By: Daniel Hodgman
“I rap for listeners, blunt-heads, fly ladies and prisoners. Hennessey-holders and old-school niggas then I be dissing a, unofficial that smoke Woolie Thai. I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie. Jungle survivor, fuck who’s the live-er. My man put the battery in my back, a difference from Energizer. Sentence begins indented with formality. My duration’s infinite, moneywise or physiology.” –Nas, “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)”
In essence, hip-hop music in 1994 was as diverse as it had ever been. From Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep to Common’s Resurrection to Biggie’s Ready to Die to Scarface’s The Diary, the genre sprayed sound and art in every direction. As was the case with the late 50s and jazz or the late 80s and indie rock, the early 90s set a stage where every artist, single and LP further pushed hip-hop music as a whole. In fact, it was here when hip-hop was most accessible and wide-open to the world; this was the most eclectic stage of the Golden Age. Despite this outward flow of branded ideas, sounds and compositions, 1994 was represented solely by one record: Nas’ Illmatic.
Everything comes back to Illmatic, just like everything comes back to Sgt. Peppers, and like Sgt. Peppers and rock, Illmatic is arguably the greatest hip-hop record of all time. No other piece paints the realism of hip-hop like Illmatic, and through 39 minutes it’s apparent that nothing will ever come close. It’s an album that beautifully weaves brilliant rhymes into eloquent stories, and further takes the listener by the ear with first-person narration that explores urban decay on the base of America’s dirty hands. Throughout Illmatic we see city dwellers get thrown into the “Rotten Apple’s” daily routine and the doings of the “Devil’s lasso.” We also experience the urgency of those plagued by urban America’s wastelands, as they are constantly harassed by the brick confines they call home: Queensbridge. Additionally, we are introduced to reasons why failure plagued the post-Civil Rights years, how the American Drug War inflicted more damage to the citizens than the drugs themselves and how the institution of the country and its prisons held the caged birds that actually stood for something. Through Nas’ visual storytelling and rhythmic street poetry we not only see this detailed story, but he makes it so that for 39 minutes we’re living it. Nothing that precedes Illmatic brings the listener into hip-hop like this, and nothing that comes after ever will.
“It’s only right that I was born to use mics.”
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones was destined for rap way before Illmatic was even a constructive thought. By the age of ten Nas already had verses to spit in the park, and his neighborhood friend Willy “Ill Will” Graham was a catalyst in his musical upbringing by introducing him to records and working as his DJ when he was Kid Wave. After his parents divorced in 1985, Nas found himself dropping out of school in the eighth grade. Through this string of events—a sequence that heavily influenced his path—Nas became a product of an environment that needed a voice.
The steps that followed these events spurred Nas to further pursue a career in music, which subsequently led to his partnership with Main Source producer Large Professor in 1989 (Shecter, The Source). After recording material in a studio that also housed Eric B. and Rakim, Nas got his first taste of the sleek shine of musical construction. And although Large Professor admitted Nas to record in the studio, none of these recordings were ever released.
It wasn’t until 1991 where those outside of Queens were finally introduced to Nas. With Large Professor pushing the gate open, Nas was featured on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” the tenth track off of their groundbreaking debut album Breaking Atoms. Given the first verse, it soon became apparent to the hip-hop world that Nasty Nas was a beast, frontrunner and messiah ready to be unleashed.
“Live at the Barbeque”
On a posse cut that bombards the listener with a hook that repeats the line, “It’s like that ya’ll,” “Live at the Barbeque” couldn’t have set the stage better for Nas’ introduction. Although we don’t see the unconscious flow or the structured verbal passion Nas possesses on Illmatic, it’s his attitude and swift jabs at religion, AIDS and U.S. history that grabs us before the 1 minute mark (“Kidnap the President’s wife without a plan / And hanging niggas like the Ku Klux Klan / I melt mics till the sound wave’s over / Before stepping to me you’d rather step to Jehovah”). Furthermore, “Live at the Barbeque” introduces an 18-year-old that rifles with metaphorical cuts masked in clever internal rhyme schemes that not only scoop us in the Golden Age’s ever-growing output, but also invade our mind with innovative thought (“Verbal assassin, my architect pleases / When I was twelve, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus / Nasty Nas is a rebel to America / Police murderer, I’m causing hysteria”).
As soon as “Live at the Barbeque” dropped, Nas was perceived as the next Rakim, whether he wanted that title or not. And in a way, Nas never really followed that ambition, showing the world that comparison wasn’t in the discussion regarding his music. Still, Nas’ introduction on that infamous Main Source cut evoked a feeling that a game-changer was amongst everyone. It acted almost as a warning, but in the end it was nothing but a shining light into the future.
