It's midnight and Nas is out of patience. Hunched over his glass of Patron in the dim bar of a Manhattan hotel, the renowned rapper has been asked to explicate what he calls the greatest song he's ever written: "Bridging the Gap," a genre-bending collaboration with his father, jazz trumpeter Olu Dara.
"I think what the song is doing and why we did it is pretty obvious," Nas sighs, shaking his head and glancing across the table -- where his father, dressed in jeans and a khaki baseball cap, serenely sips a cocktail. Fresh from a series of West Coast appearances promoting Nas' seventh album, the two-disc "Street's Disciple," father and son have zipped from airport to interview, making one stop -- dinner, at a swank steakhouse -- along the way.
"My music is the child of his music," Nas continues, signaling toward Dara and exhaling audibly. "It's obvious."
"It's only obvious, though, to readers in Europe, Japan -- other countries," Dara interjects. "In America, you gotta explain everything. This is a young country. Barely knows who they are, barely knows their history."
Nas nods. As a rapper whose ornately gritty rhymes are not just listened to but debated, he's a consummate MC. But as the wide-eyed, 31-year-old son of Olu Dara, he's still a pupil.
The pair first teamed up a decade ago, when Dara lent jazz accents to Nas' debut album, "Illmatic." The new "Bridging the Gap," however, is a more calculated expression of what Dara shrugs off as "family business." Father sings blues on the song's chorus; son rhymes its raison d'etre: "Bridging the gap/ from the blues to jazz to rap/ the history of music on this track."
Lyrics delineate this history -- "Blues came from gospel, gospel from blues/Slaves were harmonizin' them 'ahs' and 'oohs'/ old-school, new-school, no-school rules/ all these years I've been voicin' my blues"-- but Nas and his father personify it.
And though hip-hop has long sampled a hodgepodge of musical genres, not since the early '90s, when acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest seamlessly fused jazz and rap, has a cross-generational hip-hop collaboration been as self-conscious, as high-profile -- or as compelling -- as that between Nas and his father.
Dara, 63, was born Charles Jones III in Natchez, Miss., where he took up the trumpet. At 23 he moved to New York City, adopted a Yoruba name (meaning "God is good"), and forged a career in jazz, bebop and R&B.; His son -- Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, Yoruba for "son of Olu Dara" -- at first "unconsciously grabbed the trumpet, saw what he did and tried to do it," recalls Nas, pointing at his father. But the boy's attention was hijacked by another genre, which was fast becoming soundtrack to a generation: hip-hop.
Their story, then, is a perfect parable: After migrating from South to North, from rural to urban, jazz and blues birthed hip-hop.
And last year, when Nas became engaged to singer Kelis Rogers, the lineage was complete: hip-hop would marry R&B.; Kelis, whose 2003 album "Tasty" spawned the cheeky hit "Milkshake," had her visage tattooed on Nas' right arm; tonight, sporting jeans and stilettos, she waits by the bar and keeps an eye on her fiance.
"I'm looking for, like Marvin Gaye said, the notes in between the keys in the piano that haven't been played yet," Nas says of his musical evolution. "There is a story other than diamonds and ostentatious [expletive], a story of black music that is not being told because the music is so pop and commercial."
Insisting that he couldn't care less if "Street's Disciple" matches the million-plus sales of his earlier albums, Nas lays bare his motives.
"Every artist who's made it needs to challenge himself to do something real, rather than follow the trendy path," he declares. "I feel ashamed for artists who sell millions of records and keep performing like the fans are dumb. Matter of fact, they're not even artists; they're businesspeople. And I felt guilty, after 14 years in the game ... "
The rapper stops short, looks up at his father and checks himself. "That's a lot in hip-hop years. But he can laugh at 14 years -- right, Pop?"
Dara smiles. At Nas' age, he was on the road with the musical "Hair" and performing avant-garde jazz and R&B; in varied venues. "Each band I played with was completely different from the other," Dara says. "I did theater, dance, acting -- all of it beyond categories."
