Interview: Faith Newman On Nas, Illmatic And Def Jam : The Record The music exec who signed Nas to Columbia Records and helped make his debut album, the much-lauded Illmatic, on her path into the business and New York hip-hop in the '80s and '90s.
NPR logo Faith Newman: 'Who Is This Kid? And I Signed Him'

Faith Newman: 'Who Is This Kid? And I Signed Him'

Faith Newman in late 1993 or early '94 at Sony Studios with, from left to right, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Nas, Q-Tip and L.E.S. — all the producers on Illmatic except for Pete Rock. Courtesy of Faith Newman hide caption

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Courtesy of Faith Newman

Faith Newman in late 1993 or early '94 at Sony Studios with, from left to right, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Nas, Q-Tip and L.E.S. — all the producers on Illmatic except for Pete Rock.

Courtesy of Faith Newman

Faith Newman, who signed Nas to Columbia Records in the fall of 1991, tells Frannie Kelley about her path into the music business, her role in the making of Illmatic and parties — the one Rick Rubin threw her when she graduated from college, her 25th birthday party, which Grandmaster Flash DJed, the Roxy in '83, Union Square during the Bridge Wars, Nas' 40th, when he told Newman all he listens to is early '80s funk and a night at the Tunnel when she and Q-Tip just talked about Nas' lyricism for a whole hour.

FRANNIE KELLEY: You were at Def Jam before Columbia, right? What were you doing at Def Jam?

FAITH NEWMAN: I was at Def Jam in 1987.

That's amazing.

I know! Which is weird because I'm still so young.

I was in college; I was still at NYU when I got the job. Originally, I mean, there's more to the story about how I ended up at Def Jam — a couple internships that I had had — so the idea was, when they brought me in, that Rick and Russell had, was for me to start a publishing company for them. They didn't really know what it meant, but they knew that it was important. And why they picked me, they just said, "Because you're smart. You can do this." And, "Go meet with people and figure out what it is." And so that's kind of what I did.

The company wasn't really a company in the truest sense, you know. It was like, Russell was doing what Russell was doing; Rick lived upstairs from the office. There was no real business structure to the company so there was money just kind of pouring out. So basically what I did for the first six months that I was there was register all the songs with the copyright office. That hadn't been done. Sign up all of our artists with performing rights organizations, either with BMI or ASCAP. Started a PO system so that we knew where the money was going. It was just a lot of foundation work — and I was learning. I was 21 so I was learning as I went along, you know.

And I would sit with lawyers and I would sit with publishers and stuff and figure it out and apply what I learned to the company so that there was some structure because there wasn't really. I mean, them combined, you think about it, Rick and Russell never had real jobs. I think Russell worked at an Orange Julius for like a couple months.

That's right. The mythical Orange Julius.

The mythical, yes. But at the same time my thing was, I think part of the reason I got the job was that I was like this total music savant. And so that was always there even though I was setting up all these business systems for them, I was still contributing in terms of, you know, kind of on the A&R side. So I did that. I set that up, and within, you know, less than a year, I was head of A&R. It was crazy that you could do that back then.

And so I was overseeing basically everything A&R, whether it was creative or the business side of it too, or the administrative side of it. I think I finally got to hire someone to help me when we moved from Elizabeth Street to Broadway.

But none of it mattered. I would say that it was the best time of my life. In terms of hip-hop, it was so special back then because it was new in terms of becoming — I mean, it wasn't new new. But there was — it was becoming something bigger but it was still small enough that we were kind of like, it was a small world so everybody knew everybody. Everybody went to the same clubs, everybody. You'd go to Music Factory and there'd be the records on the wall and you'd go, "One, two, three, four, five," and you'd buy whatever was new and it was special. And you knew you were a part of something bigger.

I don't think anybody knew that it was gonna be as big as it became. Especially because we worked in an office — there was five of us at Def Jam and the office was about as big as the studio we're sitting in right now. We didn't even have enough phones for four people — we had two phones and three desks so we had to switch around and share. There was no heat in the building in the winter; we had no air conditioning. You used to watch the crackheads across the street — because this was Elizabeth Street then, this is not Elizabeth Street now. But it was the best. I finished school while I was still working for Def Jam, so I never slept, and Rick threw me a graduation party when I graduated college.

Tell me about that.

