In a hardy hip hop culture there shouldn’t be a ‘greatest’ MC. After all, competition is hip hop’s life force. Still, Nasir “Nas” Jones is a master of masters. He caught up with Cyclone and talked about belonging.
Though an urban superstar, Nasir Jones remains inherently street. He's socially conscious yet credibly – and candidly – contradictory. The Queens, New York storyteller is also a survivor, and self-reinventor. Jones debuted back in 1994 with that instant classic Illmatic, but he's never been more relevant. He triumphantly battled Jay-Z. Then Jones divorced R&B diva Kelis, the mother of his son Knight, emerging as, not the bad guy, but only human. Last year the literary MC presented an acclaimed tenth album, Life Is Good, which hit number one Stateside. It received multiple Grammy nods.
Now Jones, who first toured Australia in 2008, is determined to become a global hip hop ambassador. He'll return to lead the inaugural Movement Festival. “It's actually one of my favourite countries in the world,” Jones extols, his voice melodious and mellow, as on record. “It's a place where you feel like you belong.” Jones is a curator of Movement, his commitment to be “ongoing” (he's even cutting a track with co-headliners Bliss n Eso). “I played a festival [Good Vibrations with Damian Marley] there before,” he says, “and, I have great times at festivals in other countries, but I think I have a lot more fun in Australia than most places. I first came there with Kanye West and I had such a good time that I felt like I needed to go back a lot more. I wanted to figure out what was the perfect thing to get me there, so it's not just come there and do some small promotions... This is something bigger – this is something that feels perfect for me and perfect for the hip hop movement. This is the right thing.” Jones has his own touring band, California's Z (formerly Mulatto). “Those are my guys – they're a great band,” he says. “It's a good chance they'll be coming out.”
Jones, the son of the Mississippi-bred jazz and blues musician Olu Dara, grew up in the Queensbridge projects and dropped out of school. Connecting with Large Professor, “Nasty” Nas rapped on Main Source's 1991 Live At The Barbeque before 3rd Bass' MC Serch took him under his wing. At 20, he premiered on Columbia with the poetic Illmatic, an inner-city chronicle, DJ Premier among its beatsmiths. Compared to Rakim, Jones bolstered East Coast rap as it was being challenged by California's gangstas. He subsequently pursued crossover success with songs like the Trackmasters-helmed If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) (featuring Lauryn Hill) and, as Nas Escobar, strayed into Mafioso rap (Jones fronted The Firm supergroup on Dr Dre's Aftermath). The heads accused him of selling-out. After The Notorious BIG's demise, Jones fought longtime rival Jay-Z for hip hop's symbolic title 'King Of New York', throwing the poison dart Ether in response to Hova's Takeover diss. They eventually made up, Jones signing to Def Jam, where Jay-Z was president. Today it's regarded as a defining rap battle. “What I say to people is: When you're an MC, you never know when your day'll come to be in a hip hop battle,” Jones reflects. “Hip hop battles are very important parts of hip hop as well. You never know when it could happen. When it happens, people get a chance to see what you're made of... Those days are those days, but I'm looking forward to the new days.”
Reanimated, Jones would issue Zeitgeist projects with intellectual, philosophical and socio-political themes. He examined urban music's stagnation on Hip Hop Is Dead (Jay-Z cameo-ed). More contentious was 2008's Untitled (AKA Nigger), a rapper's dissertation on racial inequality that coincided with Barack Obama's ascendancy. In 2012, following a collaboration with Marley, Distant Relatives, Jones unveiled an autobiographical, not conceptual, album in Life..., about his struggles as a black man, husband and father – musically, it evoked epic '90s boom-bap. Life... was touted as a divorce record (the sleeve shows a suited Jones, Kelis' green wedding gown on his knee, disconsolately seated in a club's VIP suite), but without the bitterness of Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. It was reported to be Jones' last Def Jam release, but he denies that. “I'm still with Def Jam, and I'm back in the studio,” he says. “That [Life...] was a very personal album for me. It tells you my perspective, from an artist who's been around for a long time... I wanted some of the tracks to feel very '90s. [But] the next record to me is nothing like it. I'm just starting it, and it's too early to talk about it, but the next record will be a whole 'nother thing.”
Ahead of Life... Jones spoke of teaming with Odd Future's Frank Ocean, but the material never surfaced. “We lost the files,” he reveals. Yet Life... has other poignant input. The late Heavy D co-produced The Don, while Jones duets posthumously with Amy Winehouse on Cherry Wine – orchestrated by mutual ally Salaam Remi. Winehouse penned Me And Mr Jones about Jones and they became friends. “She was someone who was just taken away too soon. She was someone who had so much to give to the world musically. She was just a genius when it came to writing and her vocal range, and just her sound, is really unmatched. When you hear her voice now, you know exactly what it is. It stands alone. It's very unfortunate we didn't get a chance to really fulfil the dreams that we had about working on her new album, working on my new album – we had a lot of cool ideas. We're happy that we had Cherry Wine – she sounds great on it – and it's my way of representing for a good friend who I shared the same birthday with, September 14th, which was really our connection.” Jones also appeared on Lioness' Like Smoke.
There's been talk of Jones collaborating on an album with Common, Nas (Dot) Com, Jones lacing the latter's Ghetto Dreams, but the pair have busy schedules, Common an in-demand actor. But Jones just hung out with the Chi-towner at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston. “He's someone who I would definitely love to work with a great deal.” Jones himself has acted, albeit sporadically, starring in Hype Williams' gritty crime drama Belly (which he co-authored). “I've always had a love for film and movies since [I was] a kid and I always wanted to do 'em.”
Nonetheless, he's more interested in making films. (“Look forward to seeing me on the directing side very soon.”)
Jones delivered that hip hop critique in 2006, but the scene has since regenerated. In interviews, the MC is more upbeat, praising Kendrick Lamar and Philadelphia's Meek Mill. However, he's unsure if there can ever be another 'golden age'. “I think there's a moment in hip hop that will never be the same,” Jones ruminates. What matters to Jones, no tragic King Lear figure, is what he's bringing. “I feel like that, because I'm still here and there's so many others who are still here, we'll still continue to make music – so that means I'm excited to make music. So I am! And that comes off when you hear me talk, when you hear the music I'm making – you can hear the excitement in me that I'm happy to do it. Because you'd know if I didn't like doing it anymore – it would sound like it. For some reason, it's still in me – it's still burning inside of me to make music.”
Jones has his quirks. Lately he disclosed to NME that he loves Girls. Ask Jones what else might surprise us about him and he's stumped, repeating the question playfully while mulling over it. “I also like cigars, but that wouldn't surprise you,” he says finally. “I love tea – herbal tea – but who doesn't?” The enigma will need soothing tea for those upcoming Movement shows. “Ah, man, look out for electricity on stage and realism – look out for some real shit, live shit... and then some.”
Nas will be playing the following shows:
Friday 26 April - Movement Festival, Hordern Pavilion, Sydney NSW
Saturday 27 April - Movement Festival, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne VIC
Sunday 28 April - Riverstage, Brisbane QLD
Tuesday 30 April - Red Hill Auditorium, Perth WA
This week's new sets include the return of UK's Foals plus local acts Last Dinosaurs, The Snowdroppers and The Paper Kites.