GQ: Last year was the twentieth anniversary of Illmatic. Do you recognize that person who made that record now?
Nas: Sure—he was a vivacious young man full of a lot of great ideas, excited and ready.
Would he recognize you?
That young man would’ve saw past who I am today. I’ve slowed myself down, probably. That young man was prepared to go further.
You’re saying your level of ambition is lower now?
I’m basically saying I can’t do twenty shows a month. Back then I probably could.
Illmatic was one of the first records to be hailed as a classic rap album. Did that ever feel like a burden, having to live up to it?
There was times before that people who were into the music had felt anxious for me to do something like it again. But I always felt blessed that I got music out there the way I wanted to get it out there, as soon as I shot the first shot.
But when you’re in the studio shooting the third shot, are you ever like, “Man, I wish that first shot hadn’t gone in so well”?
Then that’d mean I wish I didn’t exist. It’d be like saying I want to redo what I did before. And I don’t respect that. That’s not how I think.
You were also one of the first guys who had to deal with the fact that rappers all of a sudden could have this massive commercial success, right? You watched Biggie do it. The audience got bigger. Do you think your music changed once you realized there was an audience for it that was potentially massive?
Yeah, but it first changed because there was so many people that sounded similar. Once you do something new, then everything comes out sounding similar—the way a lot of things sound like Future today. So you have to come back and change it up. This music thing will challenge you, and it’s not nice to anybody. If there’s something good, it’s going to be imitated. And I had to overcome that. And then you had B.I.G., who was just killing the world and taking his core with him while he went mainstream with it—which was not happening at the time, because hip-hop music didn’t play on radio all day until he helped it. He took it to a higher level. Biggie just shook everybody off of him and said, “Can you do this?” And you couldn’t sit there and say, “Nah, I’m not going to do it.” When B.I.G. took it to a bigger level, if you couldn’t compete, you were out the game. And that’s what happened to at least twenty different guys who were out around that time.
Why weren’t you one of those twenty guys?
Because I’m in it to be what the essence of hip-hop is. If MCs are saying they’re this and they’re that, and they’re claiming that they’re this and that in the lyrics, and then you fall short, you’re out. It’s in the rhymes. It’s in the records. The records tell you what it is. You listen to everybody’s record during that time, they’re telling you, “We’re aiming for the top,” “I’m this,” “I’m the best,” “I’m that”—and I was in it just like them. Just like Biggie, just like the rest of them.
With Jay Z, you were a part of maybe the most visible rap feud short of Biggie and Tupac. Looking back on it now, what do you think the legacy of that was?
At the end of the day, the mission was to glue the game back: no more deaths. At this point, it’s about moving on and making something out of it. Because Biggie and Pac never lived to see that. They didn’t live to see themselves grow in this game. They did so much so young, which is great, but we’d love to have them here. All their fans and family miss them. They were the sacrifices, the martyrs for the entire hip-hop business.
Like when you go back and listen to “Ether” now, what do you hear?
I don’t. But I do listen to Biggie’s “Kick in the Door.” My friend last night told me, “He was coming for you, Nas. He was serious.” We go back to those times before we were established—when we were still one foot on the top and one foot on the street. Those were the times we talk about. Anything other than that, we’re chilling out.
So “Ether” is not a song you’ll revisit?
You’re 41 now. How have you changed as you’ve gotten older?
Now I think about Silicon Valley, I think about Napa Valley. I think about business and relaxing. Not too much—relax too much, you die.
Would you have posed with your ex-wife’s dress on the cover of a record, as you did with 2012′s Life Is Good, when you were 20?
I would’ve took it to another level. I’d have had an imitation of her—someone who looked like her in the dress. I would’ve went way further with it. That’s why the younger generation needs to never be afraid to go all the way. Because I wasn’t afraid. I expressed myself honestly. And it’s important for them to see that. After that thing happened, don’t be surprised if you see a 21-year-old artist do something similar, with a wedding ring or something. It’s going to happen.
Do you ever consider retirement?
From time to time I do consider it. It’s a busy life. So you want to sit back and think about doing different things and imagine what it’d be like. Deion Sanders was able to suit up for a baseball game and a football game in the same day. You think about him; you go, “Wow, what else should I do?”
What would you be doing if you weren’t rapping?
I’d be still creating. It could be screenplays, it could be bottled water, it could be a farm industry. It could be making up my own deodorant, it could be studying to be an engineer—highly unlikely, that one. But who knows?
