This week, I am all about finding inspiration in imperfection. Specifically, chipped teeth. Both mine and my esteemed guest on “Renaissance Man,” Nas.
Growing up poor, I never saw a dentist, and my teeth practiced social distancing long before COVID-19. To add to that, my two front teeth were both chipped and cracked, after falling on them during a backyard football game. If you look at any photos of me in college or even when I was drafted, you will see that I had some messed up teeth. When I got into the NBA, one of the first things I did was go to the dentist and fix my smile.
When Nas burst onto the scene, I loved his music. I loved the way his lyrics were so pure and almost academic. He was a prodigy. He also famously had a chipped tooth.
He embraced that flaw, and I thought that was so dope. A physical defect like that is something that you either succumb to or overcome. I always felt like he was a kindred spirit.
In the mid-’90s, I got to meet the rapper at the Century Club in Los Angeles, and it was a time when we were both arriving into this world. I don’t remember who took the photo of us, but I ended up with it. This was before camera phones when people couldn’t snap pics so easily, but I wanted to take it because a month or so earlier, I hung out there with Tupac Shakur. He was gunned down not long after. It was a sobering reminder that life is fleeting.
Nas and I became homeys that night, and a friendship has continued into our 40s.
I was honored he dropped by the “Renaissance Man” podcast because he doesn’t really do much media. He’s been able to remain a giant in his industry, and also maintain a level of mystique. He doesn’t give everything about himself away, but he dropped some gems on the pod about his earliest influences, including Kool Moe Dee and the Fat Boys, and growing up in the Queensbridge Houses in Queens with nothing but family love and a vivid imagination.
“We were a fun family. We had it all,” he told me. He embraced his humble beginnings, eating the welfare cheese, even though his family wasn’t on welfare, because it tasted the best and having a black-and-white TV with the out-of-control antenna, where you had to change the channel with pliers.
Before rap entered his life, he used to have a folder full of his business ideas and creative projects he wanted to work on, like comic books and board games. He said his mother wanted him to see life outside of his neighborhood. And his father, touring musician Olu Dara, helped provide him with a window to that world. He told him tales about getting wild with his band and locked up in Europe, emphasizing that he did not, in fact, want to get locked up in Europe. He also dished out some sage advice.
“I was a weed smoker at one point when I got into music. [My dad] said never take it with you because wherever you are going — they can have it there for you already. I took those rules when I started making music. You never forget where you come from,” he said.
Now of course, that “thug dressed like a gentleman” is also an entrepreneur who owns a few restaurants including Sweet Chick, which has a few locations around the city. But he’s still making music. In August, he dropped his 13th album, “King’s Disease,” which he dedicated to the “kings” and “queens” taking care of their responsibilities and business. One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Ultra Black,” is an anthem about having pride in yourself no matter where you come from or what color you are. Poignant words in today’s world.
He’s full of so much wisdom, I had to include him in the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy.
When we initially opened our doors, I put a soundtrack of uplifting songs to play in the halls when kids switched classes, and Nas’ “I Know I Can” was always on rotation. He continues to be inspiration to me.
In fact, the reason I did the half-moon caesar in my hairline is to honor Raekwon and Nas, who both used to rock it back in the day. My barber and I were paying homage to the legends.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.