[caption id="attachment_13101" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Nas performs in New York City, September 2011. Photo: Anna Webber/Film Magic"][/caption]
In hip-hop, staying relevant past 35 is no small feat. Yet Nas, who celebrates his 38th birthday today, remains as vital a part of the hip-hop landscape as ever. With the upcoming release of 10th album Life is Good and news this week of his forthcoming autobiography It Ain't Too Hard to Tell next year, we thought it'd be a good time to dig a little deeper and uncover some facts that make Nas’s life one worth celebrating today and in hardbound print.
1. He Was a Gifted Trumpeter
Nas' father, jazz musician Olu Dara, collected musical instruments from around the world, including trumpets, guitars, keyboards and xylophones. Nas began playing the trumpet at the age of 2 and by 4, the self-taught prodigy's stoop shows were attracting daily crowds. When Nas began developing a droopy upper lip from excessive playing, his father banned him from practicing. It was the last time Nas would pick up an instrument, but the creative bug was born. Three years later, a 7-year-old Nas would write his first hip-hop verse.
2. He Was Rejected By Nearly Every Record Label
At 17, Nas, along with friend and fellow rapper Akinyele, would take daily trips to Manhattan hoping to secure a major label deal, only to be shot down by nearly every label. The labels' decision not to sign the rapper devastated Nas until 3rd Bass co-founder MC Serch brought his tape to the attention of Faith Newman, then-Director of A&R for Columbia Records. She made a deal with Serch that day, offering Nas a $17,000 advance and the lifeline to begin his career.
3. Illmatic Undersold Expectations
When Illmatic was first released in 1994, it debuted on the Billboard 200 at number 12, but failed to become the widespread success many predicted. Critics immediately hailed it as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time, yet with no radio-friendly single, it took two years for the rapper's debut to go gold. (Platinum status didn't occur until 2001.) Due to Illmatic's lackluster sales, Columbia Records hooked the rapper up with Lauryn Hill for "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" for his 1996 follow-up It Was Written. That album would eventually sell more than 2 million copies and entrench Nas, for better or worse, into a more commercial-sounding approach.
4. His Acting Résumé Includes Hawaii 5-0 and Uptown Girls
Most rap fans have seen Nas' acting debut in Hype Williams' Belly, which saw the rapper play a reluctant drug dealer alongside fellow thespians DMX and Method Man. What they may have missed, though, is his cameo in Uptown Girls with Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning or getting shot by Dennis Hopper in 2001's Ticker. More recently, Nas played perpetual suspect Gordon Smith in the Hawaii 5-0 reboot.
5. He Once Rhymed Entirely in Edward G. Robinson's Voice
Ever since 1996's "I Gave You Power," which saw Nas rhyming from the point of view of a gun, the rapper has had a penchant for unique voices, perspectives and musical experiments. After chronicling the story of a shooting in reverse for "Rewind" and rhyming from the perspective of a prison cell in "Last Words" and a fetus in, well, "Fetus," there was 2006's bizarre "Who Killed it?" In the quest to find out who killed hip-hop, Nas adopts the voice of film noir legend and Chief Wiggum inspiration Edward G. Robinson for the entire song. Mainstream hip-hop has never gotten weirder.