Michael Eric Dyson, a professor in the sociology department, will appear Thursday evening in Gaston Hall alongside legendary hip-hop artist Nas. Dyson spoke with The Hoya on Wednesday about where Nas, himself an acclaimed storyteller, fits within the story of hip-hop. Below is an edited transcript of the half-hour conversation.
FUNT: There’s at least a superficial irony that the professor who has received so much recognition for teaching about Jay-Z is doing an event with Nas. Beef and battling have roots in the foundation of hip-hop, so what do you hope someone who attends the event Thursday comes to appreciate beyond simply remembering “Ether” versus “Takeover”?
DYSON: First of all, I certainly have taught a class on Jay-Z that got quite a bit of notice, but I’ve also co-edited a book called Born to Use Mics about Nas’ first album, Illmatic, which is one of the greatest albums in the history of hip-hop. We’re gathering in the 20th year of its issue to recognize it. In my book Know What I Mean? Jay-Z does the intro and Nas does the outro, so I’ve got history with these two men in terms of their rhetorical genius, their verbal inventiveness and their lyrical dexterity. I see this as a continuation of my acknowledgment of both of their gifts, and I was personally glad when they settled their beef like human beings, like men — in the best sense of that word —without resorting to any kind of physical consequence to their rhetorical battle.
Battle rap is indeed a part of the history and the context of the evolution of hip-hop, and Jay-Z and Nas had arguably one of, if not the, greatest battles in history. “The greatest” because it involved two genius emcees who are both recognized for the weight and the heft of their lyrics and their craft. That being said, I’m a friend to both men and I regard them both as particular geniuses in the domain of rhetorical imagination. It’s a great honor to speak with Jay-Z when I’ve done so in my class, and now Nas. What I want young people to take from this is the fact that not only can you resolve your differences peacefully, but you can forge connections to be able to leverage the authority of your career in an even more enabling and edifying fashion. Jay-Z and Nas left that battle behind and ended up becoming even more famous, more successful and more recognized for their particular gifts.
FUNT: And yet while they both thrived and moved on, Nas and Jay-Z were competing for the throne vacated by the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, who had both been murdered at the height of their infamous East Coast/West Coast feud. More recently, 50 Cent prevailed over another New York rapper, Ja Rule, whose career has never recovered. With that in mind, should the Nas and Jay-Z battle and the vicious barbs they traded be remembered fondly, or with regret?
DYSON: Regret or not it’s real, it happened, it happens in hip-hop, and Nas himself has said in regard to his encounter with Tupac that people at the top clash. That’s the nature of the art form; that’s the nature when two people are pursuing their craft at the highest level. It’s almost inevitable, and it doesn’t just happen in hip-hop: it happens in the academy, it happens in politics. Hip-hop just happens to be the most glaring example of the type of vicious verbal battle that can occur when people are pursuing their goals at the top of their craft in competition with one another. So I look back on it as an example of the kind of excavation of the artifact of their battle. Yeah, it’s one that occurred because both of them were making claims in the aftermath of the death of Biggie and Tupac, especially Biggie as the king of New York. And there were personal elements involved. But I look back on that battle an instructive moment in the evolution of hip-hop culture, both for what it taught us about the nature of competition rhetorically among two gifted geniuses, and the way in which they were able to quash their beef and settle their differences.
FUNT: I heard Peter Rosenberg of New York City’s Hot 97 FM say that Nas would belong on the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop. Jay-Z almost certainly would join him there. But when you hear Jay-Z describe how he “dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars” in the song “Moment of Clarity,” you see how his larger-than-rap profile might be in contrast to Nas’ artistic purity. Do they represent a tension in hip-hop between commercial success and creative integrity?
DYSON: The irony is that Nas is probably the most aboveground underground artist we’ve ever had within hip-hop. He is well established as a legitimate hip-hop artist who has maintained his authenticity and the integrity of his art form even in the face of commercial influence. What’s interesting is that he can’t be called an underground artist because of his tremendous aboveground success. Even though he has maintained his legitimacy and authenticity in the chops, he has also maintained tremendous commercial success. He’s making Hennessy commercials, after all.
