Few rap albums in the history of hip-hop can match the mystique that surrounds Nas’ 1994 debut, Illmatic, which marked the arrival of a prodigious lyrical griot who would revolutionize the art of rhyming. Since its release over two decades ago, the album has been universally hailed as flawless and remains the standard many preternatural wordsmiths strive for. Whether it be peers like Jay-Z or progeny like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, the significance of Illmatic has cast its shadow over any artist viewed as having the potential to grab the hip-hop torch and carry on tradition. Yet, in addition to the nine-track album, a collection of songs recorded between 1991 and the end of 1993 wound up on various mixtapes. These raw, oft unmastered demos are considered Nas’ original lost records, which later inspired his 2002 The Lost Tapes and influenced a generation of rap artists to aim for the aura that comes with servicing the streets with music defining bare-bones, realty rap.
Nas songs like “Deja Vu,” “Nas Will Prevail,” “Understanding,” “Everything Is Real,” and “Just Another Day In The Projects” all have that home-studio feel that embodies the essence of ’90s hip-hop at its core, but one track from the Queensbridge scribe that’s as succinct as it is infectious is “Life Is Like A Dice Game,” a poignant declaration made over an Easy Mo Bee track sampling of “Valentine Love” by Norman Connors. Recorded in 1993, the verse finds Nas making comparisons between him and legendary Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie from the vantage point of his “human flesh shield,” while giving love to his daughter, Destiny.
Concluding the verse by bragging, “When I finish this sh*t, it’s sure to be a hit” before peacing out, Nas gives the impression that his ’90s version of “Life Is Like A Dice Game” was intended to be a skeleton of a track he would build upon at a later date. The leaked song would remain untouched in decades that have passed since its recording—until now.
Carl Chery, Creative Director, Head of Urban Music at Spotify, teamed up with Nas, Mass Appeal, and RapCaviar to recreate “Life Is Like A Dice Game,” where Nas added a completely new verse on top of the original that his diehard fans have come to love. In addition to the hip-hop legend handling his own unfinished business, the re-recorded “Life Is Like A Dice Game” includes guest verses from Freddie Gibbs and Cordae, two rap artists that have taken on the challenge of carrying on the tradition of high-brow lyricism. Produced by Hit-Boy, the revamped version of “Life Is Like A Dice Game” is the product of Chery, an unabashed Nas fan, living out his rap fantasies of playing arm-chair A&R and pairing a bonafide icon with two of the more highly regarded spitters in the culture today.
VIBE spoke with Chery about pulling the strings behind the scenes to make the revamped “Life Is Like A Dice Game” happen, bringing Freddie Gibbs and Cordae into the fold, and why the sentiment of the song still rings true more than to this day.
VIBE: When did you first hear the original version of “Life Is Like A Dice Game”?
Carl Chery: I’ll be honest with you. I know I heard it closer to when it first came out, but the first time that I clearly remember hearing it was when my cousin Mike was laying a beat with the same sample as “Life Is Like A Dice Game.” It kinda triggered me to go back to the original. This was sometime in the 2000s, I would like to say, and it happened pre-YouTube, so I don’t really remember how I got my hands on the song, but think about it. This has to be the file-sharing age, whether it’s Limewire or something like that, so I probably got it somewhere on the Internet and went back to it, but it’s one of those songs I kept going back to randomly. I’m a big Nas fan so every now and then, the song just pops in my head and I play it.
Like Nas’ sentiment on the track, any and everything can occur at any given time. “Life is a dice game” still holds true.
Yeah, that’s part of the reason why I feel it’s the best time to release the song, we’re just coming off a pandemic. The pandemic embodies the concept of the song, life is really like a dice game. We’ve [all] been out here about two years being affected by COVID, yet getting completely different results from it. Some people being asymptomatic and some people being sick like a dog for two weeks, so yeah, it’s 100% still relevant…it’s just such a clever way to explain what life is. There’s a million scenarios that I could give you and I’m sure you have some in mind already that are more personal to you that reflects the concept of life being like a dice game, but it’s one of the most clever ways to explain the way things work.
