"I knew that they had [already] shopped to some other people," Newman told MTV News. "[MC Serch] just handed me the cassette. It was just two songs. I went down the hall to David Kahne, who was the head of A&R [at Columbia]. I said, 'I know I just started here, [but] if you never let me sign anything, you gotta let me sign this kid.' "
But before bringing the demo to Newman, Serch, who was helping the newcomer find a deal, met with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. "I played Nas' demo ... and Russell said, 'Ah, he sounds like [Kool] G Rap, and G Rap don't sell no records. I'm not interested,'" Serch recently told XXL.
A Queens native like Nas, G Rap may not have been moving a ton of units, but the influence and respect he had was undeniable. Launched by his 1989 debut Road to the Riches, the rapper's career had an impact on everyone from Nasty to Notorious B.I.G.
Newman agreed with Simmons' sonic assessment — just not what it meant for the rapper's future. "On one of the songs, he really did [sound like G Rap]," she continued. "The first song was 'It Ain't Hard to Tell,' with different lyrics. And the song that people said he sounded too much like G Rap on, which was 'Just Another Day in the Projects,' you had to listen to what he was saying. Lyrically, for an 18-year-old kid, he was out of control."
Nas delved into the details of his signing on his 2007 song "Surviving the Times." After listing the other labels that passed on him, the MC came to Def Jam: "Russell said I sounded like G, the n---a fronted," he raps, adding, "My boy MC Serch, nevertheless/ Took me to Columbia, back then CBS."
Currently the senior vice president at Reservoir, Newman actually got her break in the industry working for Simmons and Def Jam. Hired in the late 1980s, she was one of the storied label's first five employees and soon became the VP of A&R. She left in the summer of 1991, and a few months later was an A&R rep at Columbia eager to sign Nas.
The outmaneuvering of her former boss hasn't come up in the decades since, though. "I don't think I ever talked to Russell about that specifically," said Newman. "I love Russell, but in terms of the creativity that was Def Jam, it was really all Rick [Rubin], musically speaking. Russell was a great manager. That, no one can deny."
It's the same way Newman couldn't deny Nas' talent — something that proved spot-on with the release of Illmatic. Now, two decades later, Illmatic XX is hitting stores Tuesday (April 15), with a release that includes both remastered versions of the original songs and a second disc featuring some of the songs Newman heard early on.
"I wanted to find him," she said of her first mission at Columbia. "I heard 'Live at the Barbeque' and I was blown away."