In the book Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai, Common reflects on the first time he heard Nas rap:
“I first heard Nas on the 1991 Main Source track “Live at the Barbeque,” and I knew, like everyone else, that Nas was an artist who meant something, who was going to change the game. And he didn’t disappoint.” (Dyson and Daulatzai ix)
A year after (1992) “Live at the Barbeque,” Nas found himself at a crossroads. It wasn’t a case of being musically challenged, nor was it a changing of the vanguard, but after Large Professor declined to represent and produce his debut album—due to Main Source’s inner turmoil—Nas was searching for someone or something to further his own path. That’s when MC Serch stepped in, the Jewish rapper from Far Rockaway, Queens and the highly influential hip-hop group 3rd Bass. Here, three important things happened: MC Serch became Nas’ manager and secured him a deal with Columbia Records; he featured Nas on his song “Back to the Grill” along with Chubb Rock and Red Hot Lover Tone; and on October 13th, Nas released “Halftime,” a song produced by Large Professor that was meant for the Zebrahead1 soundtrack. It would later become one of Illmatic’s most impressive cuts.
“Back to the Grill”
On “Back to the Grill,” Nas is the third featured verse behind Serch and Red Hot Lover Tone, and like “Live at the Barbeque,” Nas kicks and jabs with a ravage tone that utilizes blasphemous lines. What’s impressive is that “Back to the Grill” features Nas with better cadence and control, and with the exception of Serch’s first verse, Nas steals the show.
Although “Halftime” was recorded before Nas was even introduced to Serch, its release on the Zebrahead soundtrack created more waves. On an up-tempo beat that jingles over a dub bass backdrop, Nas introduces us to his Queensbridge roots, his own label Ill Will Records and his love for The Jackson 5 and Magic Mike. In actuality, “Halftime” was the piece that secured Nas’ record deal, but Serch was the one who set it up, and if anything Serch is the one who pioneered Illmatic the most outside of Nas.
Illmatic was now set a good two years before its eventual release. As Serch assumed control as executive producer, he soon contacted producers in the area to help fuel Illmatic’s raw sound. Among those that contributed were DJ Premier, Large Professor, L.E.S., Pete Rock and Q-Tip; it was an all-star lineup of producers for an all-star MC.
“The fiend of hip-hop has got me stuck like a crack pipe”
The team behind Illmatic is just as impressive as the album itself. Between Nas and the producers, along with guest rapper AZ, Illmatic serves as the ultimate culmination of the hip-hop dream team. In fact, at the time Illmatic was being recorded, Nas was probably the lowest—with the exception of AZ—name on the list of “those who mattered in the game.” MC Serch already established his position in hip-hop with 3rd Bass and their hit record The Cactus Album. Moreover, 3rd Bass was one of the first significant groups to represent hip-hop culture as a whole, sporting an interracial lineup between Serch, Pete Nice and DJ Richie Rich. It was a combination that didn’t see the light of day in the 80s, and 3rd Bass pulled it off flawlessly. To add, legendary hip-hop icon KRS-One even stated that MC Serch was so influential in hip-hop as a white male that “without MC Serch, there wouldn’t be Eminem (Bachir and Slurg, hiphopcore.net).”
Elsewhere, Illmatic oozes with stature and class. At the time, DJ Premier was making headlines with Guru and Gang Starr, soon becoming one of the most recognizable producers with a tendency to mix smooth jazz samples and hard-cutting breakbeats. L.E.S., the producer behind “Life’s a Bitch,” would become a staple with Nas throughout his career, and at the time he was branded as an exciting force locally. “The World is Yours” was crafted by Pete Rock, who was riding off of the now legendary Mecca and the Soul Brother with CL Smooth. And then there’s Q-Tip, one-fourth of A Tribe Called Quest, who produced and provided guest vocals for “One Love.”
There was nothing to prove with this cast. There was no case of “one outdoing the other.” And there was no better lineup for Illmatic.
