If I had to pick a single track to explain to an alien or time traveler what hip-hop is and why it’s so awesome, I think I’d pick “Nas Is Like.”
Nas has a great flow full of powerful imagery, but what truly sets this track apart for me is DJ Premier’s production. It’s a complex web of samples and scratches that tie together so seamlessly as to be much greater than the sum of their parts. A lot of the samples are from other songs by Nas himself. Here’s a diagram of all the samples, click to see it bigger:
Primo tells the story of the track, including the serendipitous discovery of the killer orchestral string sample, in The 14 Deadly Secrets by DJ Premier:
The day I made this record, I was at my house in Long Island, and I found this old record that I was gonna throw away. It was a ten inch record from a Lutheran church, and it was pink with a black fish on it. And I was gonna throw it in the garbage, ‘cuz it didn’t look like it had anything hot on it. But somethin’ told me “before you throw it away, put it on the turntable, see if you can find something on it.
And I found that sample of “Nas Is Like”, and I broke it into 3 parts, scratched it live to the drumbeat that I already had, with the little chirpin’ birds and from there, “Nas Is Like” was born, man…
Most of the lines in the chorus come from Nas’ breakout hit “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” The “life or death” line is at 0:32, the “Nas is like” that gives the song its title is at 0:44, and the “half man half amazin'” comes in a few seconds later. “My poetry’s deep, I never fell” is at 2:41.
“It Ain’t Hard To Tell” includes some hot samples of its own, including the synth intro from “Human Nature” by Michael Jackson and a saxophone riff from the much-sampled “NT” by Kool & The Gang (listen at 3:12.)
The other source for the “Nas Is Like” chorus is Nas’ “Street Dreams” from 1996. Samples are at 3:16 (“I’m a rebel) and 3:18 (“no doubt.”)
The most inventive sample in “Nas Is Like” is a single syllable from “Nobody Beats the Biz” by Biz Markie. It’s the line “highly recogNIZED as the king of disco-in'” at 2:06. Out of context, “NIZED” sounds like Biz is saying “Nas.” That might be the single most creative sample usage in hip-hop history.
No wonder DJ Premier loves Biz — both like using a lot samples and allusions. Biz’s chorus is a play on a commercial jingle that’ll be familiar to anyone from the NYC region who grew up in the eighties (or has watched Seinfeld.) Biz also samples the drums from by “Hihache” by the Lafayette Afro Rock Band, “Fly Like An Eagle” by Steve Miller and, to heighten the self-reference even more, one of his own classic tracks, “The Def Fresh Crew” with Roxanne Shanté.
To add yet another layer of reference, there’s a bit in here where Biz quotes the jingle for Meow Mix! Biz is so much bigger than copyright law.
Nas does a lot of bragging in his rhymes. I learned excessive self-deprecation as a virtue from both my Jewish and middle American Protestant sides, so swagger feels deliciously subversive for me. There’s nothing more balling than sampling yourself in your own songs. Any sample-based song carries a dense web of associations, and I love the complexity that gets introduced when people sample themselves, or when they sample tracks containing samples, or best of all, both. “Nas Is Like” has a complex family tree, a set of allusions to allusions to allusions. This is as it should be. Fundamentally, all music is built of reshuffled bits of other music. Hip-hop makes this fact an explicit part of the music’s message, and that’s the biggest reason why I love it.