Hip-hop legend Nasir “Nas” Jones opens up in GQ‘s new February issue in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Illmatic album. In the interview, he discusses monumental issues from the current status of hip-hop all the way to activism. Check out some excerpts from the interview.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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