[JPL] Hip-Hop Family Values
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Thu Dec 9 17:14:42 EST 2004
Hip-Hop Family Values
December 5, 2004
By ALEX ABRAMOVICH
NASIR JONES, the 31-year-old rapper who is better known as
Nasty Nas, Nas Escobar, Nastradamus or, more simply, Nas,
released his first album, "Illmatic," in 1994. A densely
textured, deeply lyrical portrait of life in Long Island
City's Queensbridge projects, the record signaled the
resurgence of the moribund New York hip-hop scene and
helped pave the way for Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z and a new
generation of New York rappers. The music press called it a
hip-hop masterpiece; The Village Voice called Nas "one of
the most important writers of the 20th century."
Its no surprise, then, that the appearance of Nas's eighth,
and most ambitious, studio album - the two-CD "Street's
Disciple," which was released Tuesday - has occasioned
cover stories in leading hip-hop magazines. More surprising
is the amount of space magazines like The Source and The
Ave have devoted to a figure who doesn't fit the archetypal
hip-hop narrative: the rapper's father. But if Nas is no
ordinary M.C., his father, the Harlem-based singer,
cornetist and bandleader Olu Dara, is no run-of-the mill
Mr. Dara was born Charles Jones III, in Natchez, Miss., in
1941. His father and grandfather were singers, and his
great-uncles performed alongside Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith
in the Rabbit Foot Minstrel troupe. Mr. Dara began his
professional career at the age of 7 and went on to play
with the jazz stars Art Blakey, Henry Threadgill and
Cassandra Wilson, to collaborate with the writers Rita Dove
and August Wilson, to lead his Okra Orchestra and
Natchezsippi Dance Band, and to record two critically
acclaimed solo albums. He met Nas's mother, Ann Jones, in
Brooklyn, in 1964, and married her the next year. (The
couple divorced in 1985; Mrs. Jones died of breast cancer
in 2002.) Today, Nas is engaged to the singer Kelis, whose
own father, the saxophone player and preacher Kenneth
Rogers, played with Mr. Dara many times over the years.
Mr. Dara, who played the trumpet on Nas's debut, sings and
plays on 2 of "Street's Disciples" 25 tracks, and the
sepia-toned video for its lead single, the bluesy "Bridging
the Gap, " features father and son performing in front of a
billboard-size panorama of family photographs. "Bridging
the gap from the blues to jazz to rap," Nas explains in the
song's first verse, "the history of music on this track."
Nas's record company, Columbia, has played up the
connection, perhaps to emphasize that Nas, who is 10 years
into his solo career and sells well into the millions, has
never been closer to his roots. But the collaboration
stretches as far back as Nas and Mr. Dara can remember.
"I started him on trumpet at 3 or 4," Mr. Dara said a few
days before Thanksgiving, in an interview that took place
during a family dinner at a Midtown steakhouse. "He was a
little phenom, playing on stoops in the neighborhood," and
for the after-work crowd on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
"I never gave him lessons - he had a natural knack for
musical instruments - but his lip swelled up, and I told
him to chill out until he got to be 7 or 8," Mr. Dara
continued. "He cried, hard, but by the time he was 7 and
we'd moved to Queensbridge, he'd lost interest."
Mr. Dara, who looks much younger than his 64 years, is
smaller and slighter than his son, but the two men have the
same easy way about them. Over dinner, each spoke tenderly
to the other, and both said they had never had a fight or
argument: even Nas's dropping out of school, after the
eighth grade, was "a joint decision," they both said. In
subsequent years, Nas would spend some time dealing drugs;
his best friend was killed and his brother shot. "I was
separated from Nas's mother at the time, so I couldn't
protect him as much as I wanted to," Mr. Dara says.
"For us," Nas says, "family values are what they are due to
how a family survives. A family that's brutalized, racially
profiled, systematically destroyed. How does that family
survive? We survive one way, that family survives another
way. But in hip-hop, there's no one else who comes from a
musical family that's around, that's relevant, that can
come together like we have."
"That's a powerful message - and a dangerous one, because a
lot of people don't want to see a black man with his
father," Nas continued. "But this is our story, our blues.
Nas speaks of Nas's travels. Olu speaks of Olu's travels.
And we got together to say that maybe if the today's father
sticks around, he can influence his child to be an Olu or a
Nas's lyrics draw heavily on his experiences in the
projects. "Everything I do is gangsta," he says. "The style
is gangsta. The voice is gangsta. I like the street. The
street is all I know. I don't like the soft, Negro
But for all the grit and fury in Nas's music, it's easy to
hear echoes of his father's relaxed style and
all-encompassing record collection in Nas's flow, which is
swift, swinging and jazzy. "The concepts are the same," Mr.
Dara says. "And the storytelling. We came into the world at
different times, and we see the world differently. But we
are father and son, you know."
"Actually," Nas says, "I admire his career more than mine.
My thing is the thing of the hip-hop star. Bodyguards and
all of that. He traveled the world and went places I was
scared to go, while I stayed here and took the easy route."
And though his records outsell Mr. Dara's 40 to 1, Nas has
found that his brand of celebrity isn't necessarily better.
"Olu knew all of New York, but he was cool walking down the
street," Nas says. "People who see me on the street say,
Oh, Nas, I love you! Then they run to the next guy they see
on TV. I wish the real people were into me and I made a
living off them alone."
If Mr. Dara's experiences have encouraged Nas to root his
music in deeper soil than most hip-hop histories allow for,
both men see themselves as part of a musical conversation
that refuses to acknowledge aesthetic and generational
divides. "What some people call a split, we call
creativity," Mr. Dara says. "Black music, black art - it
changes. We're making this stuff all the time, every
moment. You can take a ride into Harlem right now and
you'll hear blues, jazz, gospel, hip-hop - right there, all
in one place."
As his father scans the dessert tray, Nas adds: "Hip-hop
wasn't mainstream when I was a kid. It wasn't considered an
art form. There weren't really any rich rappers. I got into
it because that's what I loved. It's what my neighborhood
was. It's what I was. And now, we're finally going to see
hip-hop get old. Were going to see it have the same life
span as jazz or B. B. King. When I'm 60 years old and LL
Cool J has a show, I'll be in the front row. I mean, who
else am I going to go see?"
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rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
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