He was very quiet but very generous. And he was an NYU grad and I think that — their thing was that I was doing such great things for them, but at the same time, I needed to finish school. Which at one time I was deciding that I wasn't gonna do, but I ended up doing it because I was so close to finishing anyway.

What was your major?

I was in the business school, which is crazy. But I had started out — I applied to the music business program.

Which was so different then than it is now. And it was a lot of theory and I'm not a musician. I can hear the way, you know, what things should sound like; I can do mixes and stuff but I don't play. And that's really what it was about so I made this kind of snap decision that I'll just go to the business school, not even realizing what I was getting into. It's like Business Calculus and Operations Research and all this stuff — it was a little crazy.

Well, it's crazy that they ask us to make those decisions when we're 17.


What the hell do we know?

I know! All I know is I wanted to be in the music business! That's the only thing I knew from the time I was 14, so you know, I looked at it as a means to an end to be in New York and pursue my dreams.

Do you remember that moment when you realized you wanted to be in the business?

I was 14 and I used to love this group, The Cars. I mean, I was totally like souled out, s-o-u-l-e-d, from the time I was a little kid and really into R&B, really into everything, actually. And I loved The Cars. Their music is incredible. Their first two albums are just genius.

I was a freshman in high school and my brother, who was older — it was my first concert. It was at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, it was The Cars, and I was so excited to go and thinking I'm their biggest fan. And I get there, and I'm sitting in The Spectrum with 20,000 other people, and I'm like, "I don't like this at all." And I really said to myself, "I'm not going to be somebody who sits in the crowd. I'm going to be somebody who makes these things happen." Like, there has to be a way that these things happen, so somehow I have to be involved in that.

And so that was when I decided that's what I'll do with my life; it has to be music-centered somehow. And so, interestingly, I thought, well, concert promotion. That's what I'll do because that was my first, that was the experience. So I got an internship with Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia, and when The Cars came through in like, I guess it was like '84 or something, I was working backstage, so it was kind of, you know, kind of all came around.

I got to be there at Marvin Gaye's last concert. I'm so thankful that I was there. And that was the moment. So, I was completely, it was like laser focused, blinders on, I will not do anything else with my life. I'll go on welfare before I'll take like a regular job — that was how I felt about it. And people would say, "You have to have a back-up plan; you have to do this." I'm like, "Why? Other people are doing it. Why shouldn't I do it?"

That makes total sense why Russell would hire you.

Yeah. Yeah!

When you said that hip-hop back then felt like a small group — did that feel New York City specific to you?

Totally. And it was. It wasn't, you know, the West Coast hadn't emerged yet as like a superpower, and the South, forget it. There was no — I mean, you had the stuff going on in Miami with Luke but it was all New York centric. That's where all the records were, all the artists were coming out of. So, yes. I grew up in Philadelphia and it was like 90 miles from New York, but there was no scene there. We had a small one. But yes, it was all about New York hip-hop.

And the New York clubs and the different party nights that everybody went to. And it's funny, you just see the same people everywhere you went.

And in that crew, you said people felt like they were a part of something bigger. What do you mean?

I don't know if it's necessarily bigger, but something important. Unless it's like, because you're young, you think you're important. You know, everything you do is important.

But it felt like — because it was getting to the point where — after disco kind of burnt out, you had in the early '80s really good funk stuff, which is what I'm totally into. And they called it "black radio" — they didn't call it urban then — and the chart and Billboard said, "black music." And so it was this old school kind of model and that dominated radio. And radio was very resistant to playing any hip-hop at all. And so it almost became "us against them" kind of thing. And the truth of the matter is, if it wasn't for hip-hop, I don't know that I would have gotten into the industry in the way that I did, at the age that I did.

So it was a generational battle?

It was totally a generational and cultural shift. And it's because you felt like there was this tidal wave and the mainstream was pushing back, you know. And it was like, "We're part of the new wave and we're gonna be taking over."

Right, in some ways, if there had been less resistance, people wouldn't have pushed so much.

Right, exactly. There were literally radio stations who refused to play any rap. And that was another reason why it was New York centric because you had the shows at night. You had Chuck Chillout and you had Mr. Magic, and you had your own special time on the radio.

And it was in the middle of the night.

And it was in the middle of the night, but it still was there. And I think that's why it became a youth culture takeover kind of thing. We knew, and we felt that, and I think that that's the reason why Public Enemy did so well. You just felt like there was no message anymore; it had just become stale.

