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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Big News > Newsweek > Olu Dara raps about son Nas

Olu Dara raps about son Nas

Hip-hop Poppa
Nas’s new single subverts the hip-hop fatherhood paradigm—with a little help from his dad, Olu Dara
By Brian Braiker
Updated: 3:59 p.m. ET Nov. 16, 2004Nov. 16 - Rap megastar Nas has described his style as “bold, daring, brave and honest.” His double album “Street Prophet” won’t come out till later this month, but fans have already gotten a taste of his lyrical derring-do on “Bridging the Gap,” the record’s first single: “Yeah daddy,” he shouts out to his father, “love you, boy.”


The song is a collaboration with—and mini-paean to—his old man, jazz and blues musician Olu Dara. “My pop told me be your own boss/keep integrity at every cost,” he rhymes. Dara returns the favor by singing “I told him as a youngster he’ll be the greatest man alive.” The song, aside from its hackneyed Muddy Waters sample, is fun, raucous and in a similar vein to Nas’s 2003 single “I Can” (“B-Boys and girls, listen up/You can be anything in the world, in God we trust/An architect, doctor, maybe an actress/But nothing comes easy/ it takes much practice”).

Dara, who plays cornet and sings on the new single, has worked with his son before, notably on Nas’s breakthrough classic “Illmatic.” A New York jazz fixture in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Dara says he was constantly bringing Nas to shows and showing him around the studio. The two, he says, were inseparable and he never saw it as anything but natural. But, for better or worse, the tight father-son bond is an anomaly in rap, which—when it does broach the topic—portrays fathers as deadbeat baby-daddies.

Dara, whose own albums include the soulful roots gumbo of “In the World: From Natchez to New York” and “Neighborhoods,” recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Brian Braiker about the message behind his son’s new single, his own take on rap in general and what he thought of controversial comments made earlier this year by comedian Bill Cosby. Excerpts:

This isn’t the first time you guys have worked together.
I was on one song on his first album, “Illmatic.” I was on the song “Life is a Bitch.” He asked me to come and rap, but I didn’t want to be the oldest rapper in the world. So I opted to play a little on one song. The next time we played together was on my first album, where he does some spoken word. And on his album “God’s Son” I played some. We made music together when he was young in the house. So it’s like doing it the way we used to do it in the house—that’s how easy it feels.

Are you working on anything yourself?
When this settles down, I’ll go back into the studio.

You do some theater, too.
In a couple weeks I’m going down to George Mason University to put up a play with Diane McIntyre about the anniversary of Brown v. [Board of Education]. Usually I would be in it, but I don’t have time. I am going to go down there and compose the music and musically direct it. I’m busy working with my band too. We just left New Orleans.

Do you see this single as a message song or just a celebration of your own relationship?
Initially, I just thought about it as a relationship between father and son. It wasn’t anything unusual for me. But I’m finding out it’s kind of an anomaly to most people in the world. Why? I don’t know. Maybe fathers and sons are not as close as I thought they were. So maybe it is a wholesome message since people think it’s unusual.

It must be fun to do this with him.
We always did. He and I have never had a minor dispute. I may have had to chastise him when he was 7 years old. But our relationship has been very healthy throughout, from the beginning. In hindsight, I remember getting comments from the women in the neighborhood saying how special it was to see a man with his son walking around every day. I think that’s really when I started realizing that it’s an unusual sight to see. I find that with most men of all races it’s hard to see fathers and sons [together].

What’s your take on Bill Cosby’s comments about raising kids in the black community when he railed against “the young males who become fathers and [are] not held responsible, the young women having children and moving back in with their mothers and grandmothers?"
Well, he’s in the ivory tower. A lot of times you see wealthy people who escape the hard life of the ghetto, they become separated from that. He’s basically detached, which is why he can make those statements. He’s been away from that kind of thing for a long time. Only a detached person would have nerve enough to say anything like that. That’s just my own take.

Do you think the way you raised Nas encouraged him to do the positive songs like this and “I Can?”
That song [came out of] an overt conversation about 10 or 12 years ago with his grandmother, my mother, who told him to make sure that before he finished his career that he would make a song for kids. That’s the one thing he would have to do to really make a dent in the family, get appreciation from the family.

You’re a jazz and blues man. Do you listen to rap?
Oh sure, I knew a lot of the rappers during the embryonic stages of hip-hop in New York, Queens and places like that. I watched them get it rolling before it was popular. I love to dance, so rap attracted me first because of the way they use the music. I like the medium tempos they use. You listen to something like “Lean Back” by Fat Joe and if you dissect his song you hear European classical violins, you hear indigenous sounds in the back, you hear the blues beat. They actually mix four or five different genres on one song.

What about the harshness or violence of some of the more outré lyrics?
If you’re older, like me, you’ve heard it [before]. Those lyrics are not going to surprise you

So it doesn’t bother you to hear some of your son’s tougher lyrics when they come out of his own mouth?
Look, I’ve been to movies that are deeper than that. I can go and watch “Godfather” I, II and III and not only hear it but see it. I can see blood and guts, you know? It’s only something that gets people talking about it because it’s from the young black culture. One guy who interviewed me said “I don’t like gangsta rap; I don’t like what they’re saying.” And yet he was a fan of “Halloween” I, II and III. He liked Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. He didn’t mind the scene in the Godfather when they messed up the man’s daughter-in-law. But people have a way of singling out hip-hop. One day I’m going to write something about the psychology of the criticism of hip-hop.

And you can vouch for how true-to-life the lyrics are that pertain to Nas’s childhood in songs like “Poppa was a Playa”—which is a warts-and-all portrait of you?
He portrays accurate things in his lyrics. If he speaks anything about me or his mother or anything like that, that stuff is right. It’s on. That’s it.

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