NAS IS GOOD

With the release of King’s Disease II, writer Miles Marshall Lewis catches up with rap mogul Nas, who talks building generational wealth through his business empire, leaving an artistic legacy, and remaining steady through the one constant in this game: change.

Photography By Joshua Kissi

The year was 1999. The Senate had recently acquitted President Bill Clinton on impeachment charges, Amadou Diallo had just lost his life to the police, the euro had become the official European currency, and I Am—the third effort by Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known as Nas—is about to be leaked and bootlegged on the information superhighway called the Internet. Months before, on a winter evening in New York City, a 25-year-old Nas sits smoking a Dutch Masters blunt in Studio D at Sony Music Studios while working on the upcoming album. Little does he know that he will end up reworking the track list.

“I try to be a hip-hop purist,” Nas says to me. “But it’s hard to be pure in anything you doing. I’ve been true to the game since I’ve known the game of hip-hop, for whatever that’s worth. If that’s being pure, that’s what I am. ’Cause I can only stick to what this is. When it changes, I’m changing with it. And I make some of the changes. I can do that too.”

Such is the legacy of Nas that, more than two decades later, he’s definitely changed rap music and himself along the way. In March, he snagged his first Grammy for his Hit-Boy-produced 12th album, King’s Disease. Their recently released second collaboration, King’s Disease II, keeps that same electrifying energy. And nowadays, with his company, Queensbridge Venture Partners, the still baby-faced 48-year-old elder statesman of hip-hop is also a mega-successful tech start-up–investing mogul. His stake in the cryptocurrency platform Coinbase had analysts speculating this year whether he’d reached the financial status of rap billionaires Kanye West and Jay-Z. (“I’m Coinbased, basically cryptocurrency Scarface,” Nas rapped on DJ Khaled’s “Sorry Not Sorry” this past spring.)

I got people that stop me in the street to ask me about investment tips more than music. It’s really crazy, man.

In late August, across the street from Electric Lady Studios, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, I meet with the street’s disciple again. He’s leaning back in a plush leather chair after hours of posing for a suited and booted photo shoot. As an assistant zips business wear back into garment bags, a clear-eyed Nas sips on bottled water. His fitted army green Supreme cap matches his nylon track pants and Nikes, and his white Carhartt T-shirt is emblazoned with the logo of Sweet Chick, a Brooklyn chicken and waffles restaurant he partnered with six years ago. Craft services leftovers litter a nearby table; the late Kurt Cobain stares behind sunglasses from a framed photograph to Nas’ left, surveying the conversation. 

“I got people that stop me in the street to ask me about investment tips more than music,” Nas reflects. “It’s really crazy, man. I met another Black man named Nasir; he’s doing his thing. He told me how I’m inspirational to him in that world of investors and fundraising. That’s what I get a lot now. That’s really rewarding. It used to be only, ‘I’m inspired by you to rap,’ which I still hear, and I still love it. But it’s about letting people know, ‘This is what I’m doing. You do it, too.’ ”

In 2014, Nas founded Queensbridge Venture Partners with his manager, Anthony Saleh, as a straight-up venture capital firm committed to funding start-ups like the online pharmacy PillPack and the smart home security company Ring. The partners have invested in more than 125 businesses, earning Saleh inclusion on Forbes’ “30 Under 30 in Music: Class of 2015” list and millions in profits for Nas. Rap fanatics who worship Nas’ 1994 debut, Illmatic, like the holy grail can remember his verse from “N.Y. State of Mind” by heart: “Makin’ sure the cash came correct, then I stepped / Investments in stocks….” He planted the seeds to this money tree a long time ago.

“When did I start thinking about generational wealth?” he ponders. “It was probably as a kid, when I started to watch my surroundings and notice the world I was living in. I had a lot of questions. You see things on television: The Jeffersons, Diff’rent Strokes. Based on that, I started to think about being an entrepreneur. But when I got older, I started to watch how many artists were not faring well at the end of their careers. Kool Moe Dee, who was a king of rap—somebody had played with his finances. Happens to so many of us. I used to think about how that should change.”

