When news surfaced this week that Nas had reportedly used rebel conscious duo dead prez and fabled lyricist Jay Electronica as ghostwriters for his politically-charged 2008 album Untitled (a.k.a. Nigger), it was like the world had imploded. How could arguably hip-hop’s most celebrated lyricist be exposed as a mere puppet. Indeed, veteran journalist and Jay-Z scribe dream hampton and Frank William Miller Junior of the Rappers I Know blog co-signed the chatter, with Hampton even claiming to hear actual reference tracks. Since then, both Jay and stic.man of dead prez have vehemently refuted such talk. But there’s more to the story.
In an exclusive interview, VIBE caught up with stic.man to discuss his and partner M1’s role in the making of Untitled. It’s an illuminating interview that not only captures Nas as a fearless artist, but also underlines hip-hop’s at times muddied view of what constitutes as a producer. For stic, the message is clear. “We were the only three in the studio,” he says of dead prez’ experience with recording with Nas. “So it’s kind of like, well, who are all the people that are saying how the record was created? They wasn’t even there.” Read on.—Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
VIBE: You dismissed all the talk about dead prez ghostwriting for Nas on your Facebook page. Having produced and contributed to the chorus for “Sly Fox,” what did you make of dream hampton’s comment that you did ghostwriting for Nas?
Stic Man: I don’t know. At the end of the day, I just feel like the people who are saying different things about the process of how that record was created I’m wondering, where were you at? To be totally honest, me and M1 went to Cali at the request of Nas. And we would be in the studio together working on stuff with nobody else there except Nas, who would come in and leave. I think people are making assumptions because of the content of the record. It’s gone from the collaboration that we did with Nas, which involved producing, idea exchanging and writing hooks, which is one thing, to us being ghostwriters.
As a producer can you talk about how you approached your collaboration with Nas?
To me, ghostwriting, as far as I know, is hiring somebody to write words for you to actually say. That didn’t happen. The way we got hired for Nas’ project wasn’t clear up front. M1 was in L.A. before I came to L.A. and he was like, “Nas wants to bring you out here to work on this project.” I remembered thinking we were just going to do a song together. But I later found out we were there to work in general: production, writing and ideas to help develop some of the songs on the album. So of course I’m thinking, “It’s called the Nigger album so that means you want dead prez type songs together, right?” But it was revealed to me that Nas wasn’t looking for that. He didn’t want us to rap. He wanted help with beats and concepts. And that surprised me because I’m thinking, “You want beats??? Of all the people to make beats for, you want us to make beats?” I was like, “Wow.”
So this wasn’t the typical guest spot?
No. To me we were there to make whatever contribution we wanted to make. So I was like, “Shit…I’m playing beats, I’m coming up with some song ideas…I’m going to do whatever.” And this is Nas, so I’m going to give my best and give my all. Me and M started making dead prez songs in some of those sessions because there wasn’t a clear direction of what Nas wanted [laughs]. But later on Nas would come in and say, “I know I want to do something that would get at FOX News.” And he would tell us, “Just play me some shit…what ya’ll got?” We are talking about way beyond “Sly Fox.” There was a moment he even expressed interest in signing dead prez to his company. My impression was we were forming a team. That’s how Nas presented it. But as far as the rumors, people are off-base. They are all based on assumptions because of the content that we are more [associated] with than what Nas does.
Can you talk about a specific instance of how a Nas/dead prez song came together?
Even some of the songs we gave input on, in terms of hooks and phrases, it was Nas’ vision in terms of knowing what he wanted. He’s the one that came up with the concept for FOX News. I would have said, “Fuck FOX News…let’s do a song about something else.” [laughs] But this was a Nas project, so that was the box we were put in terms of how he wanted us to input. He wrote his verses. We just brainstormed about different aspects of FOX News (“Sly Fox”). I work 24/7—so as soon as I knew that, I started writing hooks just to present an idea. Because that’s what a producer does.
Do you think the concept of producing in hip-hop equals—make a beat and give it to a rapper to rap over?
Yeah. But when I produce I compare it to producing a film…that was my role on Untitled. That’s what I took away from the tracks that I worked on. But Nas was the director. It was his vision on everything. My job was simple: can you help make this happen whether it was music or concepts. The only thing is they didn’t want [the standard] dead prez/Nas collaboration. They didn’t want to have me and M on the record with Nas. We were there as producers and collaborators.
So there was no period in time when Nas asked you to write a verse for him?
No. Take “We’re Not Alone.” That was a beat and hook that I already had for dead prez’ Information Age album. But because it was Nas we just felt, “Hey, man…let’s just give our best.” He happened to like “We’re Not Alone” and he wrote verses from his own point of view of what that song was about. My view of “We’re Not Alone” was about our connection to the environment and each other. But Nas’ take on the song was different—he was talking about aliens…he took it there. And that’s why I say I was more of a producer than a director because I would have taken that song to a different place.
In the end, what has this whole Nas “ghostwriting” talk taught you?
People don’t understand what [traditional] producing is. I’m kind of still like, “Wow.” I’m trying to understand what’s the big deal and where it’s coming from. It’s weird. I’m like, “Hmmm…what’s going on here?”