I interned at Columbia Records before I got the job at Def Jam and talk about throwback. I mean, the people at the major labels were still operating like it was the late '70s at Casablanca Records or something. It was very misogynistic. I never would have gotten a job there, you know.

But it was through hip-hop — it was like the great equalizer. I could be white and female and be the first female hired at Def Jam and it didn't make people like, throw a fit about it. It was like, "Oh, yeah, she's hip-hop; she's been doing this." Because I was at the clubs early on and Union Square and Rooftop and Latin Quarter. I was in a rap group at one point.

Hold up, hold up, hold up.

I know. I lived the life. It was a short-lived period of my life.

It's OK. I used to freestyle. It's the most embarrassing part of my past.

See, there you go, you gotta love it.

Because what also happened in '79 — I used to go roller skating and I heard "Rapper's Delight." I guess I was 13 — so it was before the concerts. I heard "Rapper's Delight" when I was roller skating and it was a moment of clarity like, "This is the most incredible thing I've ever heard. What is this?" And then it became — I was on a mission to figure it out and find more. I ended up getting some cassette tapes from some person who knew some people and my friend in Jersey who knew some people in New York so I got to hear Spoonie Gee and Funky Four Plus One and Sequence and all that stuff.

So what happened between '87 and the '90s — what happened during that transition where more money starts coming in and --

I think the big turning point was the Run D.M.C.-Adidas deal. That was big for the times because you had a major brand teaming up with a hip-hop act, you know.

Who set that up?

Lyor. I'm talking like '80s — '86, '87. It starts to feel bigger and then it starts to feel commercial and then you're feeling the power of it and that's when the shift really starts pushing in the other direction.

What do you mean in the other direction?

In terms of, this kind of old school, urban thing and then hip-hop. And I don't even think we really said hip-hop then. Rap; it's rap. Hip-hop was more; hip-hop really isn't just rap. It's become a catchall but hip-hop was a lifestyle and hip-hop was break dancing and graffiti and all the early stuff.

It's starting to get airplay. And the notice it was getting — the attention that it was getting — the Tipper Gore thing that happened with the 2 Live Crew. I think it showed, like they're trying to stem the tide.

I think what was important was that there was this feeling. I remember Chuck D saying early on that rap is the CNN for young people — this is where they get their information from because they're not getting the information that they want or need and we're giving it to them. You had "The Message" that came out, and that was — there's so many turning points but I guess when it starts to become — the idea that it could actually make money was a relatively new thing.

Is that a good thing or is there any negativity associated with that?

The negativity in terms of calling people "commercial sell-outs" didn't come 'til much later. It was still too kind of young for that. It was more when I think people felt like people were taking advantage of its popularity to do something really pop, you know.

Like what?

Well, you had Vanilla Ice. Who else? Some of the Kwame, like some of the really like cutesy stuff, you know. And then you start hearing it, like rap used McDonald's commercials.

The Sprite commercials.

The Sprite commercials.

St. Ides commercials.

That I kind of understood. I used to drink Olde English myself. Yeah, it definitely became this — it went from being this feeling like you were in this kind of protected little cool bubble into something that was becoming much bigger than any of us.

A couple people I remember came over from London to the Def Jam office and they were shocked cause they thought we were so big and they walk into this little room and it's like, "Oh, that's interesting." But we didn't need very much, you know. We got stuff done. There were good people there.

Tell me a little bit more about the clubs.

Well, early on in '86, you had Latin Quarter, which was where a lot of people had their first performance. Public Enemy did their first show there, the first live performance there. Latin Quarter was great. I was there the last night when they finally decided to shut it down. What wasn't great was the things that happened. I mean, there was no gun violence then but there was chain snatching and fights and things would happen and then they just decided it was too much.

There was Union Square, which was really fun. Union Square was big during the Bridge Wars, so you would literally have Bronx and Brooklyn on two different floors so, like, Bronx would be downstairs and Brooklyn would be upstairs.

There would be fights, people would come off the railing. I mean, it was very serious. But great, great shows. All of the people I remember, you know, Biz Markie, Just-Ice, KRS-One, Shan obviously — it would have been good if they had done a thing right on stage, but that would have been disastrous. So Union Square was great.

And then we had The World, which was on Wednesday nights or Thursday nights, which was amazing. That was the first time that Big Daddy Kane performed, at The World. And then there were nights like, there were moving parties, like Payday, Milkway, those kinds of places that were just for those nights.

