Back to the grill again…again
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For the first time, Nas and Large Professor sit down to discuss their similarities and, more importantly, their differences—and how what once drove them apart has now brought them back together. By Noah Callahan-Bever.
Friends. How many of us have them? Real friends. Not the origami-type that fold under pressure. I’m talking about the kind that’ll stand by you no matter what happens. Whether you’re on top or on the bottom, gassed or humble, riding or dying. Nas—rap’s most profound yet conflicted voice—has a real friend in rappin’ producer Large Professor. Large has watched Nas bloom right under his wing—from teenaged apprentice to MTV superstar. Though the friends took opposite roads in the late ‘90s—Nas desperately reaching for mass appeal while LP shunned even his underground audience—Large maintains that he’s quietly stood behind God’s son the whole while. And vice versa.
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Once upon a time in Queens (so you know its gonna be a good story), 17-year-old William Paul Mitchell—the live guy with glasses known as Large Professor or Extra P—was met on the steps of John Bowne High School by 16-year-old wanna-be rapper, Nasir “Nasty Nas” Jones. That night the adolescent rap legends traveled by cab to a small recording studio deep in Flatbush, Brooklyn named Sty In The Sky and Nas put his hoarse voice unto a two-inch reel for the first time. “Lyrically III,” the demo they tracked that night, may never have made it out of the vault, but Nas’s revolutionary mixture of Rakim’s depth, Kool G Rap’s knowledge of street lore and Ice Cube’s shocking lyricism was enough to convince Large that he was looking at the future of rap.
Less than a year after their introduction, Nas, a lyrical (black) panther by any measure, was let out of the cage by Large Professor and his then-new group Main Source via their debut long player Breaking Atoms. The album’s rugged, bare-bones posse cut “Live At The Barbeque” would eventually lead the kid from Queensbridge housing projects down the road to the riches. Over an unrelenting drum loop, Nas, the self-styled “rebel to America” caused a hysteria, spitting the most auspicious debut in hip hop history.
Though busy extricating himself from Main Source (sometimes, business gets personal) Large Pro, in ’93, oversaw Nas’s meticulous debut, Illmatic [Columbia, ‘94]. But rather than produce the entire album himself (customary at the time), LP instead introduced Nas to the other best producers in the rap game: DJ Premier and Pete Rock to name a few. The result? Nas made nine of the best songs ever and almost every rapper-driven album released in Illmatic’s wake has tried to emulate its multifarious formula of A-list producers.
But the fast friends came to a fork in the road in ’95. Under self-applied pressure to compete commercially, Nas abandoned Illmatic’s winning recipe in search of pop hits and thug love. The results? He shot to the top of the charts, earning platinum plaques with three Large Professor-less albums, each worse than the last. Hardcore fans questioned if the street’s disciple was fakin’ the funk and speculate why he’d treat his mentor like a burnt piece of bacon. Meanwhile, Geffen, in 1996, aborted Large Professor’s three-year delinquent solo album, The LP, due to its dated sound. Disgusted with the industry, Large pulled a Darkman and inexplicably disappeared into the ‘hood.
A decade after meeting on those steps in Flushing, the two reunited for Stillmatic [Columbia, ‘01], Nas’ much needed return to his roots, and again they made history. Having reconciled their own personal and professional issues—and their issues with each other—the two brothers are back on the same page and ready to rock. Large Professor has finally released the follow-up to Breaking Atoms, 1st Class [Matador], to critical acclaim. And Nas made a compelling argument that he never fell off with The Lost Tapes [Columbia], a collection of tracks that escaped his mediocre late ‘90s offerings. Ironically, the two are camped out in the internationally recognized home of pop, Orlando, Florida, putting the finishing touches on Nas’s sixth and possibly most focused offering, God’s Son [Columbia].
Despite their frantic recording schedule, Large Professor stepped away from his SP1200 and Nas put down his one mic, taking a moment to address their long-lasting friendship and the state of hip hop union, because the love they have for one another and the love they have for rap are one in the same. One love, dummy!
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Nas, what did you learn from Large Professor in your first meetings?
