Life Is Good: Why Nas Is Making His Hip-Hop Cash Kings Debut At Age 44

On a late-summer Wednesday morning, legendary rapper Nas is lounging in a Scandinavian-chic conference room at the lower Manhattan headquarters of the venerable hip-hop media outlet Mass Appeal. Even before he first graced Mass Appeal’s cover in 2002, he was a mainstay in its coverage, one of the most influential hip-hop artists ever.

But he’s not here for another Mass Appeal story. These days, Nas, 44, is a co-owner of the company. It’s part of his sprawling venture capital portfolio that includes stakes in startups from Casper to Dropbox—investments made often through his fund, QueensBridge Venture Partners (named after the housing projects in New York City where he grew up). Pretty good for an artist who rather grudgingly achieved business success and always seemed more comfortable rapping about African history than launching clothing lines.

Nas with Mass Appeal's Sacha Jenkins and Peter Bittenbender (right).

Nas with Mass Appeal’s Sacha Jenkins and Peter Bittenbender (right). FRANCO VOGT

“I was music guy for years, and then all of a sudden it’s like I hit an age … I guess it was just the age, or just wisdom,” Nas explains in his signature baritone rasp. “Felt like now’s the time.”

ANDRES JAUREGUI; PHOTO: KEVIN MAZUR/GETTY IMAGES

Almost 25 years after the release of his first album, Illmatic, Nas lands on our Hip-Hop Cash Kings list of the top-earning rappers for the first time after raking $35 million last year. That’s thanks to 40-plus shows and a big Hennessey endorsement—and his cut from the sale of Ring, a smart doorbell maker, to Amazon. While Nas may have missed out on the sneaker and streetwear deals of the late 90s, he’s proved to be a later-in-life commercial force and a bit of an unlikely trailblazer with his startup investments.

Take his involvement in Mass Appeal, which occupies two floors of a SoHo WeWork building, an industrially stylish space complete with a pet snake shedding skin in a neon-lit aquarium (a gift from the rapper Young Thug). Mass Appeal was revived five years ago by Peter Bittenbender, cofounder of the creative studio Decon, and Sacha Jenkins, cofounder of Ego Trip magazine.

NICK DESANTIS; PHOTO: C FLANIGAN/GETTY IMAGES

The latter spent much of his youth in Queens, where Nas grew up with blues playing father and a mother who worked for the Postal Service before releasing Illmatic, still considered by many the best rap album of all time. Jenkins recognized Nas’ talent early and kept in touch as Mass Appeal evolved.

“Sacha connected all the dots and called Nas, just like, ‘Do you want to help?’” Bittenbender recalls. “That totally wasn’t part of what he was doing at that point, but he had a history [with] the brand, so it made a lot of sense.”

Nas came on and invested a six-figure sum in a million-dollar round alongside Decon and early-stage firm White Owl Capital Partners. Mass Appeal resurfaced in 2013 with plans to become a quarterly print publication. That strategy has since given way to a multimedia approach.

Today, Mass Appeal’s editorial output exists mostly on platforms like YouTube, which is home to its popular video series. There’s “Rhythm Roulette,” where Mass Appeal challenges producers to make a beat from three records chosen randomly from a local record store while blindfolded, and “Open Space,” which features interviews with celebrity guests.

Mass Appeal has also expanded into other areas, launching its own creative agency and spinning out specials like the hip-hop documentaries Rapture and Fresh Dressed. Nas contributed to both, arranging an introduction to YouTube’s music chief Lyor Cohen—onetime head of Def Jam Records—who then brought on Mass Appeal to work on a Google campaign around hip-hop’s 44th anniversary featuring an interactive graphic orchestrated by the hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy. Nas also helped Mass Appeal set up interviews with famous friends like Kanye West and Diddy for Fresh Dressed.

“Hip-hop was so embedded in the lives of so many people who make decisions,” Jenkins says. “Now [Nas is] a moving piece of social capital. That capital is tied into his art, and that art has opened all these doors, you know? Now people understand that the art itself is tied to culture, and culture is tied to commerce.”

Nas has followed a similar formula for his other investments. His inspiration struck around the time he met Andreesen Horowitz cofounder Ben Horowitz and bonded over a shared love of hip-hop and barbeque at a dinner arranged by fellow Mass Appeal investor Steve Stoute circa 2012 (“I’m a big foodie,” the rapper says). Two years later Nas founded QueensBridge Venture Partners with his manager, Anthony Saleh. They were joined by general partners Ajay Relan, Anand Murthy, Craig Vaughan and Dee Murthy (a fifth, Rashaun Williams, has since left the firm).

Since then, either through angel investing or through QueensBridge, Nas has ended up with stakes in dozens of startups, including many of those scouted by Andreessen Horowitz: Lyft, Genius and Coinbase, to name a few. He is, of course, not the only rapper with equity stakes. Plenty of the other Hip-Hop Cash Kings have invested in Silicon Valley darlings, from Jay-Z (Uber, stock-trading app Robinhood) to Diddy (Spotify), though Nas appears to be the most prolific.

 

 

Most recently, Nas helped launch Mass Appeal Records in 2014 and earlier this year released his latest album, Nasir, on the label. This came after he managed to convince Universal Music Group to let him out of the last record on his deal; the record giant also joined him as an investor in Mass Appeal.

“There wasn’t a time when [rappers] didn’t think about investing,” says Nas. “It just so happens that the world is opening up.”

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