Nas and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley are releasing their highly-anticipated collaborative studio album, Distant Relatives on Tuesday, May 18. And a month-long tour with opener Nneka is set to kick off three days later. The album title refers not only to the bond between the artists, but the connection to their African ancestry, which inspired the album both musically and lyrically. It features several guest appearances including Lil Wayne, K’NAAN and Stephen Marley. In their own words: “What we’re about to do right now is go back. Back to a time when rap’s greatest hits were created in basement soundrooms, not corporate boardrooms. When dancehall and hip-hop music was all about moving the crowd not “moving units.” We met up with them at the very posh Sunset Marquee Hotel in West Hollywood.
URB: Your collaboration is unique. How did you decide to make a whole album?
DAMIAN: It was the energy in the music. It started off as an EP, it was supposed to be 4 tracks, but because we were enjoying ourselves, we decided to make a full album.
How did you challenge and inspire each other?
DAMIAN: It was just two creative minds coming together; creativity through maximum. We wrote the first step for Nas’s music, so in that sense you want to make sure that you’re on par with one of the biggest players in the game, he’s a cat man, you know what I mean? So that’s a challenge in that sense, but otherwise than that, it was a fun experience.
Are you worried that your message is going be too political for the commercial media?
NAS: No, some records aren’t like that. We weren’t aiming for any certain commercial, political or underground or nothing like that; it was just about making a record. People can put it in all categories, which ever category. Personally, I’m not mad if one of the songs becomes a “commercial record,” because these days any record can become big, you never know, and then people call it commercial.
Can you follow the philosophy of “moving the crowd not moving units” while being on the world’s largest record label?
NAS: People might think I don’t want to sell records, and that’s not the case at all, because I want people to buy and like it! If they buy it, they like it, and we all want that, but at the same time we want to move the people and have fun. That’s it. We definitely want to sell records, anything else wouldn’t make sense.
How has the social media revolution affected you as artists?
DAMIAN: You mean the internet? It’s all good. It’s harder to sell records, but at the same time your music reaches more people. It’s tough but you also have more opportunities.
How did you select the guest spots, and how did Lil Wayne end up on the album?
NAS: You work with people that you admire and respect—it’s not like you set up a list of people you want on your album. And out of a whole bunch of tracks with guest spots, you narrow it down and a handfull of them end up on the album. Lil Wayne is a cool cat, and we wanted to work with him.
How is it touring together?
DAMIAN: Man, that’s a lot of fun.
NAS: Yeah, the best memories are from the road. Playing your songs for a crowd, and experience their reactions is the best feeling.
Is the crowd in Europe different?
NAS: The crowd in Europe is different, like the crowd in every state in America is different. But yeah, it feels good to play on your homegrown, and at the same time the crowd feel a little bit more open-minded overseas.
The Mulatu Astatke sample sounds great on “As We Enter,” any other similar treats on the record?
DAMIAN: Yes, there are like three other tracks like that, with feel good samples and an organic groove.
Would you call your music revolutionary?
DAMIAN: In the sense that it has never been done before, I would. It’s an unique collaboration, and we hope we combine the best of two worlds, unite them, and let the fans be the judges.