There was the Rooftop up in Harlem, which I went to once and there's just a lot of robbery going on there so I was like, "I'm good." That place got robbed a lot. There was Nell's Monday night. That was a big place for us hip-hop people to go to.

The first club that I came to — just to backtrack for a second — when I was 16, I thought Philly was the big city when I was growing up. And I was so into hip-hop, I took the Greyhound bus to New York. I didn't tell my parents; I told them I was staying at a friend's house. And I came to New York with my friend, my girlfriend, and we went to The Roxy.

Uh, make me want to cry. And I walked in and it was Bambaataa was DJing and Planet Patrol performed that night and Rock Steady was there and it was this dream of — there was this plexiglass thing that graffiti artists were tagging. And I was like, in heaven. It was amazing. And so at least I feel like I got to experience that when it was really happening because it was like '83.

Can you contrast that with performances in '92, '93?

What was interesting was the earlier stuff was more theatrical. Like you had Kane with Scoob and Scrap and the dancing. And you had, it was kinda like a holdover from old school performing.

Like R&B group performing?

Right, exactly. By the time you got to like '92, '93, it was just a bunch of motherf---ers on stage with like 30 people and their posse.

And 30 mics.

And the guys in the back and you can't even see 'em. But I think that that was — again, that was a function of how different the times had become. Because it was more — I don't know if nihilistic was the word, but it was. It became deeper and it became less about the performance itself than about the lyrics and what they were saying, what they were talking about.

Like the stories became more personal?

Exactly. And a little, and darker, you know, and not happy, dancey stuff so much. Public Enemy wasn't happy, dancey, but they had a show and they had S1Ws and they had this and they had Terminator X and they had all this stuff that was more theatric. When you had Wu and all these people that came out, it just became not that anymore.

Why? When did you notice the change?

I noticed the change because — by '91, I think that things had become commercialized; a lot of stuff had. It didn't feel substantive, as much.

The times were changing, and we were going through a recession again. And the other thing — the weird thing is that the crack culture that peaked in the late '80s, the whole, you know, New Jack City -- it almost was — it was bad but there was almost this fascination with it that made it, like, Hollywood-ish.

And then it was like, "Oh, but s---. This is really bad." Bad things are really happening to people. And these kids who went on to be bigger in the early '90s who were younger, were — they were witnessing some really bad stuff. It was almost like, you know what, it's not a movie anymore; this is real.

The economy was faltering and you're coming out of the Reagan years and the Bush years. I just think that the New York scene at that time became wise beyond their years in this new kind of way of looking at things in a seriousness of what was really happening. And that's when I really felt the shift, yeah.

No more dancing.

So what was then the anticipation that was happening in '91? Do you remember when you first heard "Live at the Barbeque"?

Yes. I was in a car. Yeah. I don't remember who I was with or where we were going — I know for a fact that we were right near Astor Place somewhere because I remember it clearly because that's when I heard Nas' — Nasty Nas' — verse. Oh my god, I can even remember it was like this really grey day. I have these moments are kind of seared in my memory and that's when you knew it was serious.

And Main Source's album is a departure in itself. Breaking Atoms, which is an interesting title if you think about it, in terms of what was going on. I never really thought about that until now.

What do you mean?

Breaking Atoms -- changing the molecular structure of hip-hop. It kind of bridged it — like you had, "Looking at the Front Door," but you had Pauly — you had Large Professor — they just come out in their Carhartt jackets. They walk out of their building and they're making a video. It was posse cuts. It wasn't — it was no joke stuff anymore.

Even "Looking at the Front Door," that's like, "Bye!"

Yeah, exactly. And it was thoughtful. You know, that song came out on my 25th birthday. I had Grandmaster Flash DJ my 25th birthday party; I used to throw some amazing parties.

I can't.

I really did, back in the day. And that song had just come out — the single had come out in advance of the album. And I had him play that like 10 times that night; I was so in love with that song, oh my god. Yeah, my parties were epic in my 20s. I stopped doing that.

Alright, so you hear "Live at the Barbeque" in '91, you're in the car and you know it means something different and that's while Vanilla Ice and Hammer and all them are popping. And you're like, "Oh, this is" --

Right, see, I forgot Hammer. That's when the real backlash started. It was like, "We had this thing. It was special. It was different; it was unique. People co-opted it, they made it, you know, little bubblegum whatever and they took away the essence of what made it so special. They're not rappers." And so it was — I think that the reaction was, "We've gotta bring it back."

