Lil Nas X: Inside the Rise of a Hip-Hop Cowboy
Lil Nas X made the biggest hit of 2019 for $30. Now he just wants to keep on riding
On a sleepy Monday morning at the horse stables in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, Lil Nas X has got exactly one horse in the back.
Nas — real name Montero Hill — is the 20-year-old rapper and internet savant behind the unlikeliest hit single of this (or any) year: the hip-hop-country crossover “Old Town Road.” A few months ago, he was a college dropout living on his sister’s couch in Atlanta with a negative balance in his Wells Fargo account. Now, he’s crushed Drake’s single-week streaming record and had the Number One song in the country for five weeks straight, somehow fending off a new Taylor Swift song from the top spot. As he himself puts it, “Time’s been going pretty fast.”
The “Old Town Road” video currently has 66 million plays on YouTube, and it would probably have more — except Nas made it himself before he got famous, so it’s just the song playing over clips from the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. Now that he’s a major-label recording star, he needs a real video, preferably with real horses.
That’s where Scott Perez comes in. A ruddy fortysomething in jeans and dusty boots, Perez has been the lead horse wrangler for such TV shows as Godless and Westworld.“You ever ridden before?” Perez asks Nas as he ambles into the corral, lanky six-foot-two frame in skinny jeans and shoebox-fresh Vans.
“Nope,” Nas says cheerily.
“Well — first time for everything,” Perez says. “We’ll get you on and let you ride for a while, just to make sure you’re comfortable. And if at any point you want to get off, it’s totally cool.”
“I got you,” says Nas, smiling.
If Lil Nas X seems good at rolling with the flow, he’s been doing it a lot lately. As recently as February, he’d barely left northern Georgia. In March, he flew to New York to meet with managers and sign his record deal. It was his second time on an airplane. (His first was to Texas, to visit his stepsister at the Army base where she was stationed.) A few weeks later, he traveled to L.A. for the first time, and learned “Old Town Road” had hit Number One on his 20th birthday. Recently, almost every day has been the most surreal day of his life, until the next day.
Which may explain why this morning, sitting atop a brown-and-white horse named Scout, Nas has the calm confidence of a man who always expected to be learning to ride a horse so he can shoot the video for his global smash. As he fiddles with the reins, a second trainer, Bobby Lovgren (Seabiscuit,War Horse), gives him some instruction, while Perez’s son Tristen — 12, precocious, and a big Lil Nas X fan — looks on.
“Kick him a little harder,” Lovgren says.
“I don’t want to make him angry,” says Nas.
“You’re not gonna make him angry, I promise,” says Lovgren.
Nas hesitates. Tristen chimes in from atop his horse: “It’s OK to be scared.”
Nas looks at him and smiles. “I’m not scared.”
It’s hard to imagine much scaring Lil Nas X. A low-key, soft-spoken listener who takes everything in stride, he’s almost preternaturally chill — and that’s not just the weed (although it’s also probably the weed). He has a way of regarding people older than him (which is to say, everyone he’s around these days) with a particular mix of interest and bemusement that’s common to smart teens. He might think you’re a clueless moron who’s 117 years old, but he’s nice enough to indulge you anyway.
Born in Atlanta in 1999, Nas lived with his parents until he was about six. After they split, he moved with his mom and grandmother to Bankhead Courts, a notoriously tough housing project on the city’s west side. Drugs and gang violence were ever-present; Nas says he never saw anyone close to him killed, but he knew plenty of people who did.
Around age nine, Nas and his brother went to live with their dad, who had remarried and moved to a small, quiet suburb in neighboring Cobb County called Austell. “I remember not wanting to go,” Nas says. “I didn’t want to leave what I was used to. But it was better for me. There’s so much shit going on in Atlanta — if I would have stayed there, I would have fallen in with the wrong crowd.”
Nas addressed his relationship with his mom on one of his early songs, “Carry On”: “How you leave your son all alone? See you every other month, can you hit a nigga phone?” But he says they largely lost touch years ago, and he hasn’t heard from her since “Old Town Road” came out.
Nas was a bright kid, a self-described class clown, but one who took schoolwork seriously. He started playing trumpet in fourth grade, and by junior high he was good enough to make first chair. But he gave it up when he started high school because he “didn’t want to look lame.” “I wish I would have stayed in it,” he says.
By this time, his dad had moved the family to a small town called Lithia Springs, about half an hour west of the city. As Nas started high school, his social life migrated almost entirely online. “That’s when I kind of stopped any outside-of-class activities,” he says. “I was just on the internet all the fucking time. I started to isolate myself — I don’t know why. I guess I was finding out who I am.”
