The Nas who recorded Illmatic as a hungry teenager was many things: a self-taught poet who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, the second coming of Rakim, a fiery political activist with a singular gift for rhetoric, and hip-hop’s lyrical messiah. He was a genius who created one of rap’s greatest, most unimpeachable albums while not old enough to drink legally. It’s hard to overstate Illmatic’s importance: Last year, Michael Eric Dyson edited Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic, a compilation of essays about the album from leading members of the smart set. The book arrived on the heels of Matthew Gasteier’s entry on the instant classic for the 33 1/3 book series.
To Carmen Bryan, the mother of Nas’ daughter Destiny and the author of the tawdry tell-all It’s No Secret: From Nas To Jay-Z, From Seduction To Scandal—A Hip-Hop Helen Of Troy Tells All, the man-god born Nasir Jones wasn’t a poet or a prophet, but a broke-ass loser who still lived with his mother in the projects. And it wasn’t burning ambition that kept bumping back Illmatic’s release date. Here’s Bryan on the real reason Nas kept listeners waiting:
I was used to people being all hot and bothered about Nas’s debut album. Sometimes it seemed all of New York City was in a fever of anticipation. Everyone assumed perfectionism was delaying Nas’s album. Though I hate to admit it, in my view, Nas was simply relaxed to the point of apathy about going into the studio.
There is something to be said for books that demythologize pop icons. They allow us to see the messy, fragile, complicated people behind the finely honed images and publicist-crafted personas. Yet No Secret doesn’t expand our understanding of Nas as a man and an artist—it diminishes it. It’s like reading a book about the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from someone who thought the Fab Four were just a bunch of shaggy-haired assholes making an unholy racket. The Nas of It’s No Secret is so dull that Bryan seems bored writing about him. And it’s not like she has anything else to write about, except the other famous people she was fucking, and how deeply irritated she was by Nas’ ongoing suspicion that she was cheating on him, just because, you know, she was cheating on him.
And not just cheating on him: Bryan was cheating on Nas with Jay-Z, his greatest rival. If It’s No Secret were the heavy-breathing romance novel it often suggests, then Nas would be the brutish, callous, philandering husband and Jay-Z the suave, debonair stranger who reawakens our fearless heroine’s sleeping libido. He’s the forbidden fruit, so wrong and yet so right. Here’s Bryan on her growing attraction to Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter:
What made Shawn so unique from other men I had dated was that he became my best friend. He really listened to me and when I spoke he would look intently into my eyes. It was almost like he was recording my every word to memory. I had never been with a man who was so attuned to my thoughts and feelings. It worked both ways; I really cared about Shawn and respected and valued his opinions. It felt like I was in my first adult relationship.
Wow, a man who listens to her while she talks, and maintains eye contact. Talk about a keeper! Nas, in sharp contrast, probably stared at Bryan’s tits and made jerking-off hand gestures every time she opened her mouth. Bryan depicts Nas as a singularly unpleasant human being, a moody, perpetually stoned, irresponsible man-child who is such a delinquent father that Bryan’s family nicknames him “Uncle Daddy.” Is it any wonder Bryan felt the need to cheat on him constantly with his biggest enemy, and also with basketball superstar Allen Iverson? Here’s Bryan’s heavy-breathing take on her fling with the sports icon:
Allen was lean and muscled, a warrior, with tattoos and battle scars. Just looking at him got me excited. His body was scrumptious. His kiss was intoxicating and I felt like I was melting. Our antics took us from one side of the bed to the other. I couldn’t get enough of this man. He was so physically strong he thought nothing of picking me up and creating the most erotic of poses. When he finally possessed me I was so ready. He filled me completely and our rhythm was perfect. Allen was average in size but his gift was girth and technique. His sliding and swerving thrusts hit me in spots I didn’t know I had. And this was only round one.
