The artist talks about uniting hip-hop across generations and oceans.
Photos: Danica Kleinknecht
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The album widely considered to be hip-hop’s best was recorded by a young man from the Queensbridge Houses. You know him as Nas, one of America’s finest living writers and MCs. His landmark debut, Illmatic, hit stores just months before his 21st birthday, in April 1994 — a mere decade after MJ entered the NBA.
Our culture loves stories about young talent; we recite the details and stats, marveling at the great artist or player emerging, practically-fully formed, to forever alter the course of history. Nas himself recalls the MJ story from the beginning: “I remember him playing at North Carolina, getting into the league, and not letting up. It was a changing of the guard.”
You could say the same thing about Nas, who as a teenager, displayed visionary ability with his vivid street tales and clear-eyed assessment of the world around him. Because of it, the best of the best in rap production flocked to him as he worked on his first release. The who’s-who roster he tapped for that album became the blueprint for hip-hop greatness. Before, rappers typically worked with a single producer for an LP, but now there was a new path. Unifying myriad sounds and styles from a talented selection of beat-smiths, under the banner of a single MC, became the model.
For Nas, connection and coalescence is central to hip-hop — especially now, during a time when generations have been raised on the music. “Hip-hop brings people together from all walks of life, from all parts of the world,” he says, speaking from the platform granted by 30-plus years in the game. “It doesn’t matter where I go, we all stand together underneath this umbrella of hip-hop, and there’s no division in that. No matter which country I’m touring in, we’re all together, on the same beat, in the same rhythm. That’s love.”
“No matter which country I’m touring in, we're all together, on the same beat, in the same rhythm. That's love.”
Yet without consistency, greatness can’t ripple across decades. If Nas hadn’t inspired more incredible work — if hip-hop had been a fad practiced by few, never to be taken up by others — his achievements might not register the same way today. “We like people who can keep it coming,” he says. “We like a brand that’s going to be consistent and has staying power.”
Just this year, Nas released his 15th project, and aspiring MCs continue to cite his work as inspiration. He hasn’t quit, and artists who weren’t even born when he began his career know about his foundation. That harmony — the veteran and the rookie recognizing each other across time — is what elevates all of us. “That brings us to a higher frequency and makes us the best we can be,” Nas says. “Once we unite, there’s nothing stopping us.”
Learn more about UNITE here and look forward to more stories in the coming months.