Words by Nas Photo by Matthew Salacuse
I represent the art side of hip hop — because, even in its most primitive stages, hip hop as a whole is an ever-evolving masterpiece. A spectacle we can create for all to behold. A form we should honor and respect.
A young person recently said to me, “you know, there’s rap, and then there’s real rap.” So I don’t worry about the kids today; they know the shit that’s wrong and the shit that’s right. You can’t really pull kids to the side and say “that’s not real rap” because to them it’s real; they’re rapping in a style they like to rap in. They’re all developing their craft. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who comes out and tells them that what they’re all into is not real.
These days, I’m into cats like Action Bronson, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Tyler, The Creator, Meek Mill. These cats all have something to say. Fresh energy is everything — new inspiration can fuel the birth of a dynasty.
As a youth coming up in Queensbridge, I felt this sense of desperation. We were growing up so fast; I would lose friends to the streets constantly. I wanted to have a baby when I was a child — many of us did — because we felt like there was no tomorrow, that there would be no legacy for people to reflect on the day after tomorrow. That’s what happened to so many of my friends. I lost my man Niño. Drawz. And lots of good dudes who will be remembered by a chosen few, forever.
There was that saying going around: “Black kids don’t live past the age of 25.” If you think about Biggie and Pac, they were taken away from us when they were so young. It felt like there was a curse on my generation. Then again, that violence still holds true today. Look at what’s happening on the streets of Chicago — and in the Congo.
Can you imagine living so fast that you wind up planning to retire at age 24? That’s how it was. Money was gained and lives were lost. Still, throughout all of that madness, one can gain a lot of wisdom. You never lose the streets — it’s in your heart, it’s who you are no matter what — no matter who I meet, no matter where I go.
On the streets you learn who to trust and who not to trust. You learn the world’s dark secrets. Growing up where I’m from, you have to learn how to read people’s body language; you gotta learn how to almost read minds. Living in the projects takes a lot of thinking: it takes a lot of camouflaging your moves because you’re constantly being studied and, at the same time, everybody’s studying everyone else because your survival depends on it.
A lot of moves are being made around you 24/7 — major chess moves. You have to know who you’re with, and you have to know what the consequences could be being with that person or being around those kinds of situations. You have to know what you’re standing for.
You start to think fast; you realize that knowledge can be limited in the environment but that everybody’s thirsty for knowledge, everybody’s thirsty to learn something new — you’d be surprised how much kids in the street know. Those were the cats who first related to my music. I was a voice for those people — the people in the projects who masked their intelligence because they refused to let the wolves know what they were thinking.
The business of rap can be a heavy experience for the newly initiated. There’s that intense “crabs-in-a-barrel” syndrome to contend with. And it all can boil down to what new shit you’re wearing. There’s going to be a few people on the block who aren’t happy about the new freshness that you’re rockin’, that you were lookin’ extra clean that day. Fresh gear, fresh kicks, fresh haircut — really small things in the big scheme of life, but lives have been lost in the ‘hood behind even smaller things. You have this glow on you that the haters can’t resist. They’re like thirsty mosquitos hovering below a streetlight. The intelligent ones, they adjust. They learn to not shine so bright; they find ways to mute the money and status, but still represent the culture and the pride and the people to the fullest. I learned. I evolved. I am still here. I am.
And we can all shine together.
These days, it’s important to see progress in one another — especially from people from the street. I’m inspired by people doin’ new things and achieving great success. I want the youth to understand that I’m rolling with Mass Appeal something serious. I’m still with them; I’m all about them.
Let’s get over self-hate — and be excellent.
Let’s give respect and get it back.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 53. Read more stories from the issue here.