Nas talks ESPN collab, Jeremy Lin, growing up a Yankee fan in Queens
Multi-platinum rapper Nas is reworking two of his songs for ESPN's draft coverage
Once an outspoken critic of Kobe Bryant, Nas has softened his stance over time
He's a fan of all New York teams, but thinks Oklahoma City will win the NBA title
ESPN made the first pick of the 2012 NFL Draft back in January, when it enlisted multi-platinum rapper Nas to provide music for the network's coverage. The Queens, N.Y., native is reworking two of his new songs with Austin guitarist Gary Clark Jr., for prospect highlight packages and to be used coming in and out of commercials.
"I was excited and surprised to get the phone call to celebrate the draft through music," said Nas last week from New York, where he was promoting his forthcoming album Life Is Good. "As soon as I got the call, I was down."
It's not the first time Nas, whose real name is Nasir Jones, has collaborated with the worldwide leader. He narrated an award-winning feature for the newsmagazine E:60 on the Liberian amputee soccer team in 2010, and was interviewed at length for last year's One Night in Vegas, the "30 for 30" documentary about the friendship between Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur, who was murdered after attending Tyson's 1996 fight with Bruce Seldon. The latter experience offered Nas the opportunity to meet one of his sporting idols.
"Mike Tyson is one of my favorite people in the world," Nas said, who was grateful for the "honor" of working on the project. "Just being a New Yorker, just being able to relate to him coming from the streets and becoming the heavyweight champion. To become the youngest one. He was just one of my heroes."
ESPN music director Kevin Wilson said Nas' previous work with the network "certainly helped getting in the room with his guys," and relished the chance to build on a relationship that predates the E:60 report.
"We used his music even before the '30 for 30' and the E:60 piece," Wilson said. "We'd used his music over the years on various shows. He performed out at the X Games this last winter. We've had this relationship that's been getting more involved over the years."
ESPN asked Nas to soften a few of his lyrics -- well before New York Post sports media columnist Phil Mushnick criticized the network's choice in an unintentionally hilarious get-off-my-lawn rant -- concessions the rapper was happy to make.
"A few phone calls later and some recording sessions and some photo shoots and here we are," Martin said.
Music keeps the 38-year-old artist busy, but he's still following the New York teams he grew up following in the Queensbridge housing projects that spawned such athletes as Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom, Vern Fleming and Lou Del Valle. He laughed when the incongruity of growing up a Yankee fan in Queens was brought up, even though he's often been spotted wearing the hat of New York's American League club. "I just love New York, I love all our teams," he said diplomatically. "I'm still waiting to see the Mets do it."
Although he's been fixated on the democratic team play of the Oklahoma City Thunder -- they're his pick to win the NBA title -- he's been impressed by Carmelo Anthony's resurgent form as the hometown Knicks head into the postseason. Like most of the country, the improbable rise of Jeremy Lin commanded his attention as the team rebounded from a moribund start.
"I think there should be a film about him," he said, enthusiasm rising. "I think he's a movie. That's just the coolest thing. A Harvard kid, not getting drafted, then all of a sudden he's out there at Madison Square Garden. I think that's the beauty of New York."
Long known for his trenchant social commentary, Nas has incorporated sports in his lyrics in the past. In the 2004 song "These Are Our Heroes," he blasted athletes like Kobe Bryant and O.J. Simpson for setting poor examples for America's youth. But eight years after likening Bryant to LeVar Burton's slave character in Roots and mocking his lost sponsorships in the wake of his rape charges, Nas says he's softened his stance.
"He's a warrior, he's a survivor. I got love for Kobe. We both share similar s---," said the rapper, who laughingly cited the high-profile divorces both men endured since the song's release.
Having finished the video and photo shoots for ESPN's draft coverage, Nas is hard at work promoting his forthcoming record (due out in June), his 10th full-length since his iconic 1994 debut Illmatic.
"The whole hip-hop music thing, for some people it hasn't grown fast enough but I think what my message represents is what's true to my life," he said. "It's just my experiences leading me to really believe that just being able to inhale breath each morning is enough for me to say life is good. And I hope that by saying that, it's becomes infectious. I hope by just saying that, more people will think that for themselves. That's my whole thing: just being thankful for life."