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Nas and his dad's jazz

The rapper's collaboration with his trumpeter father bridges musical forms.

December 05, 2004|Baz Dreisinger | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — It's midnight and Nas is out of patience. Hunched over his glass of Patron in the dim bar of a Manhattan hotel, the renowned rapper has been asked to explicate what he calls the greatest song he's ever written: "Bridging the Gap," a genre-bending collaboration with his father, jazz trumpeter Olu Dara.

"I think what the song is doing and why we did it is pretty obvious," Nas sighs, shaking his head and glancing across the table -- where his father, dressed in jeans and a khaki baseball cap, serenely sips a cocktail. Fresh from a series of West Coast appearances promoting Nas' seventh album, the two-disc "Street's Disciple," father and son have zipped from airport to interview, making one stop -- dinner, at a swank steakhouse -- along the way.

"My music is the child of his music," Nas continues, signaling toward Dara and exhaling audibly. "It's obvious."

"It's only obvious, though, to readers in Europe, Japan -- other countries," Dara interjects. "In America, you gotta explain everything. This is a young country. Barely knows who they are, barely knows their history."

Nas nods. As a rapper whose ornately gritty rhymes are not just listened to but debated, he's a consummate MC. But as the wide-eyed, 31-year-old son of Olu Dara, he's still a pupil.

The pair first teamed up a decade ago, when Dara lent jazz accents to Nas' debut album, "Illmatic." The new "Bridging the Gap," however, is a more calculated expression of what Dara shrugs off as "family business." Father sings blues on the song's chorus; son rhymes its raison d'etre: "Bridging the gap/ from the blues to jazz to rap/ the history of music on this track."

Lyrics delineate this history -- "Blues came from gospel, gospel from blues/Slaves were harmonizin' them 'ahs' and 'oohs'/ old-school, new-school, no-school rules/ all these years I've been voicin' my blues"-- but Nas and his father personify it.

And though hip-hop has long sampled a hodgepodge of musical genres, not since the early '90s, when acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest seamlessly fused jazz and rap, has a cross-generational hip-hop collaboration been as self-conscious, as high-profile -- or as compelling -- as that between Nas and his father.

Dara, 63, was born Charles Jones III in Natchez, Miss., where he took up the trumpet. At 23 he moved to New York City, adopted a Yoruba name (meaning "God is good"), and forged a career in jazz, bebop and R&B. His son -- Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, Yoruba for "son of Olu Dara" -- at first "unconsciously grabbed the trumpet, saw what he did and tried to do it," recalls Nas, pointing at his father. But the boy's attention was hijacked by another genre, which was fast becoming soundtrack to a generation: hip-hop.

Their story, then, is a perfect parable: After migrating from South to North, from rural to urban, jazz and blues birthed hip-hop.

And last year, when Nas became engaged to singer Kelis Rogers, the lineage was complete: hip-hop would marry R&B. Kelis, whose 2003 album "Tasty" spawned the cheeky hit "Milkshake," had her visage tattooed on Nas' right arm; tonight, sporting jeans and stilettos, she waits by the bar and keeps an eye on her fiance.

"I'm looking for, like Marvin Gaye said, the notes in between the keys in the piano that haven't been played yet," Nas says of his musical evolution. "There is a story other than diamonds and ostentatious [expletive], a story of black music that is not being told because the music is so pop and commercial."

Stretching out

Insisting that he couldn't care less if "Street's Disciple" matches the million-plus sales of his earlier albums, Nas lays bare his motives.

"Every artist who's made it needs to challenge himself to do something real, rather than follow the trendy path," he declares. "I feel ashamed for artists who sell millions of records and keep performing like the fans are dumb. Matter of fact, they're not even artists; they're businesspeople. And I felt guilty, after 14 years in the game ... "

The rapper stops short, looks up at his father and checks himself. "That's a lot in hip-hop years. But he can laugh at 14 years -- right, Pop?"

Dara smiles. At Nas' age, he was on the road with the musical "Hair" and performing avant-garde jazz and R&B in varied venues. "Each band I played with was completely different from the other," Dara says. "I did theater, dance, acting -- all of it beyond categories."

The father played trumpet with such artists as Art Blakely and toured the globe, where he "witnessed countries changing, revolutions." His belated debut albums, 1998's "In the World: From Natchez to New York" and 2001's "Neighborhoods," showed sheer disregard for boundaries of genre or geography: They mined jazz, blues, Afro-beat and folk music.

Between tours, Dara returned to the projects of Queens and, with his wife, Fannie Ann, raised a boy who was "just as he is now: fun-loving and giving, with early wisdom, which is traditional in our family."

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