Songwriter Interviews

Nas Talks Classical Illmatic

by Roger Catlin

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The rapper talks about performing his Illmatic album with the National Symphony Orchestra.

"Growing up, I would think that hip-hop music only reached the communities of the people that made it," the rapper Nas says of his art form. "I didn't really see outside of my own neighborhood to know if anybody outside my neighborhood cared. But hip-hop is huge."

Big enough now to make a staid arts program like Great Performances, which on Friday, February 2, will debut "Nas Live from the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip-Hop," his 2014 concert headlining the One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide festival. Marking the 20th anniversary of his legendary 1994 debut Illmatic, Nas was paired with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Steven Reineke, at the storied venue in Washington, DC.

Speaking in Pasadena, California before the TV Critics Association winter press tour in January, Nas talked about writing Illmatic from New York hip-hop influences and his own experiences growing up in the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing project in North America, in the Long Island City section of New York City.

"It's crazy, you know, I wrote this in the projects in New York City," he says. "Here we are in the capital of America, Washington, DC, and, you know, a bunch of white people with strings and all that, playing this album, and they feeling it."

In its time, Illmatic was seen not only as a dense and complex reflection of growing up there, but also as a standard bearer for New York hip-hop at a time when it had started shifting to the West Coast. It is now considered one of the greatest albums in hip-hop. "I felt like I was doing something to the English language that must have been going on 100 years ago then 100 years before that, like each of us contribute something to the language and to how we describe things, and it just gets passed on," Nas says of the work.

Having it on public television isn't weird to him, he said in California. "I grew up watching PBS, and I certainly learned a lot watching PBS, so maybe there's something to be learned about these two different worlds colliding together."

We asked Nas and the show producer, David Horn, some questions about the process.

Songfacts (Roger Catlin): When you wrote Illmatic, did it all come at once, or is it a series of stuff you wrote over a period of time? What do you remember about writing that whole piece of music?

Nas: I realized, writing the first album, you've been writing it all your life until that point. I'm sure you've heard that before. So I'd been writing it since I was 9 years old, in a way. But when I narrowed it down to what would be album material, it probably started at 16 years old. I got a record deal at 18 and then finished the record at 20.

So it's not done till it's being mastered and pressed up and ready to go. That's when the album is really done. So it was a two-year period from me signing the deal to actually getting it out there. And, yeah, it took probably six years.

Songfacts: Did it change all through that time?

Nas: Yeah, it did. It did change. Music changed.

I saw what was working, what wasn't working. I saw artists make bad decisions. I trusted the sound, and that the listener would really feel comfortable with that sound, which really represents most of the elements of hip-hop music. I wanted it to be that way.

Songfacts: When you released this in '94, you were thinking a little bit about your earlier years in New York, but when you were performing it at the Kennedy Center 20 years later, it seemed like you were really feeling the nostalgia of when you were growing up when you were performing it. Do you feel that way when you perform this today?

Nas: Yeah, I do. It's like I recorded my life. It's my life in every line, in every rhyme, it's what I was around. So, I'm automatically taken back to that place when I was writing it, that place growing up. It's like me going into a diary that I share with the world.

Songfacts: Performing Illmatic in a tuxedo at Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra sounds like the kind of thing that could go terribly wrong. It ended up working great. But were you confident it was going to work?

Nas: I had a good feeling it would. When musicians get together, we tend to come up with some good ideas. I knew I was up for a challenge, but it turned out easier than I thought it would be.

Songfacts: Did the piece itself change with the orchestral arrangements? Did you write new things for them to play, or was it the conductor? How did they get the music that they played?

Nas: The only thing that was different was the music. They did the music with buildup, turning into other things and coming out of it in a whole different way than it was on the album. That was all those guys. They're very good.

Songfacts: What was your reaction when you heard it all?

Nas: It was kind of surreal because it made me feel like, Wow, this is another level.

It's like we dream about it, like I can see myself with an orchestra in a nice place performing, like, Sinatra or something like that. But it doesn't really happen in most careers in hip-hop, so I was excited the whole time through. It was definitely cool.

Songfacts: For the "Great Performances" executive producer, this performance took place in 2014. What took so long for it to get on the air?

David Horn: Honestly, I hadn't been aware of it. It was presented to me from Kamilah Forbes, who now works up as a sort of programming director at the Apollo Theater. I'm very skeptical of certain popular forms of music that all of a sudden add an orchestra to it. We could probably talk at the bar later about all the failures that people have done.

But I was a failed jazz musician, and when I listened to it, I was just so interested in all the jazz inflections that were in the music. And Nas, you make that one point about the trumpet line that your father wrote or inspired.

Nas: Yeah.

Horn: You've heard it. It's so jazzy. It just works so well as an underscore to, basically, this documentary he's done, which is an album. The documentary. The album tells the story.

Among the players and influences on Illmatic is the work of Nas' father, the jazz musician Olu Dara. Born Charles Jones III in Natchez, Mississippi, he came to New York City in 1963, changing his name to Olu Dara, which in the Yoruba language means "God is good." With cornet his main instrument, he played alongside James Blood Ulmer, Cassandra Wilson, Don Pullen, Henry Threadgill and David Murray, among others, in the 1970s and 1980s.

His own albums as band leader, In the World: From Natchez to New York in 1998 and Neighborhoods in 2001 didn't come out until after the release of Illmatic in 1994, by his son, wo was born Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones.
Songfacts: The program has a performance from Royal Albert Hall coming in April as well. Are you making a concerted effort to do hip-hop on "Great Performances" in a way you hadn't before?

Horn: No. I think if you pay attention to "Great Performances" and what I've done out here, we just like good music, and it just happens that these two shows are scheduled close apart, but I would hope other hip-hop artists that have interesting projects would think of us.

And yes, our audience is older, but there certainly are younger people that watch it, but I think if you're an older music enthusiast and you happen to chance upon this and really give it a listen, to really understand it, you'll want to have multiple listens. I think it's very infectious.

January 31, 2018
"Great Performances: Nas Live from the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip-Hop" premieres on PBS
February 2 at 9 p.m. EST, after which it will be available for streaming on the PBS website. Here's a clip.
Photos: 13th Witness

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