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A conversation with Nas

The prolific rapper expounds on commercialism in hip-hop, what makes a classic and why "life is good."

August 20, 2012|By Gerrick D. Kennedy
  • Nas' album "Life is Good" is being hailed as a return to form.
Nas' album "Life is Good" is being hailed as a return to… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Twenty years into a prolific career, the man born Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones has changed the game again. On "Life is Good," his 10th album, the rapper known for his sharp wit and biting social commentary taps into one of his most honest and compelling subject matters yet: himself.

More than a week before he would take the stage to close out hip-hop festival Rock the Bells on Sunday, Jones sat down with The Times to smoke Cubans -- one of his favorite pastimes -- at West Hollywood's House of Cigars and to talk about commercialism in hip-hop, what makes a classic and why “life is good.”

You’re preparing to hit the Rock the Bells stage. Why are there only a few hip-hop branded festivals out there?

Hip-hop brings out America’s youth in ways that scares America’s adults. So when you pack a city or place with those kinds of fans, people get nervous. That’s one reason. Another reason, hip hop is raw, it’s a raw genre. It’s not so shiny, no matter how many chains people wear. It’s still a real streets thing. It has not yet reached the Rolling Stones touring levels like rock 'n' roll has. It’s still the word of mouth, did-you-hear-this-song-last-night small crowd that embraces each artist one at a time. We like to own it before it becomes commercial. When it becomes commercial, the core hip-hop fan tends to walk away from it.

There have been some artists to reach those big touring levels. Do you think it can happen more in the genre? 

Yeah, it can. Is it good for hip-hop? Not necessarily. It’s great to see hip-hop reach the level like Madonna’s when she was touring at her peak. ... But I think people like for it be a street thing, real rap fans.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the last two years?

No matter what, everything will be alright. A lot of people are scared of failure. A lot of people are scared of love and being hurt. A lot of people are scared of taking chances. No matter what, everything will be fine.

Was there ever a time you felt even your fans didn’t understand what you were trying to convey in your music?

A lot of times. But you never get off your path. Even when I’m doing stuff that I feel isn’t really good, when I feel like it’s off or bad, those are my moments I go back to -- my human moments -- where I say I was really just a human there, I wasn’t great there, I was just me. That is a great thing to see and feel. Like, 'Hey, look at me at that point.' Yeah, people weren’t feeling it, but I was naturally me.

What did having Amy Winehouse on the record mean to you?

Having Amy on my record ... it grew into a different thing. It wasn’t just your typical rap album because she blessed it. It was serendipitous. She was an angel. She is an angel, so she blessed that entire project with just that one song. That was just God. I think God makes things happen that we can’t explain sometimes. She was a gift, a pure artist. I give that to God.

Your “Behind the Music” revealed so much about your personal life and your divorce.  How hard was it to convince you to do it?

Because the media covered it so much -- some true stuff, some false -- everyone was telling my story for me. Everyone except me.

I didn’t want to do “Behind the Music,” and I found out my people told them they can start it and they had already started the production. It took some persuading, but I agreed for a couple of things: It’s not the end of the world to tell your story, and it doesn’t mean anything other than you telling your story.

It was hard for me because I was never that kind of guy. I can make music about it all day long but to sit down with you, other than a quick interview, for an in-depth thing ... it was out of question. This was the most I’ve ever done as far as telling my story. But I’ll tell you like this, if you can last as long as I’ve lasted so far, there’s nothing wrong with reintroducing yourself to fans and listeners. There are so many artists that come out all the time that could be forgotten or not be appreciated. And these are important stories, and I thought it was cool to let people inside.

The “Life Is Good” cover got plenty of ink. What did Kelis think of it?

She wanted to know exactly ... she wanted to hear from me what it meant. I told her, basically it's life. It's wins, it's losses, but life goes on. And this is a part of my life, a part of her life and she was a part of my life. It’s my story. And I wanted to do this in a way to open up hip-hop music in a way it probably hadn’t been opened up before as far as an artist getting into a personal situation. This particular story has never really been done [in hop hop]. I said this is fresh, this is new, and she really appreciates it and loved the concept. She thought it was pretty dope.

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