So then there's nothing new for a while? He's quiet?

Yeah, exactly. Well, you hear him on that record like I did and you freak out, like, who is this kid? And I signed him. I signed him in the end of '91. That was when I started at Columbia.

How'd you find him?

I had been looking for him. And I asked Pauly — Large Professor — to introduce me. He said he was young, he's kind of — he wanted me to talk to Akinyele and I was like, "I like Ak, but it's this kid."

It was my transition from Def Jam to Columbia. I left Def Jam in July of '91 and I started at Columbia in September of '91, so I missed this little window. Apparently — what he says now is they had gone to Def Jam, they wanted to meet with me, I had left.

All I know is I was in my office — this was in October of '91, so I'd only been there a short time and Serch, my buddy Serch, came to see me and he said, "You know that kid Nas you've been looking for?" Nasty Nas, nobody said Nas back then. And I was like, "Yeah." And he was like, "I've got his demo." And I'm like "Ah!" So I had the two-song demo, which was, "It Ain't Hard to Tell," original version — a different version than what ended up on the album — and a song called "Just Another Day in the Projects."

And basically, you know, I lost it and I went down the hall to my boss, the head of the A&R department, David Kahne, and I said, "Look." I said, "You don't ever have to let me sign anything else while I'm here, but you've gotta let me sign this kid." He was like, "OK. Alright." And that's how it happened.

But it took a minute to get things together.

And do you remember when you first met him? Tell me that story.

Aw, he was so cute.

How old was he?

Let's see. I guess he was 18? Yeah. At that time we were still in the CBS building, which was very corporate looking, you know. And he came to see me and it was cold and I remember he had a hoodie on and this big Bubble Goose. And he's sitting in front of me — he wasn't looking at me and I'm like talking to him and he's like, like shy — really shy. Really shy being in that building and talking to me, I don't know. And so finally — I'm trying to break the ice and I'm joking with him, whatever, and finally he's like, "So, you're like that girl in Wild Style."

What? Stop it. He did! He was joking.

And I was like, "Uh, not really." He said, "I'm just kidding." And he started laughing and that's how we broke the ice. Because I was talking all about hip-hop records and this and that and he's trying to take it all in and then he's like, "Oh, OK." So that was the first time. He was a sweetheart — still is.

Did you guys talk about what else was going on in hip-hop and how you were gonna position him or how he --

I didn't want to — the weirdest thing is — I was 25 at the time, but I wanted him to stay, to do just what he did. I heard those demos and I was like, seriously, this kid is a poet and he's a genius and he's something special. So I didn't have this grand plan for what I thought we should do with him — I just wanted people to hear him. And so it was gonna be a matter of putting him on the right tracks and then everything else would just fall into place.

Did he think he was a big deal?

No. He was always surprised — and it was genuine — that people thought he was such a genius. He's remained humble to this day in a lot of ways and he just didn't — it's like Premier telling me or Large telling me that he was always worried about his lyrics and asking them over and over and changing stuff. You'd be listening to some of the stuff he would say and your mouth just hanging open and he doesn't even — you're looking at him like, "Where is this coming from?" You know, "Your references and your literary references and the way you paint these pictures?" He didn't think he was that special.

He was a big reader, right?

Yes, big reader.

Would you guys talk about books ever?

Yeah, but he would read anything, whether it was — he would read about Copernicus. He would read science and philosophy. He didn't even finish high school but he was — he didn't need to because he was smart, already, and he just had this bigger worldview. And I think part of that — I mean, his dad had a big influence on him in a lot of ways and his dad took him to see Wild Style.

There you go.

That was what we started bonding over because we both loved Wild Style. He was really cute. You know, it was funny, at his birthday party D-Nice was DJing and all he was playing was early '80s funk stuff, which is my favorite s--- ever and I'm like, "Why are you playing this?" Like not one hip-hop record. And he's like, "That's what Nas wants to hear." So I go over to him and I'm like, "Nasir. You never told me you liked this music." He said, "It's all I listen to."

I think it's coming back in a big way.

I hope so.