The father played trumpet with such artists as Art Blakely and toured the globe, where he "witnessed countries changing, revolutions." His belated debut albums, 1998's "In the World: From Natchez to New York" and 2001's "Neighborhoods," showed sheer disregard for boundaries of genre or geography: They mined jazz, blues, Afro-beat and folk music.
Between tours, Dara returned to the projects of Queens and, with his wife, Fannie Ann, raised a boy who was "just as he is now: fun-loving and giving, with early wisdom, which is traditional in our family."
Nas and Dara reminisce with the quiet wistfulness of old-timers. Nas instigates: "Who was that guy who used to come around, the one with the fly leathers on?"
"You mean Robert Rutledge?" comes Dara's reply. "Trumpet player."
"He had them leathers, that sky-blue leather jacket.... " Nas' voice trails off.
"That's right, you got a good memory. He played with Duke Ellington's band."
And on to the next memory: Nas' signing with Columbia Records, in the early '90s. The rapper waxes nostalgic: "Remember how high I was when I signed that contract?"
The contract's first product, "Illmatic," is unofficially inscribed in the hip-hop canon's "instant classics" chapter. Commercially, the album was compelling because it was raw: an uncensored account -- "straight from the dungeons of rap," went the lyrics -- of sordid street sagas.
Aesthetically, "Illmatic" is a triumph of stylistic contrasts. Though its jazzy, low-key beats exude urban nihilism, Nas' vocal style is anything but hard-boiled; it's intricate, breathless, dense with lyrics that trample the beat instead of riding it. And though some dismissed the album as a crude New York version of the West Coast gangsta rap popular at the time, critical debate only fueled its popularity.
From album to album, Nas' oeuvre grew increasingly literary. He scrutinized his own evolution, using recurring phrases and imagery to bridge past and present.
His persona was pure paradox: a "philosophical gangster," to cite a line from his recent single, who toed the line between high- and lowbrow, commercial and conscious. He spat gritty gun lyrics, recorded radio-oriented party anthems and engaged in barbed verbal warfare with rival New York rapper Jay-Z.
But he also delivered intense, intellectual tracks and an empowerment jingle for children, tersely titled "I Can."
"With this album, though," Nas says, "I want to shake loose all those pop fans that I may have dragged along through the years." He claims his label "didn't get my last three records -- and they especially don't get 'Street's Disciple.' "
A throwback effort
It's easy to see why. Invoking blues, jazz and '80s hip-hop (one track samples Run-DMC; another evokes Slick Rick), the album is steeped in the past. It also makes forays into avant-garde territory that have a futuristic feel. But "Street's Disciple" shrugs off the present: It is not a radio-friendly hip-hop album for today's market.
Nor does it milk the double-album formula that worked for rappers OutKast and Nelly, whose commercially successful twin-CD sets showcase divergent musical styles.
Instead, "Street's Disciple" is in the vein of classic two-disc albums by Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G.: the product, Nas says, of "one of those guys who has more to say than will fit on one album."
"The album does tell a story," he continues. "It starts with a man who states his views on politics, on sex, on money, on my past. And then Disc 2 talks about where I am today: marriage, fatherhood, baby-mama drama, bridging the gap." Hearing himself extemporize, Nas looks toward his father and smirks.
"We're really alike, you know?"
"You're right on that one," chuckles Dara.
"Both storytellers," explains Nas, tightening his grip on Kelis -- who, nestling herself in Nas' arms, is clearly ready to call it a night.
Before they do, father and son consider what's next. Having already collaborated with such writers as Rita Dove and August Wilson, Dara will soon begin producing a musical about the landmark 1954 desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education.
Nas, meanwhile, is dabbling in painting and nonfiction writing, and hopes to pursue more acting (his screen debut was a redeeming feature in 1998's hackneyed gangster flick "Belly"). He'll visit Africa and plans to record the tour for DVD release. But unlike his onetime nemesis Jay-Z, who recently released what he called his final album, the rapper says he will not retire from music anytime soon.
"The greatest song I've ever done has inspired me to do the greatest work I've ever done, and I can't wait to get started," he declares. "And I don't care if the record companies don't get it, because it's gonna be way beyond the business of selling records."
Baz Dreisinger writes about music and pop culture for Calendar.