Over the weekend, Miami played host to the third annual REVOLT Music Conference, a four-day event featuring panels and pool parties for people in the music business. But there was a special moment for hip-hop during the Saturday night gala when Diddy presented Nas with the Jimmy Iovine Icon Award. And he heaped a whole ton of praise on God’s Son.
“This is truly what black excellence is about,” Diddy said during a 12-minute speech honoring Nas. “When you have an artist who puts himself before the fame, before the shine, before the money, to uplift the craft. Always, Nas has been the one to save hip-hop. No matter how watered down it got, as long as Nas was there, we was still alright. There was still motherfucking hope.”
It’s an interesting quote, not least because it comes from a guy who has been criticized for dampening hip-hop with R&B samples and shiny suits (“Jacking old beats and making the dash,” as Mos Def once rebuked), but because it’s about a guy who, for a while, showed little faith in the genre—and himself.
In his 2013 book Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove remembers attending the 1995 Source Awards, a night that would go down in hip-hop history thanks to Suge Knight dissing Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Records. It was also the night OutKast got booed, which had its own lasting repercussions on the rap game. But Quest’s gaze was transfixed on Nas, sitting a few seats away, whose critically acclaimed album Illmatic was up against Biggie’s own successful debut, Ready to Die.
“Both albums were up for the same awards, and of course Biggie won them all. And for every award Biggie got I watched Nas just wilt in defeat,” Questlove recalls. “I remember turning to Tariq and saying, ‘He’s never going to be the same. You just watch.’ That was the night Nas’ Clark Kent turned into Superman, the night this mild-mannered observer realized he had to put on a suit and try to fly. But maybe he didn’t have flying power in that way.”
Questlove’s prediction came true a year later when Nas donned that ill-fitting cape and dropped his sophomore LP, It Was Written. The album won him a larger commercial audience (it remains Nas’ best-selling album to this day), but alienated many of his core fans. If Illmatic was one-in-a-million, then It Was Written was just another mafioso wannabe. It didn’t help that the bulk of the album was produced by The Trackmasters, the duo behind “Juicy” and many more Bad Boy songs. “There was debate over whether he was following his own course or trying to be Biggie,” Questlove writes.
Either way, this all comes back to Diddy. He may claim hip-hop has always been in good hands, but did he really believe that when he put The L.O.X. in shiny suits? Did Nas really put himself before the fame and shine when he made It Was Written? And did he still believe he could save hip-hop when he pronounced it “dead”?