Nas 20 Years Later, A Generation Gap Realized At SXSW


    A few hours before I made my way to the Moody Theater, I was talking to fellow Prefix-er Chris Bosman about my relationship with Nas. Like a lot of white kids growing up in the docile suburbs of America, Illmatic was a very important listening experience – the template I kept close to my heart for a while. It’s one of the few records that feels native and holy from the first impression. Nas wasn’t the first rapper I fell in love with– that would be Aesop Rock– but his polysyllabic, dazzling rhyme structures were growing out of poverty and curved-lip gangsterisms. The boasts and gun-talk used to make my stomach feel funny, and my parents told me the women were disrespected and it made kids violent – hip-hop was supposedly all artless till I discovered it for myself. Raw, damaged, young, and beautiful. Illmatic felt strangely universal for all its locked-away, lower-class storytelling – brewed with an upper-echelon, deeply intelligent, and profoundly victimized dosage of teenage angst. I’ve been listening to rap ever since.

    But standing listlessly in the third row I had a hard time getting myself amped up. I wasn’t expecting a homecoming; after all, like a lot of white kids growing up in the docile suburbs of America, the rest of Nas’ discography was a pretty anonymous listening experience. I was born in ’91, the only reason Illmatic made it across my speakers was because the internet seemed to think it was a pretty big deal. It took modern research, excavation; sure Stillmatic earned a spot and Hip-Hop is Dead came with implications that were impossible to ignore, but I certainly didn’t play those more than twice. It’s a shame, because Nas is a much better rapper than the place he’s offered, but the world’s relationship with him starts and ends with the flawless tape he laid in ’94 – the next decades shrink in its looming shadow. As Nas sculpted the image a modern MC, he sabotaged a career, those gathered expected a few obligatory tracks pulled from nostalgia and a heavy helping of songs we only kinda remember.

    That was, of course, before Nas essentially built Queensbridge on stage in Austin. His old neighborhood was recreated in billowy stagecraft – a makeshift subway, a graffiti-laden stop sign, two massive blow-up tarps with the projects printed on the outside. Welcome to the Genesis. When Nas emerged, he quickly announced he’ll spend the night performing Illmatic – that’s when DJ Premier dropped the immortal opening pulses of “New York State of Mind.”

    I don’t remember the first few moments. Honestly, I was too caught up in a furious karaoke-rap with Nas’ cadence. I do remember turning to an equally-enthralled dude next to me for a screamed “I NEVER SLEEP, CUZ SLEEP IS THE COUSIN OF DEATH!” I remember casting a corrosive glare to the plastered, eurotrash runoff who had the gall to shout “BRING OUT DAMIEN MARLEY.” He and his clueless girlfriend spent three songs kissing and taking pictures of each other before they disappeared back to the bar. But mostly I remember realizing that this was going to be the culmination of an obsession that started all the way back in high school. This was going to be my Nas show – far beyond coverage, or journalism, or the entire infrastructure of SXSW, it all washed away when I realized I was going to hear some of the most important music in my life performed live, all of it, complete, in succession.

    “I rap for listeners, blunt heads fly ladies and prisoners” – I practically had these lyrics tattooed to my MySpace profile through high school. Hell, half the fun of the show came from sheer anticipation. Everyone in the building knew full well those “Represent” chimes were gonna come barreling in a few seconds after “One Time 4 Ya Mind” nodded off – it felt so liberating. Nas seemed plenty enthused to make us all happy in the most elemental of ways. Halfway through, he summoned a diminutive Pete Rock from the sidestage to an empty set of turntables. He and Premier shared beats for a few minutes, unsurprisingly culminating in a brief “T.R.O.Y.” singalong. It was all nostalgia, old men, long absent from the peak of their careers and the lifeblood of the streets, gathered to celebrate.

    Honestly I don’t even listen to this kind of stuff anymore. Those holier-than-thou revivalists just look depressing. Judging by how thoroughly Lupe has been digested by the music industry’s cynicism I’d say the rap game was eager to move on. The Biggies and the Pacs are best left in their graves. “20 years Nas!” repeated an enthused Premier throughout the show. Well not exactly, it’s been about 21 years since Nas debuted on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” but the sentiment was clear – these folks were eager to look back. So were we. It’s actually kinda surprising. You could argue Nas is in the midst of a minor renaissance, I mean, “Nasty” bangs and there’s a hopeful new record on the horizon. He ain’t the butt of Jay-Zisms anymore, and he hasn’t embarrassed himself in something like two years now. Still, this not-quite-anniversary had him motivated enough to literally bring his old neighborhood on stage.

    There was actually something a little melancholy about it all. “How many of ya’ll love hip-hop from the ‘90s!” shouted Premier. That unfortunate addendum, “from the ‘90s.” Premier has literally watched an industry he’s nurtured, loved, discussed, criticized, and defended pass him by. So has Pete Rock, so has Nas, so has a somehow-excavated AZ who presented himself just long enough to recreate his side-A verse. There’s a generation gap. You can understand why a guy like Primo might look at Lil Wayne with a beguiling lack of comprehension, which makes him look that much more outdated. In a sense Nas’ Illmatic couldn’t represent something like SXSW any less. Old, audibly antiquated, already well-inscribed into our collective consciousness – outside of the Moody time kept moving at phenomenal rates. Of course it’s hard to think about that when the space in between “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” is eternal.