Nas: When I saw him, being 17-years-old, producing those…not no bullshit tracks, I saw what rap music was going to become. He helped me because I only knew half of what was going on. I knew about the pen touching the paper. Paul knew that too, but he also knew to tell me, “Don’t say this. Take that out. Why would you say this? That makes you look crazy! This word don’t make no sense.” He taught me everything during the downtime of the [Eric B. & Rakim] Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em sessions. That was a hell of a lookout for me. I was just dreaming of doing it, but he had it all mapped out. I mean, just look at the album cover to Breaking Atoms. That is one of the best album covers in the history of all music. But it’s funny, ‘cause I saw him working on Rakim and G Rap’s albums but I was wondering where his [Main Source] records were at. He was doing them, but it was mysterious, like, “When and where is he recording them?”
Large Professor: [laughs] Word, word. Me on the mic, the people that we was around at that time wasn’t really embracing me. I had to go off in the cut. I’d try and slip my stuff up in there and they’d be like, “What is Paul playing?” I was like, “Watch, yo. One day you’ll see.” Word.
Nas, does Extra P still help edit your rhymes?
N: Nah, not really. I don’t even care no more. I just go with what I’m feeling. But he still comes around and tells me when he’s not feeling something.
LP: [laughing] Word, I do. And he’ll be like, “I’m not trying to hear you right now, Mad scientist-ass mutha…”
Even though Nas just writes what he feels, Extra P, one gets the feeling that you still spend a lot of time with your rhymes…
LP: I always felt like people were on some “Paul’s cool with the beats, but on the mic…this, that, and the other.” And when you’re around guy [Nas], G Rap, and Rakim, you can’t come half way. Not then and not in 2002 either. I definitely put mad effort into the mic game.
Nas, do you see a connection between your pervasive but subtle political content and that of Large Professor on Breaking Atoms?
N: Me and Paul have a lot of things in common and one of them is the way we look at life. And the way we look at life is on Breaking Atoms, which is timeless album. It has more substance than [most albums] today. “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball!!!” “Peace is Not The Word to Play” is one of the strongest rap songs ever. No, let me rephrase that, it is one of the strongest songs ever. Just listen to what he’s saying on that record. And then he gives you a long break and scratches, cuts; it’s hip hop shit. It’s a real wrecker.
LP: Around that time and even to this day we stand around building about the world. We used to have ciphers talking about the Illuminati and things like that. And it definitely comes through in the music. It’s not forced, like, we’re trying to sound inclined—these are things we speak about on an everyday basis.
What was your relationship like during the creation of Illmatic?
N: Back then I knew that the only place for me to be was right under Paul’s wing. I was like, “Please! Executive produce my album.” And he said, “Yo, my shit isn’t even straight.” He was in so much shit trying to get out of Main Source and straighten out his deal that he didn’t want me to get stuck in all the shit. He couldn’t handle it so I ended up with [MC] Serch. But even then, Paul was with me and he had to scream on Serch and almost smack the shit out of him. That was the same time that Paul introduced me to my baby’s mother, [Carmen], my man Van’s sister. It was all family back then.
After all the accolades of Illmatic, why didn’t you work with Large Professor when it came time for It Was Written?
N: That was the scariest moment of my life. B.I.G. came out and went platinum and changed the game. He was doing what we were doing, looping up samples like “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” but he had the visuals to got with it. And the focus.
At the same time the rap game started getting flooded up. Wu Tang and everybody was doing their thing and it had me kind of nervous because I didn’t want to make another Illmatic. I didn’t want to be a porkchop nigga and keep making the same album. I think you’re supposed to take the challenge and grow. I said, “How am I going to do this?” I was calling Paul but I couldn’t get no calls back. Paul’s a mysterious dude. Sometimes you be calling him…you can be calling him with a check, but you can’t reach him. He’ll get to you when life allows.
So, at that time, I was becoming something, and I got sucked into [making a pop album] because I couldn’t go in half way, I had to go in all the way. And when I was in all the way I couldn’t see outside of where I was at.
Paul, what was going on when you disappeared?
LP: Well, just a lot of bugging out. Drinking, getting high, just puffin’ my weed man. Just chillin’. I wasn’t focused, I really wasn’t focused.
How did you feel watching Nas do the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th albums without you?
