Nasir Jones' rise from the housing projects of Queensbridge in New York to the top of the rap game is at the center of the film "Nas: Time Is Illmatic." The documentary celebrates the 20th anniversary of the prolific emcee's debut, "Illmatic," widely considered one of the best rap albums ever made. The 41-year-old has been performing the record in its entirety (and screening the film) in a series of shows across the country. A raspy-voiced Nas took time between shows to discuss the film, his life today and the state of hip hop.
You were 19 when you made "Illmatic." In the film, when you look back on that time, you recall wanting to give people "the feeling of New York at night" with that record.
Back then, no one really knew what life in that other New York was like. I wanted to get all those elements on the record, especially in "N.Y. State of Mind." But there's also sunshine on that record, rain, clouds — all of that.
Despite that you've had one of the longest careers in rap, you don't really talk a lot about your legacy. Did the documentary make you reflect more on the past and how you got to where you are?
When [director One9] was shooting it, I didn't feel like it was taking me back. Then I watched it. It brought up a lot, yeah, a lot.
That had to be hard because the life you described on "Illmatic" — your young life — was pretty rough. The crack epidemic. Poverty. Violence. Hardly any of your friends made it out. How were you able to?
I don't really know. A guardian angel hovering over me? I always tried to protect myself so I'd have a future. I never wanted to just stay there or to stay in one place. I wanted to move around, see the world. Make money legitimately. I always wanted to do more than stay there.
I made conscious decisions to avoid a lot of things because I knew there was something else. I don't think I could have lived with myself knowing what it would have been like if I had tried harder. You're already living with a lot of "what ifs." What if I hadn't thrown it all away? What if I had just taken that other path?
But it's not always under your control, as you point out often in your songs.
Right. Sometimes you can't stop things from happening. No matter how good a person you are, you can just get caught up. No matter how smart you are. You can go to school, have a job, and it'll still get you.
Your life has changed a lot, therefore your music has too.
Today, I don't think the same way I used to, so I don't sound the same way. I sound like who I am today. I have different stories to tell.
One constant is that your work has always been thought-provoking — when everyone else was rapping about drinks in the club (and they still are), you were decrying the lack of creative power among rap artists.
I've always been the guy who laid everything in my head out on the line, and you could do with it what you wanted. I didn't know any other way. Even with my album "Hip Hop Is Dead," I could have kept that in my head, but I didn't. I put that out. A lot of people thought that was career suicide. My goal wasn't to turn people against hip hop, my goal was to encourage us all to do better.
What would you like to see more of in hip hop today?
People who make their own mark. Who know their own mind. I would like people to do their thing and not make bad decisions for the sake of the charts. Be original.
You've remained relevant over two decades — a miracle in the hip-hop game — and have done it largely on the strength of your music as opposed to, say, furiously multi-platforming.
I didn't want to do anything as far as branding. I honestly felt my music was enough. I didn't want or need more. My music is my dream. All that other stuff requires more work. Yeah, it might make me more famous, but I didn't sign up for that.
In the film you talked about representing those guys you grew up with who didn't make it, guys who died young or got flattened by the system.
I always wanted to see somebody make it. I think that's how my neighborhood was. If we can't make it, we want to know someone who can. I never knew it would be me.
Could you talk about the Nasir Jones Hip Hop fellowship?
Yeah, we give kids scholarships to Harvard. Artists in particular. A good education is not free. This helps in a small way. With a school like Harvard, there should be some other way to get there. There has to be some other system.
What are you working on now?
Right now? I'm getting ready to eat some Chipotle.
You know what I mean.
[Laughs] I started some new music. I'm gearing up to drop that. The time is now. The music is coming now.
You grow with each record, which is a good thing. But you also catch flak for not sounding the same.
I get beat up for that. But there's nothing I can do about it. I'm happy I can do this about my life today. I'm happy it hits you in a different way, but you don't get the praise for [rapping about the everyday], you don't get the front page.
But you do get the praise still. Your last album, which is from the vantage point of a father and a man entering his 40s, did really well with fans and critics.
"Life Is Good" is more about what's happening day to day. Before it was about people I hung out with in Queens who are no longer with us, or life there, the streets. Now my life is different. It's good.