There's a turf war over this idea of back in the day, golden era, lyrical, the poet idea of rap against this, "We don't need to abide by your rules. We are anti-lyrical. Or post-lyrical."

Yeah, we're going for ours: money, money, money.

Do you have any opinion on that? Do you think that argument is flawed in any way?

I think that every generation thinks that they invented something. And I think that there would be no this generation of rappers if there wasn't the golden age because it did change the game forever, in the same way that the West Coast changed the game for evil, not good. No, I'm just kidding.

So biased.

Don't get me started on that. No, I have my own theories about that stuff. But I think it ultimately — it saved hip-hop because it would have just imploded off of the ridiculous commerciality of it with the Hammer and all that stuff. And it saved it in terms of making it a really viable art form — art.

It's hard to say. I'm old school. I am from that era so it's easy for me to say, "It was better. It was this, it was that." Part of that is nostalgia. But if I really have to A/B this stuff, lyrically — I think Lil' Wayne's a good lyricist. I'll give it up for him for that, even though a lot of what he says is — that's the other thing, too. What's happened to hip-hop in terms of the misogyny and the stripper culture and how hip-hop has boiled down to a woman's ass. You can't deny that that's the reality of what it is. So in that sense I would say that back in the day was better because it was more — the breadth of what was being talked about was a little wider.

It's like the pictures I sent you. The girls, we used to dress like guys, kind of. We wore baggy jeans and we wore Carhartt jackets or overalls and we wore Timberlands — everybody wore Timberlands — and our beepers in our pocket. We would mix it up, like you would have a tight top on so you would look like a girl but you would have your baggy jeans on. I would think that that was a little more equalizing in terms of male-female — it's really become very one-dimensional now, which I think is kind of sad.

Let me go back to the '90s — '91 is "Barbeque," '92 is "Halftime" and "Back to the Grill," '93 is "It Ain't Hard to Tell" with the video, the Ralph McDaniels shot.

On a very cold day.

With the way that you rolled those out and with the video, did you feel like you were setting it up for him to knock it down or was it more like — were you feeding? Were people asking for this?

People were asking for him. And we didn't want him to be gone so long because there was such a demand for him. I knew that the album was gonna take a while, cause it was taking a while, and I felt like he needed something out there. He needed his visuals out there and we needed to keep people engaged 'til the album dropped.


How did you know there was a demand?

You felt it on the streets. People talked about it, people asked about him, people wrote about him, you know, it was a different time. There was no Internet. But again, it's still — the culture of New York hip-hop was still kinda small and everybody knew everybody. It's the same thing that carried over.

I would go out and people would ask me all the time. Or Large would be out and people would ask him all the time, or Serch, like, "What's going on with Nas? What's up with Nas? What's up with Nas?"

And he had already cemented this — he was mythic before he even put his first single out.


Well, I think he became mythic off of "Live at the Barbeque."

People were stunned. And then we tease 'em with one song, and then we put the other one out. And we almost didn't get to put out "It Ain't Hard to Tell" because there were sample issues, which we resolved. But we had to keep it moving.

And the truth of the matter is, you know, the record came out in April of '94 but it wasn't finished.

Because it leaked.

Yes, badly.

What happened?

Those days — there would be 30 or some people in the studio, so you never knew who was coming in and out. It took so long to make the record. We'd book sessions and nothing would happen. It was kind of a little bit of a too loose of an environment.

The bootlegging thing had really taken off at that point and it just got out there. It became viral in the way that you can become viral without having the Internet. And everybody had it — all over the world, even.

By February of '94, it was just done, and we had to pull the trigger. Just like, we gotta go. We got nine songs — nine and the intro — that I did. Had to pay homage to Wild Style. We didn't have a choice.

In retrospect, it's kind of cool that it's a short album now because it's so — every song is perfect. There's no filler. But we were in the process of cutting more songs when we put it out.

I think ultimately Nas was disappointed that it just went gold. I mean, it's platinum now, but you know, it took a while.


It just made me think of something, too, about how Nas didn't think he was ever — didn't understand why people were like, worshiping him. He had his first in-store when the album came out and we drive up and there's like 1,000 people there and he's just like — he couldn't believe it. He didn't think — it shocked him that all these people would come out to see him, you know.

Where was it?

It was somewhere downtown but now I'm blanking out. It might have been Tower, when Tower was there on Broadway.

So what is the economic — class — racial, gender breakdown of people on that line?