In this country, I see the adversity, but I also see the opportunity. I see the obstacles; I also see the opportunities that have been kept from Black and brown people, poor people. That day is over.

Although she may feel a little indulgent talking about herself, Hudson says she is having the time of her life meeting herself. “I’m in a space where I’m all about self-care, and I feel like if folks don’t get it at this point, honey!” she says, laughing and throwing up a hand as if she were dismissing someone. “I’m one of those people—always concerned [about] everybody else. But now, I’m almost 40 years old…I ’ve done did  everything that’s been asked of me. So whether folks like it or not, it’s my turn now. I’ve turned into a self-care therapist. I’m on a journey to consider me…to please myself.” Hudson says her path to self-discovery includes asking questions such as, What about my story? What about my experience? What about my voice? My words? My life?

In the film, there’s a line plucked straight from a vintage interview with Miss Franklin in which she looks at the camera and says, “I don’t know who or what I am. I’m trying to find the answer.” “I sit with that myself,” Hudson says. “You don’t realize how much of a stranger you are to yourself until you [spend] time with yourself.”

Nas has always been entrepreneurial, with varying degrees of success. In the 1990s, he scored endorsement deals—longtime fans can probably recall seeing him in Willie Esco and Karl Kani fashion ads. Even at 25, he’d told me he’d bought “a nice little spot on [Long] Island, a nice little secluded part.” Though he was cautious about revealing the information back then, he freely admits now that his “first piece of property was somewhere in Queens and Long Island around the same time, early ’90s. Houses and town houses.”

The son of jazzman Olu Dara and the late Fannie Ann Jones (who passed away from breast cancer in 2002), Nas credits his strong financial foundation to his mother’s advice. “But I didn’t listen. I was young and dumb, and I had a lot of fun,” he says with a laugh. “I almost didn’t believe in money. I just thought it was a distraction from things that were really essential to life, peace, and love. I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t see it as something too necessary. ’Cause a lot of people I knew threw their lives away for it.” Fast-forward to the King’s Disease era and the Queens, New York–bred MC runs a fledgling business empire built on tech start-ups and digital currency. What a difference time makes.

Nas’ money moves have not escaped the eyes of his 12-year-old son, Knight, and 27-year-old daughter, Destiny. She herself is a CEO. In 2014, when she was only 20 years old, she launched her Lipmatic lip gloss line. The business broadened its makeup range last year and is now called Matic Cosmetics. Just as Nas once absorbed artistic lessons while sitting at the knee of his jazz-playing dad, Nas’ baby girl watched her father’s business sense evolve while she was attending the Art Institute of California-Los Angeles, where she studied fashion design.

“Black wealth was always important,” he says, “back to [the days of] King Solomon, Mansa Musa. Dig into the ground in Africa; it’s rich in resources. [Black American] wealth in modern terms is a new concept. Hip-hop has created more Black millionaires than any other industry in America. Being able to invest in start-ups and invest in people’s futures, believing in them, welcoming them into what we have to offer, for them to trust us, for us to trust them, that friendship—that’s what America is all about. In this country, I see the adversity, but I also see the opportunity. I see the obstacles; I also see the opportunities that have been kept from Black and brown people, poor people. That day is over.”

I just wanna become as great as the ones I came up thinking were the greatest. Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, LL, Slick Rick, Ice Cube—the list goes on.

Nas has always influenced others, in one way or another. Kanye West calling himself “a Chi-Town n—a with a Nas flow” in his 2010 song “Dark Fantasy” is an example. Between King’s Disease and King’s Disease II, guests on those albums include Fivio Foreign, A$AP Ferg, YG, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Lil Durk, Big Sean, and more. Whereas once Nas recorded an ode to his rap hero Rakim (“I don’t want people to ever forget Rakim,” he says. “The same with KRS-One, MC Shan, and so on”), Nas may now be considered the Rakim for millennial MCs like Blxst.

