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Music and language. Tracks and lyrics. Beats and rhymes. East Coast. Queensbridge, motherfucker--the brutal public-housing projects in Long Island City where the fundamentals of hip-hop never fell out of flavor. The Juice Crew's Marley Marl and MC Shan immortalized "The Bridge" with their 1986 cut of the same name. But it was 20-year-old protege Nasir "Nas" Jones who brought the 'hood permanently up from the dungeons eight years later with his classic debut recording, Illmatic: 10 tracks with beats by some of New York's best producers, and streetwise rhymes so skilled that Nas was immediately hailed as the next Rakim, the old-school rapper from "Strong Island" who took hip-hop lyrics to a new level with cuts like "Follow the Leader."
Nas is especially clever with internal rhymes, and on Illmatic and the 1995 follow-up, It Was Written, he paints a bullet-riddled, concrete-gray landscape with bright flashes of word play. Nas presents life in the projects as a Monopoly game from hell, where you either clock enough dollars to win (get out), or you lose--jail, death, strung out on crack, it doesn't really matter. He carries a gun, but treats it as an unwelcome survival necessity, like a pacemaker, rather than a Snoop-school gangsta rapper's fashion accessory. Nas recently stopped doing interviews to promote his current tour, and said through a representative that, for right now, he prefers to simply let his lyrics speak for themselves. Fair enough.
New Times: What was it like coming up in Queensbridge?
Nas: I used to wake up every morning, see my crew on the block. Every day a different plan that had us runnin' from cops. If it wasn't hanging out in front of cocaine spots, it was at the candy factory, breakin' the locks.
NT: And when did you start writing rhymes?
Nas: Well, back in '83 I was an MC sparkin', but I was too scared to grab the mikes in the parks and . . . kick my little raps, 'cause I thought niggas wouldn't understand--now in every jam I'm the fucking man. I used to watch CHiPs, now I rap in front of more niggas than was in the slave ships.
NT: What's Queensbridge like now?
Nas: I come back home, and nobody's out but Shorty Doo-Wop, rollin' two Phillies together (in the Bridge we call them Ooo-Wops). He said, "Nas, niggas cold be bustin' off the roof, so I wear a bulletproof and pack a black trey-deuce." Shorty's laugh was cold-blooded as he spoke so foul, only 12 years old, tryin' to tell me how he liked my style. He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was asleep. I sat back like the mack, my army suit was black. I had to school him, told him don't let niggas fool him. It's tough luck, when a nigga is struck. His family's fucked up. Mistakes happen, so take heed, never bust up at the crowd--catch 'em solo, and make the right man bleed. Then I rose, wipin' the blunt's ashes from clothes and froze, only to blow the herb smoke from my nose. And I told my little man, words of wisdom from Nas: "Try to rise above, Shorty Wop. Watch out for Jake. One love."
NT: Any other advice for young hustlers?
Nas: Yeah--watch them niggas that be close to you, and make sure they do what they supposed to do. 'Cause you know they be thinking about smokin' you. It's never personal--nowadays it's just the way.
NT: That's nice and dark.
Nas: Well, I'm livin' where the nights is jet black and the fiends fight to get crack. I got so many rhymes I don't think I'm too sane. Life is parallel to hell, but I must maintain. I pour a Heineken brew for my deceased crew in memory lane.
NT: Would you describe yourself as a nihilist?
Nas: I'm not your legal type of fella. I'm a Moët-drinkin', marijuana-smokin' street dweller. I'm living reckless, could die for my necklace, crime infested, drivin' in a Lexus with a death wish. Jettin', checkin' my messages on a speaker, boppin' to Mona Lisa brown reefer. Ten Gs, gun and my visa, CD crankin', doin' 90 on the Franklin D. Roosevelt, no seat belt.
NT: Promoters are billing your Tempe show as a Martin Luther King day precelebration. Any comment on race relations? How would you fix shit if God put Nas in charge?
Nas: If I ruled the world? Imagine that. It'd be paradise life relaxin'. Black, Latino and Anglo-Saxon. I'd let Coretta Scott King mayor the cities and reverse fiends to willies. I'd open every cell in Attica and send them to Africa. Political prisoners set free, stress free, no work release, just purple M3s and jet skis--feel the wind breeze in the West Indies.
NT: Describe your technique as an MC.
Nas: When I attack, there's not an army that can strike back, so I react never calmly to a hype track. I set it off with my own rhymes, 'cause I'm ill as a convict who kills for phone time. Inhale deep, like the words are my breath. I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death.