“40 Side is the place that is giving me grace”
Beyond the measure of the music, the lyricism, the content and the contributors, one can see what Illmatic represents before even spinning it. The cover art shows a young Nasir Jones planted in front of a section of the Queensbridge Projects, and stamped on the vinyl where Side A and Side B should be, the words 40 Side North and 41st Side South glimmer distinctly on the red Columbia label. Sprawled out, as if it’s a lavish map for the listener, Illmatic’s artwork is both stunning and informative. While the front cover shows us of Queensbridge’s vast interior and the hope of those caught in its bind, the back cover reminds us that hope is one of the few things that these residents actually have. As simplistic as it is clever, the back cover shows a bleak shot of an exterior fence with the housing projects beyond it. In front of the fence stands a beat-up sidewalk with graffiti, a couch, a downed pole and a small glimpse of the girders that hold up the Queensboro Bridge. With its sepia color tone, the back is the bleak, and the bleak is Queensbridge. And essentially, this is almost everything one needs to know when spinning the album for the first time, because without this backdrop, there is no Illmatic.
“It’s like the game ain’t the same, got younger niggas pulling the triggers pulling fame to their name”
The very first thing that can be heard on Illmatic is the swooshing sweep of the NYC subway. There are clanks and clacks that come from the train wheels and tracks, and immediately following is a sample from Nas’ verse on “Live at the Barbeque.” It’s an ode to the past—a mere look back at what started everything—and as soon as the track starts to glide, the tune changes, as it switches to a funk-driven cut with Nas and his crew talking about “keeping it real.” They discuss record labels, guns, alcohol and blunts, and in a snapshot only lasting one minute and 45 seconds, we as an audience get a look at the inner-workings of Queensbridge. It’s reckless abandon mixed with hope, and arrogance mixed with stupidity, but it’s all that they have.
We see tracks and content like this everyday now, but a majority of the time it’s merely emulation, as if what Nas and artists in the early 90s were doing is considered a free pass. No matter how much these new artists try to replicate this, and even to an extent envision it for themselves, nothing comes close to the original cuts and sincerity from artists like Nas and Kool G Rap. “The Genesis” shows this on a minor scale, but it further evokes the feeling that Illmatic had an influence on artists before they even thought about joining the game.
“Rappers, I monkey flip em with the funky rhythm I be kicking. Musician, inflictin’ composition.”
Looking at Illmatic musically, the truth is that there is no breakaway hit. Sure, there are favorites, but from a pure musical standpoint there is no supreme cut. Nas gets the same message and meaning he does with “Memory Lane” as he does with “Represent” and so on, and with the versatility of the producers he worked with along with his lyrical diversity, nothing came out as redundant.
The one exception to the “Illmatic doesn’t have a supreme cut” theory is the first full song on the album: “N.Y. State of Mind.” It’s not that the hard-hitting song towers above the rest, but rather it has a certain attitude that isn’t replicated anywhere else on the album. One of the factors in this is the opening seconds of each song. From “Life’s a Bitch” to “The World is Yours” to “One Love,” the starting sound the listener hears with every song is somewhat uplifting: a smooth glimmering bass groove here (“Life’s a Bitch”); a “da da da” sample there (“It Ain’t Hard to Tell”); and a hard, yet jingling beat over on “Halftime.” My point being: most of the songs on Illmatic start out with some sort of glimmer of hope, which is just one of the many recurring themes on the album, but “N.Y. State of Mind” doesn’t.
“N.Y. State of Mind”
The Premier2 produced “N.Y. State of Mind” is grim, bleak and eerie. The cutting percussion rhythm bites at the listener menacingly, and the horn sample that lies over it flashes warningly, as if we the listeners are bound for trouble. By the 12-second mark, Premier introduces a foreboding piano sample from Joe Chambers’ “Mind Rain” and Nas introduces himself properly. “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap. Where fake niggas don’t make it back.”
From here we see Nas speak with elegance, mixing slant rhymes with aggression, and truth with metaphor.
“Bullet holes left in my peepholes, I’m suited up in street clothes / Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes / Ya’ll know my steelo with or without the airplay / I keep some E&J sitting bent up in the stairway / Or either on the corner betting grants with the cee-lo champs / Laughing at baseheads trying to sell some broken amps / G-packs get off quick forever niggas talk shit / Reminiscing about the last time the Task Force flipped / Niggas be running through the block shootin’ / Time to start the revolution catch a body head for Houston / Once they caught us off-guard the Mac-10 was in the grass and / I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin.”
In these 12 bars Nas exemplifies the grim realities of urban America. Moreover, he gives us a look at the governmental drug war, resident life and police actions as they aim task forces to target the drug trade. “Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes” reflects the harsh realities of community wars and battles with law enforcement, but as the next line (“Ya’ll know my steelo with or without the airplay”) comes in, it soon becomes apparent that this whole set of bars is a double entendre for both city life and Nas’ rap game. Moving on from this, Nas talks about life (alcohol and gambling), the drug game (crackheads selling items to keep their high and selling G-packs), the police force (“task force flipped”) and a city-dwellers mentality (“thoughts of an assassin”).
