In his new book, NaS Lost: A Tribute to The Little Homey, veteran rap blogger Byron Crawford takes aim at everyone, whether it’s comparing Chief Keef to “sellout-era Liz Phair,” devoting an entire chapter to the cultural critic dream hampton, or expounding on the merits of Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience.
Through everything (and I really mean everything– Crawford calls Virginia Tech “the least hip-hop of all the school shootings,” at one point), Bol keeps coming back to the work of one of rap’s most venerated artists: Nas. The Queens rapper debuted with one of hip-hop’s all-time greatest statements, then quickly commenced with over a decade of creative and commercial floundering. Crawford writes he has the “ability to make the best rap music possible, and he just doesn’t, ever.”
Whether or not you agree with each and every one of his opinions, Crawford is a sharp, indomitably funny writer, and NaS Lost finds him in rare form. ANIMAL caught up with him to talk about the book, his favorite young rappers, and Emma Watson.
Tell me a little bit about the book. Clearly it’s about Nas on some level, but it also uses his him as a spring board to take a wider look at the current rap and cultural landscape. What about Nas made him a good subject?
NaS Lost is a look at the ups and downs of Nas’ career, from the release of Illmatic in 1994, widely considered one of the best rap albums of all time, to years and years of personal creative failure, along with the occasional later-career triumph, like his beef with Jay-Z in ’01, and the release of his album Life Is Good last year, which was viewed by many as a return to form.
I started out, a few months ago, with the idea of taking a more general look at mid ’90s-era rap music, which was the sound of my adolescence and maybe the best time ever for rap music, but I decided to go with something more focused. Nas’ career was easier to tie into some of the things I wanted to discuss.
You refer to rap as an “old man’s sport” early on, and write that Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren, and Roc Marciano are the only young guys doing it right. Really, no one else does it for you? eXquire, Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar seem like they could be up your alley.
I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been when I said that rap music is an old man’s sport. There’s nothing about being old that makes you a better rapper. In fact, as far as I can tell, you don’t really get better at anything past a certain point. What I meant is that only older rappers are making the kind of rap music I like.
I didn’t mean to suggest that the few guys I mentioned are a comprehensive list of good young rappers. And those guys aren’t that young either. I dig the guys you mentioned, especially eXquire. Kendrick Lamar is a talented kid, but he might be letting the fawning praise for good kid, mAAd city go to his head. Comparing himself to the likes of Nas, Jay Z and Eminem just seems silly to me. Dissing the entire industry is just creating an opportunity for guys like Joell Ortiz and Papoose to be popular again for an afternoon. I’m pretty sure that’s not what hip-hop needs.
Why is the book dedicated to Emma Watson?
While I was working on NaS Lost, I stumbled upon a Photobucket account with the 634 best Emma Watson photos, via Reddit. It seemed ridiculous to me that her best-of collection could be 634 photos deep, and it made me wonder just how many photos of her there are. But then I started looking at them, and they really are that good.
Emma Watson is the top chick in the game right now, and I thought she’d appreciate me dedicating a book to her. If you check her IMDB, most of her movies are based on books, and I think one time she tried going to college, which suggests to me that might enjoy reading. I want to give a copy of NaS Lost to Emma Watson, but I don’t just want to send it to her agency or her PR company, because then she’ll probably never get it. I need to somehow give it to her in person. No Boutros. If ANIMAL can somehow help facilitate that, that would be fantastic.
“Nullus” is still very much a part of your lexicon, and there’s a passage that says the idea of Biggie having a gay best friend “makes you sick just thinking about it.” This year has seen, among other things, an explosion of popularity for at least two openly gay rappers. Still not convinced?
The thing about the thought of Biggie Smalls hanging out with gay guys making me sick was obviously a joke. Biggie Smalls can have as many gay friends as he’d like. He’s dead now anyway, so it’s a moot (“mute”) point. I had a gay friend when I was a kid too. This was before we were old enough to have a sexual preference one way or the other, but you could tell he’d probably end up gay. His clothes were too neat, and sometimes he’d jump rope. We eventually went our separate ways, but not because he was gay. Our interests just naturally diverged.
Having said that, I can’t see a gay rapper finding much success in hip-hop. Not necessarily because hip-hop culture is so homophobic, but because I don’t know if gay guys have what it takes to make very good rap music — the same way women haven’t been able to make very good rap music. The few really good female rappers were all lesbians, which suggests to me that it might be a masculinity thing: you gotta be extremely masculine to be a good rapper, and that’s why not very many gay guys or women have excelled at it. This is something I might have to expand on in a future book.
There’s some insidery internet media stuff in there. What’s your take on today’s landscape? Who’s doing blogging right, who’s doing it wrong?
In terms of consistently cranking out content that I’d like to read, nobody’s doing blogging right. The Internets, more so than ever, are a damn cesspool. I spend a shedload of time online, for the important work that I do, and I might find one or two well-written articles that interest me personally — and it’s not like I have such obscure interests. It seems like everyone’s doing the same thing now — and I’m probably just as guilty of this as anyone — which is to figure out what was on the front page of Reddit yesterday, or what people were talking about on Twitter last night, or whatever music video or TV show people are talking about, do a post on it and try to capture as much of the traffic swarm as you can through SEO, social media and what have you. There’s also a lot of garbage original content and features, like the think-piece about the identity politics outrage du jour, the #longform article that seems like it’s based on another #longform article from five years ago, and the list of the top 50 [insert almost anything here] of all time.
You close the book with some pretty harsh words for Chief Keef and the critics you call “cultural tourists” who give him good reviews. What do you mean by cultural tourism, and do you think it’s impossible for a critic or fan, white or black, to enjoy Keef’s music without taking part in it (cultural tourism)? Does race matter?
I didn’t necessarily intend for what I wrote about Chief Keef to come off as harsh, but I guess I don’t have to worry about him reading it anyway, now do I? Really, I was just using him as an example. There might be a new Chief Keef by this time next year. The original could be dead or in jail, god forbid. It wouldn’t be the first time. What I meant by cultural tourist is someone whose interest in rap music — or whatever they’re interested in — is based more so in racism than an actual interest in the music.
The classic example of a cultural tourist is Steve Buscemi’s character in the movie Ghost World. He’s very into blues music, to the point where he collects old obscure records and he can’t stand the idea of a white group playing the blues, and then we come to find out he’s got a lot of Coon Chicken Inn memorabilia in his attic. The equivalent of that in hip-hop is the guy who’s into a lot of LCD rap, supposedly because he really likes the music, but really because he’s amused by the coonery. Some of these people might honestly be under the impression that they like the music, and that’s been the source of a lot of conflict and cognitive dissonance, but some of them are obviously just trolling.