Sound in Focus - NAS

If hip hop should die before I wake/ I'll put an extended clip inside of my AK/ Roll to every station, murder the DJ/Roll up to every station, murder the DJ…

---Nas, "Hip Hop is Dead"

In recent years, critics, fans and artists alike have lamented the turning tide in hip hop. It is commercially successful, it is the voice of a generation and it is the world's music—all positive things. But, despite its diverse audience, it often seems like the artists themselves are not as diverse. How often have we read this bio: said emcee was raised in the projects, hustled drugs to make ends meet, got shot, learned his life lesson and pursued music as an alternative? How many times can we hear about rim size, candy paint, big booties and pushing weight? How many more rap videos will be shot around a pool filled with half-naked women? Hip hop can make you dance, yes. But can it make you think? What happened to the days when rappers had distinctly different personalities and styles? Has hip hop just become a parody of itself?

These are the kinds of questions up for debate on the Nas' newest album Hip Hop is Dead. And who better to stir up debate than the man most consider one of the top five emcees in the history of the game? From his brilliant 1994 debut Illmatic, to his mainstream success with It Was Written, to anthems like "Hate Me Now" and "One Mic" and his venomous lyricism on "Ether," Nas' ability to tell stories, educate, make you dance—and make you look—is the stuff of rap legend.

And while Nas might enjoy the finer things in life like all of us, he's not afraid to tackle subjects like self-empowerment, love, the importance of education and being aware of world issues. Musically, he'll get down and dirty with DJ Premier, ride an R&B beat with Trackmasters or bridge the gap jazz-style with his pops Olu Dara. It is this artistic diversity that Nas hopes will influence the next generation of emcees. "There's so many cocaine dealing rappers and so-called selling drug niggas," Nas says, exasperatedly, "I'm like where ya'll selling this at? People don't know there's so much more you can talk about."

Enter Hip Hop is Dead. The seventh studio album for the kid, it is a chance for Nas to expound on the state of his beloved hip hop. The searing title track, produced by Will.i.Am, sets up Nas' worst nightmare—that hip hop is erased from the earth. It is an indictment and warning to all the labels and fans and DJs who are complacent and not challenging the art form. Without being preachy or jaded, Nas also takes a trip down Memory Lane to reminisce about his love for hip hop in "Can't Forget About You", a jazz inspired track from Will.i.Am. Nas says the song, which features a touch of the classic "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole, inspired him because of its evergreen relevance. "People who are 70, 80 years old know it and people who are 7 years old can get to know it, so it was just right up my alley. It was one of those stellar moments."

Nas also hooked up with a number of West Coast pioneers. For "QB OG", Nas reunited with his Firm biz partner, Dr. Dre and is joined on the track by the latest West Coast phenom, The Game. Bigging up both Queens and Compton, Nas and Game's voices meld so perfectly, you'd think they'd been rhyming together for years. "Play on Player" finds Nas relaxing Cali style alongside Snoop on a melodic track by Scott Storch. "I wanted to do stuff like a record with Snoop, bridge that gap with East Coast and West like on such a level you know? I wanted to do the things that I did on this record just to do something different from my last record, stuff I've never done and stuff I wanted to do."

One of the most anticipated and talked about tracks on the album is "Black Republican," the first ever collabo with Nas' former rival Jay-Z. Produced by one of Nas' longtime beatmasters, L.E.S., the track is anthemic, authoritative and everything fans have hoped to hear. About the union, Nas says with a smile, "This is Ali and Frazier, this is Ali and Foreman, this is Ali and Ali, you know?"

With Hip Hop is Dead, Nas has once again challenged the sonic norms, experimented with an eclectic group of producers and collaborated with artists that he's never worked with before. He plays the "black militant" on "Black Republican" the nostalgic sage on "Can't Forget About You" and the inspirational teacher on Kanye West's track, "Let There be Light," and still gets down with "Brazilian dimes" on Hip Hop is Dead. Some might say he's unfocused, but in reality, he's showing us just how diverse rap can be.

And that hip hop is still very much alive.

