Nas's "Where Are They Now" Remixes: Publicity-Stunt Greatness
So if there's a 00s remix, will DMX be on it?
The Gimmick Battle Royal at Wrestlemania 17 was one of those bad idea/worse execution fiascoes that the WWE has been increasingly shitting out for the past five years. The idea was that the WWE had this long history of assigning ridiculous characters to its workers and that the company might as well make fun of itself by trotting all these old guys back out again one last time so we could all marvel at how silly recent history could get. So Doink the Clown and the Bushwhackers and Earthquake and Tugboat and One Man Gang and Sergeant Slaughter recreated their old entrances and then immediately disappeared back into obscurity. The match itself lasted all of three excruciating minutes, and the Iron Sheik won, presumably because he was way too old and damaged to fall over the top rope without dying. When I first read about the three posse-cut remixes of Nas's "Where Are They Now," it felt like a similar sort of publicity stunt. I'd considered the original "Where Are They Now" to be one of the filler moments on Hip Hop is Dead, like maybe it seemed like a good idea for Nas to mumble laundry-lists of veterans' names over Will.I.Am's simulation of a tinny golden-age beat, and maybe it even made a provocative point about the fickle nature of pop-culture, but it wasn't really anything I needed to hear more than a couple of times. And I thought these remixes would stretch a thin concept way beyond its breaking point. But wrestling, as an art form, can't convey pathos anywhere near as well as rap can (Ric Flair's continued career notwithstanding), and aging rappers don't deteriorate the way aging wrestlers do. It's a bit sad to hear the Furious Five's Raheim rushing to keep up with the beat, but it's nothing on the order of the Iron Sheik's inability to fall down. So I'm surprised and happy to report that the collected "Where Are They Now" remixes add up to one of the most moving and fascinating listening experiences I've had in a long minute.
Rap is so dependent on ceaseless declarations of supremacy that things can get really weird and interesting when rappers are forced to admit that they're not anywhere near as famous as they once were. It must be weird and humbling to be asked to appear on one of these remixes. On the one hand, I have to imagine that a lot of these rappers felt obliquely insulted that anyone would have to wonder where they were. But it's also a rare opportunity for these guys to reassert their existence, maybe their last shot at a spotlight that's eluded them for years. And so the three remixes offer a dizzying range of reactions, from sheepish to defensive to utterly joyous. Redhead Kingpin starts off the 90s remix with a sort of bitter good humor: "Kingpin plus two; I'm on the guest list, fam / But if this dude ain't like 30, he don't know who I am." The guy from Das EFX sounds tired and vaguely spiteful; he lets loose a couple of wiggity-wiggities, but he does so with a weird sort of reluctance. But Chip Fu from the Fu-Schnickens, another rapper who got left in the dust when quick-tongue pyrotechnics fell out of fashion, launches headlong into his old style with audible relish. The Rob Base verse might be the saddest of all: "Toured the country since I got my first CD / 'It Takes Two,' remember me? / If you don't, I'm the one that used to hit you with the woo-yeah / Used to make it so hot you couldn't breathe the air." There's pride in those lines, but there's also resignation; he has to make the noises from his biggest song to switch on lightbulbs, and he doesn't sound all that happy about it. All the while, Nas is dizzily mumbling on the chorus, all puffed up with joy and disbelief that he somehow managed to get all these people off the inactive list at once.
The 80s remix might be even weirder: MC Shan telling us to check his MySpace page, Pebblee Poo letting us know that she's a real estate investor now. But my favorite is the West Coast remix. True to its geographical bias, it's longer and slower and lazier than the other two, and the level of candor is just staggering. Ice-T is probably the most famous rapper to appear on any of the three remixes, and maybe that's why he feels free to admit certain things: "Everyday in the street, somebody call me Cube." Sir Mix-A-Lot, meanwhile, is happy to let us know that he's landed on his feet: "From TV to movies, Hollywood use my shit / Seven-figure years keep coming; who's ya pimp?" What I love about Mix-A-Lot's verse is its celebratory air; a few of the rappers collected here brag about their money, but most of them sound defensive, while Mix-A-Lot just sounds happy that someone asked how he's doing, happy for the chance to correct anyone who thought he'd gone broke.
Every Marxist college professor I ever had would probably barf to hear me say it, but I respect an innovative marketing campaign, and I totally love it when something like the Boston Aqua Teen Hunger Force bomb scare manages to become the media shitstorm it always wanted to be. But the "Where Are They Now" remixes feel like something more than clever salesmanship or market-positioning, even if that's probably why they exist. A huge component of Nas's whole persona has always been his abject love of rap lore, and these remixes have turned that love into new opportunities for a lot of rappers who have long given up hope of getting radio-play beyond old-school mixes. They've also given us rap dorks a new excuse to comb YouTube for videos we'd completely forgotten about; these two Noz columns are a great start. If Nas churns out another ten of these remixes, I won't complain; God knows he could probably track down enough ghosts of rap past to fill up a couple of albums.
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Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Nas circa: 2002
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