When you think about Nas today, you think of a legendary rapper who arguably be in everyone’s top five greatest of all time list. You think of Illmatic; his beef with Jay Z, “Hate Me Now” and “Nas Is Like”, and if you’re interested, of his recent tech investments which are on track to make him more money than music did.
But back in the early ’90s, Nas was just a supremely talented yet raw rapper who had a ton of buzz thanks to his appearances on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” and MC Serch’s “Back to the Grill,” as well as his debut single “Halftime” which appeared on the Zebrahead soundtrack.
Linking up MC Serch, who signed Nas to his company Serchlite and became his manager, the pair went demo shopping to different record labels. One of them was Def Jam, which at the time was seen as the seminal hip hop record label, run by Russell Simmons. In an interview with XXL, Serch recalls Russell’s reaction:
Then I went to see Russell [Simmons], and Russell was at his apartment with a woman named Tracey Waples. I played Nas’ demo—which was “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” “Halftime” and “I’m A Villain”—and Russell said, “Ah, he sounds like G Rap, and G Rap don’t sell no records, I’m not interested.”MC Serch Always Knew Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ Was The Greatest Album Of All Time | XXL Mag
After Russell passed on Nas, Serch brought the young Queensbridge rapper over to Faith Newman at Columbia. The record executive stopped the demo halfway through the first song and said “I’ve been looking for Nas, trying to get in touch with him.” Serch recalls, “they literally wouldn’t let me leave the Columbia office until we had a deal in place for Nas. And that’s how Nas got signed to Columbia.”
15 years later, Nas would drop “Surviving the Times” off his 2007 Greatest Hits, where he reminisced about his early rap career, including Russell passing on him.