lyric on my new album that says, “Oh, you went platinum?/That’s nice, now let me see you do the same shit twice/Three times, four times, then a couple more times, please/You’re amateur night, it’s showtime.” It’s like, show me what you got.
Can you describe what it felt like to walk out onstage with Jay-Z and do “Dead Presidents”?
Surreal. It was one of the greatest moments in hip-hop, but maybe I’m saying that ’cause it was me [laughs]. I live for shit like that. You can’t plan shit like that.
Does your integrity come from your dad?
He gave me my humility, man. He showed me how to laugh. He always told me, “Dogs get mad, humans get angry.” And there’s a difference. You can calm down anger, but madness is madness. And there’s fools out here that’s crazy, and if you let ’em, they’ll pull you into their shit. But, you know, I’ve never been the guy to fall for the bullshit.
Do you ever sing for fun?
Hell, yeah. Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Boy George, the Police, the Cure… My wife used to perform the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I like that a lot. Kurt Cobain came to change shit, and I think the world bothered him in the same way that it bothers me. He knew what was up. I think he felt like rock was dead, and he was like, “Fuck it.”
I hear you might score an upcoming movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
If I can get the music done in time; it’s a touchy subject. The director, Edward Zwick, he’s done The Last Samurai, Glory, Legends of the Fall and The Siege. This one is called Blood Diamond. It’s right up my alley, and they felt I’d be perfect to talk about it.
What’s your prized piece?
Probably the chain I’ve had for about ten years, with the initials of my neighborhood, Queensbridge. But I just got a big, giant rope with a chain and a gold King Tut piece with yellow diamonds and green emeralds and shit.
Aren’t diamonds just another superficiality of hip-hop?
No, they’re a status symbol of royalty. And royal figures in hip-hop wear status pieces.