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POP MUSIC

Drawing From Perspective

Nas has gone from the harsh life reflected in his raps to more artistic pursuits.

May 16, 1999|KRIS EX | Kris Ex is a freelance writer based in New York

NEW YORK — Nas is creating a storm--literally. It starts when he absently sketches the likeness of an apple that sits on the desk in front of him. Then the drawing takes on a life of its own: a red-tinged bolt of yellow lightning slicing across a blue sky, a green and yellow cat at the base of a massive tree, the words "thug life" and "love" scrawled all about.

"I'm an artist," he says unassumingly, looking up from his work.

There's not much argument about that. But while Nasir Jones may be an artist, he's better known for his aural pictures than his visual ones. The rapper's third album, "I Am . . . ," a collection of extraordinary urban narratives, poignant political manifestoes and gritty soliloquies, entered the charts at No. 1 last month and remains lodged in the Top 10. It's already sold more than a million copies.

Wearing a gray Phat Farm sweatsuit, his head wrapped in a do-rag, his outfit accentuated by diamond-laden jewelry ("iced out," in the vernacular), Nas, 25, sits in a small studio control room in Lower Manhattan.

He's preparing a "show DAT"--a digital audiotape of the music that will back his raps on his upcoming U.S. tour with R. Kelly, which includes a June 6 date at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. Thoughtful, observant and insightful, Nas gives off a ghetto-Buddha calm, even as he finds himself in the eye of a different kind of storm.

Last month, hip-hop impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs was arrested in connection with an alleged assault on Steve Stoute, an Interscope Records executive who also serves as Nas' manager, in a dispute stemming from Combs' appearance in the video for the single "Hate Me Now," a shot at hip-hop's ubiquitous "playa hatas." Combs was reportedly upset at a scene in which he is nailed to a cross.

After seeing the video's premiere on MTV, Combs, the force behind rap mega-stars Ma$e and the late Notorious B.I.G., among others, allegedly went to Stoute's office in midtown Manhattan, where he beat the manager with a telephone and a champagne bottle. After the first showing, the video was revised, with Nas now the subject of the crucifixion. Combs, meantime, faces up to seven years in jail if convicted on all charges.

"I can't really comment on it," says Nas, appearing as detached from the controversy as he is from the drawing on the desk. "I don't know exactly who's right or who's wrong or what happened and what didn't happen."

*

Nas was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens' notorious Queensbridge Houses, a sprawling project complex that produced hip-hop legends such as Marley Marl and MC Shan. His father is acclaimed jazz cornetist Olu Dara, and his mother was a postal worker.

Inspired by such movies as Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," Nas began writing 100-page movie scripts at age 11 on a typewriter given to him by his mother. Influenced by the hard-boiled mystery novels of black author Donald Goines, he filled notebooks with short stories detailing life in the projects. From his love of "Star Wars" and Marvel Comics, he took to crafting his own comic books.

"I'd draw the cover of the comic book and then inside the book would be small pictures," he recalls. "Then I'd staple it together and it'd be the size of a comic book.

"When I started writing rhymes," he continues, "I started doing it the same way, so you could picture exactly what I'm talking about and do something different from what everybody else was doing. I did my rhymes in a story [format] because I give you information about what's going on. I wasn't really trying to do bragging raps. It was more about me telling you what I'm feeling, straight up and down.

"Writers make great movies when they take things out of their lives," he says. "When you read up on Martin Scorsese or George Lucas, [you see that] they took things out of their lives and put it in a movie. That's why it's real, that's why people like them."

*

Despite his literary pursuits, Nas dropped out of high school (he still has plans to get his diploma) and was pulled in by the allure of the drug game. "I had killed-or-be-killed choices," he says. "I had hustle-or-starve choices."

His low-level hustle came to a quick end when his best friend, Ill Will, was murdered at 18. Nas, who has Will's name tattooed on his left arm and has named his record label Ill Will in remembrance of his friend, turned his full focus to making music.

"The ghetto is what makes us," he says. "As bad as it seems, it's all about how you come out of it."

These days, he goes back to his old neighborhood "more than I'd like to. I get sad when I go out there. I don't really go out there unless we're shooting videos or we're going to pick up some of my friends or something like that. And that ain't often, but it is frequent.

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