On the other hand, Jay-Z is known as a commercially crafty artist, but his intellectual creativity and rhetorical inventiveness have been obscured by the very nature of that commercial success. So, ironically enough, he’s underrated as an intellectual in that form. Because he’s been so clever, that aspect has been ignored. Jay-Z’s commercial success has obscured some of his intellectually ferocious engagement, and Nas undeniable rhetorical genius has obscured his commercial movement. Both of them represent irony, even paradoxes, in the art form, but there’s no question that Nas’ extraordinary reputation rests in the preservation of his credibility.
FUNT: On that note, Nas writes with such complexity that following his lines can be overwhelming for listeners. How does someone like that manage to sell 25 million records?
DYSON: Clearly, the maintenance and the preservation of the craft of the emcee and an understanding of just how noble a pursuit that is has motivated Nas from the very beginning. You remember on that first album when they’re having the conversation to open the album, and he says, “You’re doing it even if you don’t have a record contract.” From the very beginning it was about expressing one’s art form, expressing one’s desires and destiny through an art form regardless of its commercial consequence or the ability to “get on,” even though nobody can afford to ignore the imperative of commercial culture because without it you can’t even be heard. The moment you decide to sell your tapes out of the back of your truck when you’re not signed to a record company, you’re in the game of commerce. You’re not on a high level, but you’re involved in making art in exchange for money to procure that art form.
Nas has been able to maintain his singular quest for musical and artistic authenticity through it all, and his audience has found him. People recognize Nas as one of the greatest lyricists to ever exist. From the very beginning when he was 19-years-old, even before that when he was 16. The first song that he appeared on announced the coming of an unusual artist taking the best of Rakim, like his passionate reportage within rap, and then elevating it to an even higher level. In 20 years he’s been able to demand a certain kind of intellectual fidelity of his audience in a quest for something higher than the kind of pablum they can get on regular commercial recordings. It shows his ability to persist in the face of tremendous odds, and the ability to persist at the highest level of art and knowing that his audience would support him.
FUNT: I don’t know if this is true across different genres, but in hip-hop the debut album of many artists is frequently thought of as the best. You could say that about people like Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Jay-Z with Reasonable Doubt and definitely Nas with Illmatic. Yet, I doubt you would say the first book you authored was your best. Why is it that so many hip-hop artists follow this trajectory? I wouldn’t say they peak at their beginning, but they debut with a magnum opus.
DYSON: It’s not that the level of artistry and excellence attained by a writer of novels or non-fiction is not the same as the level of artistry and excellence attained by a rapper. For instance, the same could be said of Ralph Ellison. Although he only published one book during his lifetime, Invisible Man, it was a monumental classic. Because of the weight of the expectation that rode upon his shoulders as a result of that ingenious debut, it stilted and stymied him for the rest of his life. It shut down his ability to produce after that.
Jay-Z, Nas and others who have released arguably their greatest work as their first album exist in a different atmosphere though, didn’t they? Because the level of appreciation for the complexity of a novel is expected within the environment of literary creation where you have Hemingway, where you have Morrison, where you have Baldwin, where you have Ellison. The maintenance and preservation of a high degree of excellence is supported by a community because the expectation of that excellence is there. Whereas what Nas did with his art and what Jay-Z did with his art on their first albums wasn’t necessarily maintained and expected within the history of hip-hop. Maybe it was over their heads, maybe it was too deep, maybe it was too searching, and profound and rigorously adhering to canons of excellence that were incapable of being immediately and readily understood by the masses of their audience.