LP: I felt like that man had his own foundation and I was part of the beginning of that. I never felt any…a lot of people used to try and get me [to be mad at Nas], saying, “Damn man, son ain’t shining right.” I would say, “You can’t even talk to me about that man, kid, because you don’t even know.” When you see the Breaking Atoms cover you see the needle touching the record and you don’t see one big ball, you see many, many atoms breaking off. Nas is one of them. It’s weak when you feel like somebody owes you something. You are weak as a person, I don’t care if you’re doing music or not. That man had his foundation and he was building on his foundation. I always knew we would clique up and that it would be grand so I was just sitting back and listening to how he was stepping it up. I ain’t gonna front, though, with some of the beats, I’d be like, “Nah man, that beat right there…nah.” Word.
N: And also during those times, you would come through and play beats and track joints. But I would have so many records them ended up being [held until] Stillmatic.
“You Da Man,” right?
N: Yeah. So we was always connecting and rhyming. At times I was like, “My nigga’s crazy! This nigga’s bugging out.” Fuck rap music because this has nothing to do with rap music. I used to think he was bugging out on the world, ‘cause he would say, “Fuck everybody!”
LP: [Laughing] Word, word.
N: But no matter what it was it was always like, “I’m gonna get at my nigga, cause that’s my nigga for real, no matter what her says.”
LP: And you know, no matter what, when I picked up his albums it always said, “[Thanks] Large Professor.” For me, that was him saying, “I still got you, I still got you on my mind.” And that was all I needed.
On many songs on The Lost Tapes, especially “Black Zombie,” there is a theme of regret…
N: Nah, I just talk about what’s going on in my life. I rap so it comes out on my records. I’ve been through a lot of shit in the music game, and I’ve seen a lot of things, so it comes out in the music. I don’t think that those records are gonna be chart toppers. I just think they are gonna be songs. If somebody likes it, if one muthafucka understands, that’s golden to me. I just told Paul that sometimes I don’t know how the fuck I go platinum.
Why is that?
N: My rhymes style is very underground, it’s very wordy. I can make records that are radio friendly, but my rhymes are a bunch of words put together. My flow is…Sometimes I look at Paul and say, “How did we even get started? How did they even give us a chance?”
Paul, it’s taken you over a decade to release the follow up to your debut, do you regret any of the decisions that you made along the way?
LP: Not really, because I learned a lot. When I cooled out for a little while and took a look at myself and how people were looking at me, you know, it was all good. I needed that time together everything together for this show business right here. Who knows where I would have been if I had kept at the pace I was going? It probably would have been crazy right now for me, so no regrets really.
Nas, you first got into this in ’91—have your feelings towards hip hop changed?
N: My feelings are the same as they were. I’m always looking for what’s missing and trying to fill that empty space. I do my best to contribute something. I don’t want to do anything that anybody else is doing and I think that’s what [music] is all about. Be original. I mean, we learn from each other and we tall take from each other, but the end result should be that your shit sounds original and actually brings something new to the table. That’s where my head was at in ’91, and that’s where it is today.
Does it still excite you? Do you still enjoy it the same way?
N: It’s changed, but I enjoy it differently. Now the whole thing is about people dogging artists. Magazines are dogging on you. The radio is dogging each other. Back then when you read up on an artist it was love. Son of Bazerk was even getting love. Nowadays [the media] is telling us when we’re done with [this or] that, so they change our whole theme to get people to buy [new things]. So obviously they are painting pictures for the readers to look at the game differently than they did back then.
I’m happy as long as I can pick up a [good] album. Like Large putting out a new album makes me happy about the rap game. If C.L. Smooth & Pete Rock could do it again, that would make me happy. I don’t get caught up in radio stations. When they’re playing one type of song all day long and then [people] let that dictate what they like, that kills the whole drive to be creative. That’s how me and Paul feel. We stick to our guns with that.
What about you, Paul? Have your feelings changed?
LP: No, man. I still love hip hop and I still got found memories of the past. I wish the media would see this for the majestic music that it is. You look at the media and it’s bad. You have a lot of radio personalities making records and its political now. They’re making records against other radio stations and that’s now what this is about.
I think that the beast, the money machine, has taken over hip hop to a crazy point. But artists like Nas and myself have dodged that shit, and that shit is about to fall to the ground. Word.
[Laughing] We built this city…Yo, come on man. They need to get the picture, because that’s how it is. That’s how it really is. Word.