This column remains heroically committed to giving you the lowdown on the sex lives and genitalia of your favorite rap stars, and to documenting only the most erotic of poses. Thankfully, to paraphrase MF Doom, the way Bryan and her celebrity suitors got down is far from privileged info. She praises Jay-Z for boasting an appendage alternately like a baby’s arm, the neck on a giraffe, an elephant’s trunk, or a large human penis, though he was apparently boring and conventional in bed, and only had the physical strength for semi-erotic poses. Like Iverson, Nas was apparently also average in size, but much kinkier. He was into everything: Beetle-boxing, Bea Arthur’s Revenge, Reverse Kickstand, Upside-Down Flying Unicycle, the Backward Unicorn, the whole nine yards.
Simultaneously sleeping with professional arch-nemeses inexplicably created complications for Bryan. When Jay-Z went after Nas with “Takeover” and Nas responded with “Ether,” Jay-Z decided to bring the war to his “best friend” with the freestyle “Supa Ugly.” The dis contained lyrics like:
Me and the boy A.I. got more in common
Than just ballin’ and rhyming, get it?
More in Carmen.
I came in your Bentley backseat
Skeeted in your Jeep
Left condoms on your baby seat…
And since you infatuated with sayin’ that gay shit
Yes, you was kissin’ my dick when you was kissin’ that bitch
You thought I was boning Renette
You calling Carm a hundred times, I was boning her neck
You got a baby by that broad
You can’t disown her yet
Nasty stuff, especially since Bryan presumably imagined that if she made it into one of Jay-Z’s raps it would be in a context like, “I enjoy looking intently into Carmen’s eyes / I am so attuned to her thoughts and feelings / It’s like she’s my best friend / Her trenchant insights are so appealing.”
It’s No Secret ends with Bryan finally mustering up the courage to stop fucking Jay-Z and Nas and pursue her first love: herself. As the jacket copy notes, “After years of turmoil that included drugs, sex, greed, and violence—and abandoning what she had always prized above all, her freedom—Carmen took a stand, focusing on herself.” Wow. The ability to focus on oneself; Bryan really is a hero. Nas will always have Illmatic, but Bryan has something even more rare and wonderful: a newfound willingness to attend to her own needs and wants.
Like Carmen Bryan, Kim Osorio, author of Straight From The Source, slept with a pair of super-famous rappers: Nas and 50 Cent. Unlike with Bryan, that doesn’t constitute the sum of her accomplishments. After getting her law degree, Osorio chose to put her legal career on hold to write for The Source, the self-proclaimed “Bible of hip-hop.”
When Osorio joined The Source in 2000, it was a powerful cultural institution rotting from the inside out. The magazine was founded by a Jewish Harvard graduate named David Mays, but rumors circulated for years that the real power behind the magazine was Ray Scott, a scowling, creepy, biracial Boston gangsta rapper professionally known as Benzino who’d achieved incredible levels of failure both as a solo artist and as a member of The Almighty RSO and Made Men.
Scott’s involvement with “manager” Mays was the source of tremendous controversy inside and outside of the magazine. In 1994, Mays magically slipped a glowing profile of Almighty RSO into the magazine against the wishes of his editors (and the dictates of ethics, morality, and basic human decency), causing a massive protest walkout among the staff. Five years later, Made Men’s Classic Limited Edition mysteriously received four and a half out of five mics in a pseudonymously written—David Mays, cough cough—review, a rating the magazine previously gave lesser albums like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
Eventually, Mays asserted what everyone already knew: Scott was co-owner of The Source. Scott should have been overjoyed. Though a complete failure as an artist, he was wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, and a major hip-hop power broker. But it wasn’t enough. In Scott’s mind, The Source existed for one reason: to make him and Made Men superstars. Scott was no longer content to lurk furtively behind the scenes. He angrily demanded the spotlight, and was willing to destroy the most powerful magazine in hip-hop history if it meant advancing his non-starting rap career.