He got deep into Twitter, making friends and posting memes and jokes across several different accounts. He says he always knew he wanted to do something creative, but he wasn’t sure what — the idea of all the tweeting was to build a following, so he’d have a platform to promote himself someday. At first he tried his hand at comedy, posting goofy videos to Facebook and Vine. Then one day he decided to give music a shot. It was the summer of 2018, and he’d just finished his freshman year at the University of West Georgia, where he was studying computer science and briefly considered becoming a cardiovascular surgeon. “I planned on using the entire summer to study,” he says. “But I got bored one day and made this song.”
Nas had grown up listening to hip-hop — Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi — and he always enjoyed writing. “But music was never something I saw myself doing,” he says. When he made a song called “Shame” and posted it to SoundCloud, “people were actually fucking with it,” he says. “I’m not, like — what’s the word when you believe in a lot of magic? Superstitious. I’m not too superstitious, but as I was listening to the beat, melodies and flows were coming to my head. I didn’t even have to think — it just felt like a force or something.”
A few days before the fall semester started, Nas told his dad and stepmom he was taking time off from school to make music. In reality, he’d already dropped out. (“Although I just found out a couple days ago I’m still enrolled,” he says, “so I guess I didn’t drop out the correct way.”) He crashed at his sister’s house and lived off the money he’d saved working as a cashier at Zaxby’s, a Georgia chicken chain, and as an attendant at Six Flags, where he supervised kids’ rides like Yosemite Sam’s Wacky Wagons. He didn’t have a car or even a driver’s license. “There was no point in a license,” he says, “ ’cause when am I gonna have a car?”
Nas posted a few more songs, but they didn’t get much traction. “I could post a funny tweet and it would get 2,000 retweets,” he says. “Then I’d post a song and it would hit, like, 10.” One night around Halloween, he was browsing beats on YouTube when he found one by a 19-year-old in the Netherlands called YoungKio. Something about the track — built around an uncleared banjo sample from a Nine Inch Nails song — spoke to him. “I was picturing, like, a loner cowboy runaway,” he says. “Basically what I was going through, but in another lens.”
Nas paid $30 to lease the beat, then spent all of November writing and rewriting his lyrics. He wasn’t too familiar with cowboy culture: While he’d worn Wranglers growing up (“It’s Georgia, everybody wore Wranglers”), he had to Google other Western lingo. He chose the title “Old Town Road” because “it sounded like a real country place. I was surprised it hadn’t been used before.”
From the beginning, his goal with the song was to engineer virality. “It was the first song I genuinely formulated,” he says. “I was like, ‘I gotta make it short, I gotta make it catchy, I gotta have quotable lines that people want to use as captions.’ Especially with the ‘horses in the back’ line, I was like, ‘This is something people are gonna say every day.’ ” Already, he was thinking about the memes.
Nas posted a snippet on Twitter in early December, then posted the full song two weeks later. He promoted it nonstop, usually retweeting horse and cowboy memes from his friends and followers. “And it just kind of slowly, slowly went up,” he says. “People say I paid influencers — but I didn’t even have money for a video. How am I gonna pay people?” Within weeks he was getting hit up by managers, A&R reps, concert bookers. Still, he held out. “I was like, ‘I know something better’s coming,’ ” he says.
By March, “Old Town Road” was big enough on streaming that it popped up on the charts, and Nas couldn’t hold out any longer. He flew to New York to sign his deal with Columbia, and a few weeks later, Billy Ray Cyrus recorded a verse for a remix, which helped push it to Number One. But even that seemingly random pairing was something Nas willed into existence from the beginning. Two days after posting the initial snippet in December, he tweeted a follow-up plea: “twitter please help me get billy ray cyrus on this.” He wasn’t just trolling. “I was like, ‘Who can I get that will create a moment?’ ” he says. “Billy’s a big country artist, generations of people know him, either from his music or from the show.” (That’d be his daughter Miley’s show, Hannah Montana.) Sure enough, three months later, the universe complied.
“Twitter can make a lot of things happen if you get enough retweets,” Nas says.
A few days after his horse training, Nas is on the set of the “Old Town Road” video shoot. The concept features him as an 1800s bank robber who escapes through a wormhole and gets magically transported to a modern-day L.A. hood; Chris Rock has a cameo as a sheriff. They filmed the Old West scenes yesterday, in a canyon in the middle of nowhere with no cell service. Nas couldn’t check Twitter for so long, he physically didn’t know what to do with his hands. “It was the worst day ever,” he jokes.
Today they’re filming the present-day scenes in East L.A., trucking in a green tractor, a few horses and a cherry-red Maserati, just like the one Cyrus sings about on the song. As Nas rides around in the back of a pickup shooting some close-ups, Cyrus is relaxing in his trailer with his wife, Tish, and daughter Noah. He first heard “Old Town Road” when his manager asked if he’d be interested in a guest appearance. Cyrus says he reacted with confusion: “What does he want me for? It’s perfect!”
