Steve Stoute Explains Why He Took Nas From The Underground To The Mainstream (Video)
Music industry veteran Steve Stoute recently launched UnitedMasters, a company that allows musicians to market directly to their fans across digital platforms. The service promotes artists keeping their master recordings and provides resources for the modern market that once seemed reserved for major label acts. Stoute is the latest guest on The Rap Radar Podcast. For nearly two hours, the former Kid ‘n Play roadie details his experiences, especially with 20-plus-year affiliate, Nas.
At the top of the two-part video interview, Stoute speaks about Nas’ 1996 sophomore album, It Was Written. The Columbia/Sony Records release remains Nas’ best-selling LP, and a pivot from his 1994 debut, Illmatic. The album debuted at #1, in a summer where the Main Source protégé was warring with Tupac, assembling The Firm, and changing his sound and style. In reacting to the comment that many in this generation consider It Was Written to be a classic, Stoute says “That sh*t makes me so happy, bro. ‘Cause the sh*t I went through at that time…,” in a chat with hosts Elliott Wilson and Brian “B.Dot” Miller. “I had to make the follow-up to Illmatic, and then I had to make the follow-up to Mary J. Blige’s My Life; I’m the executive producer to Share My World. I kept thinking during the entire time, ‘I have to make the follow-up to two of the best albums of all-time.’ I gotta go in there and figure it out. Of course, you want to move the artist forward, but you don’t want to f*ck up what made the artist and what made them dope. I mean, My Life is a masterpiece…what Puff [Daddy] did with that album is just phenomenal. It’s hard to believe how him, Chucky [Thompson], and that team made that whole album, and the lyrics, and music, it was just so advanced. And obviously, Illmatic is one of, if not the greatest Hip-Hop album of all-time.”
In 1994, Stoute was not involved in the career of Nas. Then, the 20-year-old was around a cast that included 3rd Bass’ MC Serch as manager, mentor Large Professor, and others. First praising Illmatic, Stoute says, “[Nas] took no lines off on that whole album…from the time that first verse starts, the top of the first verse ’til you get to the end of that song, every single word has a purpose. There’s not one throwaway line. There’s not some bullsh*t metaphor to get you out of a tough [rhyme].”
However, as Nas was preparing It Was Written‘s first single, “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That),” there was push-back from some of the Illmatic ensemble. “I love Q-Tip. Here it goes, though: when I was at the mastering session for “[If I] Ruled The World,” I’m a 25-year-old guy makin’ [Nas’] record, and Q-Tip is telling me, straight up, ‘Yo, you sure you want to do this?’, like questioning me. I’m looking at him, and I’m like, is he mad that he didn’t produce on [It Was Written]? Maybe it was that. Maybe he’s right, and it’s not coming from any other spot than ‘Why are you puttin’ Nas in a commercial place?’ I’m sitting there thinking, look man, it’s Lauryn Hill [and an homage to a hit by] Kurtis Blow. Like, what is [Q-Tip] talking about?” Tip had made video single “One Love” on the ’94 LP. Along with Large Pro’ and Pete Rock, he was one of three of the producers that did not re-appear on It Was Written. In addition to L.E.S. and DJ Premier, the second album used Dr. Dre, The Trackmasters, Mobb Deep’s Havoc, Live Squad, and hit-maker-for-hire Rashad Smith. Elliott Wilson asks Stoute if he felt Q-Tip was rallying against making over 1980s songs, which was a trend at the time, especially by Trackmasters. Steve points to Biggie’s beloved single “Juicy,” which re-purposed much of Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit.” He continues, “It’s almost like nobody wanted Nas to do it. That’s the part that bothered me.”
Stoute contends that if the Illmatic formula did not evolve, Nas may have never reached his ultimate platform. “Like, ‘Oh, he’s not supposed to be successful? He’s supposed to just be [Kool] G Rap?’ Like, G Rap did something with Rap lyrics that was dope, and everybody appreciated what G Rap did. Nas had the G Rap thing, but Nas also is a superstar. G Rap could write his ass off; he wasn’t a superstar. Nas was a superstar.” Notably, Kool G Rap was one of Nas’ early mentors (and shopped him to Def Jam Records). Between Illmatic and It Was Written, they collaborated on video single “Fast Life.” Stoute’s Trackmasters clients also produced “Ill Street Blues” for the Corona, Queens MC.
Although Q-Tip (and early Nas supporters/radio hosts Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito) were part of the contingent that questioned It Was Written, Stoute says he had a plan. He re-branded “Nasty Nas” as “Escobar.” At Stoute’s direction, Sony gave Source magazine subscribers three freestyles on an included cassette mixtape (Nas Is Coming) ahead of the album in the summer of 1996. It marked “Escobar Season.” Stoute recalls, “That was me doing two things: covering coming with ‘…I Ruled The World,’ so I wanted to get those rhymes out. ‘Cause [fans had] not heard him rhyme in a while. The Raekwon [‘Verbal Intercourse’] verse may have come out...and from there, I wanted the [next look from the album to be a reminder of Nas’ lyricism], which was ‘The Message.’ That was probably the beginning—the first jab he had at Hov.” The manager points to the lines, “Seventeen rocks gleam from one ring / They let me let y’all ni**as know one thing / There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one king / The highlights of livin’, Vegas-style roll dice in linen / Antera spinnin’ on Millenniums / Twenty G bets, I’m winnin’ ’em; threats I’m sendin’ ’em / Lex with TV sets the minimum.” As a forecast to the beef that would go public between JAY-Z and Nas five years later, the video for “If I Ruled The World” opened with a snippet of those very bars.
Steve Stoute tells The Rap Radar Podcast that because he did not know Nas, that after Illmatic, he went to the Queensbridge Houses to seek out the MC. Nas was living in Kew Gardens, Queens at the time, but Stoute met the MC’s brother (and Bravehearts member), Jungle, in the projects. As to why he sought Nas, Steve says, “I didn’t like what was happening. I felt like AZ’s ‘Sugar Hill’ had come out, and AZ was lookin’ big. I felt like Nas [was not]. I felt like it was gonna be one of those things where he made this great album, and everybody loved it, and nothing happened.” The executive says he began managing Nas without any contract in place to show his value to the Sony Records sensation. “He and I talk about it all the time: we’re the [last] two guys standing. You look at that era; it was Biggie and Puff, Dame [Dash and JAY-Z], and me and Nas.” Stoute remains with Nas today, Biggie was killed, and Jay and Dame severed their business relationship in the early 2000s.
During the rest of the discussion, Stoute says he recently spent family-time to bring Kool Herc to Google for the August Hip-Hop birthday doodle. The executive says he did it for free, to “move the culture forward.” He explains revolutionizing producer royalties on albums in his time with The Trackmasters. He says he advised Poke & Tone to refuse work if multiple tracks did not afford them executive production status, something they would notably achieve with JAY-Z & R. Kelly’s Best Of Both Worlds LP.
At 53:00 in Part 1, Stoute tells his side of the assault that transpired because of Nas’ “Hate Me Now” video, and overcoming the aftermath of the incident. At 16:00 in Part 2, Stoute recalls getting JAY-Z to write verses for Dr. Dre in 1999, with five beats in-hand. He reveals that JAY-Z not only penned Dre’s part but also wrote Snoop’s section of hit single, “Still DRE.” The hosts ask if Snoop was resistant and the guest replies, “Snoop had no issue; spit the rhyme as-is.” He says, at 18:30, that after the success of Jay’s “Hard Knock Life” single, he sent then-assistant DJ Mormille to 45 King’s New Jersey home to solicit beats. One of the tracks he left with was “Stan.”