On a recent Saturday morning, a tall, slouchy twenty-five-year-old in a polo shirt, baggy jeans, and Timberland boots that, by his own admission, had gone “mad dusty,” showed up at a subway station in Coney Island. He admitted to being Your Old Droog, the previously unknown rapper, who, for the past two months, has been at the center of an ongoing conspiracy theory in hip-hop. This was the first time that Droog had shown his face—boyish, bearded, and permanently scowling—to a reporter. As we walked through the housing project where Droog spent much of his childhood, he seemed to have a more pressing concern on his mind than revealing his identity. After some idle talk about the dice game Cee-lo and some more idle talk about gambling problems, he came out with it: “So, did you think I’d be white?”
In April of this year, the then unknown Droog released a ten-track EP on SoundCloud, the massive, mostly formless online clearinghouse of new music, and found unexpected traction. Nearly everyone who heard Droog rhyme was convinced that he was the legendary rapper Nas in disguise. Hip-hop nerds on YouTube, Reddit, and Rap Genius began posting in-depth breakdowns that focussed on similarities in intonation (both end their bars with a raspy sigh), as well as historical analyses of Droog’s lexicon, which, in addition to several direct references to Nas’s work, includes shout-outs to Jerry Heller, the infamous manager who helped to pioneer West Coast gangster rap, and jokes about the seventies sitcom “All in the Family.” If Droog was a young, up-and-coming rapper, the theorists argued, why did he sound exactly like a forty-year-old with a nostalgia problem? Occam’s razor was brought up: if an individual had the talent to convince people that he was Nas, whose style has been been unsuccessfully bitten by hundreds of m.c.s in the past twenty years, probability said that this person was Nas, who, it was noted, had tried this trick before. (Back in 2004, on a track called “Live Now,” Nas sped up his voice and tried to pass it off as a new female m.c. named Scarlett.) For many people, the conspiracy began and ended at the supposedly new rapper’s name. The Russian word droog translates, roughly, to “friend.” Your Old Friend, the theorists argued, was Nas.
Droog was heading to a recording studio in North Brooklyn. On the train, he addressed the Nas comparisons. The whole thing had taken him by surprise. Though he respects Nas, he sees himself more in the lineage of Big L and Kool G Rap, rappers who shared his love of punch lines. (Two representative examples of Droog’s wordplay: “You’re just a parasite like the Eiffel” and “Got shooters that will take out any Mark for a Price”—I refuse to annotate the latter, but if you love eighties basketball as much as Droog does, a grin should be spreading across your face right now.) The old-school references detected by the conspiracy theorists were actually a product of the Internet and the basketball cards that Droog collected as a child.
If you grew up with MP3s and YouTube, you have a broader base of influences than those who were restricted to radio and record stores—a kid can listen exclusively to nineties hip-hop in New York City without ever turning on Hot 97—but that didn’t explain the moments when Droog sounded like Nas when the latter addressed his fans. Why, for example, would an unknown m.c. say, “Making like four more albums then I’m falling back” when he hadn’t even released one? And why would he choose to write so many of his rhymes in the past tense, as if his career had already happened? (Droog’s response: “I feel old, man.”) I confronted Droog with the litany of evidence that he was Nas, including an analysis of his EP cover. (The first two tracks are “Quiet Storm” and “Bad to the Bone”—the first two letters spell out “QB,” or Queensbridge, where Nas grew up. Also, the acknowledgments thank Tim Dog, the m.c. who some believe faked his own death.) And when I brought up a literary deconstruction of the word droog, which appears throughout “A Clockwork Orange” as an example of the Nadsat language (Nadsat rearranged is “dat Nas”), Droog said, “People are really crazy.”
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the Droog-as-Nas theory is the absence of evidence. Every aspiring struggle rapper has a Twitter profile—with roughly two hundred thousand tweets and four hundred followers—an Instagram account, and a SoundCloud page. Presumably, one would be able to track Droog back to the days before his EP and find evidence that would prove that he was not Nas. Droog, indeed, does have a Twitter account (he claims that his manager made him get one), but the timeline starts in June of this year. He also had seemingly resisted that other traceable habit of rising m.c.s: talking shit to other rappers through YouTube. (A slightly more thorough search, however, reveals a handful of response videos from other amateur m.c.s to Droog’s old alias, Grandma on Drums.) With this evidential vacuum, only two conclusions could be reached: Your Old Droog was Nas, or he was some kid from Coney Island who had purposefully erased his entire online backlog and hid from the rap media. The idea that Droog might be a young rapper who simply did not like Twitter or Instagram or YouTube or self-promotion was more or less impossible.
At the studio, Droog dispelled any last doubts that he might be an actor hired by Nas to impersonate a twenty-five-year-old emcee from Coney Island, by recording a song about all the different iterations of beef and broccoli. Up close and without all the mystery, it was hard to imagine why anyone would ever have confused Droog with Nas—the cadences are similar, as are the production of the beats, but nearly every m.c. in New York these days, from Joey Badass to Action Bronson, sounds like a nineties rapper. And though it’s certainly possible for Nas to study a map of Coney Island, pick out a handful of geographic markers, and use them in place of his usual Queensbridge spots, Nas hasn’t been that creative in years. What seems to have happened with Droog and Nas is a case of hopeful wish fulfillment for hip-hop fans in their thirties, many of whom cite Nas’s début album, “Illmatic,” as the purest possible distillation of hip-hop’s potential. That anyone could fool this normally discerning and cynical bunch is a testament both to Droog’s immense talent and to the nostalgia industry that has been built around Nas’s early work. But asking Nas in 2014 to rap like he did in 1993 is like asking J. D. Salinger, deep in the New Hampshire woods and cocooned in Mahayana Buddhism, to write “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Between takes, Droog watched parts of a thirty-seven-minute YouTube video by someone named Marco PoloVision, who emphatically (and, it must be said, somewhat convincingly) laid out the case that Droog was Nas. “This is like my street team,” Droog said. “Why would I stop free publicity?” I asked Droog if he was worried that people would lose interest once they found out that he wasn’t Nas. Droog has his first big live performance in early September, at Webster Hall, where he will presumably have to walk around as himself. He said that he wasn’t concerned, because people will always connect with “beats and lyrics” (a nineties phrase if there ever was one). As for the whole Nas thing, Droog said, “I see all this shit as a compliment.” He quickly reconsidered. “I mean, I should take it as a compliment, right?”