Like many hip-hop-loving kids who grew up in the 1990s, Fashawn came of age inspired by Nas. But the Fresno, California rapper isn't just another fan of the Queensbridge, New York MC. He's also the first solo artist to release a project under Nas' label, Mass Appeal Records.
As Nas, who executive produced The Ecology, worked on the album with Fash, their relationship blossomed. And the two created moments that continue to shine in 'Shawn's mind.
One such moment came when the half-black, half-Mexican MC crafted "Just Remember Now." After an initial listen, Nas thought Fash was "killing it" on the first and third verses, but believed the second could benefit from reworking. Fash disagreed.
"I appreciated the fact that he said I was killing it, but I looked at him like, 'What about the second verse? Are you serious? Should I play it one more time?' I guess that was just me being cocky or something," Fash recalls during an interview with MTV News.
So, Nas ran the track back.
"He’s listening and listening really closely this time," Fashawn continues. "After the song is done playing, he looks at me and he said, 'You know what? I’m buggin.’ That sh-t is flawless, kid.' That's crazy. That’s like Jordan complementing Kobe’s jump shot. That’ll make you want to go harder. That’s so inspiring to me. That little comment."
There were many of those "little" comments that made a huge difference. As Fash puts it, "Just a little advice from a rap god is priceless."
But Nas offered more than just advice; he also dropped a verse on The Ecology's "Something To Believe In," a DJ Khalil-produced slapper that also features Aloe Blacc. "I couldn't believe it was happening," Fash says of the collaboration. "I was like, 'Scratch that off the bucket list.' That's something I've been wanting to do for arguably my whole life."
While Nas' input was a "priceless" bucket-list check mark, Esco wasn't the only New York rap icon that Fash worked with on The Ecology. Busta Rhymes, another MC that Fash grew up admiring "since Leaders of the New School," also joined him on "Out The Trunk," an Exile-produced banger.
Nas brought the track to Busta, but it was Fashawn's rhymes that earned the Dungeon Dragon's co-sign. "Busta fell in love with my music and was happy to hop on the record," Fash says. "He took it to another level...It was an honor to get him on there."
Busta Rhymes and Nas might be the most important rappers on the album, but they aren't the most valuable guest on the project. That slot is occupied by Hannah, Fash's five-year-old daughter, who appears at the end of "Higher" in a voice message.
Hannah also partly inspired one of Fashawn's most personal and reflective cuts on the album, "Man Of The House," an ode to fatherhood that dissects Fash's own struggles with his dad, who was largely absent from his life.
"He stayed in the street," Fash raps on the track. "When he wasn’t in the pen, he was dodging police/ He was trying to get a piece of p---y instead of tryin' to visit me."
But the song isn't just about his own life. It also speaks to a broader issue. "I thought about the kids who are in my situation," Fashawn, whose real name is Santiago Leyva, says. "The kids who use this music as medicine like I did when I was growing up."
This was important for Fash because he grew up in foster care from ages 11 to 18, often finding solace through music. And he realizes that many other children are going through similar struggles today.
"I know this is still going on in every ghetto in America," he adds. "This condition is a universal thing. I wanted to speak about it and speak to [the kids] directly. It’s hard when you’re forced to grow up being the man of the house. You have to give away your childhood to fend for yourself, provide for your family.
"It’s a condition that needs to be examined and talked about," he continues. "That’s what I did lightly in those songs. It’s a heavy situation, but the music puts it on a plate where it’s digestible."
"Man Of The House" isn't the only song that connects Fashawn's upbringing to larger issues. The same can be said of "Mother," which, like 2pac's "Dear Mama," is a glimpse into a son's love for his mom despite her flaws.
"My mom would sometimes give me money for studio time and then she’d say, 'Make a song for me. Make a record for momma.' So, that record was years in the making," Fash says. After Fash's decade-long search for the perfect beat for this topic, Exile produced this track. "I just poured my heart out on it."
The end result is another view into his personal journey through brutally honest lyrics. "You remember that night/ I took your glass pipe/ Threw it against the street light/ I thought I saved your life," Fash rhymes on the emotional song. "Even though you left me home alone for nights at a time/ I’m shedding tears as I’m reciting each line.”
While Fashawn's dad hasn't heard "Man of the House," his mom listened to "Mother" and was surprised by its brutal honesty. "She was kind of bothered by it,” Fash explains. “I guess she thought I would praise her as this wonderful mother, but I kept it 1,000 with her and I kept it 1,000 on the song because that's how our relationship is in real life. Our conversations are super honest.
"We don't hold nothing back from each other," he continues. "So, I figured I shouldn't hold anything back to the world, especially talking about my mom. I'm going to give you the good and the bad because that's how it was growing up. I wasn't in foster care from 11 to 18 for no reason."
These personal tracks are fitting given the project's title. According to Merriam-Webster, "ecology" is defined as "a science that deals with the relationships between groups of living things and their environments." And Fash uses this album as an opportunity to share what he's gone through, analyzing the relationships that have shaped him, from Nas' guidance to his family's ups and downs.
But don't get it twisted. Fash isn't just trying to share his story with the world. He also has his sights set on becoming an influential MC known for his rhymes, which have been co-signed by many rappers, including Kendrick Lamar, Evidence, Murs and Brother Ali.
"I always want to challenge rap, challenge all MCs to step their pen games up," he says. "That’s what artists like Nas did when he came in the game. N---as had to really grab their notebooks with a different approach after Illmatic came out. I want to leave that same type of impact on the game when it’s all said and done."
Now, 21 years after his mentor penned Illmatic and 26 years into his own life, Fashawn is releasing The Ecology through Mass Appeal. And while it isn't often that you get to drop an album on your idol's label, for Fash, it's just another example of how you can beat the odds and share your story while making your dreams come true.