The network’s “Great Performances” presents “Nas Live from the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip-Hop,” a concert featuring the 13-time Grammy nominated artist’s first album, “Illmatic.”
Mournful strings and sassy street poetry don’t usually mix. And Nas admits he was nervous to try it. “It was one rehearsal before the actual thing. So I was, like, we did two shows. The first show I was really nervous, and what we taped was the second show. And I was a little less nervous, but nervous meaning, like, I didn’t want to mess up. So I wanted it to be just the way we rehearsed it, and of course one rehearsal, it gets your nerves,” he says.
In spite of his trepidation, Nas (whose real name is Nasir Jones) remained optimistic. “When musicians get together, it’s a lot of us. We tend to come up with some good ideas. I knew I was up for a challenge, but it turned out easier than I thought it would be,” he says.
He cut the definitive album back in 1994 and felt at the time that its scope was limited. “Growing up, I would think that hip-hop music only reached the communities of the people that made it,” he says.
“I didn’t really see outside of my own neighborhood to know if anybody outside my neighborhood cared. But hip-hop is huge. So many people have gotten into hip-hop through the years that it’s almost not surprising anymore. There’s still surprise elements to it, the people that tell me they listen to rap music or heard of this artist or that artist. I surprise people with some of the artists that I know that I’m not going to mention.”
Nas says at first he felt the members of the National Symphony Orchestra would be reluctant to back him. “I thought the symphony got people (who) were going to be like, ‘Ugh. THIS music? I don’t want to do this, but I’ll just do it for a buck.’ But it turns out we were really connecting as a family for that moment, and I loved it. I just loved it.”
Nas says that “Illmatic” — now considered the best hip-hop album of all time — began when he was just a kid. “I realized writing the first album, you’ve been writing it all your life until that point. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. So I’d been writing it, I guess, since I was 9 years old, in a way. But when I narrowed it down to what would be album material … I probably started at 16 years old and got a record deal at 18 and then finished the record at 20. So it’s not done till it’s being mastered and pressed up and ready to go. That’s when the album is really done. So it was a two-year period from me signing the deal to actually getting it out there. And so it took maybe probably six years really.”
The music changed during that time, says Nas, who grew up in a housing project in Queens. “I saw what was working, what wasn’t working. I saw artists make bad decisions. And I realized that what was, of course, the sound that would be. I trust in sound and that the listener would really feel comfortable with that sound without going too far this way or that way. What’s the sound that really represents most of the elements of hip-hop music? I wanted it to be that way.”
For the 44 year old, appearing with a full backup orchestra is a lifelong goal. “A dream come true. As a young guy making this album, it was about me being a dreamer, and there were no limits,” he shakes his head.
“ … I look at classical music as the hip-hop of its day … and I feel like there’s a strong connection with all music. So doing things with the music, things like this show, is just part of the dream. It’s not only just: record the music and put it out and tour and do traditional things. It was more like, ‘What can I do now to make this experience for people something more fun; something that’s not the thing you see every day?’
“That’s our job as musicians, I think, is to make the experience the best experience possible for people. So it’s about fulfilling a dream that I had for a long time. I felt like at this point like I had made it as a mature artist, in a way.”
Check out the performance below: