Travis Scott for Playboy

Rapper's Delight

Hip-hop megastars Travis Scott and Nas in conversation: On freedom, rap and relevance

"Let me get that blunt.” Travis Scott pokes his head out from the backseat of his silver Bentley. His security guard lights up, tests his work and then passes it to his boss. The 26-year-old Houston-born rapper’s bleached braids are all we see of him as he inhales and exhales, rolling up the windows. He insists on sitting in the luxury car—the same one he turned up in with his driver at the wheel—because the Hollywood Hills midcentury modern edifice that is the site of today’s Playboy shoot imposes a strict no smoking policy. His entourage of 10, decked out in their leader’s merchandise, never leaves the driveway, setting up a scene and an energy only a rap superstar could create.

Scott is today’s most hyped hip-hop artist, following a slow and steady climb that began with an appearance on Kanye West’s 2012 compilation Cruel Summer. His career trajectory dramatically shifted last year when Astroworld, his third studio album, debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 thanks in part to a laundry list of genre-defying features from heavyweights including Drake, Kid Cudi and James Blake. This winter, he translated his warped atmospheric soundscape into a two-leg experiential stadium tour of the same name, equipped with a Ferris wheel and splashes of color as trippy as his sparse staccato rhymes. And he has already performed at the Super Bowl.

Such a freewheeling artist, backed by a major label and with six Grammy nominations, would not exist without the rappers who came before him. Scott agrees: Sitting next to him in the hazy car is the rapper Nas, whom Scott personally selected to discuss the evolution of hip-hop. “How you came into the game, it was kind of crazy,” he says to Nas.

Nasir Jones, the New York–born poet, began his music career in the early 1990s, about a decade after the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” hit the Billboard Top 40. In 1994, Nas moved the needle with his revolutionary debut album, Illmatic, whose deft wordplay and expertly woven beats tell a vivid tale of a young man from the inner city. At the same time, rap, on its way to becoming the top-selling music genre, was still widely dismissed as a fad, too volatile and monotonous to last.

Yet here they are, more than two decades later, sitting in this rare Bentley, two icons, from two different eras in the ever-evolving American hip-hop timeline, discussing the past, present and future of a genre that has both lifted them up and forced them to tear down the industry walls that confine them. Their hour-long conversation, presented here in edited and condensed form, begins with a discussion of the most glaring differences between their debuts: the advancement of technology, the influence of social media and the power of the internet.


SCOTT: Speaking of a time before all this technology, it was like, “Okay, I rap.” You had to get to this popular producer in your city. He would hear your shit, and maybe he’d let you record and give you a beat. Then he’d bring you to the DJ, and radio was the main problem. But now it’s like, man, I got my own social media. I can drop my shit. I can cater to my own followers. People can look at my shit if they want to. It’s not like the radio, where somebody can stop people from hearing me. I can yell it loud right now: I want to rap! If people want to catch on to it, they can catch on to it. And then, if you want to explain what’s going on in your personal life, you talk to your fans too. Back then you had to do a press conference.

NAS
: You can reach the world faster—a lot faster than back then. That’s a great thing, because it was mind-boggling trying to figure out how to get this message out to people and market your record at the right time and then drop a single six weeks before the album. That’s gone.

SCOTT: You can reach the world now.

NAS: Now you can just go, “Yo, the album will be out in a week.” No single, no nothing.

SCOTT: Whatever you want——

NAS: Because of the internet. We can go do a song right now and put it up. We don’t have to ask nobody. The record industry actually follows what we do, especially once you make your name in the game.
Nowadays the pain has changed. We’re after different things. We broke past the barriers.
SCOTT: I’m guessing hip-hop used to be about bars and just a unique flow over beats. It was like straight soul, and man, you’re telling your story; it was just bar to bar, killing it, and not really about anything being catchy. It was just really raw.

Nowadays, people might not see it that way, but it’s the same thing. It’s just as raw. But technology, man. We came up on iPhones, you know what I mean? We’re at a point now where we don’t even write our raps down. We’re just going straight off the dome in the booth. I know from people I work with, like Young Thug and Quavo, most everyone likes going in and just laying down whatever’s on their minds.

The past generation knocked down so many doors where, you know, they were spitting a lot of pain, man. They was dealing with a lot of police stuff. We’re still dealing with that now, but it wasn’t so free. Now we got more of a voice at the label. We can kind of put out our own music whenever. You and I could do a song during this interview and upload it right now if we wanted to.

NAS: That’s right. Being an MC or a rapper, you got to change with the times. I can stay me, sure, but the challenge is to stay with what’s going on. If you look at the great ones from back then, a lot of them have four albums; they had short careers. That’s changed now. All the restrictions are gone. You can be free to make your music.

When hip-hop started out, you only had a top five. You had a short list of dope rappers, from Ice Cube to Slick Rick. You could count them on your fingers. Hip-hop is such a big thing now that everybody’s jumping in on it. There are so many different styles that by the time you do the thing that you do, this dude over here done started a whole new way. You got to stay on top of what’s going on just for the love of music.

You said it was once about writing down the pain and all of that. Nowadays the pain has changed. We’re after different things. We broke past the barriers. We understand what we need to do and we’re in control of what we’re doing, and no one can stop it now. No one can tell us what to do, what we can’t do. Rap music can’t be stopped now.
SCOTT: I got a whole other line of respect for how you came into the game. Me, personally, when I was coming into it, I was never into rap-rap. I had to learn to like it, because I didn’t understand it.

I’m from Houston, so listening to East Coast rap and West Coast rap is a little different from the South. It’s a different type of tempo, a different type of tone. So when I heard it, it just sounded foreign. But the swag, you know what I mean? The way you carried yourself. Just growing up listening and dialing into your albums, you hear the art of telling a story. I feel like I was a kid who was just by myself, alone in my mind all the time. I always had this, like, deep, just floating consciousness.

One of my idols is Kid Cudi and the way he tells his stories about how he felt as a kid growing up, like where he’s from. I related to that. I adopted my own form of storytelling—whether it’s through melodies or through raps or both. And as a producer too, just studying other fire producers—Pete Rock, Kanye, Pharrell—I was always into mixing different genres. I wasn’t stuck solely in one field.

I like to bridge the gap between different styles of music. I always made my own beats and shit. I love James Blake, Toro y Moi and Björk. These types of people influenced me on another level. That’s what’s moved me. I mean, that’s the type of picture I want to paint.

When I was old enough to understand what you were spitting, it was just like, Oh, shit. Now that I know music, I can see how you came into the game. Like, man, I was online watching when you came out at a show, and you spit that verse. I forget——

NAS: “Live at the Barbeque”?

SCOTT: “Live at the Barbeque,” yeah. When I saw that video, man, I felt like I was in the crowd. You know what I’m saying? I was like, “Yo, this nigga right here is fuckin’ crazy.” It kind of relates back to me when I was doing Astroworld. I want people to experience what it was like to listen to the album. Now, you sometimes lose the experience. Everything’s digital, so you don’t get the honor of going to the record store to get a record or a CD. You download it or stream it, and then that’s it. You pulled up. You had an idea. You was figuring it out, man. Like it just took over my whole mind-set, though. I’ve been working toward, as an artist, just bringing back the experience. For my first album, Rodeo, I made an action figure——
I’m an expressive artist, but with media and shit, it gets misconstrued.
NAS: When I first saw you coming up with the action figure, I was like, “Damn, I wish I could have thought of that.” And then I just heard your music, and I said, “This dude is coming.” You was doing something I wish I did when I was in my 20s, which was not giving the camera much. If you go back to one of the interviews I did on Video Music Box, I don’t look at the camera that much. Through the years, I would do award shows or whatever, and then I would skip the red carpet. The record label would be mad at me, that I’m up here and I’m selling all these units and I won’t even walk the carpet. When you cover your face so you don’t look down, I think, Damn, I wish.…

I live vicariously through you when you do that, bro, because I feel you on that. You here to do the music and leave your stain on this world. Whether you be in front of them cameras or not, you don’t even care.

SCOTT: I don’t care. That’s my whole shit, bro. It’s about the music. I just express what a kid my age is going through in a time.

Being from Houston, a lot of my music is just talking about what I experienced growing up in my neighborhood, in my town. You just try to make moves and inspire people to go out and help others, to be a better person. Like, “Yo, let’s be on this. Let’s try to get on this type of wave.”

I wouldn’t say I don’t feel compelled to speak on political issues; sometimes you just don’t want to speak too much on stuff you don’t know much about. It’s not like I’m not thinking about what’s going on in the world. I’m an expressive artist, but with media and shit, it gets misconstrued. As I’m sitting with you right now, I’m still figuring this out, you know?
NAS: Politics definitely affects the way I think, but the way I write is my day-to-day life. I did a song talking about daughters, because I have a daughter. “Daughters” was nominated for a Grammy. I feel it—that’s why I wrote it—but I had no idea it would be acknowledged like that when it came out. So I write about day-to-day stuff, and I don’t plan to write anything political, because then it’s forced. It ain’t a natural expression.

SCOTT: Yeah.

NAS: One thing we can’t allow politics to do is take over our mind and make us fall into their game. What’s going on in the news could consume our lives. If that happens, life doesn’t go on. We need to continue going on.

Ray Charles and Billie Holiday and all of those great acts were entertaining and going through worse times than now. They were inspiring us. When Michael Jackson did Thriller, that was during Reaganomics. He gave us something to look at other than the politics, the propaganda, the lies. He gave us inspiration. And Whitney Houston, she came out and did songs that rocked us and inspired kids to want to sing and be great. The politicians want our full attention. They’re hustling. I’m not getting caught up in that. I make music about life, and life comes before politics.

SCOTT: You can never predict who’s going to be the voice.

NAS: As long as you got hoods, there’s going to be——

SCOTT: A voice.
NAS: Those hoods are always going to yell out and say what’s going on. It’s going to get more fly and futuristic. But the message is always: We want food, shelter, health care and all the things we’re deprived of. We want no police brutality. We want all these things. That’s what hip-hop is talking about. I’m using this to get by. I’m drinking this to get by. I’m smoking this to get by. I’m selling this to get by. All those things are the ingredients for this rap thing, and that’s never going to stop.

We’re sitting here in a fly-ass car and this is all we dreamed about—all our brothers coming up and having something out of this life, not just material things but having whatever you want, seeing the fruits of your labor. A lot of artists never get the chance to see that.

SCOTT: We can do so much with our voices. We can go so crazy. Back then, man, I swear you can listen to a lot of albums and it was all making beats on one programmer, you know what I mean? It was only a couple of machines at the time. It’s so crazy now. The technology is a new wave. It’s so dynamic.

I collaborate with different artists like John Mayer and James Blake just for vocal compatibility, because we can stretch our vocals into the next level, and with the way we record now we can do so much. The programmer only lets us do so much. We got to put it on a disc, you know what I mean?

NAS: The hip-hop game is about staying and sustaining and keeping it going. You’re a great rapper, but they can’t just put you in a rapper box, because your music is going in so many different directions. You’re a rock star, and it always was like that. It comes from the hood. It comes from the mud and then it blows up, and then who’s going to hang around? Who’s going to be the one that sticks around and keeps giving us that excitement? That’s what makes you great, when you can maintain in this game.
SCOTT: When I started, I never thought I could do arenas and be so big that so many people would come listen to the music and know the words. I think what makes a great artist is just the people you touch. Are they moving to your music? Are they living their life to it? Are they rocking with it or feeling inspired by it, or is it helping them get through something?

NAS: This shit is a blood sport. This shit ain’t easy. This is one of the hardest games ever. I love it right now because it’s testing you. What are you made of? Can you survive? What do you have to offer in 2019? Because the moment you sleep, the moment you blink your eyes too long, your spot is taken. And that’s the excitement of it.

SCOTT: There’s no barrier. There’s just so much of a flow of things that we’re trying to—we’re gettin’ it out, and we’re expressing it in a different way: what’s happening during our time in life, what’s happening in the streets. We just expressing it in a different way.

 
This conversation has been edited and condensed.