Oh, that's a good question. It was extremely diverse. It wasn't just one thing. It was a pretty wide spectrum — not age-wise, but racially. And male and female. I think a lot of females thought he was cute, but you know. They liked the record, too.

Ralph told me that was a key component of the "Ain't Hard to Tell" video.

Oh, how cute he is?

He's like, "We gotta get that face in there."

Gotta get that face, yep. There's the little chip-toothed smile.

There it is. Was it your job to bring in the producers on Illmatic? What kind of tracks were you trying to get to him and why those people?

Those people represented the best of New York. It was just perfect. Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor — they were the quintessential New York producers and they understood him and they were gonna give him what he wanted. And, really, Nas knew what he wanted. I mean, he would hear stuff — I'll be the first one to admit, when I first heard "N.Y. State of Mind," I was like, the track — and then when he did it, I was like, "Oh, I get it." Because I tend to be more melodic.

Why? Because it's dusty?

Yeah, because I love like, "Memory Lane." I'm a girly girl with that stuff. I definitely tend towards the more musical stuff. I listen to Wu do "C.R.E.A.M." or "Can It Be All So Simple" before "Protect Ya Neck," even though I get it. I get the hardcore stuff, you know.

But he gets it, too. And he knew which track would work for him. But his process was — and he would change up a lot of stuff. I know that he asked Premier to change, I don't know how many different versions they did of "Represent."

He had him change it like a thousand times. Nas would come in with the lyric and Preemo would have an idea for a loop and he would play it and Nas would be like, "Pfft, no." And Preemo would be like, "Alright. This would work but, you know, whatever." And Nas definitely knew what he wanted to hear. He wasn't passive about rhyming on anything. And that's why the album took so long, because he had to be inspired.

And I probably told this story a thousand times but there's one night in the studio where — a lot of times, we'd book a session and he just wouldn't show up. There was a lot of that. Sometimes he'd show up and he'd have his whole crew, his whole Queensbridge crew with him, and nothing would get done.

Sometimes he'd show up, like he did this particular night, and then just decide that he had to leave. And this particular night, I just got really mad. I was just like, "We're never gonna finish this album." But he had left a lyric, he had a yellow legal pad there with lyrics on it and I started reading it and I was like, "Oh, my. Take your time. Do whatever you need to do. You're a genius. I'm not gonna rush you." And really it was kinda that deep.

So that time for you was trying to get --

The album done, yeah. Yeah. It was hard trying to get him to the studio. He had a couple shows, that was crazy. Lots of things happened. One of the incidents that happened during a show was how he almost got dropped from the label, which I had to intercede.

What happened?

I didn't even know the true story 'til two years ago, Rock the Bells. He had his very first show at this club called Muse — this was after "Halftime" had come out. And we sent a car service to pick him up in the Bridge with Jungle and some other people with him. And Jungle had a gun. And I always thought it fell out of his pocket and the guy with the car service turned it into the police. But what Jungle told me was that he asked the driver to hold it for him. And so — I was like, "Oh, smart."

Anyway, the driver turned it into the police; it became a whole incident. Jungle called the car company, threatening them, yada, yada, yada. I got called into the President's office of the label, saying, "We can't have this ish here, I'm not gonna have this. I'm not gonna have the police." And I just said, "What do you think you're signing onto here? First of all, he didn't do this. Second of all, this is where he comes from. You can't have it both ways. He's talking about what he knows and where he's from and you knew what you were getting into. So what would you like to happen now?" And they were very close to pulling the plug on the whole thing.

And they didn't. So that was good.

Do you think some of that is why — you told me that you were surprised that the whole industry wasn't going after him after "Live at the Barbeque." Do you think that that was the business scared by the Bridge?

It's interesting. I never thought of that. I was never scared by it. You're never scared by the Bridge if you go there in the daytime. Nighttime was something else. Yeah, maybe. I think there was this sense — a lot of what people said was he sounded like G-Rap. Their thing was the verse maybe was more a fluke.

Got it.

And not so much that he was this Messiah that people ended up calling him. Again, it was that time. It was pre-Wu — I actually tried to sign Wu-Tang, too, when I was at Columbia, but that's another story. The same person who wanted me to drop Nas told me he thought that they were bulls---, so, whatever. I think it was that hip-hop was in the process of trying to figure it out because the Main Source album was really an aberration at the time. So people were still trying to figure out where things were going.

And I just, I go with my gut. To a fault sometimes, I'm very artist-centric. I don't, it's not like I toe the company line all the time. I just heard this kid and I was like, "Ah, gotta have him!" Not even thinking like how do you — maybe they were thinking like, "So what? How do you make a record with this kid?" Or like, "How are you gonna do this? How are you gonna do that?" Just because he has one good verse. I just got lucky that he didn't get snatched up.

It was pretty stressful.

Yeah, it was, actually. It was cause I wanted the world to hear him. I didn't expect that everybody would before it was ready, but I definitely felt a sense of urgency, of keeping him relevant, of making an impact, of knowing how special it was.

Like, I got to hear this stuff. I remember standing in The Tunnel with Q-Tip one night and I think we talked about Nas for like an hour straight, just his lyrics and his this and his that and it was — so I definitely felt the frustration of wanting it to be done. And him moving at his own pace — at his Nas pace, which I understood eventually. The money was just — wasted money on studio. I had to be cognizant of that stuff, too. I didn't have a blank check.

Didn't that money go against his sales, too?


He spent — he lost that money.

Well, that's how record companies work: we're gonna front you the money but we're taking it off of your bottom line.

Can you describe what set him apart?

I think that he was a storyteller. I mentioned the way that hip-hop started was this very kind of boastful and — stylistically and delivery-wise, it was very showy. He just laid back in the cut and you just picture him. It's almost like he's sitting in his window and he talks about everything he sees going on below him. And it's so effortless — in the sense that things rhyme, but you don't even think about that. I mean, "One Love" is so genius, because he tells this story but there's nothing, there's nothing — I use this word again, theatric, or showy about it. It's like, "I'm telling you this story," and it all flows. And he manages to make it rhyme and he manages to keep to his 16 bars or whatever, and make it sound effortless as if he's having a conversation with him.

And you can dance to it. That's the craziest part about that album to me, sometimes.

Yeah, yeah. The fact that it all ties together in its rhymes and its spacing is like secondary. You don't even realize it because you're not even necessarily focused on that. Rakim was really the first one to do that. I saw similarities between them because Rakim advanced hip-hop because he was thoughtful and intelligent and a storyteller and came up with the cleverest s---, and so he advanced the lyricism. I think Nas just took that as, he wasn't trying to be boastful or to show out or whatever. He was just gonna say what he needed to say. And he painted these pictures in the same way that Biggie did that were vivid. You didn't have to know the Bridge. You didn't have to know him, but you knew you could get the visual just the same.

Right. Yeah. It's intimate.

Very intimate. Exactly.

Would you equate your worrying and wanting someone to change the game — be the Messiah — back then with the way that people talk about Kendrick?

That's what it is. See, that would justify my theory. It's like, if he was back in the golden day and he did the verse that he did --

The "Control" verse?

People would be like, "Eh, it's alright. It's cool."

But because the idea of it is such a throwback — like, yeah, it is about lyrical skills: "Oh my god," you know. I was really encouraged by it, because I think people were really hungry for it. It seemed so, so refreshing. And I'm thrilled that he's out there and I hope he stays just where he is.

And there's other stuff, too, that encourages me. I'm not mad at ASAP Rocky. I like a lot of the young kids right now, like Joey Badass. What's interesting about those kids is that their whole thing is that they were born in the '90s but they worship the '90s. Like they love Black Moon. That era to them is really special and so that's encouraging to me.

It is amazing to me that an album that is 20 years old still resonates with people. You could play Illmatic now and it still holds up. I'm not just saying that cause my name is on the record. It does. There's a lot of hip-hop you could listen to now and you're like, "Oh my god, that's so corny. I can't believe I liked that record." Like Super Lover Cee, it's so corny and the lyrics are so corny. You can appreciate it for the time that it was out — my favorite scene in Wild Style is Cold Crush live at the Dixie. But that's how people rhymed then, what they rhymed about.

But you could listen to Nas' stuff now and it's never gonna sound old. It's never gonna sound like that, like, "Oh my god it's so corny. Remember when people did that in the '90s?" That and 36 Chambers and Enta da Stage.

Yeah, it sounds fresh. There's no question about that.

F-r-e-s-h. Fresh, fresh, fresh. There's been a bunch that I've seen that either lifts something, use it as their hook in their songs — for a 9-song album, it gets a lot of wear.