Natalie Bergman has had her picture taken on countless occasions -- hundreds of studio portraits and live shots and backstage festival snaps. But the simple, gorgeous black & white photo of Bergman on the cover of Wild Belle's Dreamland that she describes as "just me and this sort of abyss" That one was lensed by the person who best knows how to capture her essence on celluloid: Her older brother and bandmate, Elliot Bergman. Besides being Wild Belle's multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, Elliot has an equally impressive flair for visual arts, from painting and sculpture to bronzemaking and photography. An avid collector of vintage cameras, Elliot brought along a recently acquired Polaroid Land Camera to a show Wild Belle played in Denver this summer: The duo grabbed a quick moment at their hotel to take the portraits of each other that grace the front and back of their new record. "The pictures Elliot takes of me are always really beautiful and it's because he knows me better than anyone else on this Earth," says Natalie. Adds Elliot: "I like that it's a photo of Natalie just being Natalie. And the stark contrast of her in the foreground with the dark background really fit with these collages she has been doing. Natalie is in the light but the shadows are pretty heavy and you can't really tell where she is or what's back there."
Recorded at studios in their native Chicago, Natalie's new home of Los Angeles, Nashville and Toronto, Dreamland -- Wild Belle's bold, evolutionary new album -- derives from an era in the singer's life when she was struggling to get control of what she describes as the "anger and deep sorrow" that plagued her at the end of her most recent romantic relationship. For a woman whose music has always been inspired by her desire to translate her complicated feelings into immediately relatable songs, there was certainly plenty of grist for the mill. Dreamland tracks such as "Losing You" and "It Was You (Baby Come Back)" offer glimpses of the darkness that Natalie battled during the early months writing for the duo's sophomore full-length. But there are also genuine moments of lightness and ecstatic triumph, like "Giving Up On You" -- an irresistibly kinetic, punk number Wild Belle recorded with TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek producing.
"I was very heated when we were making this record. My body, my heart and my soul were filled with a flame, which sounds very dramatic but it's the truth," says Natalie. "I had a healing moment when I moved to LA earlier this year, because I was far away from my ex and I felt like I was getting rid of a lot of baggage. That was the redemptive, triumphant time for my lyrics. On 'Giving Up On You,' I sing: 'Now I smile so bright, you can see me from outer space, look at me shine. Baby it's about time, I was so miserable and now I feel so alive.' All the songs I wrote near the end of making the album have that sentiment: 'Now look at where I am, after all the turmoil that was inside of me, I'm here and I'm happy and I'm ready for whatever comes my way.'"
The follow-up to 2013's Isles, Dreamland expands the band's ambitions in every way. "It's deeper, it's more fun, it's more haunting, it's got more grooves," Elliot says. "There's sorrow and pain but there's also hope and joy -- all those things can coexist in the songs because they coexist in life." He continues: "Dreamland, that's not some kind of idealized notion of where we live and I hope people hear that as a question: "What is the Dreamland What is our dream here" The album doesn't get overtly political, but we're dealing with a lot of the things that are dark about what's happening now. 'Throw Down Your Guns' is about a relationship but is also kind of about the messed up situation that we're in right now. The chorus, 'Throw down your guns / In the name of love, I put my hands up,' to me can be heard in a number of ways, including as a prayer for peace or a cry out against violence."
Importantly, the album also shares its name with one of the first songs Natalie remembers Elliot introducing her to: Bunny Wailer's 1970 reggae classic, "Dreamland." One year for Christmas, he gave her a compilation of female artists who recorded at Jamaica's legendary Studio One, and it included Della Humphrey's version of the song. Natalie listened to it over and over and over again. "I was so in love with it," she says. "From there, I started my exploration of rocksteady and ska and lovers rock and anything that had to do with Jamaican music from the Fifties onward."
The duo started writing music together several years ago, after Elliot took a sixteen year-old Natalie on tour to play percussion with his acclaimed Afrobeat ensemble, NOMO. "I can present a song to Elliot and he has this foresight -- he can see things further than I see them, and he helps me realize things," she says. "I'd been writing very simple melodic love songs since I was fifteen years old. I definitely have a pop sensibility in my style, and that's a great platform for Elliot to work from, because it's fun for him to have a cool little pop song and combine it with more eccentric sounds and make it into a weird, unique percussive jam. Sometimes he'll bring the jam to me and because we've got this routine together, we can write a song together wherever we are."
Work on the album began in early 2014, in Chicago. The song that opens Dreamland -- "Mississippi River" -- was also the first one to come together in the studio. It was sparked by a moment of musical serendipity: "The record starts with this pulsing ARP drone," says Elliot, "which is a very expensive esoteric nerdy synthesizer that's complicated to program. Natalie and I had this weird, symbiotic thing where I was playing three chords off the ARP and she started playing different three chords on this out-of-tune autoharp she brought over. They were both completely in the wrong key, and yet perfectly in tune with each other. That was like the new bar for the record. It was like, 'Yeah, we're going to put synthesizers and saxophone and kalimbas on these songs, and we're going to have lavish string arrangements if we want to. We were getting comfortable with all of the materials that we love, and being like, 'I love this, so let's do it."
They tracked several songs at home in Chicago last year, and then at the start of 2015, Natalie packed all of her belongings into the Wild Belle van and drove from Chicago to Venice, California. She rented a house where Elliot joined her a couple weeks later. "When I had my place in Venice, Elliot would wake up earlier than I would and start making dope beats," says Natalie. "One day he made this ridiculous song, 'The One That Got Away,' and the beat and underlying track were so exciting that it didn't take very long to write. Our friends came over and were jumping on the tabletops, dancing, getting naked because they loved the song so much."
"Playing the new songs at Lollapalooza for the first time with an eight-piece band," says Elliot, "I had a feeling onstage that I'd never had before with Wild Belle, where you're part of a sound that's much bigger than you could make on your own. It's this charged-up badass feeling. It's about a groove and rhythmic energy and force and momentum and making a big, dark, deep sound -- something that moves people and makes you want to dance and makes you want to shout. It's tapping into a deeper musicality that I've always been looking for."

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