Over the last 15 years, Nas has visualized the show he wants, and Gabriel “G-Code” Zardes has helped bring it to the stage as a member of the icon’s management team in every capacity. The general manager of Emagen Entertainment Group has been such an integral part of Nas’ journey, he’s seen how the Queens legend inspired the biggest stars to show their fandom.
“[Will Smith] said, ‘I wish I could come out onstage,’ and I told him he should introduce Nas that night. He walked out onstage, and when the lights came on, he couldn’t say any words because of the crowd going crazy,” Zardes tells REVOLT. “He was chilling, but when ‘Made You Look’ came on, he took his shirt off, ran out there, and started going crazy.”
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” one of Nas’ closest managers discusses his perfectionism onstage, that time the living legend skipped the Super Bowl to perform with JAY-Z, and how he’s saved a few Nas shows without fans knowing. Read our exclusive conversation below.
When did you first start going on tour with Nas? What were your earliest roles?
My boy was managing him full time at the time. He went on “The Rock The Bells Tour” in 2008. I was around doing whatever. Toward the end of 2008, he had some solo shows. He had a booklet that had my name under road manager. I had no idea what went into being a road manager.
What were your earliest impressions of how he put his show together?
He’s a perfectionist. He talks about the show he wants, and then he’ll go out and do the show. It’s on everybody else to keep up. Sometimes he won’t even rehearse, and his performance will be exactly how he wanted it. He will notice something that was off that nobody else saw. Over the years, I started being in a lot of shows as the guy with the LA hat on because everybody else has on Mets hats. So, my LA hat stands out, so he can see me whether I’m in the crowd or on the side of the stage. What he would do is look for me, and I’ll just give him a head nod or something to tell him he’s too loud on the mic. I can mimic his entire show from ad-libs to words he won’t say on the mic — including crowd participation and everything — because he’s such a perfectionist that he does everything the way he wants to hear it. Early on, I also noticed that a lot of people around him weren’t telling him anything. I pride myself on being straight up, so I’ll say to him, “Yo, it could have been better. Yo, this was off. You were yelling.” And he respects that more.
What were some incidents at Nas’ shows where you saved the day?
There was a show we did at the University of Toronto — uh, I think it was the University of Toronto — and our DJ couldn’t make it. Nas was like, “Man, we’re probably going to have to cancel the show.” I was like, “I know the show, and I got Serato on my laptop.” I plugged it up, and I knew the whole set list. I knew everything. So, I deejayed the entire show. Toward the end, he said, “Play that record how we normally do it.” There’s a record where our DJ normally transitioned into old parts of his records where he’s saying “Nas” at different times and in different ways. I was like, “I ain’t got it.” He laughed and told the crowd, “That’s my man back there. He’s not really a DJ.” The crowd wasn’t booing, but sort of laughing booing. I said, “Hey, man, I got a mic too. My mic is on” (laughs). I played the next record, and the track had scratches in it. So, I started making my hands look like I was scratching the record. He was like, “Oh, alright. You doing your thing.”
There was another moment when we did Art Basel in 2011. It was supposed to be some cool little artsy thing, but they opened up the back part of the venue and made the audience space bigger. We decided to get Leon Mobley, a legendary percussionist. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I had this DJ app on the iPad with real turntables and everything, and I happened to have the whole set on there. I put it behind the CDJs, plugged it up, and started DJing the records. In the middle of the show, Nas asked for a canvas, and then he just started painting onstage. He was smoking in one hand with the mic in the other hand, and then he started painting. We stopped the show for a little bit, and they auctioned off the painting in the middle of the show. It sold for $14,000.
When you’re a legend, you can perform at almost any artist’s show. What was it like seeing Nas and JAY-Z come together at Carnegie Hall in 2012?
