Strange bedfellows on PBS
PASADENA, Calif. — It’s not only politics that make strange bedfellows. Sometimes it’s art. And an unexpected collaboration will fill the tube today when hip- hop artist Nas performs with a full symphony orchestra on PBS.
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 said.
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 said.
He cut the definitive album backin1994andfeltat thetime that its scopewaslimited.
“Growing up, I would think that hip- hop music only reached the communities of the people that made it,” he said.
“I didn’t really see outside of my own neighborhood to know if anybody outsidemy neighborhood cared. But hiphop 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 said 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 outwewere really connecting as a family for that moment, and I loved it. I just loved it,” he said.
Nas explains 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 albummaterial… 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,” Nas said.
The music changed during that time, said 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 thatwhat 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 thatway.”
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 aboutme being a dreamer, and therewere 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.” anatomyandphysiologywhile hewasgrowingup. Whileit isn’tobviousat firstglance, natural scienceandcaricatures canoverlap, hesaid.
“People think of it as cartooning, but there’s reallya kind of scientific mindset,” he said.“Youlook at a face or bodyandwhatmakes it unique. Like a scientist, you think ‘ what’s goingonhere?’ ”
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Nas brings his brand of hip- hop to PBS’ “Great Performances,” backed by the National Symphony Orchestra on “Nas Live from the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip- Hop.”