"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, August 6, 2008



After a decade with no new admissions (the last being 1997’s Donnie Brasco), a new movie finally joined the hallowed ranks of that tidy shelf-full of Required Mob Flicks like Once Upon A Time In America, Scarface and the Godfather trilogy with the release of The Departed, an ugly little tale of duplicity and dead Irishmen that bagged up a cool 120 million in theaters last year. An A-list affair on all fronts, the cast boasted Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and one gleefully unhinged Jack Nicholson as well as Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen. At the helm was Queens, New York native Martin Scorsese, the director widely regarded as the man who in the 1980s turned the art of modern moviemaking from actors in clean shirts and primped hair exchanging lines in Hollywood studios into dirty, bleeding, sweating, psychotic men in shabby suits trying to kill each other under the loom and gloom of Rotten Gotham, and assumed the popularly accepted title of most influential post-war American director as a result – without ever having won an Oscar. Over a decade later, it’s still almost universally understood: movies are never better than Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or Casino, just different.

Scorsese brought all his trademark tricks back with him in The Departed: long tracking shots, cokehead-swift montage sequences, Catholic paranoia and, of course - having virtually invented the modern movie soundtrack - the constant use of blues and rock ‘n roll songs throughout the movie. Numbers from icons like the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Van Morrison bubble away fervently in the background as the bodies drop onscreen – with one lone exception. Where an old ditty from Cream or Muddy Waters would have normally gone, Marty sets an early scene in which DiCaprio’s character pushes a mid-‘90s Mustang through Boston’s Southie Projects with a life sentence’s worth of cocaine in a Manila envelope to the tune of Nas’s brutal 2004 single “Thief’s Theme.” It’s obviously not the first time a hip-hop song has been used in a big-budget movie, but it may be the first time that a song by a director of Scorsese’s stature has placed a hip-hop song on one of his soundtracks, and alongside music from artists like Lennon and the Stones, names that are normally preceded by or followed with the term “classic” in popular conversation. Essentially a loop of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, the signature hit from ‘60s metal pioneers Iron Butterfly, “Thief’s Theme” seamlessly matches the grungy sonic texture created by the rock icons that dominate the soundtrack, and Nas comfortably takes his place beside them as peer and equal, a legend in his own zone. But in the end it’s Marty, the man behind the camera, that Nas has the most in common with here.

Throughout the years, there have been many rappers who qualify for the term ‘great’. Rappers who came out of the gate as greats, and have remained, if not constantly top-tier, relatively on point to this day (you’ll only need one hand for this). Rappers who started off mediocre, but have evolved into greats over time. Rappers who were once great and lost it forever. Rappers who were once great, lost it, but periodically graze greatness on a handful of songs per year. Falling into any one of these categories still gets you the title, as one perfect song is more than enough to make history. But the Queensbridge kid with the gleam in his eye has remained one of the world’s most important emcees even as the majority of others in his league consistently release better albums by touching, or better, embodying, a level of greatness that no other rapper ever has or perhaps ever will again – himself included, and Rakim excluded, arguably. The dethroning of New York hip-hop as the barometer against which all other styles of hip-hop are measured, along with an overall popular disgust for intelligent, literate rap has cleared the way for a Revenge Of The Nerds-style assortment of bored hipsters and new-booty rap fans to sling shit on Nas’s name, as if his impact, influence and position is even up for debate. Get real. There’s taste, and there’s just plain facts: Nas is the truth. No rapper in history was ever handed the crown so fast and so young as Nasir Jones was in 1994, when he released Illmatic at the age of 21. In one year, he gave us what has come to be regarded as the quintessential hip-hop album, and took the art of rapping a quantum leap forward, initiating a stylistic revolution that has raised the bar for every rapper since. He was the upgrade card that turned rap three-dimensional, bringing a whole new depth of detail, perspective, emotion, but most importantly, hope, to the ghetto experience. Like Scorsese, Nas is a trailblazing talent fighting to create high art within the confines of a corporate entertainment industry that seems to be doing its best to kill it, so much so that even he has buckled to the pressure in the past on albums like I Am and Nastradamus (just as Scorsese did with The Aviator and Gangs Of New York). And as far as he’s concerned, the industry has just about succeeded – so much so that he bet his last album on it: Hip Hop Is Dead.

“I think hip-hop is dead for the obvious reasons. I think you shouldn’t even have to ask me too much about what I mean behind it,” Nas casually retorts when asked the inevitable question, with the air of a man who’s been asked this inevitable question way too many times for his liking. “The money factor, the raping that record companies do to today’s artists, the disrespect artists have for each other at a point where rappers are getting shot and shit, and yet none of the execs that are non-black that are making money off these rappers ever get shot? Niggas don’t own no record companies. Niggas don’t own no TV channels that play rap. Niggas don’t own no radio stations that play rap. So who is it in the hands of, and who’s protecting it? Not nobody that loves rap.”

All true. Yet, at the same time, that’s not exactly news. The notion that the people who own the music industry could give two shits about rap music has been proven so many times that it’s now more cliché than fact. Rich white men never cared about hip-hop, and it still managed to take over the world. Hip-hop is in a state of emergency today because the people who are supposed to care just don’t anymore. The fact that hip-hop is now seeing its second generation of stodgy old farts – the class of ’91-’96 – is proof positive that it isn’t dead. If anything, it means we’ve officially landed as a genre; one of the best measures of a scene’s endurance is the number of grizzled elders it has lying around. But an even better measure is the number of genuinely talented new artists doing the rounds, and where most older rock ‘n roll fans remain fiercely proud of the music they grew up to, many of their hip-hop counterparts are so disgusted with the direction the music is taking today that they are distancing themselves from it in every way, sticking strictly to their old favorites or giving it up altogether. It’s not a hard position to empathize with. When you tell someone you’re a hip-hop head, and the only hip-hop they hear is the stuff on the radio or TV, nine times out of ten that person is likely to come away from the conversation with a slightly lower opinion of you. Things wouldn’t be half as dire if most younger rap fans had any degree of interest in the artists of yesteryear, as new-school listeners of every other genre almost always do. “We can sit here and have this conversation,” Nas says. “Whether you agree with me [or not], we wanna have a conversation because we are both passionate about rap, and there’s nothing wrong with it. There are other motherfuckers that can have this conversation, but only in a one-sided way, because a lot of motherfuckers don’t know that Busta Rhymes used to be in a group called Leaders Of The New School. They don’t know the history. I’ve had young guys tell me that the guys I like are not hot! And they don’t wanna learn. I didn’t really get Afrika Bambaataa as much because I was a kid, but I knew what them sounds was. When I went to sleep I still heard them sounds in my head, and it made me wanna figure them niggas out.”

Of course, fans only take their cues from the artists that set the trends, and the gap between older and younger fans is a direct reflection of the disconnect between the new breed of rappers and the old guard. Hip-hop has always had a problem with age, a sentiment perhaps first voiced by Tupac on “Against All Odds” – “…all you old rappers trying to advance / it’s over now, take it like a man…” For Nas, this is central to the issue, his issue. “We’re getting on to the main, main reason I titled the album. I remember coming up, the older guys really did not wanna see young guys get in the game. And that’s the difference with today. Today, the younger generation hates on the older generation. They’re going, ‘Yo, get outta here. Give me some time to shine.’ You can’t ask somebody to move. You’re supposed to take your position. I had to take my spot. Snoop had to take his spot. We didn’t come in here asking for shit. And we looked up to these niggas. Snoop shouted it out: ‘…I’m ‘bout as crazy as Biz Markie / spark the chronic blunt real quick…’ and brought Biz out at his first New York concert in Queens, New York, during the frenzy of Doggystyle. I gave love to Rakim. I was in videos with Kool G Rap. We wanted that anointing.”

Where Tupac gave a catchy slogan to the idea that old equals irrelevant, 50 Cent virtually christened it conventional wisdom when he released the single “How To Rob” in 2000, which depicted him relieving a host of rappers - past and present - of their belongings, a move that marked the beginning of the 50 Cent era of rap, where last year is considered old school, beef is a perfectly acceptable method of garnering publicity for yourself, and a rapper’s skills come a distant second (if that) to his criminal resume. The fact that 50’s “How To Rob” strategy worked so well is not lost on the new generation of rap hopefuls, ready and willing to do just about anything - short of actually learning how to rap - to get rich or die trying. “These are kids who ten years ago wouldn’t have even wanted to rap!” Nas exclaims. “But the thing about it is, it’s cool because 50 had a method that worked. But kids are looking at him like what he did was nothing, like they could do it too. Because they got a gun, they feel like they could do it too. They don’t understand that 50’s actually a good artist. They look at him and say ‘I’ve been through some times too. I can do what he did.’ No, you can’t do what 50 did. They get mad and say, ‘Well I’m a real nigga. I’m still slinging.’ And they start losing focus on what this shit is all about. We talked about rapping to get out the fucking game. They need a format and an outlet to get the establishment, the executives and the artists to get excited about coming to a showcase to see their talent - not see the guns, not see them on DVDs talking shit, but see the talent! And I think that’s been missing because of the sensationalism of 50 Cent that came from the Biggie and ‘Pac era is what niggas think is gonna get them to the top. They’re almost saying “Why I gotta have talent? I’ll just tell my tale.’ Try to make an album with no beef, and let’s see how good you really are. Don’t dis one nigga on your album, and let’s see if it works. Let’s go back to that. B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z.: we had careers before any beef.”

