One of the most distinctive MCs to emerge in the mid-Nineties, Nas is known for his compelling narratives and trenchant social commentary. The rapper is the subject of a new Behind the Music special on VH1, which premiered this week (and which you can watch below). Checking in with Rolling Stone, the Queens, New York native dished on his youth, remembered the late Heavy D, and shared his hopes for a Notorious B.I.G. “hologram” to follow in Tupac’s footsteps.
Early on, your Behind the Music special offers viewers an intimate look inside your childhood home. What role did music have in that space?
My father [jazz cornetist Olu Dara] kept all different kinds of instruments out in the open: guitars, African drums, maracas, and trumpets. And what he listened to on the radio, it wasn’t what other kids’ parents were listening to. While they were listening to R&B, disco, or whatever was hot, he kept jazz or ethnic music playing.
Does the show accurately represent your youth in New York‘s Queensbridge Houses?
It was hard for me to tell my story. I didn’t want to. And I cringe even now that people will see it. But if I didn’t tell my story, someone else would. You don’t want that to happen. So I’m happy that I did it at the end of the day, but I was really messed up about it for a while afterwards, because Behind the Music only captured a small layer of my life – a very small layer. I don’t want people to feel like every time you watch a hip-hop guy talk about growing up, he’s trying to tell you that he’s a gangster. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. This isn’t just a story about growing up in a bad neighborhood. The neighborhood I grew up in was a beautiful place with a lot of beautiful people, a lot of smart people, a lot of loving people, and a lot of colorful people. My story is a human story, and I didn’t get a chance to elaborate on that.
Q-Tip refers to you as “your favorite rapper‘s favorite rapper.” Who is Nas‘ favorite rapper?
Oh man! Currently, it’s Scarface.
Are you collaborating with him for your upcoming album, Life is Good?
No. But I love collaborating with him. He’s real. He brings honest art to every track. It never comes from a place of him trying to get famous.
Life is Good‘s second single, “The Don,“ was produced by the late Heavy D. What else did he contribute to the record?
That’s the only track. [Producer] Salaam Remi was dealing with Heavy – I didn’t find out it was his track until after he died, when Salaam called me and said, “Heavy’s the one that gave me that track.” That blew me away. At that point, I changed the end of the second verse to put his name on it.
Much has been made about the Tupac Shakur “hologram” that performed at Coachella. What are your thoughts?
Snoop and Dr. Dre are one of the strongest forces in hip-hop music, but that was historic.
They opened the world up to it. Sure, the technology will get better, and more people will start using it, but it’s still all about the performance. But if they can use Biggie next, that’d be crazy.