I saw that you were protesting the Eric Garner verdict in New York City with Russell Simmons the other night. Do you have the activist calling at all?
But we’re already that. We’re already activists. I’m looking at what’s happening to the world, and I’m waiting for people to stop being scared. Mainly whites in power and in government, to not be scared of the race issue. Not be scared to say, “This is wrong, and this has to change.” Not be scared to do what’s right.
What do you think people are scared of?
Votes. Their career. Backlash. They’re confused; they don’t really know much about it. We’re all human beings. So I understand being scared. But at some point, you got to come out and do the right thing. No matter who you are, you got to put the people first. Compassion, and your love for people, has to exist. And your love to humanity has to exist. It can’t just always be about your career, your money, your stature, where you think you belong in this government. You’ve got to be about reality and love.
You’ve been in New York so long and seen Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo. Are you surprised that cops are still killing innocent people?
Unfortunately, I’m not surprised cops are still murdering people. But I am surprised that the law enforcement did not do the correct thing with illegal chokeholds. A chokehold because of a man stating his piece—telling them he didn’t do anything. An illegal chokehold! It’s embarrassing to New York, and it’s embarrassing to the country. I’ve got to go around the world, and people will ask me, “What’s wrong with America?” This is why they don’t like us. And this is why they’re going to beat us. When they see that weakness, they’re seeing a way to take us down. The outside world, they’ve already seen that. But even more now with the apartheidisms that’s going on today. We can sweep it under the rug, but when we sweep it under the rug, the rest of the world smells the debris.
What do you say when people ask what’s wrong with America?
I say America’s about fighters, and we fight each other sometimes, but that’s what family does. I try to make up shit, because it’s embarrassing, and they see through it. If the plane brings me to Paris and all over the news is the police shooting down dark people in the streets? I’d look at all of them as savages. And I’d say, “Wow, what’s wrong?” It’s transparent. They see what’s going on over here. And they laugh at our government and law enforcement. That’s one more for them. They’re really the civilized ones. And they see everyone as being more civilized than America. And we’ve got nothing to say.
What’s the role of an artist in this situation?
The situation has created the artist to begin with. It’s the backdrop to KRS-One’s greatest album, By All Means Necessary. It’s the backdrop to N.W.A.’s world-changing albums and The Chronic. The Chronic is all about the Rodney King verdict—besides him dissing the people he had to dis, it’s about the Rodney King verdict and the riots. It makes artists create and speak. The way James Baldwin did. The way Stevie Wonder did. The way Marvin Gaye said, “What’s going on?” We are the results of the bullshit. I’m here, partially, because of the bullshit that’s been going on. I’m a voice. I wouldn’t know that Compton existed in 1988, 1989, if it weren’t for those geniuses from that side called N.W.A. I wouldn’t have even known the place existed. I wouldn’t have known they suffered from the same stuff we suffered from in Queensbridge. We were beating our African drums to each other the same way we’ve always done since the beginning of time. It’s crazy. But that’s what we were doing. But rap music has never respected politics. We’ve never trusted anything. That’s the way the streets are. But it’s a whole new day. The guys who talked against the system—now the people want that person, that voice, to help change the system.
Do you feel responsible to that need?
If I’m in that position and the people call me, and they see me as someone who can help, then hell yeah.
Do you feel like other rappers have responded in a way you respect?
Everybody’s concerned—it’s not a rapper thing, it’s a people thing. It’s the NBA’s concern. They have kids. They could be in their car and be profiled. So of course we’re going to speak up. It’s a shame that people want us to stay in the corner and just get kicked in the ribs and just say, “Okay, kick me some more, kick me some more, I’m not going to say anything’s wrong with being kicked. I’m going to cover my mouth, I’m not even gonna scream. Just kick me until I’m dead. Because that’s what I deserve, right? Oh, how dare I say stop kicking me in the ribs in the corner? How dare I say that? Shame on me.” People are scared. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.
Part of what people want to believe about the stuff you were making in the early ’90s is that it would change things.
Yeah, on “Halftime,” I said: “Go to hell to the foul cop who shot Garcia.” There was a guy named Garcia in Washington Heights who was killed. Unarmed, whatever the situation was—maybe he was armed, I don’t remember at the moment the entire incident. I just knew the city was upset and I was upset. And I put it in my rhymes. On my first album, I’m talking about the same thing! And we’re still talking about it now.