The Burden Of An Illmatic MC, Hunting The Great Ghost Of Nas

August 15th, 2012

Blame excellence, blame perfection and aggression. Blame one of hip-hop’s most beautiful moments for the prison that traps Nasir Jones today–blame Illmatic. (“Still Matter,” The Source, Dec. ’01)

That’s how I began the Source cover story on Nas that was published more than a decade ago when hip-hop was in the throes of the Jay-Z/Nas saga. Aside from the hand-wringing that comes with all major post-Pac/Biggie beefs, it was an exciting time for rap fans who appreciate the sport of rhyme. 

More on that later. For now there’s this matter of the new accusations that Nas used ghost writers for his Untitled album which dropped in 2008. What gives this rumor legs is that it is being purported by writer Dream Hampton, who has punctured the circles of celebrity and benefited by being washed in a wealth of inside information.

Then there was this blog post on RappersIknow in which the author, presumably written by Frank William Miller, Jr., describes a phone call from Jay Electronica. In the exchange, Electronica allegedly tells him he was ghost-writing for Nas.

While no one denies that Electronica was part of the team that created Nas’ Untitled album (originally titled Nigger) this new claim adds something new. It threatens to diminish the rap luminary in the eyes of his fans.

Miller’s story was pumped full of steroids when Dream tweeted this:

She actually heard reference tracks!? This could be damaging. She went on to talk about verbatim songs written by dead prez’s, which she called “the most radical.”

Wait. Let’s take a breath here. Dream is known as a knower of things. She has built a career on knowing and writing what she knows. But of dead.prez was there, in the studio. He took to his Facebook page to dispel the notion that he put words into Nas’ mouth.

“As far as the rumors about myself and jay electronika ghost writing for Nas, let me say this,” he began, “Nas is one of the, if not the, most prolific original lyricist to EVER do it. My contributions to his album was a collaboration and an honor and under his direction of what he wanted to convey and say. Haters can’t discredit that man’s genuis. Nas is the Don.”

It calls into question what the “verbatim” tracks sounded like and how manny lines we’re talking. Dream knows the difference between ghost writing and collaborating. It could be easily acceptable that Nas would collaborate with rappers and producers to come up with a complete record, one in which they all contributed something.

And a reasonable fan could imagine that a collaborator might suggest a line or a word that might work better in a verse than another. But that’s different than ghost writing, which is what Nas or Jay-Z have done for others like Dr. Dre. They lay reference verses over a track so the rapper in need could memorize and maybe taylor the words to their stylistic nuance. But Dream would know the difference, wouldn’t she?

While Stic didn’t come right out and say, “I didn’t ghostwrite for Nas,” he at least implied that any work he did with Nas was a collaboration. However, it did seem that he wanted it to be known that his fingerprints were all over the message. More revealing was the exchange that followed in the message section.

Dream Hampton: I’m not a hater. I love Nas. And see no shame in the fact that you wrote some of those songs. Furthermore, it was tangential to what I was talking abt w/someone on Twitter, which was artist’s responsibility to the people

Sticman Deadprez: I certainly don’t mean to call u a hater. I am just being brought up to speed about your tweet. I heard the “rumors” from other tweets and a few emails from fans. I still haven’t read your tweet. So my statement was just being clear on how I felt about the collab. That was a great opportunity for me to work with one of the most influential emcees to my own personal flow and craft. I can’t speak on what Jay and Nas collab was cause I wasn’t there and that’s there business. Both of those cats are awesome lyricists in my opinion. But for me I was just a white belt that answered the call for a session with a master of the craft. And I assisted where it was requested with ideas, beats and some writing. Not because Nas “needed” me lol…Again I was just honored to get the call. Nas new album Life is Good is lyrically magnificent and his skills have always spoken for them self. So that’s just my view I respect that folks may field different ways about it. Just clarifying my position.