“I can’t remember where I recorded it, or who produced it—maybe Easy Moe Bee, he was killin’ the game at the time! Carl Chery from Spotify suggested we connect with Freddie and Cordae to bring the song new life and I loved it.” – Nas
What gave you the idea or inspiration to revisit the song and actually go out of your way to see it get finished?
So, I had this idea. The first time I thought about the idea was maybe six or seven years ago I had dinner with Anthony Selah, who’s Nas’ manager. Even if you’re a Nas fan, you might not be familiar with “Dice Game,” you really have to know to understand [and] to be aware of that freestyle. I remember being at dinner with Anthony and I told him, “Hey, you know what y’all should do? Y’all should remake ‘Life Is Like A Dice Game,’ a complete ‘Life Is Like A Dice Game’” and I remember Anthony looking at me like, “What are you talking about?” Not in a bad way, like, “How is your brain even there?” At the time, he was really receptive to the idea and I remember, I bumped into Anthony weeks later, somewhere else and he was like, “Yo, I’m down with that idea, but you have to quarterback it.” At the time, I didn’t have anywhere to do it.
So, fast forward. I get to Spotify and we have the singles program and we did a RapCaviar single last year with Mozzy. We have this franchise called Breakfast Bars where we give topics to rappers and they film themselves rapping a freestyle that features all the topics we gave them. We did one with Mozzy and his verse was incredible. I see the tweet and I respond to Mozzy and I said, “Yo, that verse is incredible you gotta turn it into a full song,” so Mozzy responded and said, “Send the beat.” Right away, I reached out to my guy P.K. who’s part of the Noteable team—that’s the songwriters relations arm of Spotify—and asked him to help me find some beats ’cause he has relationships with songwriters and producers. He reached out to Empire right away and told ’em like, “Yo, are y’all actually down to make this happen? It would be a cool story if we completed this song based on his reference bars and the whole social media exchange.” It worked out. After the song came out, it kinda refreshed my memory. It was like, “Oh, you know what? This is something I wanted to do anyway.” I wanted to find a way to be able to use some of these ideas I have, but I just never had a space to do it.
Spotify Singles is the right place to do it. I reached out to Michele Santucci [Recorded Music Lead at Spotify] and I told her that in 2021, I wanted to put more of an A&R spin on the singles program when it comes to hip-hop ’cause a lot of the singles are covers, people covering other peoples songs. But for me, I was like, “Let’s put another spin to it, let’s do originals. Let’s come up with some creative ways to do Spotify singles” and then, the first thing that came to mind after we had the conversation, Michele and I, was like, “Oh, ‘Life Is Like A Dice Game,’ we have to revisit that idea.” We had a call with Mass Appeal because [for] pre-Grammys, they wanted to figure out ways for Nas to work with Spotify. Both sides presented ideas that they wanted to do and when it was my turn to speak, I just said, “Listen, I brought this up to Anthony years ago, but I would love for Nas to revisit ‘Life Is Like A Dice Game’ and complete it.” So, very long answer, but that’s basically how it went down. They were like, “We love the idea, let’s do it.” Anthony gave me his blessings to basically A&R it and find the production and put the collaborators together and that’s how it started.
How was your conversation with Nas as far as getting him on board to complete the song?
I didn’t speak to Nas directly, Anthony Selah handled the conversation, but based on the conversation that Anthony and I had, it was really seamless. Anthony told him the idea, he liked the idea right away so the next step was, we need a beat to get it started. Hit-Boy and Nas have a lot of synergy right now coming off King’s Disease, his Grammy-winning album. It just felt like he was the right person to do it because they have synergy and they’re still working together on other stuff.
