WNET in New York’s Great Performances is presenting “Nas Live From the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip-Hop” for PBS on Feb. 2 at 9 pm. The special performance sees Nas celebrate the 20th anniversary of his debut album Illmatic with a live rendition backed by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.
This performance was originally recorded live in March 2014 as the centerpiece of the One Mic: Hip Hop Culture Worldwide festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., home of the National Symphony Orchestra.
For the show Nas, dressed in a full tuxedo, played to a full house at the Kennedy Center to celebrate Illmatic‘s impact on hip-hop music over the past two decades. The unlikely convergence of classical music and hip-hop takes center stage along with the Queens, New York rapper who joked about the unusual pairing.
“It’s crazy. I wrote this in the projects of New York City and here we are in the capital of America, Washington D.C. and a bunch of white people with strings and all that playing this album. And they feelin’ it,” Nas says in the hour-long film.
Released in 1994, Nas’ Illmatic is a deeply intimate portrait of life in the largest public housing project in North America, the Queensbridge Houses, located in the Long Island City area of New York City. Nas was one of 7,000 people living at “The Bridge” when he wrote Illmatic between the ages of 9-20, he explained at a press conference in Pasadena, California on Jan. 16.
“Growing up, I would think that hip-hop music only reached the communities with the people who made it. I didn’t see outside my own neighborhood or know anybody outside,” Nas said at the conference. “I thought (the orchestra) was going to say ‘Ah, this music? I don’t want to do this.'”
“Nas Live From the Kennedy Center” features several snippets from members of the National Symphony Orchestra detailing their experience with the 1994 album. While some came into the experience knowing the work, others were introduced to it through their children, one member stating she couldn’t stop listening to it.
“When I first heard about it, I was very skeptical of popular forms of music that all of a sudden were going to add an orchestra to it,” said Executive Producer of Great Performances, David Horn, at the conference. “When I listened to it, I was just in awe. I was so interested in all the jazz inflections that were in the music.”
Nas explained that once the project was in motion, the orchestra, led by National Symphony Orchestra Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, worked on the instrumentals and sent him files that he listened to shortly before their first rehearsal. Nas and the orchestra only rehearsed the concert once before it was taped.
“It turns out we were really connected as a family for that moment,” Nas said. He added “I knew they had my back and even if I got off track that I could just find my way back. The conductor had to count me in and if I get off track I could just listen to the music and find my place again. Because it was my old stuff and I’ve been performing it for years and years it was easy.”
The film goes in and out of archival footage of Nas when he was creating the album in the 1990s and the rapper and orchestra performing his hits like “N.Y. State of Mind,” “The World Is Yours,” “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)” and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” to create a classical hip-hop journey.
Nas said of the concert, “It was a dream come true. As a young guy making this album, it was about me being a dreamer. There were no limits. I look at classical music as the hip-hop of its day. I feel like there is a strong connection with all music. Doing this show is part of the dream.”
Check local listings for air times for “Nas Live From the Kennedy Center” or head to PBS.org the following day (Feb. 3) to stream the concert.