As the holidays have rolled in, three albums have been on the hi-fi pretty much non-stop for the last week: Jeezy's fucking monster of a record The Inspiration (a different joint jumps out at us every time through), Ladyhawk's self titled album (we're still not done with it, either) and Nas's pretty out-there new record Hip-Hop Is Dead. Nasir's latest lands in a space unlike any other hip-hop record that comes to mind - the production is super slick and big even when its dark, and Nas spits mile-a-minute stories and runs smash and grab over themes, details and layers of meaning. It's heavy, confusing and thought provoking - we feel like it is gonna stand up to a lot of listens. We linked up with Nas this week to talk about restaurants, the telling of forgotten stories and the label "black militant." Read the full interview after the jump.
Was there a particular moment or beat or song that got Hip-Hop Is Dead rolling as a project, as an album?
Not really, this album was always all these years in the making. Just putting ideas together, things you want to do, even when the title wasn’t the title. Years ago I got this idea about this kind of movement, this record, and then when I got down to it, it was just about letting it flow. With the producers, I listen to records and see who can put together the stuff I hear in my head. So it’s like I start off trying to produce it myself, and it takes a while, but I don’t want to take too long so I just go after a producer I like, and also I’m just grabbing music from anybody.
Do you listen to different beat tapes from the different producers you’re in touch with at home and in the car and shit, kind of living with the music?
No, I don’t like to be bothered too much ’cause it can consume too much of me. So I go to the studio and listen to it, it’s on, its poppin, I make a move from there. But I can’t live with it, I can’t have it at my home, I can’t have it in my car. That’s what I used to do, but I can’t have it on me, no copies of no music or nothing.
So what do you listen to at home and in your car and just in everyday life?
Usually jazz stations and all the good things that there were before music was dead.
There are tons of movie references in the new album, are you an old movie buff?
Well, with the James Cagney shit [“Who Killed It”], it’s just like, you know, checking that nigga out man, just getting into that shit. Somebody told me to check out one of his movies to redo one of his movies, and I bought one and I wound up trying to collect all of them, so I just play around with that talk sometimes.
So did you sit down and watch the movies and work on your imitation?
Nah, actually people around me were doing that, playing around with that, but they don’t watch Cagney movies, they was imitating some cartoon shit. But I like that sound from the thirties, you know - it was trumpets and horns and violins all playing along with scenes in the movies where it’s really dramatic, and I wanted a track like that. I wanted to do something more like Alfred Hitchcock in the beginning and have something that sounds like the shit he does, but it hit me that James Cagney did shit like that, combining two different things and making that shit totally cinematic.
With the song “Blunt Ashes” and all the references, beginning with Langston Hughes and Alex Haley and going from there, what were some of your sources for all those names and stories? Did a lot of that come from different books and sources like that?
Reading and just being around my pops and people he knows, and just being in this business for a long time. You hear a lot of shit, but certain things might interest you, and it’s about people you look up to, and what they have to go through, who they are. A lot of rappers today, they don’t care about learning, and that is something I have suddenly become an advocate for, bringing that back. Back in the day or even just a few years ago, people used to say stuff like “Bam.” Like A Tribe Called Quest used to mention Bam. And it was like, “Bambaata, well I don’t know who he is, but I wanna know.” It makes you want to know, you know what I’m saying? And it doesn’t happen like that anymore. Bam was before my generation too - I was a kid - but then I realized when I looked around, Bam was around! It made me just pay attention to all of that shit. So it’s just me bringing the conversations I have with some of the fellas to the music, to turn people on to who I am. If you listen to the record, you get a piece of who I am.
How long were you working on Hip-Hop Is Dead once it was moving and you knew where you were taking it?
I would say really about nine months, ten months, close to a year.
Do you record a ton of music and then pick the best songs and shape an album out of that, or do you try to focus on a smaller group of songs?
I try to do it the way that really great artists do it. Like Sade – one time Stuart [Matthewson, from Sade’s band] told me that when they start an album in the studio, whatever records they begin, from when they start the album until they finish it, that’s the record, there’s no throwaway records. So I wanted to do that, but I couldn’t really. So you just wind up doing a bunch of records, you get beats and ideas, you lay down some verses, whatever. If you don’t love it, you move on. The songs that feel like complete songs, I usually put those on the album, and sometimes songs that don’t feel complete too, because you can make it sound different.