Dream Hampton Stic. Thanks for your clarity. I was frankly surprised when I heard whole bars you’d written and performed played to me by Pros and M spit verbatem by Nas. But at the time, I took it as an opportunity to reflect upon my own writer’s block. As I said, I tweeted this in passing and find the hoopla corny. I respect all three of you as lyricists.

Sticman Deadprez: Wow. I don’t know what they played you ..I’d love to hear what song u are referring to… But inbox me ya number and let’s just build how we do…love

Dream says she is not a hater, which may be true in the broad sense. But even non haters can engage in the act of “hating.” It’s worth noting that Dream has ghost written for Jay-Z and maintains close ties with Mr. Jigga. The original tweet that sparked the debate was in defense of Jay, while throwing Nas under the bus for employing “ghost-writers.” It seemed out of place in a discussion about rappers and their social responsibility.

She was responding to a question about why Jay couldn’t be more like Nas and give the people a non-commercial message like that which appeared on the Nigger album.  Her response:

“I think Jay writes what he believes. Nas’ “Nigger” album was largely written by Stic of dead prez and Jay Electronica.”

It was a case of side-hate, the cousin of dry-snitching and a distant relative of the backhanded compliment. She intended to take down Nas, deflate his fans and then wash the comments clean in the wave of “social responsibility” talk. To toss off something that was clearly designed to incite debate and then shut it down raises questions about the motive.

Because I didn’t want to ramble on with more of my own thoughts on the matter, I called Keith Murphy, a longtime hip-hop journalist, for his take. When given the chance, Murphy invokes the dreaded “C” word (con-spir-acy). He believes that Jay-Z loyalists are bringing up this claim in the midst of Nas’ recent Life is Good album in an effort to re-write history in Jay-Z’s favor.

“There’s a ‘Nas Lost’ campaign,” Murphy said. “There was a segment of people who were really cool with Jay when he got his ass beaten on ‘Ether.’ It’s complete bullshit.”

Unlike Dream, Keith doesn’t profess to have any insider information. Just his gut and common sense.

“If there was a reference track was out there it would have came out a long time ago,” he said. “Look at all the reference tracks we heard from Biggie referencing for Lil Kim. Doctor Dre’s Detox stuff. I grew up on Dream’s writing, she’s a towering presence. But I’m not about to join the ‘Nas Lost’ crowd because Nas put out a great album and people want to take him down.”

But this bell cannot be un-rung and I’m sure this investigation won’t stop until each line and verse on every Nas record is parsed and assigned to a lone author or authors (in fractions). And no matter what evidence arises there will be people who will always believe it is true and people who will forever deny the claim (and others who will say Tupac is alive). Dream was right about the  big picture: As a Nas-ite, if there were a couplet, a chorus, or a line that was influenced or even written by a team, that doesn’t take away from Nas’ legacy or art.

Which brings us back to the beginning. When I wrote the “Still Matter” story for the Source, it was while Nas was in the midst of the war with Jay-Z. He was clearly losing and down for the count. Jay lured Nas out in the open with a teaser on “Takeover.” To which Nas answered with the battle record “Stillmatic.” And Jay-Z called check, with the clobbering extended verse of “Takeover.” It was a beautiful strategy on Jay’s part.

I remember sitting in that studio listening to Blueprint. Jay quietly played “Takeover” and watched as we Source staffers worked cramps in our thumbs pounding away on those Motorola 2-way pagers.

So by the time I sat with Nas, I was not sure he was going to come back from such a blow. He was coming off mixed reviews of I Am… and Nastradamus. But as we now know, he made history with Stillmatic the album and the career defining battle hymn “Ether.”

Likewise, he has sustained his legend again with Life Is Good, a mature look at life in the ’00s through the lens of  the rowdy ’90s. Now Nas and Jay-Z, the last truly relevant rappers from their era, are forever linked. Ali-Frazier. Bird-Magic. Like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Two kids from the PJs built something that defined a generation and beyond. Team Nas or Team Jigga. The further away we get from the time when I sat with him as he constructed Stillmatic, the fuzzier the lines become between them.