We can deal with labels not caring about rap. But when even rappers stop being passionate about rap, the game is over. And from Golden Era graduates to gold-toothed rookies, rappers who act like they don’t wanna rap is the new trend. The godfather of the too-cool-for-school movement, Jay-Z has been threatening to retire ever since dropping Reasonable Doubt 11 years ago and actually attempted to make good on his promise a couple of years ago, only to sheepishly return as a bona fide Old Rapper, vultures swarming overhead. Andre 3000 continues to infuriate humanity by releasing approximately one perfect rap song for every album’s worth of Prince impersonations he comes up with. Acting claimed Mos Def soon after recording his classic solo debut Black On Both Sides, which he nevertheless insisted for some reason on following up with the stupefyingly misguided The New Danger, and Tru3 Magic, which somehow managed to be even more off. Cee-Lo is currently uber-marketing screamo alterna-rap for those same bored hipsters with a man who wears a mouse suit. Eminem’s court and rehab schedule leaves little to no time for the studio. And it was so hard to give up hope in Q-Tip a few years ago that we don’t even want to put our feelings on the line by giving him another chance. According to Nas, being intimately associated with hip-hop in its current incarnation is only more uncomfortable for those who have been around long enough to witness the before and after. “That’s where you have this problem where motherfuckers is getting into rap in such numbers where it’s embarrassing now. I can’t go to certain places and say I rap, because if they turn on the rap video channel they will see – not all of it – but a great portion of embarrassment. So it’s hard for niggas who really take themselves seriously – not just myself, all niggas who take themselves seriously – to even wanna do this shit anymore when you got those dudes thinking that they the shit.”

On paper, the odds grow depressingly high. Rappers who don’t want to rap. Fans who don’t want to learn. Labels that don’t give a shit. And now, maybe the most gifted rapper alive telling us it’s all over? “Every artist says it’s dead every day when they say ‘we’re not rapping, we’re hustling,’” he laments. “I’m just putting it in plain English for everybody. Everybody knows that it’s dead. It’s just scary when Nas says it and brings it to the attention of the people who don’t wanna acknowledge that they’re bullshitting with it and don’t wanna acknowledge the responsibility we have, and don’t wanna acknowledge that we’re leaders, that don’t wanna acknowledge that we have to take control of the business side.”

Granted, but boiling the issue down to denial on the part of the artist is over-simplifying the message, as well as short-changing the messenger. At a time when so many of our last true remaining greats are in front of their bathroom mirrors singing into hairbrushes as hip-hop goes down in flames, Nas is a living legend who has always stayed true to his god-given gift: rap. Sure, he was in Belly, he endorsed Esco clothing, just launched his Jones Experience label. But he has never for one moment allowed the public to get the idea that he was anything but an artist first and foremost. For him, props really is a true thug’s wife, and that’s why Nas is the truth, the same reason why so many rappers will always be jealous of him in a way even they themselves can’t explain. So yeah, it is scarier when you say hip-hop is dead, because deep down, many of us feel like you’re the only rapper who has what it takes to save it.

He pauses. “Well, that’s one hell of a compliment and I do appreciate that people feel like that. That’s what makes me make this title, because it makes the ones who are not caring about it have to think! We have artists who say, ‘Yo, I don’t agree with Nas.’ I’m forcing them to be thinkers now, about what this shit is. And that’s all I wanted. I’m like, ‘Yo, let’s continue to have our parties and drive our Maybachs and everything, but let’s shed some light on hip-hop, this thing that gave us the voice and the paper.’ It’s really a conversation piece. That’s what this album is all about. Of course we know [hip-hop’s] a big business. Of course we know it didn’t disappear. Of course we know the money it makes and the potential that comes from it. Of course we know that. That goes without saying. I’m saying it’s a time for a whole new change, dog.”

What this change involves, it seems not even Nas knows for absolute certain. At present and into the foreseeable future, Hip Hop Is Dead is a conversation piece with no conclusion, and will probably remain that way, just as it most likely should. Here, the conversation is the conclusion. Art makes you feel something, and as long as you can feel, there’s always possibilities, dreams, hope, all the things hip-hop was built on, all the things that are almost totally missing today, except for artists like Nas. More than hip-hop, hope is dead, the idealism and positivity that defined the culture back in the day when it was a bunch of ghetto kids trying to dodge the street life, not revel in it. But as long as the Nases of the world are doing what they’re supposed to, hip-hop should be OK. “I might sound crazy, because I’m totally free now to do whatever I want. I’ve been holding back so many years. Now I can do whatever I want now because I’m so free about it. I said hip-hop is dead, so now I can move on.” Here’s hoping that no matter where he moves on to, he’ll still be a rapper when he gets there.