So, what does Jay-Z say? [Dyson paraphrases “Hard Knock Life,” which concludes, “I gave you prophecy on my first joint, but y’all lamed out. Didn’t really appreciate it ’till the second one came out. So I stretched the game out, etched your name out …”] Then Nas says, “I can’t be too smart unless y’all will run away.” So when Jay-Z talks about dumbing down his lyrics, the irony is he’s making some of his most sophisticated music even as he’s saying that — Talib Kweli and Common [two lyrical rappers referenced on “Moment of Clarity”] are extraordinary artists and I’d love to do that if that kind of music sold, so it was a calculation about the commercial consequence of their artistic expression. Jay-Z and Nas both understood that a certain level of excellence might not be able to be consumed by the masses of people.
The reality is this: Jay-Z has calculated commercially what will be able to be tolerated by his audience and therefore has redescribed his intellectual project in such a way that it can be consumed by the masses of people and therefore obscuring through cleverness the true intellectual weight of his particular project. On the other hand, Nas has adhered more closely to the kind of demand that his audience hear what he’s saying even though he’s had to refrain from some of the more obscure explorations he pursued in his debut in order to gain the commercial audience he now has.
FUNT: As a public intellectual, you probably appreciate the function of cultural criticism. Yet, when you have Nas get five mics by the Source for Illmatic or a perfect rating by XXL magazine for Life Is Good nearly 20 years later, how can someone with that consistency have never won a Grammy? Does that represent a failure by the mainstream critic community to appreciate the essence of hip-hop?
DYSON: At the moment of his extraordinary expression, another album might have been more popular, another album might have been higher on the charts and then the mainstream of artists vote for the Grammys, it’s not as if only hip-hop artists are voting.
FUNT: But if they’ve been able to value the Roots, who don’t have incredible sales, why not Nas?
DYSON: It’s like [Al] Picino didn’t get an Oscar until “Scent of a Woman” when he should have gotten it certainly for “The Godfather.” Denzel Washington should have gotten it for “Malcolm X,” but he got it for “Training Day.” Sometimes there’s a delay of public recognition for even great artists. Sometimes, also, the voters just don’t know a damn thing about the artists. Look at this year. I love Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in terms of the way they challenge homophobia, but even they had to acknowledge that Kendrick Lamar produced one of the greatest albums in hip-hop in the last decade, so he should have won with good kid, m.a.a.d. city. The reality is that even with undeniable rhetorical mastery, sometimes a commercially oriented recognition doesn’t recognize the truest value of the art it’s supposed to reward.
FUNT: At this stage in their careers, Nas and Jay-Z are sort of ambassadors of hip-hop. But for a discussion of the culture and the history of hip-hop as well as the artistry, why isn’t the generation of artists before those two more involved? People like KRS-One, who came out before hip-hop was lucrative and brought mass exposure. Why aren’t the true fathers of hip-hop in the classes and the textbooks and making the college appearances?
DYSON: I’ve taught classes that respected others. Most of my work in the classroom has been on the whole genre of hip-hop, not just particular artists. But, having said that, they are worthy ambassadors of an art form. Originators often aren’t fully celebrated to those who have facilitated a transition for that art form from its initial stages into a multi-national multi-million dollar business. The fact that these two figures have come to represent it so powerfully, the history and evolution of hip-hop is there particular talent, genius, and appeal to a broader audience, but also the investment of each of these artists in carrying a certain kind of tradition within their art form. Is it about commercial success and the monster wealth that can result from undeniable talent married to savvy about entrepreneurship, so that you have a Russell Simmons and a P. Diddy and a Master P and now a Jay-Z.
On the other hand, what Nas represents is that pure artist for whom commercial trends be damned. Whether it’s popular or not, he will make his art. The N-word album was put out in response to talking about the N-word in American culture, and Nas refused to back down on that argument even though leaders in black America have consternation about what that might mean. Jay and Nas capture the full sweep of hip-hop in their various careers and have become what James Baldwin meant by “they bear the burden of representation.” They’re in a group of talented geniuses along with a particular current of the culture that accounts for why their message and their moment focuses such a powerful lens on their careers. But you are absolutely right: When you think about KRS-One or Chuck D or DJ Kool Herk, these inventors deserve far more recognition and far more celebration for the art form that they helped birth.