The album sounds like you went to a lot of big name producers, but ended up with some really different beats from what they would normally do.
When I call producers, usually there’s something I’m hearing in what he’s doing, and I think we can collaborate. He can collaborate with me on my idea and just make it sound like what I want it to sound like. I have a lot of ideas, but I’m not really a drum programmer, I don’t play, so I need those guys ’cause they’re the ones that have those skills. So I throw it down and tell them what I’m looking for, give them my idea and see what they can come up with. And sometimes they already have it.
On the joint with Jay [“Black Republican”], I thought it was interesting that you flipped “black republican” and said “black militant.” What does being militant mean to you?
I think that blacks who talk about being black are misinterpreted. Due to people’s ignorance and me talking about my self, my race, my life - people get offended when we talk like that and they start calling you “black militant” and “pro-black.” And the sad thing and the ignorant thing is that most whites think they know more about black history then blacks, and some whites even have the arrogance to tell blacks that they know more about their own history. Absolutely there are some ignorant motherfuckers out there, and there’s also still a lot that others need to know about us, and when I start to talk about things that we need to know about, its just sharing information. Because we should all have information about each other. But people tend to get scared – they’re intimidated, they don’t know where I’m coming from. As one human family, we got to express our cultures. I mean my Jewish friends tell me about being Jewish, my Armenian friends tell me about being Armenian, and I get with their families and I hang out with them and they show me their culture. But I don’t call them pro-Armenian. But with blacks its like “militant.” “Oh, he’s this - he’s positive.” So my shit, I feel like, “This must be how every militant must feel,” and sometimes I feel that, like I’m a black militant taking over the government.
So it’s like you’ve already been labeled as “a black militant,” and in some ways you’re taking that on.
I mean, I would like to be all of those things – there’s nothing wrong with it. I love being all of those things, but I play with it in my mind.
What about the feelings you’re expressing on “Not Going Back”?
That song was just about motherfuckers thinking that we come from the hood. We come from someplace way greater. And the hood is in my heart, and I’m always going to be hood, that’s where I was raised, and I’m proud of that, but the real shit is that my people come from somewhere bigger. We wasn’t born in the projects. Adam and Eve didn’t eat that apple in the Queensbridge. They did that somewhere else, so its like we need to get out of the mentality that we got to stay there. We got to start getting around this motherfucker, interact with more people. For those guys that are in the hood and those guys that are out the hood, we’re still the same - we’re one in the same – but we don’t have to stay where we started. We can always get out, and you don’t have to go back physically to stay engaged. If you do go back there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m just speaking for a bunch of real motherfuckers.
What do you get up to between projects, when all your time isn’t being dedicated to promoting an album like it is now?
I just chill. It’s just whatever, I chill man. I wake up at all hours of the day, mostly noon. Figure out what’s up, try and catch up with people that I haven’t caught up with, and eating. I love eating man, so I’m into restaurants. I’m trying to always go to new restaurants. New York is like the mecca of new restaurants, so I’m always into that. I find out what’s good to go to, and I’m looking at restaurants myself to maybe open one. I was thinking about that.
What kind of restaurant would you open? What kind of food?
I don’t know man, ’cause I like so much shit. I need someplace to go, I always wanted that, where you have your back office, somewhere to go chill. I go out to eat and sit like that a lot, so I could have my own spot to feel comfortable. So putting that together and trying to get information about IPOs and learn little stock things. Trying to learn everything there is to know about how America makes its money and how foreigners make their money, you know just trying to learn something new every day.
I know the Damian Marley joint didn’t make it onto the album, but I understand you’ve had a connection with those guys for a while now.
Well I met the Marleys when I got on Damian’s album. And I think he is one hundred percent real - Damian Marley is just cool, man, I think he is one hundred percent. And it’s no joke to come after someone like Bob Marley, how do you do that? But I think he does it in his way, he’s true to himself, and it’s just a good energy man. So we did a song and we might release that out later on. So, you know, we holler at each other. We try to hook up and do whatever we do. I want to do shows with him, I want him to do more videos, I want him to do more songs with me. I want him to get more involved with stuff that I’m doing, so I’m just trying to figure all that out.