This is the tale of two boys and the Queensbridge projects.
Imagine a child prodigy surfacing in the middle of one of the roughest hoods in New York during one of the roughest times in Black America. Nas was just 17 when his journey started and what he went on to lay down rippled outward throughout the whole of New York and forced grown men to completely switch their styles up or fall victim to natural selection. There was New York Hip Hop in ‘93 and then there was New York Hip Hop in ‘94 and beyond. Nobody could touch Nas in ’94 and they knew it.
Illmatic was the Manhattan Project.
Not unlike the WWII scientists huddled together to create the ultimate weapon, Nas’s debut was the culmination of the best minds in Hip Hop developing the ultimate album that, like that nuclear bomb, was the first of its kind. Fuck it, let’s not even call these guys artists. They were scientists.
“My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses
Live amongst no roses, only the drama
For real, a nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja”
There is DJ Premier. One half of the duo Gang Starr, in 1994 he is in the middle of one of his career highs, refining the boom-bap. His production starts to take on qualities that feel like the touch of cold steel, the smack of concrete, the rattling of train rails; a sonic depiction of the opaque black and white photography that makes the city of New York pop in a way unparalleled.
“Wipe the sweat off my dome, spit the phlegm on the streets
Suede Timbs on my feet makes my cipher complete”
There is Pete Rock. at this point he is not but a year removed from contributing one of the greatest songs of the genre, They Reminisce Over You, with his partner C.L. Smooth. Pete is a true to form crate digger, notably pulling a lot of his sound from the Jazz age; a passed baton from New York’s very potent musical roots.
“I had to school him, told him don’t let niggas fool him
‘Cause when the pistol blows
The one that’s murdered be the cool one”
There is Q-Tip. With A Tribe Called Quest, by this time he is fresh off of one of the most untouchable runs in Hip Hop: their first three albums People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders. I always think of Q-Tip as a painter that makes beats. Each and every production has an array of colors portrayed through sound; a character of its own that could speak without words if there weren’t words present.
“Deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond
Sneak a Uzi on the island in my army jacket linin’”
There is Large Professor. Also hailing from Queensbridge, this was his first venture into a production with his name on it. His ghost production is attached to such heavy hitters as Eric B & Rakim and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo at the time he breaks a young Nas onto the scene by way of his group Main Source. At this junction, his most notable beats consist of a certain bounce and in-your-face energy.
“Now it’s all about cash in abundance
Niggas I used to run with is rich or doin’ years in the hundreds”
L.E.S is a relatively unknown producer at this point. Having grown up with Nas in the Queensbridge projects, he shares a certain youthful hunger and talent with a production style that at times feels lush, regal, and syrupy. And much like Nas, this album goes on to set the tone of the rest of his career.
This is the tale of two boys: Nasir Jones & his right hand man Ill Will. Much to his mother’s dismay, Nas dropped out of school in the 8th grade and started running the streets. His development from that point almost mirrors this decision. An avid reader, he decided to chase knowledge on his own accord. We are far removed from it and able to see it perhaps more clearly now, but Nas’s lyrics were a marriage of his experiences on the street in regards to violence, death, drugs, and poverty with the verbal dexterity and broad worldview he developed with his nose in the books. His whole outlook evolved in a different way than most, as did his ability to articulate it. As he started to show promise on the mic and locked in with his DJ Ill Will, excited to one day pop, Will was shot to death in the Queensbridge projects. Death is part of a natural cycle intertwined with birth, I heard somewhere. Enter MC Serch of the Hip Hop group 3rd Bass.
“Another dose and you might be dead
And I’m a Nike head
I wear chains that excite the feds.”
Nas already had a natural buzz. Locked in with Large Professor and Main Source, he delivered scene-stealing performances on “Live At The BBQ” and what was essentially Illmatic’s first single “Halftime.” Anyone in New York attuned to the culture was buggin. Just a peak at the young man’s potential had the city buzzing. Something was incubating and anyone with an ear and an eye could see it. Serch was that person. 3rd Bass separated and he worked on a solo album. Nas was unsigned with a demo sitting idly in the background. After getting rejected by Russell Simmons over at Def Jam among other labels, Serch linked him up with Faith Newman, an A&R at Sony As executive producer for the project, he used his pull together the beatmaking dream team.
I get genuinely excited when anyone tells me they haven’t listened to Illmatic. One only gets to hear something for the first time on the first time and my first time changed my life. And how exciting is it that there are people out there walking around with that same experience ahead of them? This is one of the most fabled stories in Hip Hop. They call this album the Hip Hop bible. It was as if all of what came before it was inevitably leading up toward it. He mastered the diction of Rakim, the stream-like flow of Kool G Rap, Slick Rick’s storytelling, Big Daddy Kane’s smoothness, and KRS One’s aggression.
It received the coveted 5 mics in The Source.
Listen to Jay-Z before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Mobb Deep before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Biggie before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Wu Tang before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Fat Joe before Illmatic dropped. All of New York evolved once it encountered Nas’s blueprint. Throughout its history, rap took different shapes as an art form. It went through a lot of phases and picked up different tools along the way. Illmatic was a very valuable tool. From the level of lyricism and detail to the production as well as the executive production. The concept of pulling together an album produced by all of the hottest super-producers of the era was not common. The genre was pretty uniform with its one rapper, one producer format. It set the trend for rappers to turn their baby pictures into album covers; almost an unspoken statement that says ‘this is the one, this is the album.’
And it was the one. It was the album. Everyone in that studio knew what it was when the dust settled. It was if they were all possessed for those sessions; commanded by something bigger than themselves. Death is part of a natural cycle intertwined with birth. Nas decided to name the album Illmatic. Born from the loss of his best friend Ill Will.
DJ Premier once talked about how Nas didn’t know how he wanted to perform on NY State Of Mind. “I don’t know how to start this shit, yo” are some of the first words heard. Apparently they used that exact first take. The story goes as soon as he opened his mouth and spit the very first bars for what was about to be the best Hip Hop album of all time, everyone in the room realized what they all had on their hands.
Happy Anniversary Illmatic!