There is perhaps no other rapper more associated with New York than Nas (okay, maybe Jay Z), so it felt surreal meeting the hip-hop legend in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The Queensbridge native was south of the Equator to play what turned out to be a monstrous set at Lollapalooza Brazil, a showcase of his unrivalled skills as a lyricist and performer. But Nas was also in Brazil as ambassador for the venerable cognac Hennessy, which he name-dropped constantly on his classic debut album, Illmatic, and which has served as the unofficial official beverage of hip-hop for two decades. Nas and Hennessy have been collaborating since spring of last year, and you can check out what they’ve been up to here. When we spoke to Nas, he had the air of a man who had mellowed with fatherhood, and who was content with his place in the game. Here, he looks back on his career, his compulsion to share, and what home means for him.
You have such energy when you perform. How do you channel that after so long? Is it sort of an adrenaline that comes over you when you’re on stage?
Yeah, man. You know, you have your music, and you have your music live. So people hear your music and they get to see you live. That’s the point. Imagine, if Whitney Houston was no good on stage right after you heard “I Want To Dance With Somebody”. That would suck. But instead, you get to see her and she could sing live and that makes her whole. That makes her the whole package. There’s so many people in music that don’t care about being the whole thing, and that’s a big disappointment to people if you’re not. So, I try. I’m happy on stage.
You’ve been doing this now since before 1994. Now that it’s 2013 and you’re almost 40 years old, do you ever think about life beyond hip hop or what you’re going to do in ten years, now that you’ve established yourself as one of the legends of rap?
You can really do anything you want in this world if you really work hard. There’s so much we can do to change things in a positive way. I don’t think we can fix the world in a night. In the next couple of years I want to become more concerned with people and how to help out and dedicate my life more to that. It’s just the natural instinct because I’m always concerned about people. Why, I don’t know. I’m just really concerned about justice, about people having a fair share.
Where did the need to put out another album come from? Is it an innate desire that you have to create and produce something?
I feel like I can’t stop. I’ve been trying to find something to make me stop for a long time.
You revealed some very intimate details about your marriage to Kelis on your last record. What is it that makes you want to take things from your personal life and turn them into your art? Is that to you what an artist does?|
I think so. And at the end of the day, it’s up to you if you want to release that music. But you have to get it out. I could have easily got those records out and then just kept that stuff as like lost tape shit. But I said “no, I don’t want to do this and hold on to it. I’m talking about this now. This won’t be relevant years later. Just put it out.”
Was that a difficult decision to make?
It was, because I’m talking about me and my life. It was difficult.
And what about “Daughters”? What does your daughter think about that song, also very personal.
I don’t know what she thinks. I don’t know how she feels. I give her time to decide. I hope that she just understands more than anything that it’s me. This is how I deal with what’s in my head, and I’ll deal with the consequences later.
Your first album is now hip-hop canon. Did you feel any pressure to top that after that album came out?
I did, but it became the style of rap after that. So I was a little bit lost because everyone was beating me to the next record from my shit, my style. I didn’t know what to do. I had to really think that one over and figure out the next step because it was a challenge.
What would you say has been the most challenging period in your career?
There were a couple of difficult times. There’re a lot of critics. There were a lot of personal situations. There’s the always changing music business. Everybody’s trying to play keep up, kiss ass. I could never play that game. I wanted to beat that game, and that was my goal. And people push you.
What is it about Hennessy that you love? And why do you think that drink is so associated with hip-hop and hip-hop culture?
Hip-hop culture’s about the finer things in life. And you know, it’s just smooth. It’s just smooth.
Do you remember when you had your first sip?
I remember the time period. I don’t remember my first drink.
Was it before Illmatic dropped, or afterwards?
Before the rapping. Right before all that.
Do you remember what life was like before 1994? Do you go back to it in your head? Do you ever go back to Queensbridge?
And what’s that like, coming home?
It’s amazing because a lot changes through the years. Lots of people are no longer there–passed away, moved out. People I knew have kids now. They grew up. And I’m like, “I knew your dad when he was . . .” It’s a family thing. It’s really a family thing.
New York has changed so much since the ’90s. Has Queensbridge changed a lot along with New York?
Totally. It’s the gun culture, man. The gun crimes there are the most crazy out of the whole nation. And, in a way, it needs to be. You know what I mean? When you live in the conditions that lots of New Yorkers live in, it’s like self-defense. The hoods are really in a messed up position.
How do you feel being a sort of Queensbridge’s representative?
It’s a great honor. It’s a serious honor and I’m happy because that’s a serious place.
You put it on the map.
Well, there were people before me who put it on the map but I definitely reinstated it for life. That was important to me because it’s where I grew up. It’s where I learned life, it’s where I learned everything.
Definitely. Illmatic would not have existed without Queensbridge.
I love that place. I love it.