King of New York rap Nas has shaken off his detractors and is provoking a debate about cultural survival.
Nas knew what he was doing when he named his new album Hip Hop Is Dead It's a given that the imminent release of a Nas album can be counted on to cause the usual excitement and anticipation among rap fans.
But the intriguing title has caused them to wonder that little bit more about what he's going to come up with this time. After all, it's his eighth album. Additionally, as Hip Hop Is Dead is his first release for legendary rap label Def Jam, the title becomes slightly more provocative.
"It came from just like the talk of the streets for the last five or six years, or since Big and Pac died. Also, outside of Biggie and Pac dying, the rap game got so big and there was so much money, we kinda lost what it was all about," Nas says of his new album's ethos. "We kinda forgot because there's so much business, so many sharks and so many lies that it's been dead for a while."
It's not as if this kind of talk is new. Most older heads in New York (especially those from the Bronx or Harlem) will recall that many rap fans were bemoaning hip hop's death when Big Bank Hank ripped off Casanova Fly's (aka Grandmaster Caz of pioneers The Cold Crush Brothers) lyrics on "Rapper's Delight" all the way back in 1979. Then, when hip hop first rose to prominence in the early Eighties, many misguided rock critics predicted it would only last a few years. And while Nas raises valid concerns and acknowledges there's a lot to be done, even he's still hopeful the situation can be turned around.
"I think hip hop is really strong right now, regardless of people who don't care about the culture or who don't care about the era of Kool G Rap," he offers. "I think it's still a strong music scene and it's already lasted longer than the predictions of the haters. So I think it can only get better and hopefully it'll happen soon. Hopefully I can be a part of that."
According to Nas, rock and R&B are dead too. "Yeah, absolutely, rock and R&B too," he says emphatically. "I think that people don't really know how to trust their own creativity because of what it is with radio and it's a business, it's a big business. I mean, it is what it is, I'm not trying to fight the system. I'm just saying what I'm saying."
Nas really doesn't like what modern radio has become. On Hip Hop Is Dead's title track he promises to "put an extended clip inside of my AK" so that he can "roll to every station, murder the DJ". Not literally, of course. Besides, Nas seems far more calm and content these days. Maybe it's married life. He's been married to leftfield soul singer Kelis for just under two years now. But when it comes to Kelis, he seems to have taken a leaf out of Jay-Z and Beyoncé's book. Asked about married life, he simply says: "It's good, man... it's good," but refuses to elaborate.
Against all odds, he and Jay-Z seem like good friends these days. When Jay-Z played the Royal Albert Hall at the end of September, it wasn't exactly surprising when Nas ran onstage and performed a few favourites. He'd done the same thing a few days earlier at Wembley Arena. But that didn't lessen the impact.
Jay-Z's curiously named "I Declare War" concert last October, which saw New York's two biggest rappers perform together for the first time, was a good moment for hip hop. "I thought about how it would help me give off the right type of message," Nas recalls. "Doing it in that way would give it the right type of spotlight, in the right circumstances. What's better than two black men reconciling, you know what I'm sayin'? Reconciling in front of the hip-hop community -- I thought that would be the best way to convey my point of view."
A few months later they publicly killed their beef. The alliance of sorts was made official when Nas signed to Def Jam in January. Jay- Z has been president of the Island Def Jam Music Group since the end of 2004. Their first collaboration, "Black Republican", leaked on the net, will appear on Nas's new album.
It was very different in 2001 when Jay dissed Nas on "Takeover". In true hip-hop fashion, Nas struck back with the devastating "Ether". The beef unquestionably lit a fire in Nas and he hasn't put a foot wrong since. Stillmatic, the album "Ether" appears on, shows the veteran MC in much better form than he was on Nastradamus,. God's Son, which appeared a year later, is arguably even better, while 2004's Street's Disciple is a double album full of old-fashioned boom-bap hip hop and brilliant experiments like "Bridging the Gap", Nas's duet with his father, the jazz trumpeter Olu Dara.
The lack of commercial and radio-friendly tracks meant it hasn't moved as many units as God's Son or Stillmatic. "The frame of mind was blood for blood, it was a battle... not literally blood," Nas hastily clarifies. "But from a lyrical standpoint. So it was on and poppin'. It was just some crazy shit cooking. It was some crazy shit. But it was good 'cos it wasn't like some of these guys today. It was real shit."
When he talks about, "some of these guys today" Nas is referring to 50 Cent and Harlem's most famous crew, The Diplomats, or Dipset, headed by Cam'ron. 50 had a go at Nas, and Kelis, on 2005's "Piggy Bank" and again on "Window Shopper". Dipset have been taking shots at him ever since he told Cam'ron, publicly, to step up his game, live on New York radio. But so far Nas has managed to rise above it all and not respond. Something unheard of in hip-hop circles. Good on him.
"Sometimes I feel like doing something, but it's not necessary. It'd be off-balance. They're only talking the way they talk because they're opportunists and they're trying to figure out how to have a name. It's a little bit -- actually it's way too -- obvious, and I don't want it to make me look wack, along with some other wack shit. If this shit was coming from a real place, you know, if I could feel this shit then I would have no choice. But because I don't feel that shit I don't even pay it any attention."
Nas has always had this progressive and conscious side to him. Which makes it all the more strange that his last two shows in London have seen trouble of the worst kind. In 2004, when Nas played The Forum in Kentish Town, the doors were literally broken down during a mini-riot. Some patrons were robbed for their tickets as they tried to get in. Then, early last year a show at Brixton Academy was brought to a swift halt when some idiot thought it would be fun to let a gun off inside the venue. Nas seems resigned to the fact that that's how it is sometimes. "I think these things happen. I think nothing is perfect. Sometimes it happens. But I'm still very excited to come over here and put on a crazy show."
Unlike many of the rappers he mentions on "Where Are They Now?", another track from Hip Hop is Dead that has surfaced on the internet, he's survived all the different eras and trends of the past 15 years. "My goal was to always do it like the ones who did it before me, the ones that inspired me," he says. "I never planned to be around this long. But you know, I'm still here."
'Hip Hop Is Dead' is released on 18 December on Def Jam Recordings