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POP MUSIC

'It's a Beautiful Feeling'

Nas' journey has taken him from a Queens project to the top of the charts, rapping on street life and the finer things.

August 11, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

The screaming and cheering was deafening as rap star Nas stepped from the wings to perform briefly with the red-hot Fugees during the recent Smokin' Grooves concert at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Wearing a blue sweatsuit and a shining gold pendant, Nas reminded many in the crowd of the Golden Age of New York hip-hop, when rappers from Eric B. & Rakim to the Ultramagnetic MCs wore clothes tailored by the hip Harlem haberdashery Dapper Dan's.

Nas' agile tenor and subtle swaying also brought chills to older members of the mostly twentysomething throng who remembered the time in the mid-'80s when every new record seemed to carry some new piece of magic--much like rock in the '60s.

"I swear to God, he looks just like Rakim up there," one fan said excitedly.

Nas' potent mix of searing vocals and mind-bending imagery dazzles in ways reminiscent of Rakim. And Nas is selling more than Rakim ever did. His "It Was Written" album entered the U.S. sales chart at No. 1 in early July and has remained there since. Estimated sales to date: 826,000, according to SoundScan.

"It's like a dream come true," the rapper says later of his acceptance. "I always wanted to be looked up to like Rakim, Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC. . . . It's a beautiful feeling."

Nas sits at a table in his West Los Angeles hotel room the following afternoon, facing a club sandwich (sans bacon) and an incredibly hectic schedule. A quiet presence with sensitive, probing eyes, the 22-year-old rapper has seen much of the worst of life in the ghetto, but fame is a whole different head trip.

"Hell yeah, this is overwhelming," he says. "This business gets crazy sometimes. The most important thing you have to do is stay in the zone, and you can't let the hype, the chart action and the record sales affect you."

Nas' real name is Arabic: Nasir Ben Olu Dara Jones. It translates as "helper and protector," but there was a time in his life when he was the one in need of protection.

The oldest son of Olu Dara, a jazz trumpeter who was an associate of Miles Davis, Nas grew up with his mother and his younger brother in a Queens housing project called Queensbridge. His parents split up when he was 12, and he says he was a pensive child who spent lots of time in his room, drawing comic books and writing stories that he would act out.

Disillusioned during his teens with the school system, he saw many of his peers making quick money on the streets. He dropped out in the ninth grade and dabbled in drug dealing himself, he says.

"If it was up to me, I would have gone to college, but school wasn't what I wanted it to be," he says in his thoughtful, low-key manner. "I hate to sound corny, but there's a problem between a lot of teachers and black boys. They don't understand our attitudes atan early age. They treat us like violent animals and throw us in special classes where we can't develop ourselves as people.

"But even if you get through that, you still have to deal with society. As a young black man, sometimes you think the whole world is against you, and ignorant people--some teachers especially--will feed that to you. You need people feeding you motivation."

But the streets didn't offer much motivation either. Like many of his peers, he worshiped movie antiheroes, such as the ones Al Pacino played in "The Godfather" and "Scarface." He couldn't find a way to make his visions a reality, however, until he started rapping.

Heartened by the fact that such rap stars and/or producers as Marley Marl and M.C. Shan grew up in Queensbridge, Nas tried writing his own rhymes. He discovered that he had a gift for metaphor, and for transforming stories about bleak surroundings into captivating narratives.

Nas made his first appearance on record in 1991 on Main Source's "Live at the BBQ." Off that appearance and a single from the "Zebrahead" soundtrack, Nas was signed by Columbia Records, where some of the most acclaimed producers in hip-hop, including Gangstarr's DJ Premier and Pete Rock, worked with him on his 1994 debut album, "Illmatic." The record sold more than 500,000 copies and earned rave reviews.

"I'm one of the lucky ones who never got too deeply involved with that street [expletive]," he says. "I always knew that there was something else out there for me. In the projects, you had gunfights and typical ghetto madness, and a lot of your friends don't make it."

Nas pauses and points to a tattoo of the word "Will" on his left arm.

"When my best friend, Will, got killed when I was 18, I realized there was no love on the street," he says. "At that moment, I knew either I was going down or music was going to save me. I believe God came to me through the music, and he came right on time."

"Illmatic" and "It Was Written" both mix grittier elements of the New York inner-city experience into songs that somehow still find room for idealism and hope.

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