This is why I love the picture at the top of this page. It was the moment when they came together after the war. The respect they had for each other no longer needed to be masked by sideways looks and sneers. It was a love moment that could only come from fighting through the doubters, silencing the critics and overcoming the rest.

Sure, we can talk all day about which side scored the most points, or who styled on whom. But no one would look back on Nas’ career and think that it was defined by the contribution of ghost writers or collaborators on one album. If one album defined him, it would always be Illmatic.

Jay-Z articulated the sentiment with his not-so-subtle jab at Dame Dash on “Lost Ones.” With one line he silenced the claim that he was made by the hand of another.

“I heard Motherfuckers say they made Hov/ Made Hov say, ‘Okay, so make another Hov”

No ghost writer could make Nas and no svengali could make Jay-Z. More like they made each other as history knew they would. After all, it was written.

7 Responses to “The Burden Of An Illmatic MC, Hunting The Great Ghost Of Nas”

  1. Kenda says:

    In all honesty, wouldn’t a ghostwriter have to deny this? Isn’t that the point of a ghostwriter? It’s a secret. I’m not saying Nas did or didn’t use one. I’m just speaking on logistics.

  2. Erik Parker says:

    Kenda: Not really. While that is a clever point worthy of a George Carlin routine, I never heard of a ghostwriter who remained a ghost. They always–AWALYS–materialize. Humans and their ghosts tend to want credit for the shit they did. It’s a matter of law. Thanks for reading the post and commenting.

  3. AST83 says:

    Eric good article. I think you made a great point about Dream being someone in Jay’s “camp” so to speak that for whatever reason thought she had to bolster Jay’s rep by tearing down nas. Sure the guy on twitter specifically referenced Nas in his tweet, but on twitter you can pick and choose what you want to respond to. dream had a clear agenda in making that statement.

    Kendra, I have a BIG problem with your line of thought. Basically Nas, or anyone else accused of having a ghostwriter, really can’t win in this type of situation. Anyone can make an accusation and even if everyone comes forward and says it never happened, people will still say “well a true ghostwriter would never reveal…” In the Court of Law its the accuser who has the burden to prove the case against the accused. I think the same rules should apply here. Those accusing Nas of ghostwriting need to come forward with some evidence, otherwise its bullshit, especially given the fact that Stic.Man and Jay Electronica have come forward to say things didn’t go down the way dream claims. (Stic.Man was way more specific in his recent Vibe Mag interview btw)

  4. pastegod says:

    So Nas drops Life Is Good to critical acclaim has the most main stream buzz
    In years and now we’re hearing rumors about Untitled? It’s hate and it’s ashame. Untitled was revolutionary in name but not as much as Stillmatic in effect which changed the balance of power in Hip-hop and allowed the culture to move in a new direction. See Kanye West.

  5. [...] Murphy, the longtime music journalist friends of this blog will remember from this Nas post, has had plenty of run-ins with combative interviewees. But one stands out among them [...]

  6. StreetzTalk says:

    Great Write up Eric. I couldn’t have said it better. I just find it funny that all of this would come out after LIG dropped and got rave reviews, and even when people allegedly didnt “care” about Illmatic.

    People need to understand the power of words. Dream should DEF know this, and tried to dismiss what she said as “just talkin”. I dont know. She’s credible which made the firestorm worse. Nas is the most disrespected legend we have in Hip Hop. Let people say Jay has ghost writers and the pitchforks and torches come out. Nas, and it’s “well maybe…” like that man hasn’t had lyrical potenct throughout his career.

    I also agree with keith to an extent on his Nas Lost theory. Its no secret that Hov fans, especially those with influence, would want to push this to the front. Its whatever.

    We are still turnin Life Is good up! Its gets better with ever spin!

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