But the love goes both ways. Who does Nas respect from rap’s latest wave? “I like Lady London,” he says. “Kendrick Lamar. Cordae. I think rappers today have [an] entrepreneurial spirit, and they know even more than what I used to and are seizing opportunities. They just have to balance the street and their long-term goals.” Ask about his legacy as an artist and MCs from the golden age remain his high watermark: “I just wanna become as great as the ones I came up thinking were the greatest. Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, LL, Slick Rick, Ice Cube—the list goes on. I just wanna be able to look at myself and say that I did what they are doing.”

Nas’ efforts with producer Hit-Boy are undoubtedly helping to usher him there. Since getting discovered in the Myspace era, the California-born music phenom has laid down tracks for many of today’s illustrious MCs, including Kanye West and Jay-Z (Hit-Boy’s beats are behind their modern-day classic “N—as in Paris”), Drake, Kid Cudi, and A$AP Rocky. Even though it was reported that Nas was set to record an entire album with the legendary DJ Premier, the rap icon’s current success has come as a direct result of facing forward instead of dipping into ’90s nostalgia. The King’s Disease volumes have not only shown an artist on his A game but they have also put Nas in the same conversation as Tyler, the Creator and Travis Scott.

The pandemic, however, has dominated conversations worldwide over the past 18 months. It has also eliminated some outside distractions (like touring and traveling) for Nas. In turn, he has crafted some of his most celebrated work. “The plan was just to get some production from [Hit-Boy] on an album I was working on,” he says. “And it turned into us doing an album. While we were working on that, we both knew we needed to do more than just one. He’s smooth, man. He’s all about the music. We just wanted to make something hot, to create something that represented us both.”

In a way, the coronavirus was a blessing in disguise for allowing Nas to put out his latest offerings. But that “blessing” came at a dangerously high price. “I caught COVID in late October,” he reveals. “This is the first time [I’m] mentioning it. It was a tough time. It was mentally and physically hard. It’s just today’s world, with chemical warfare, crazy politics, racism, food shortages, police malpractice, Black-on-Black murder. The human spirit is being tested. I think that God has a plan for all of this. But right now, we’re in a serious time.”

The hell on earth that was 2020—the coronavirus, Donald Trump’s last year in the White House, the cold-blooded murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others—may have made Nas’ wins harder for him to appreciate. After 13 nominations, he finally scored a Grammy (Best Rap Album for King’s Disease). And King’s Disease II marks his 10th album to top Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and his first since 2012’s Life Is Good to reach No. 1.

Once upon a 1999, I follow up my studio interview with Nas at a SoHo photo shoot. His boxy chalk-stripe suit and chunky boots, all chosen by the magazine’s stylist, make him look as if he were playing dress-up. “It wouldn’t be fair to call me old school,” he says at the time, which was a few years after releasing Illmatic. Now, 10 albums and many millions of dollars later, his suits seem to fit far better, but his humility remains the same. “You can overthink yourself out of the industry,” he surmises. “You can become your worst enemy. The rules are keep your integrity, hustle, and work on your craft. That’s all that matters.”

The arc of Nasir Jones’ life, along with his development as a “business, man,” has unquestionably bent toward victory. His lessons have been hard-earned. “I’ve realized we’re all human and we’re all gonna bump our head, probably stub our toe,” he reflects. “You can’t be too hard on yourself for making human mistakes. I’ve had to learn from ’em, and I’ve had some ups and downs that I wouldn’t be me without. I have no regrets. I live my life to the best of my ability with nobility and strength.” To quote the closing track of King’s Disease II, “Nas is good.”

Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) is a music journalist and pop culture critic.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING MARIELLE BOBO 
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN-BROWN 
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY KEITH MAJOR
CINEMATOGRAPHER KEVIN “GK” FREDERICK 
AUDIO ANTOINETTE TOMLINSON 
VIDEO EDITOR MEGA MEDIA 
MOTION GRAPHICS RODRIGO BRAGA 
STYLIST LAUREN PRESTON
STYLIST ASSISTANT OLIVIA LOY 
GROOMER TARA LAUREN AT EPIPHANY ARTIST GROUP
PROP STYLIST CATHERINE PERIDIS 
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT CHRIS ARAEL RIGUEUR 
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT HAMADI PRICE
DIGITAL TECH RASHEED INGRAM
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS 
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT ILIAS LOPEZ
RETOUCHER FAISAL MOHAMMED/REVIVETHECOOL
COPY EDITOR HOPE WRIGHT
 
CLOTHING CREDITS: LOOK 1 (COVER): IKIRÉ JONES OVERCOAT, DRIES VAN NOTEN SHIRT AND PANTS, JASON MURILLO MILLINERY HAT, BOTTEGA VENETA LOAFERS (CHAIN AND WATCH, NAS’ OWN); LOOK 2 (MAROON SUIT): PAUL SMITH SUIT, MAURIZIO BALDASSARI SHIRT, BOTTEGA VENETA CHAIN AND BRACELET (SUNGLASSES AND WATCH, NAS’ OWN); LOOK 3 (ORANGE COAT): ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA TOPCOAT AND LOAFERS, STEPHEN F SUIT AND SWEATER (CHAIN AND WATCH, NAS’ OWN); LOOK 4 (GRAY SUIT): FEAR OF GOD SUIT JACKET AND CREWNECK (CHAINS AND WATCH, NAS’ OWN). VIDEO: LOOK 1 (MAROON SUIT): IKIRÉ JONES SCARF; LOOK 2 (GRAY SUIT): ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA PANTS AND CAP, FEAR OF GOD SLIDES; LOOK 3 (ORANGE COAT): JASON MURILLO MILLINERY HAT.

Read More from our October Legacy Issue

Most Matic: Meet Beauty Boss Destiny Jones

What started as a simple lipgloss line back in 2014 has turned into a full-blown, expanded cosmetics range—from rose-colored blushes and gleaming highlighters to a lash-lengthening mascara and colorful eyeshadow palettes. Below, CEO Destiny Jones, founder of Matic Cosmetics and scion of the legendary Queensbridge MC Nas, gives EBONY the lowdown on her makeup empire and what it takes for other aspiring entrepreneurs to conquer the beauty game.

Read More »

Video: Inside the Issue with EBONY Editor-in-Chief Marielle Bobo

With an illustrious career spanning nearly 30 years since his star-turning introduction on Main Source’s Live at the Barbecue in 1991 and the subsequent debut of his seminal opus Illmatic in 1994, hip-hop’s griot Nas—born Nasir Jones—continues to hit new milestones both on and off the mic. In the last year alone, the legendary lyricist won his first Grammy for best “Best Rap Album” with his twelfth studio

Read More »

Lyrics That Built the Legacy: 8 Iconic Nas Verses that Leave a Lasting Mark on the World

Nas knows as well as anyone the importance of building a legacy. Throughout a career spanning nearly 30 years, the legendary MC has inspired generations through his storytelling, evocative lyricism and introspective songs. He makes music for the builders, the dreamers and the believers, providing the soundtrack to power us to greater heights. Through his music, he shares sage advice on how to navigate life and leave something

Read More »

A Timeline of Nas’ Money Moves

Nasir Jones has the distinction of never owing money to a label for any album he has ever released, which is an incredible feat for any music artist. Widely regarded by many as hip-hop’s greatest lyricist, Nas has evolved into one of the industry’s most successful at generating wealth that will secure his family’s fortune for years to come. Off the microphone, the rapper has a nearly decade-long history of putting his money where his mic is, with investments that not only place

Read More »

SUBSCRIBE TO EBONY