Once chiefly the domain of true crime freaks, leftist politics bros, and Joe Rogan; the world of podcasting has, in recent years, opened its increasingly lucrative doors to a host of unexpected characters. Few have been more eager (and arguably more fit) to step right through than your favorite 90s rappers. A brief survey of the audio landscape includes Talib Kweli, Fat Joe, and of course N.O.R.E, whose Drink Champs podcast hosted Kanye West for an internet-arresting special two-part episode in early November.
But the latest rapper to hop in the interviewer’s chair may be the biggest name yet: Nas. Yes, that Nas — Nasty Nas, Nas Escobar — the Queensbridge legend known for his laid back demeanor, slick rhymes, and incredibly low need to host a podcast.
Like many other shows, each episode of The Bridge: 50 Years of Hip-Hop, produced by Spotify and Mass Appeal and co-hosted with veteran hip-hop journalist Minya “Miss Info” Oh, is structured around an interview with a contemporary and/or historic figure in hip-hop. They delve into cherished memories, such as Nas’s story about failing to sneak into a sold-out Ice Cube show at the Apollo as a teenager. They revisit past scandals, like Three 6 Mafia’s drug-fueled breakup (on the Juicy J episode). And they reflect on landmark moments like the original 5-mic review of Illmatic that Oh wrote as an intern at The Source magazine, which poured kerosene on Nas’s already red hot buzz.
Like Nas’s work in general, the show is suffused with a fanatic’s love for hip-hop. It’s a paean to the people, the culture and the art form that made him who he is. GQ spoke to Nas about the growing rap podcast universe, winning his first Grammy in the third decade of his career, and his hopes of winning a Pulitzer for “being as raw as possible.”
A person with your stature and resume doesn’t have to do a podcast. So, I’m curious how the project came about and why you decided to do it?
II geek out over all the guys on Hip Hop 50 [Mass Appeal and Showtime’s documentary series celebrating 50 years of Hip Hop], from Grandmaster Caz to Roxanne Shante to Run DMC. I just saw EPMD. We had a concert in Detroit, and they were in my dressing room and I was just like a little kid. That type of thing is really my life. That’s who I am. So, to get into that zone, it wasn’t that uncomfortable, because every time I see one of my heroes, I’m asking them tons of questions.
Did you have a set of goals in mind for what you wanted the show to accomplish?
Man, it would really just be me being able to talk to Rakim and Kool G Rap, and even Kool G Rap’s DJ, Polo, to hear their stories, how they started, what it was like, early New York. I mean, classic era New York, ’80s. Because these guys are the guys that really made me want to do it, so I want to know who made them want to do it. I want the world to know, through this show, the importance of the art form and how long it’s been around.
Do you feel like you’re filling some sort of educational void in a way? Are you preserving something that you think is being lost?
Yeah, of course. And also just really respecting this thing that changed my life, changed my family’s life, and changed so many people’s lives. So, it’s so important to just give back to it and put a light on it and celebrate it.
You’ve already had several amazing guests on the show, but are there any grail guests for you?
Some of the names I would come up with are probably names that most people don’t know about, like Joeski Love, who made the “Pee Wee Herman,” which was a hit record, and there was a big dance to it. There was an era [in the ‘80s] of dances. There was a song, “Do the James” by Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud, big hit record on the hip-hop scene. There was ”The Wop”, by this cat named B-Fats. So, maybe there’s an episode about just those hit records and those dances.
Does it feel odd to be a part of the media now? To have the tables turned a little bit?
I can’t say that I’m part of the media yet. The media is a big thing. I’m just a guy, a rap dude asking other rap dudes and women questions about rap.
So, you’re not looking for your Pulitzer?
Oh, no, I can’t. I mean, if they give it to you for being raw, I want the raw Pulitzer, the Pulitzer for being as raw as possible. But I don’t know about the other stuff.
You’re not alone, though. A lot of your ’90s hip-hop compatriots are becoming podcasters or media entrepreneurs. What do you think is driving this movement?
It seems like it’s a lot of fun. And we’ve always wanted to hear from our own community, so it’s finally happening. It’s very exciting to see artists do more than just be on the stage and make records. It’s exciting to see them in a new space where it’s more personable. It’s more open. It’s the real deal.
[In the past] we would have to wait for a publication to put out an article on A Tribe Called Quest, and it would probably happen once a year. And now you can hear these guys talking in raw form. They’re not trying to be politically correct, necessarily.. So to hear the raw energy from artists asking and answering questions together, it’s sort of like, I wish I could hear conversations between Stevie Wonder and Sade.
In a 2006 Pitchfork interview, you said going global hurt hip-hop because “no one knows where it comes from, and no one knows who is doing it right.” Hip-hop’s bigger than it’s ever been now. Do you still think that that’s hurting hip-hop in some way?
It actually caught up. So at the time, I’m first seeing it like that, you get a little nervous–people might not understand what this shit is all about. Language barriers, whatever. But now, it’s proven to beat that fear. It became the opposite. By becoming bigger, it didn’t lose its soul. So, the soul is still there. The knowledge is still there. Information age, internet, you can figure out anything. So, nothing’s gotten lost.
In the ’90s there was a premium placed on keeping it real and not selling out. It’s almost as if it’s the reverse now. We celebrate when artists do a big deal with a corporation or land a big commercial thing. What do you think about this shift?
Well, the keep it real thing was [more about] don’t be used and exploited by these companies. And that was happening a lot more back then. There were no real opportunities with brands. It was really one-offs, and it wasn’t a lot of money all the time. So, hip-hop became more about being entrepreneurs and being businessmen, record company owners. Then that mentality opened up to say, Okay, if I’m going to own my record company, I know what I’m making here. If this brand wants to work with me, I know my worth. And now, we can work. It’s cool now to be a business person because better deals are happening.
After being Grammy-nominated 13 times,, does winning one mean as much to you now as it would’ve, say, in 1997?
I don’t know what it would’ve felt like back then to get one. I felt like back then, it would’ve been dope to get one. I probably should have gotten one in the ’90s [laughs]. But at the same time, it makes it even better now because it shows that you’re still in it, if you put work out that you really care about. People can feel that in the music. They can feel how much you care about what you’re doing. And that appreciation is everything. So, getting it [last year], it was amazing.
Throughout all these episodes I’ve listened to so far, a topic returned to with all the guests is the pitfalls of “going Hollywood” — how people manage to evade it, or, in some cases, get caught up in it. What exactly does “going Hollywood” mean to you? What does that look like?
“Going Hollywood” is when you believe your news clippings, man. It’s when your head’s up in the air, and then you kind of sleep with your chain on, you know what I’m saying? You forget who you are, because you have to be this name now and this brand. And you don’t know when to turn it off. I see a lot of people who don’t know how to turn it off, and maybe that works for them. I’m not knocking nobody, but when it becomes something that rubbing everybody wrong, because you’re trying to live this character, you forget who you are.