Groundbreakers are rare in any music genre. In the now mature world of hip-hop, groundbreakers seem to be as far and few in between as they have become in the geriatric wards of rock 'n' roll. Some may break ground, but then their staying power in the increasingly "one-hit wonder" world of digitized music becomes even more daunting.
Give New York City rapper Nas two checks, one for survival and one for staying true to his early vision.
Nasir "Nas" Jones hit the street running with his, now classic, debut recording Illmatic back in 1994. It was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking benchmark of East Coast rap. Nas has not only stayed steady on the charts and maintained his popularity in the ensuing dozen years, but has managed to keep a finger on the forward-looking pulse of hip-hop that has now arguably put him in the league with the masters.
Over his roller coaster career, Nas hasn't been afraid to take chances with jazzy forays or go for the stash with pop crossover appeal. But Nas just calls 'em as he sees 'em. And he's willing to take artistic risks. It seems there are too many run-of-the-mill young MCs that aren't willing to peek over the edge. Nas has worked the mean streets to reach the top of the center of the universe of East Coast Rap.
Nas has even become a mentor of sorts to younger rappers and has dabbled in film, as well. He's taken punches and emerged a wise old teacher. And a nostalgic elder. Nas getting nostalgic? Sure. He laments the way rap legends are dissed by young rappers and pays tribute to them on "Where Are They Now," a track off his newest (and eighth) album, the point blank declarative called Hip Hop is Dead. "Carry on the Tradition" is another track tipping hats to the old, forgotten catalysts of hip-hop.
Nas had a career slide toward the late '90s, a time wracked with personal problems. And the rapidly rising Jay-Z oft dissed him as a has-been around the same time. But Nas came back with mics blazing on 2001's Stillmatic, a bookend to his debut classic, and he hasn't looked back since.
In 2005 Nas and Jay-Z set aside the jabs and reconciled, resulting in their first collaboration, "Black Republican," on Hip Hop is Dead, released on the stalwart hip-hop imprint Def Jam last year. The beef with Jay-Z largely extinguished, the duo trade hooks on "Black Republican" where Jay raps, "I feel like ... Black republican, money I got coming in, Can't turn my back on the hood I got love for them," while Nas retorts, "I feel like a ... Black militant taking over the government, Can't turn my back on the hood too much love for them." Indeed.
Hip Hop is Dead is full of scorchers. Fellow Def Jam artist Kanye West co-wrote and co-produced "Let There Be Light" featuring Tre Williams; Kanye also co-wrote and co-produced "Still Dreaming." Scott Storch co-wrote and produced "Carry on Tradition" and "Play on Playa," which features the irrepressible Snoop Dogg. Dr. Dre isn't too far away, either, lending production assist on "Hustlers."
Son of jazz musician Olu Dara, Nas dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and hit the streets of the tough NYC projects and his turf, Queensbridge. Those violent projects in Queens have produced a stream of rappers and Nas assembled a coalition of fellow Queensbridge beatmakers for the QB Finest compilation in 2000.
Nas co-starred in the Hype Williams-directed film Belly in 1998 alongside DMX and contributed music to the soundtrack. He also led a short-lived super group of New York rappers known as The Firm. The posse also featured rappers Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nature, along with producers Dr. Dre and the Trackmasters.
In Nas's world of inner-city life, which is filled with requisite sexual bravado and incessant violence, much of contemporary hip-hop can't hang. That's Nas's beef in Hip Hop is Dead.
Narcissism maybe a virtue in the world of hip-hop, but in the end Nas is an optimistic fella. Hell, rock 'n' roll has been dead since the 1950s. Right? Hip Hop may be dead or just going through cyclical ups and downs as in all other genres, but Nas keeps the torch lit and raps with a knowing wink, "If you really love me, I'll come back alive."
Nas comes to the Queen City as part of his 26-city "One Man, One Mic, One Night" Tour 2007. He will perform for the 21 and up crowd on Wed., April 11 at the Neighborhood Theatre. The intimate venue is setting aside a dance area. Tickets are general admission price of $38. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. For details call 704-358-9298 or visit www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.