'Nas Is Like'?
Searching for the man beneath the hip-hop mystique
If you're lucky enough to get the chance to interview legendary rapper Nas, a word of caution: He doesn't like questions. Especially the kind pertaining to his music, his background, his family, his beliefs. Pretty much anything relating to himself. Matter of fact, if you're the sensitive type, you're better off just analyzing him from afar because he won't be shy about letting you know he's uncomfortable talking with you.
Granted, I'm only speaking from my own experience. Three months ago, a small, New York-based magazine assigned me the task of paralleling the lives of Nas (nee Nasir Jones) and his jazz musician father, Olu Dara. Nas and Dara are indeed close, but their relationship has seen rocky times. Dara's music career — which involved constant traveling, some drug use and womanizing — strained the Jones household, leading to his parents' separation when Nas was about 12 years old.
My assignment was set to coincide with the release of the father-son duet "Bridging the Gap," from Nas' current double opus Street's Disciple.
On the song, Nas and Dara exchange recollections over a backwoods Mississippi blues breakbeat.
I knew that just about any hip-hop lover would kill for a face-to-face with such an enigmatic figure, but rather than privilege, I felt a deep sense of anxiety.
I had the need to appear just as clever and profound as an Escobar lyric. I wanted to show Nas that I was the one writer who understood him. After all, he is one of the greatest MCs to ever breathe into a microphone. I had to represent.
Yet, judging from the detached expression on the rapper's face when I finally sat down with him, Nas had encountered such earnestness before. It was a rainy afternoon at the downtown Atlanta jazz spot Churchill Grounds, where Nas and Dara were scheduled for a photo shoot. Nas was more than two hours late and when he finally arrived — clad in plaid shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, with his 10-year-old daughter, Destiny, in tow — he politely greeted the set workers and retreated to a corner holding a cell phone to his ear. His father arrived 15 minutes later, boisterous and cheerful in jeans and a ball cap.
I had already interviewed Dara over the phone the week before, so we addressed each other familiarly. But I didn't actually meet Nas until almost an hour after he arrived when his publicist brought him over to my side of the room. I smiled wide and shook his hand firmly, and was surprised to see him crack a slight grin.
"Like your hair," he remarked casually, eyeing my close-cropped, press-and-curl 'do that's been attracting a lot of comparisons to "American Idol's" Fantasia lately. I'd heard that Nas was moody and reserved. But maybe this time would be different.
Still, as we took a seat at a small bistro table by the window, the publicist's whispered warning echoed in my ear: "He gets restless easily. We have to keep him busy." My only time with Nas would be the few minutes between photos so I had to hurry. Turns out, my excitement was in vain. As my questions began, Nas' initial friendliness slowly dissolved into cool indifference.
"So, how long have you been in Atlanta?" I asked.
"Um, two years," he answered.
"You like Atlanta?"
"Tell me how 'Bridging the Gap' came about. Did you reach out to your father with the idea or was it vice versa?"
"I mean, yeah. I think it was inevitable. It was just all about when and where."
As Nas spoke, he stared out of the window like he wished he were somewhere else. He pressed his index finger against his temple in a Malcolm X sort of way and shifted uneasily in his seat.
I had always prided myself on being able to get people to open up. Now, the one artist I'd always wanted to hear from was about to shut down completely.
It almost made me angry. I mean, is it that difficult to answer a few simple questions, even if he's answering them for the zillionth time? There are people who clean toilets and dig ditches for a living. Nas, on the other hand, does interviews and photo shoots and has millions of admirers hanging onto his every word. To me, there was no excuse for his reticence. He owed it to his fans to talk. I alluded to such resentment in my next question.
"In reading interviews lately, it seems like you're exasperated, even tired of hip-hop. If this is true, why are you still making records?"
"I mean, I have nothing else to do. I'm a writer, so I've written some books. I write scripts. I like to direct. But at the same time, this is all I've ever known how to do and it's hard to walk away from."
"But it seems like you get really frustrated."
"I always get frustrated. I feel like sometimes I carry a burden. But I feel like now my load has been lightened. About two years ago, I was screaming for people to get more creative, to get more imaginative and put reality and love in their music. Even from the toughest gangsta out there, we want to hear some emotion, some human shit. We want to hear about progression in life and that's what I was screaming for when I dropped my God's Son album. I think the game is changing in that direction and I feel what my impact has done."
It seemed like I'd made a little headway. But as I probed deeper, inquiring about Nas' childhood, what it's like to grow up with a traveling father, and whether he considered himself a good dad, Nas grew increasingly restless. He flipped his Sidekick two-way open, scanned it and yawned. When I asked him what kind of advice his father gave him during his very public beef with Jay-Z, he smirked. "Once you know how to be a man in life, music is easy," sighed Nas. "The shit that comes with this game, that's just part of the game." (Later, his publicist asked me to omit this question from the story, saying, "It's old and we've moved on from that.")
Those who know Nas personally aren't surprised by his aloofness. "He doesn't like being in a fish bowl," maintains longtime friend and producer Salaam Remi, who's worked with Nas since his 2001 Stillmatic album.
Remi grew up in the same Queens neighborhood as Nas and produced "Thief's Theme" from Street's Disciple. "He doesn't like pictures," Remi explains. "He doesn't like when somebody's talking to him [in an interview] because every word he says is going to be ripped to shreds. So he plays with [the writer] sometimes to give them a great answer, but it'll be from left field. He'll keep a straight face while he's saying it, but he'll laugh about it later."
Remi says that behind the scenes, Nas likes to joke around, but mostly he's "calm, collected, witty, and forever thinking about some character." His guard is always up and, unless you know him, few things can penetrate that.
"That's just the New Yorker in him," says Remi. "You can walk down the street in New York and be a big star and somebody will bump into you and say, 'Fuck you!' and keep walking. That's just the attitude of New York. So he's much more comfortable when nobody's paying attention to him."
In the end, my strained interrogation finished pretty much as it had begun — with a series of mundane questions and a few distant replies. Nas rose from the table and shook my hand with sudden vigor, relieved to be free from another media inquisition. But I wasn't satisfied. I'd only talked with him for an hour. I needed more time to loosen him up, to pry into the mind that seems to effortlessly create fluid, poignant poetry. But apparently, that was too much to ask. He'd had enough for today, according to his publicist, and he was planning on spending time with his daughter.
And so the interview passed without exposing much of the man behind the music.
The irony of all this is that Nas is best known for exposing himself in song, infusing tough, criminal-minded rap themes with thoughtfulness and raw emotion. It's frustrating that he's so reluctant to display any openness to an interviewer. I couldn't help thinking that I'd failed.
When people ask me what was my worst interview ever, this is the one I always mention, the time that I couldn't crack the surface of someone whom I happen to greatly respect. My friends often admire my job because they feel that I get the unique chance to get up close and personal with celebrities, to ask the questions that everyone wants to know. And sometimes, admittedly, that's the way it goes down.
But at the end of this day, I felt none of that. I was just another fan longing for connection.