Standing tall with over 60 bars3, “N.Y. State of Mind” is an eerie yet necessary introduction for Illmatic, and Nas shackles us with the grave truth.
“Suede Timbs on my feets makes my cipher complete.”
For a kid that dropped out of school in the eighth grade, Nas doesn’t show it, because Illmatic is littered with internal rhymes, double metaphors, double entendres, complicated subject matter and versatile vocabulary. To add, Nas’ cadence is nearly perfect, as his rhythmic poetry slips off of his tongue effortlessly. He intertwines lines running amuck with wordplay, and with so much subject matter, there isn’t a word or breath out of line.
The above lyric is the tenth bar from “The World is Yours” and is one of best examples showcasing Nas’ genius. In the nine bars preceding this line, Nas goes on to explain his originality.
“I sip the Dom P watching Gandhi til I’m charged / Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin / To hold the mic I’m throbbing, mechanical movement / Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with.”
As Nas compiles in extreme detail how great he is in the game, he hits us with the knockout punch: “Suede Timbes on my feets makes my cipher complete.”
“The World is Yours”
“Suede Timbes on my feets” is a double entendre in meaning, because he is both giving ode to Boogie Down Productions’ “Dope Beat”4 and further explaining that what glues everything together are his shoes. In the second half of the bar, “makes my cipher complete,” Nas uses tricky wordplay to pack more meaning into one statement. In mathematics, a cipher is a whole and is represented by 0. In hip-hop, a cypher is where a group of rappers freestyle in a circle. So by going on saying that “suede Timbes” makes his “cipher complete,” Nas is fundamentally pushing two double entendres onto one line to create the metaphor that his shoes are the final touches that bring his game full circle. It’s a line packed with imagery, metaphors and double meanings, and it’s just one out of hundreds of examples of Nas’ masterful writing.
“These are the lyrics of the man, you can’t hear it, understand?”
From the opening track “The Genesis,” Nas presents himself handedly. Illmatic is a tale in its most complicated form and it comes at us “with no chaser.”
“One Love” hops musically, with ringing percussion samples and quick snare slaps. As Q-Tip sings “one love” during the hook, Nas constructs his verses in the form of a letter to his friend in prison.
“What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid / When the cops came you should have slid to my crib / Fuck it black, no time for looking back it’s done / Plus congratulations, you know you got a son / I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya? / Told her she should visit, that’s when she got hyper / Flipping, talking ‘bout he acts too rough / He didn’t listen he be riffing while I’m telling him stuff / I was like yeah, shorty don’t care, she a snake too / Fucking with them niggas from that fake crew that hate you / But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece? / Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach / It’s bugged, plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime / Hanging out with young thugs that all carry nines / And night time is more trife than ever / What up with Cormega, did you see him, are ya’ll together? / If so then hold the fort down represent to the fullest / Say what’s up to Herb, Ice and Bullet / I left a half a hundred in your commissary / You was my nigga when push came to shove, one what? One love.”
It’s a unique and clear way of telling a story, and like earlier examples, this shows us Nas’ use of putting more meaning into one statement. Through this letter Nas reflects on the lives of those affected by a friend or family member in prison, all while detailing the workings of Queensbridge after a prominent figure is roped by authorities. “So stay civilized, time flies,” Nas spits at the end of verse two. “Though incarcerated your mind die, I hate it when your mom cries.”
On “Represent,” Nas literally represents Queensbridge. He discusses the drug game and the rules to it (“Get murdered on the humble, guns’ll blast, niggas tumble”), the corner drug game (“The corners is the hot spot”), the Us vs. Them mentality against outsiders (“guzzling beers, we all stare at the out-of-towners”) and the constant war against drugs that America has immersed itself with (“…the streets is filled with undercovers / Homicide chasing brothers, the D’s on the roof trying to / Watch us and knock us”)
The song “Life’s a Bitch” shows how Nas gets existential with themes. On the only track that features a guest verse, Nas and AZ cover ghetto life, religion, death and one’s duty during life. AZ’s verse, which is now considered one of the greatest guest spots on a hip-hop song ever, discusses how those in the ghetto go by its teachings and that in such a short amount of time there’s a “no harm no foul” type of attitude. We see this here:
“Keeping this wealth professing street ghetto essence inside us / Cause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us / Even though, we know somehow we all gotta go / But as long as we leaving thieving, we’ll be leaving with some kind of dough.”