We were in Indianapolis at the Madden Bowl, which is always the day before the Super Bowl. We did the Madden Bowl the morning before and flew up to Indy. JAY’s people reached out and said they wanted him to come to perform at JAY’s show. We didn’t know if it would be the day of the Super Bowl. It was going to be the day after the Super Bowl. The morning of the Super Bowl, we got tickets and everything, thinking we were going to the game. But we had to go, and as the Super Bowl was happening, we were rehearsing (laughs). But we killed the show. It was an amazing moment.
What were JAY and Nas’ interactions like at that show backstage?
They have respect for each other, and they laugh and joke. They talk to each other about music, life, and everything. They’re really in tune with everything. They’re music buffs who are really in tune with the music. So, they’ll be trading stories every time. I’ve been around them, and they’ll just be like, “Yo, remember this time? They had this record.” They got their relationship. They’re both private guys.
Another legend Nas performed with was Will Smith, who joined him onstage in Philly at Electric Factory in August 2011. Please tell me how that even came to be.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Will Smith’s best friend, Charlie Mack, hit me that day and said, “We saw y’all in town for a show.” I told him to pull up. I had his passes and everything on me. Before the show, Nas didn’t want to be inside the building. He wanted to stay on the bus and just chill on the tour bus. I never met Will, and as I walked through the parking lot, Will walked up and said, “Gabe, what’s up, man?” I told him, “What’s up, man? I’m actually about to go see Nas. Do you want to come?”
Usually, I’ll hit Nas before anybody comes. I’ll say, “Yo, I’m headed your way with such and such.” But, this time, he wasn’t responding.” Will came on, and they chopped it up and everything. Will told him he loved the Distant Relatives album. We were on “The Distant Relatives Tour” with Damian Marley. He was going through the songs he liked. Later he said, “I wish I could come out onstage,” and I told him he should introduce him that night. He walked out onstage, and when the lights came on, he couldn’t say anything because the crowd was going crazy. Then Nas came out and dapped him up and started performing. He was chilling, but when “Made You Look” came on, he took his shirt off, ran out there, and started going crazy. We had the live band going crazy. He didn’t even want to get off the stage.
What is your favorite tour experience?
It would have to be “The Distant Relatives Tour.” We were still recording the album while we were touring. We were doing a whole bunch of records. That was a pivotal moment because I was literally going from the show to the studio, and I’d be in the studio with him all day. He works early, so I’ll leave that studio and go to the studio at night with Damon and his crew. We toured like crazy. We were in New Zealand, Australia, South America, and all over.
Over the years, what has been in Nas’ rider?
It has changed. It used to be stuff we never touched, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (laughs). There were also Turkey wraps, fruit, Patrón, and Grey Goose. We used to give the Grey Goose to one of Damian’s right hands. He used to always come saying, “I need that Goose.” We were on Patrón patrol, and we would do shots of it. We did a show in London; it was Damian’s birthday, and [Amy Winehouse] came. I knew about her drug issues, but I ignored the alcoholism. He and I would do a shot right by the stage every time we did a show. We were in the back, and she came in, and I asked her if she wanted something. Nas motioned to me, but I didn’t pick [it] up, and I poured her some. We started the show, and she was on the side of the stage dancing. Then I realized the crowd could see her dancing and having a good time and everything. The whole time, she’ll come around, and be like, “What’s up? What do you have?” I was pouring Patrón all day long. I didn’t know. When everybody saw her dancing, they’d say, “Go get Gabe.”
How has your role changed?
It went into manager around 2014 or 2015. I do everything. My partner Anthony Saleh is someone I got in the game with. He’s the big dog. There wasn’t a conversation between us about splitting responsibilities. He just started sending everything my way, and we split the duties. I travel with him too. So, I started doing a little bit of everything. I hired a tour manager some years back.
What is coming up for you and Nas in 2023?
We have a big show on Feb. 24 at Madison Square Garden — “The Trilogy Series” with King’s Disease 1-3. After that, we’ll probably be touring again in the States and Europe. We’re just figuring it out.