Ultimately he felt moved to give it a push on country radio. “I think it was Number 19 at the time,” Cyrus says. “I thought maybe I could help him drop the nine.” He went into the studio the next day and, with Tish and a songwriter named Jocelyn “Jozzy” Donald, wrote his verse in 15 minutes. “When I found out Nas was a young black dude talking about Wranglers and cowboy shit, I was like, ‘Hell yeah, let’s make Billy the opposite,’ ” Donald says. “No chaps, no moonshine — we’re gonna talk about Fendi sports bras. Let him spit bars.” She likens the switch to “giving Magic the three-point skills and Bird the dunking skills.”
It was around this time that Billboard announced it was booting the song from the country charts on the grounds that it didn’t contain the proper musical elements. But the internet rallied behind Nas, and in the end the controversy only made the song more popular: After Billboard’s decision, the Cyrus remix dropped, and within a week, “Old Town Road” was the biggest song in the country.
Cyrus, for his part, is enjoying the hell out of this moment. “I never thought at 57 I’d get to do this again,” he marvels. He seems genuinely thrilled to be working with Lil Nas X, whom he calls a “genius” and “great thinker” and compares, with a straight face, to both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. “I think Lil Nas is a hero who came along when the world needed a hero,” Cyrus says. “At a time when we’re so divided, he’s a light in the universe.”
He adds that Nas reminds him a little of himself: grew up poor, shunned by gatekeepers, homeless just before his big break. He’s tried to take the rising star under his wing, passing along some of the advice he himself got as a young rule-breaker from Nashville outlaws such as Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. “It’s a double-edged sword to have a monster like this right out of the box. And I’m the one guy who can understand that,” Cyrus says. “This is gonna sound crazy, but I almost think of Nas like a son.” (Eavesdropping on a nearby couch, Noah, his actual daughter, snorts.)
Cyrus says he’s shared a few general words of wisdom with the younger artist: Persist, diversify, only do things you love. According to Nas, he’s also imparted some more practical advice.
“He told me,” Nas says, “to buy land.”
Two days later, Nas hops into a Mercedes Sprinter van outside his West Hollywood hotel to drive to his first public performance ever. In keeping with the insanity of the past few weeks, the performance is at Stagecoach, a.k.a. the country-music Coachella. His entourage is growing by the day: In addition to his publicist, his performance coach, his musical director and his label rep, there’s now also a tour manager and a security guard, a beefy guy named David whose main responsibility seems to be making sure the air conditioning is set at the right level.
On the way, the van gets a couple of reminders that Nas is barely out of his teens. First, there’s a pit stop at CVS, because he forgot socks. Then, 30 minutes into the drive, he announces that he’s hungry, prompting a detour to In ’N Out — which turns into an impromptu meet-and-greet when he’s mobbed by local fans. One girl working behind the counter hands Nas some paper In ’N Out hats and asks if he’ll autograph them. He looks at them for a second, then mumbles, “I don’t really have a signature.”
But if he feels any anxiety about playing his first show ever, at a festival with a crowd of 80,000 people, it doesn’t show. Halfway into the drive, he lays his head against the window and falls asleep.
Nas has plans to keep this going for at least a while longer. He recently signed with Gee Roberson, former manager of Drake and Kanye West. It’s a big deal to him: Drake is the closest thing he has to a role model in music. “He’s one of the bigger influences on me,” he says. (Though when I ask if Drake reached out after Nas broke his streaming record, Nas shakes his head. “He liked the post,” he says, a little disappointed. “But he never mentioned me back or anything.”)
Aside from his new team and occasionally his dad, he doesn’t have a big inner circle or a lot of friends that he bounces ideas off of. “Mostly I use the person who’s been helping me the most with decisions so far — and that’s me.”
Right now, Nas is in a funny, in-between place. He says there’s money coming in from everywhere — including a six-figure partnership with Wrangler and his label — and that he’ll “be a millionaire soon, if I’m not already.” But he still lives with his dad and stepmom, though he thinks he’ll probably move to L.A. He admits it’s gotten a little overwhelming sometimes, becoming a public figure overnight, having his entire life suddenly exposed. “There was one moment in Atlanta when I hopped in the car with my brother and cousin to go to McDonald’s, and everything just hit me — like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck’s happening?’ ” he says.
Lately, Nas has been in the studio working on a full album. He’s got a handful of songs recorded, many of which address the one-hit-wonder issue head-on — talking to doubters, trolls, jealous people who’d love to see him fail. He hasn’t quite landed on a sound: As he says, “It hasn’t even been a full year of me making music yet.”
None of the new songs sound country at all. Despite what some fans might want, he has no interest in making 12 more “Old Town Roads.” Still, he’s got a healthy sense of humor about milking this one for all it’s worth. He’s already on his second official remix, and he jokes that more are on the way.
“I’m like Twitter-famous, but in real life,” he says. “Instead of your mentions, it’s real people coming up to you. People shake your hand instead of liking your tweets.”
But ask him if he ever feels like it’s getting out of control — like his career is moving too fast — and he says no. “Honestly,” he says, “it feels like it’s not fast enough.”