Myself and P.K. from Noteable, Spotify’s home for songwriters, producers, and publishers, reached out to Hit-Boy and had a conversation with him on the creative and how I’d like for him to approach it and he cooked it up in a couple days and because they’re still working together. Nas was going to Hit-Boy’s studio a lot. One day, Hit-Boy just played the beat for him and reached out to me and said, “Nas is out of town, but he plans on recording his part to the verse the second he comes back.” The creative process of figuring things out with the record, it actually took some time, but the second Hit-Boy made the beat, everything fell into place. It just happened fast. Nas recorded his verse, I reached out to Ben “Lambo” Lambert, Freddie recorded his verse. He reached out to Byron [Kirkland] and Ace [Christian], Cordae recorded his verse. It’s all done.
What about Cordae and Freddie Gibbs made it appropriate to not only match them with Nas but to help finish the track?
I wanted to have three generations of lyricists provide their take on life being like a dice game. I look at the options, as far as people who came after Nas, and Freddie is just an automatic. He came up in the blog era. You see Nas and Freddie on a song, it makes sense. There’s a street element to both. So I called Lambo and I told him, “Yo, you remember ‘Dice Game?’” and he was like, “Yeah, I love that loosie,” and I told him the idea and right away he was like, “We’ll do it. Freddie’s gonna be into it, we’ll do it.” Freddie has been at the forefront of this reemergence of lyricism, himself alongside Griselda. And if you’re gonna pair up Nas with anyone from a different era, it has to be somebody that’s able to hold his own and I think Freddie was one of them. And then with Cordae, there are not that many new lyricists really intentional about having a message and saying some stuff in his music. He just felt like the perfect person to represent the new wave that’s happening. But also, he’s someone who’s more into substance in his music, but still represents the RapCaviar demo, so it just makes sense to have those two be the collaborators for this song.
Nas even recorded another verse for the new version of the song. How do you feel it meshes with the original?
I love it because it’s kind of a commentary on the old verse. First of all, Hit-Boy hit me when Nas got in the studio. He hit me and sent me a clip of Nas recording his verse and I was like, “Ah, man, I’ll be honest with you. My original idea, I wanted Nas to start his verse with the same line as the original, but then to have the rest of the verse be completely different.” But of course, because I wasn’t a part of the session, I wasn’t able to communicate that, so when I saw the clip, I assumed that he just re-recorded his old verse and that was it. When Hit sent it to me, I realized, “Oh, he added more to the song, that’s amazing” so I love it. It’s just a breath of fresh [air] and just the way he closes it, I think it kind of sums up the concept.
How does it feel to be responsible for helping to add a piece of hip-hop history that was left unfinished?
I don’t think I’m realizing what’s happened yet. I think maybe when it’s out and I get some more feedback from people and people responding to it and maybe telling me “Yo, this is incredible,” maybe it will finally sink in. I’ll be honest, it’s some people behind the scenes that I trust in the industry, people that you probably know. I sent the song to them and their reactions are always the same. I reached out to Rosenberg because the song is from a different era, I’m hoping that some DJ will even play it on the radio. I reached out to Rosenberg and told him the concept and his response was just, “Wow.” Hopefully, he’ll play it. Then I hit Flex and this morning, Flex texted me and he was like, “The song is mean,” so things like that, no matter what happens, it means a lot. But long story short, it’s a little surreal to be a big Nas fan and to be able to put a Nas song together with two of the artists from the new generation that you like.
Do you plan on completing more unfinished tracks with Spotify and RapCaviar?
I don’t know if we’re gonna be finishing [any others], but we definitely wanna do more RapCaviar Originals. We’re working on a few things now, a few ideas that are really exciting. Concepts aren’t all the same necessarily, but there are a few more things that will require us to pay homage to some classics that might be fun to do. And then I kinda wanna get into doing some stuff with the kids, like, the new wave that’s going on. I wanna be tapped into some of the producers of the moment that are popular with the RapCaviar audience and come up with some cool new songs. So 1,000%, you’ll hear more from us on that front.