This was the poisonous atmosphere Osorio entered, first as a staffer and later as the first female editor-in-chief. In accepting the top slot at The Source, Osorio entered into a Faustian bargain. She’d sold her journalistic soul for $130,000 a year and a glamorous job that allowed her to travel around the country and breathe the rarified air of rap’s biggest, most successful artists and executives. Osorio became addicted to the high life, and adjusted her moral compass accordingly.
Mays emerges in Osorio’s page-turning tell-all as an emasculated half-man. In one of the book’s saddest passages, Scott grows displeased with something Mays has done and makes him say, “I’m a stupid fucking idiot” as penance during a three-way phone conversation with Osorio. It’s almost enough to make a reader feel sorry for Mays. Almost. But Mays was anything but innocent.
While working on an attack on 50 Cent, Mays told Osorio, “I want you to say how 50 Cent looks like a monkey.” Osorio was able to talk him out of it, but she was less successful in convincing Mays and Scott not to stake the magazine’s future on an ill-thought-out battle between Eminem, the most popular rapper in the world, and Benzino, one of hip-hop’s most high-profile, reviled failures.
In his infinite wisdom, Scott decided to accuse Eminem of being a racist tool of Interscope. This had two easily anticipated results: It destroyed what little was left of the magazine’s editorial integrity, and it resulted in Interscope pulling its ads from the magazine. Since Interscope is one of the main powers in hip-hop, that crippled the magazine financially. It did, however, result in Benzino becoming an incredibly popular rapper, while totally destroying Eminem’s career. You can’t go anywhere without being inundated with the latest Benzino or Made Men mega-smash. That, or it did nothing for him. One of the two.
This anti-Eminem, anti-50 Cent, anti-Interscope vendetta put Osorio in an uncomfortable position, especially since she’d slept with 50. Osorio knew damned well that what she was doing was wrong. But she had become a journalistic pit bull whose life revolved around going after whomever Scott decided represented an enemy of hip-hop (by which I mean “himself”) that week.
Osorio could have quit rather than lower herself to her bosses’ level. There were plenty of precedents for Source editors falling on their own swords rather than becoming complicit in Scott’s shenanigans. Yet Osorio chose to swallow her pride and show up for work every morning, knowing full well that her actions were hurting an art form and culture she professed to love.
As the end neared, Scott’s dictates grew increasingly bizarre. It wasn’t enough that Osorio was asked to run hit pieces on former lovers like 50 Cent and Nas. At one point, Scott grew enraged by the writers for competing magazines and ordered Osorio to write a hit piece on staffers for XXL, including one of Osorio’s friends.
Had it had gotten any worse, Scott would have visited Osorio’s office and complained, “A fucking pigeon shat on my car this morning. I’ve taken just about enough from those winged assholes. I want you to write a hit piece on birds. Say that they can’t really fly, that it only looks like they can because of special effects dreamed up by Interscope. And go after those parrots extra-hard. I hate those fuckers. They’re nature’s snitches. Have you ever tried to tell one of those feathery little fuckers anything? If you say, ‘Don’t tell anyone about the coke I’ve hidden in my mattress,’ the next thing you hear is, ‘Coke in the mattress! Coke in the mattress!’”
After Osorio was fired from her post, she sued for sexual harassment and was awarded a multi-million-dollar settlement. Straight From The Source documents just how difficult it is to be a woman in a ragingly misogynistic industry, in a hip-hop realm where women have to work twice as hard to gain half the respect. Furthermore, I’d long thought of The Source as a cancer on the face of hip-hop, but it was edifying, entertaining, and more than a little horrifying to discover the depths of the magazine’s moral bankruptcy.
Mays and Scott, who were bounced from The Source themselves not long after losing the lawsuit, come off as borderline Shakespearean figures. They’re larger-than-life villains who gained the world, then lost it in pursuit of a dream—Benzino’s rap superstardom—that would remain forever out of their reach. Osorio played a rigged game as long as she could, until the free-floating nastiness took her down as well. Karma is a nasty business, but at least Osorio emerged from the wreckage with a compelling inside look at the dirty, dirty business of hip-hop and two of its most compellingly repellent parasites.