In a six-story SoHo building in New York City, a WeWork space mirrors a hip-hop playground. A red street sign hangs on the wall that reads "Once again I reveal the skill, money's growin' like grass with the mass appeal," a lyric from Da Youngstas' Qu'ran from the hip-hop group's 1992 track "Pass da Mic." Tupac is playing in the speakers and Nas is talking business with Peter Bittenbender, the CEO of media and content company Mass Appeal.
Since last November, the 9,000-square-foot office on the second floor has served as the private headquarters for Mass Appeal's editorial and production team courtesy of WeWork, the company that flips white-walled, corporate offices into inspiration-inducing collaborative workspaces. Beyond the 68 desks, conference room, private offices and five edit suites, Mass Appeal HQ also boasts a recording studio (the first professional recording studio built for a member company by WeWork, though the Empire State Building space also features a multimedia space for recording and developing content), one that Nas is currently using to wrap up his twelfth studio album (while taking a tour, this writer walked into a session featuring Nas, Mass Appeal Records signee Fashawn and producer Statik Selektah).
The office is similar to other WeWork spaces in that conversations could strike up among patrons at any given moment. The decor for the Mass Appeal digs, though, are unique to the brand's passion for hip-hop culture with past Mass Appeal magazine covers, vintage hip-hop photography and floor-to-ceiling artwork designed by artists like Stikki Peaches and AVone. There's even a white bench that doubles as a boombox made from car speakers and a New York State of Mind bar that serves Nas' favorite cognac, Hennessy.
Billboard sat down recently with Nas, Bittenbender and WeWork vice chairman Michael Gross to talk about the customized space, the projects Mass Appeal is currently working on and an update on the highly anticipated Life Is Good follow-up.
Nas, how did you infuse Mass Appeal's ethos into this space?
Nas: New York City is full of great spaces. The best spaces of the world are here. This is the new Europe, where the settlers came and busted out their ideas and put it down so there's nothing but great space in this great city. When I saw [the office], it wasn't over the top. I felt comfortable, It didn't feel like a place that bankers would be working. I felt like this was a place where real people of downtown of Manhattan would be. That's what really stood out to me. It felt comfortable. I love New York, I love it. There's all kinds of places you can go. You got spaces that are not friendly, no vibe and that's my lawyer's building. (Laughs.)
Gross: We're changing that, too, by the way, because the truth is all [offices] should have a vibe. As the next generation of leaders of all industry types, there's going to be people of our generation that are going to make that, so we're at that shift, we're at that inflection point. We see that everyday.
Were there specific pieces that you wanted to incorporate into the office?
Nas: Yeah, I wanted to get a chair from Shea Stadium turn to vibes or just rap album covers from rap album covers from the 1970s and on, and graffiti. Stuff by Keith Haring type of vibes. Anything that represented New York and culture and hip-hop.
What made you add a studio in this space?
Nas: Everything's here but that. I was sitting here and we were talking about how great it would be when we scored this film or made this record, it would be great to get these records done and we go, "We're missing this one piece." It worked out perfectly.
What were some projects that you have already done in this building?
Bittenbender: We just started [working here], so the first session was a few days ago. The first project we're mixing is actually [Nas'] performance at the Kennedy Center that we shot three years ago. He performed with the National Symphony Orchestra for the Illmatic anniversary. We documented that whole experience.
We put it in the vault because we had to shoot this. We don't know when to put it out, but we had to capture this moment. Recently, we brought it back and they mixed the full Illmatic [album] with the orchestra guy back in the studio. That was the first project [we worked on here]. We had to make sure whatever project we touched first came from [Nas], obviously. The first session [in the recording studio] was him and Fashawn the other night, which was magical vibes.
Nas, I know you made a record called 'Nas Album Done,' but I guess the album isn't finished yet?
Nas: It's not done 'til it hits the streets.
But the studio in this office is going to help create the vibe.
Nas: Oh yeah, that room is where we're finishing everything.
Can fans expect this album before the year is over?
Nas: For sure.
Any titles in mind?
Nas: Not yet, not 'til release.
Will you drop tracks before the whole album comes out?
Nas: We might do a single, but we might do something different.
Gross: We just [worked with] The Chainsmokers. We did our first Creator Awards in L.A. and at the end, a sort of job fair, sort of networking [event]. We give a bunch of money to all the new start-ups and non-profits, and then we ended up with a big party and Chainsmokers played. What was interesting to watch was with their album, they dropped tracks every two to three weeks and it just builds off of that. They have three songs that are out and it's a different way to think about [music]. They're working on the album as products get out. It's great to see.
Nas: That's great because then it's not just records that you've been holding onto for months and months and months - then by the time you release your record, you feel different. It's a different world now, so you want to put out records fresh from your head to the world now and get the feedback from the people and make it whole.
Your Netflix show The Get Down premieres part two of season 1 on Friday. Did you actually work on that project in this space at all?
Nas: No. But moving forward, for sure.
What can you tease about the upcoming season?
Nas: Let's say part two is a lot more intense and a lot darker than the first one. The kids are grown up a little bit because their talent is pushing them out to the world and that world means Studio 54 era. This is the '70s. This is New York City, a much wilder place. The kids that are getting into the entertainment world are being exposed to things that they weren't ready for. The streets don't want to let them go, and it's just a whole bunch of shit - a lot crazier than the first season.
Growing up in Queens, do you see yourself in any of the characters?
Nas: Oh, yeah. There was a scene in the first season about the New York City blackout in '77. I was a little kid, but I remember the day. I remember what was happening and I remember people knocking on our doors to see if we were OK. I remember candles. So watching that brought me back. Watching the characters in their lives going through New York City and the way the streets looked - all that takes me back.
You're working on your Street Dreams biopic for BET as well. Are you going to be working on that in this space as well?
Nas: Everything's here - all the TV projects, all the fun projects, music, albums, EPs, all artists on the label. Everybody is going to be here.
Any luck finding someone to play you yet?
Nas: (Laughs) No.
Your restaurant Sweet Chick is hosting the Tupac Shakur pop-up cafe. How did that come together?
Nas: [Retailer] Bravado approached us with that project. It's going to be crazy to come to life. He's going to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - it's a pretty incredible weekend.
Is there anything else all three of you wanted to add about the vibes of the space?
Bittenbender: I'm just excited to see all the stuff that's going to be made on this floor. Already a lot has been created and now the studio is in full effect - it's only going to take it to a whole other level. It's just nice to have a space that everybody walks into and feels creative, feel inspired. They want to do the best they can.
Gross: For us, this is like the partnership of the future. We started this space being a solution for people who need space, but now the ability to bring people together - there's really nothing better than music to bring people together and to have amazing music being not just created inside these walls, but then decimating and activating is going to be special.
Nas: WeWork and Mass Appeal is the future. It's the freshest thing going - everything about it. It's all about being involved with the right things at the right times. It's all about having that foresight to make the connections with the right people and to do the things you both commonly share - things that you both want to do, things that you think you can't do unless you have this or that. You got to team up with people who want what you want and more. That's sort of what this is.