Nas: "I'm Jesse Jackson on the balcony when King got killed"
We revisit Esco’s prophetic death of hip hop verse on Kanye West’s “We Major.”
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Jesse Jackson was one of the handful of King’s aides that were by his side in his final moments, as well as Ralph Abernathy and James Bevel. It was the 27-year-old Jackson who made the dreadful phone call to the Reverend’s wife, Coretta Scott, to inform her of the shooting. With numerous accounts of the fateful day, Jackson’s claims to have cradled the fallen leader, and hearing his final words, have been widely disputed. Regardless of inaccuracies, that fact is Jesse Jackson was there on the day Dr. King died.
In 2005, 37 years after that fateful day, Nas likened himself to Jackson while prophesizing the death of Hip Hop.
Before he pronounced Hip Hop dead with a blanket statement of a title for his eighth album, the Queensbridge MC – wise beyond his time – voiced his frustration with a culture that he loved dearly. After all, Nas is both a student and product of said culture and it was beginning to change around him. It was an evolution of sorts that we had yet to see the full effects of. In a head-scratching move considering his loyalty to JAY-Z, West featured Nas, sworn enemies in one of rap’s most prolific beefs, on the track “We Major” from his sophomore LP Late Registration.
“Been like 12 years since a n—a first signed,” he reminisces on the record. “Now I’m a free agent and I’m thinking it’s time to build my very own Motown.” Crucial to understanding Nas’ career, the lines signify his change in perspective, a storied journey from Illmatic to Street’s Disciple, and what we wanted to achieve as he grew older. “‘Cause rappers be deprived, of executive 9-to-5’s.” These ideals of his would come to fruition in the form of Mass Appeal Records, a New York-based record label co-founded with Peter Bittenbender. In the three years since the label’s inception, Mass Appeal has since acquired the talents of Run the Jewels, Dave East, DJ Shadow, and Escobar himself.
As of 2017, an artist has the absolute ability to be independent and successful without the backing of a major label. Chance the Rapper managed to achieve worldwide recognition and respect with his mixtapes 10 Day, Acid Rap, and Coloring Book, eventually earning three Grammy Awards for “Best New Artist,” “Best Rap Performance,” and “Best Rap Album” at this year’s 59th annual ceremony, not to mention headlining his own “Magnificent Coloring Day” festival. But in 2005, the idea of independence was unfathomable. The stranglehold on Hip Hop by record labels was beginning to kill the music and its purpose. As Nas raps, “it hurts to see these companies be stealin’ the life, and I love to give my blood sweat and tears to the mic.”
With the surge of artists like Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, Hip Hop wasn’t dead, per se; it was just the beginning of the end as we knew it to be, and our favorites were now aging into roles of elder statesmen and a new youthful voice was emerging. Guys like JAY-Z and Nas were no longer the hottest, but they would still be around and contributing, similar to KRS-One and Rakim before them. Even with his claim that “Hip Hop Is dead,” Nas wasn’t dissing any one individual, it was simply his view on the music. And the music was trash to him, which he gripes about the masses buying and championing, in the process, diluting the very same culture that N-A-S was birthed from (“So y’all copped the LP’s and y’all fiends got dealt.”)
In the case of Nasty Nas, whose debut album holds as much weight as Pink Floyd’s The Wall in the stratosphere of music, his verse begins to close saying “I’m Jesse Jackson on the balcony when King got killed.” Arguably one of the hardest lines the legendary emcee has ever spewed, Nas unapologetically compares himself to Jesse Jackson (obviously), with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assuming the role of Hip Hop. Of course, it’s blasphemous to compare King to Hip Hop, but the line stems from an overwhelming emotional state. To Nas’ credit, a key component to the two entities is the ability to unify a people – the words of Dr. King and the culture of Hip Hop have been documented as unstoppable forces of nature. They were breaking barriers and leading us to a freedom, saviors they were. And as the observer we love him for being, Nas had front row seats to the show.
His appearance on “We Major” would set the tone for his next album Hip Hop Is Dead, 16 tracks of Nas lambasting the then present state of Hip Hop and yearning for the good ol’ days. Ignoring the shift in the culture that was on the horizon, the King of Queensbridge was more concerned with the whereabouts of artists such as the Fu-Schnickens, Ill and Al Skratch, and Casanova Rud. The genius behind his verse is the bold declaration it would eventually lead to, and taking advantage of the platform presented by West have his verse heard. Even in its youth and budding maturity, we know Hip Hop will never die – Hip Hop is the culmination of the cultures, particularly in music, that came before it. In 2005, Nas was calling it as he saw:
If Hip Hop could be corrupted, then it was dead.
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