On the chorus AZ sings, “Life’s a bitch and then you die / That’s why we get high / Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.”
During Nas’ verse, he mentions religion in a lighter sense, despite his past religious lines (“My physical frame is celebrated because I made it / One quarter through life some Godly-like thing created”). Elsewhere he raps, “I switched my motto, instead of saying fuck tomorrow / That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto / Once I stood on the block, loose cracks produce stacks / I cooked up and cut small pieces to get my loot back.” Slaughtered with imagery of the ghetto life, nihilism, the entrapment of American decay, and one of the few money-making jobs for those trapped (drug dealing), “Life’s a Bitch” stands on the pedestal of what America has slowly become. It’s a dream that’s hardly reached by those in poor standards, and it strangles prisoners of the city with fake dreams like the lottery. It also places mindsets into those who are capable of so much more; because this life that they live is so constructed for them, those trapped in the projects dismiss proper morals, instead substituting them for crime and one-way thinking.
“Life’s a Bitch”
Out of every track on Illmatic, “Life’s a Bitch” represents how much ground America lost in the 20th century, and how much it still needs to make up. And under fluid cadence and visual rhymes by Nas and AZ, it stands as the most important track on an album full of them.
“Coming outta Queensbridge”
1994 represented the final layer of the “First Golden Age” of hip-hop, and although it showcased many records and artists that changed the way of thinking, and the culture’s output, no record compared to Nas’ Illmatic. Not only did Illmatic touch on themes of urbanization, the failure of American policies, the drug trade and ghetto life, it showcased this with stylistic storytelling that was touched on before, but never to this degree. Nas infused metaphors with internal rhyme schemes and first-class producers with a diverse set of beats, and single-handedly set a new standard for album creation. Like Kool G Rap before him, Nas was a prime street poet, but Illmatic proved that he was on another level. Cuts like “Life’s a Bitch” and “N.Y. State of Mind” represent the American society that isn’t recognized by the government, and the minds of those trapped in its clutches. “Represent” is an ode to all of the places that make a person what they are, and “One Love” gives hope to those affected by task force America and the prison system.
Imagine where hip-hop would be without Illmatic. It’s difficult. AZ, Cormega, The Firm, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Tupac, Mobb Deep, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Just Blaze, Clipse and Blu and Exile are just a handful of artists that have been directly affected by the album, and as hip-hop ages, the list grows.
Furthermore, entire movements swayed when Illmatic dropped. At the time, the G-funk synth-driven West Coast rap movement was experiencing dominating record sales due to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, and when Illmatic was released it created a viable space between geographical sound. For East Coast hip-hop, Illmatic stands as one of its most important pieces. Not only did the album restore the East Coast scene, but also it represented New York City like no other work.
Illmatic may be 19 years old now, but every time it gets played it feels like an original pressing getting spun for the first time. Beyond all of the critical praise and universal recognition, the album itself means something different depending on whom you talk to. Timeless may be a term that’s overused, but in this case it fits, and if hip-hop music was wiped off of the face of the Earth and there could only be one album to re-construct the genre from the start, it would be Illmatic.
1 Zebrahead is a 1992 drama directed by Anthony Drazan that tells the story of an interracial relationship between a white man and a black woman, and the rising tensions that stem from this.
2 DJ Premier produced three tracks for Illmatic: “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Memory Lane” and “Represent.” According to MC Serch, the sessions between Premo and Nas were the most successful. Serch: “Nas was very picky, no lie, we went through at least 65, 70 beats on this album to find the ten that made the album. The most enjoyable sessions for me were the Premo sessions. I mean, Premo and Nas, they could have been separated at birth. It wasn’t a situation where his beats fit his rhymes, they fit each other (Shecter, The Source).”
3 According to Premier, Nas did “N.Y. State of Mind” in one take. Premier: “If you listen to ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ you’ll hear him going, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ because he literally just wrote it. Before he started the verse, I was signaling him going, ‘One, two, three,’ and he just goes in (Cho, Complex).”
4 “Dope Beat” by Boogie Down Productions has a line that goes “got Nikes on my feet and to be complete.”
Bachir and Slurg. “Interview with MC Serch.” HipHopCore. Web. June 2007.
Cho, Jaeki. “DJ Premier Tells All: The Stories Behind His Classic Records.” Complex. Web. 18. Feb. 2011.
Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai. Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic. New York. Basic Civitas Books. 2009. Print.
Nas. Illmatic. Rec. 1992-1994. Columbia, 1994. CD.
Shecter, Robert. “The Second Coming.” The Source, Issue #55. Web. April 1994.