During the late eighties and early nineties Hip-Hop was beginning to splinter into various sub-genres; we had Gangsta Rap (Ice Cube), Conscious Rap (Public Enemy), Alternative Hip-Hop (A Tribe Called West), and Hip-Pop (MC Hammer). Amongst this varied musical landscape, certain artists began to juxtapose rap with outside influences and in 1992 and 1993 groups like The Fu-Schnickens and The Wu-Tang Clan began to intertwine Hip-Hop with cartoons and Kung-Fu movies, but despite these burgeoning idiosyncratic styles it was predominantly Gangsta Rap that dominated the Hip-Hop genre. During this same period groups like Gang Starr also began to blend aspects of conscious Hip-Hop and tales of ghetto life with self-examination to create a grittier yet introspective style more akin to the early eighties approach pioneered by the likes of The Furious Five. Building on this style, Nas who had appeared in Main Source’s Live At The Barbecue a few years earlier released his début album in 1994, and with his ten track offering he made this urban-aware East Coast aesthetic an internationally recognised style.
Illmatic is an example of a short yet perfect album; there is absolutely no fat, the LP is a lean, to the point, slice of reality straight from the streets of Queens, New York. The album opens with “The Genesis” with the sound of a train and a sample from the Subway Theme by Grand Wizard Theodore bumping in the background, with these elements the album begins by reinforcing New York’s importance in the creation of Hip-Hop. With Nas’ own line from Live At The Barbecue also being heard in the intro, the track establishes Nas’ standing amidst Rap’s East Coast origins. Illmatic is an album therefore that is very aware of Hip-Hop history, it both samples and references songs and lyrics from past greats and the album has in turn been sampled and referenced by many Hip-Hop artists from the nineties, noughties, and teenies. The title “Genesis” is therefore quite apt as well as being slightly ironic, this opening track was intended to encompass the past but Illmatic has since become the source, the origin, and the influence for Hip-Hop music in the future.
The first song on Illmatic is “N.Y. State Of Mind” with Nas giving a Kool G Rap type flow over DJ Premier’s rugged and gritty, piano-laden production which contains a sample of Joe Chambers’ Mind Rain. There’s also a sample from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Mahogany” giving a nod to one of the all-time great MC’s. With Nas delivering lines like “I never sleep ’cause sleep is the cousin of death” it shows that he himself is capable of being in the same league as Rakim. Then comes “Life’s A Bitch” featuring AZ, the track is produced by L.E.S. and co-produced by Nas himself and this joint is a more mellow offering thanks to the Gap Band sample. For me it was AZ’s opening verse and his flawless flow that was the most impressive back in ’94 and it had me waiting for his solo release. Lines from this song like “I woke up early on my born day, I’m twenty, it’s a blessing” are still quoted to this day by the likes of Joey Bada$$ and this goes to show the everlasting impression the LP has had on many generations of Hip-Hop musicians.
The next song is “The World Is Yours” and this is just a classic and unforgettable track in every way. Produced by Pete Rock the track is jazzy and infectious, making everybody who hears it instantly nod their head. The song samples another Hip-Hop great; T La Rock’s “It’s Yours” and it also features numerous quotables from Nas. Similar to Wu-Tang this was one of the first times I heard outside influences in a Hip-Hop song with “stabbing women like the phantom” referencing The Town That Dreaded Sundown and the line “I sip the Dom P, watching Gandhi ’til I’m charged, then write in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin” showing an awareness of historical struggles by minority cultures outside of America. Like a game of pass-it-on the line “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” was later used by Ski and Jay-Z to create a track on Jay’s classic début album Reasonable Doubt, once again proving the importance of Illmatic within Hip-Hop music.
“Halftime” produced by Large Professor features sleigh bells from Average White Band and some horns from Gary Byrd during the chorus. With lines like this Nas showed his evolution from the streets to the stage… “Nasty Nas has to rise cause I’m wise, this is exercise ’til the microphone dies. Back in ’83 I was an MC sparkin’, but I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and, kick my little raps cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand. And now in every jam I’m the fuckin’ man”
“Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)” produced by Gang Starr’s DJ Premier is a nice, relaxed track with an “ooh ooh” sample from Reuben Wilson. There’s also the “coming out of Queensbridge” sample from Marley Marl and Craig G. The song speaks about Nas’ life and upbringing in Queensbridge with him rapping “I rap divine, God, check the prognosis. Is it real or showbiz? 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…”
Next up is “One Love” produced by Q-Tip (who a lot of people forget helped create some classic songs for Nas and Mobb Deep during this era). With the glockenspiel sample from The Heath Brothers the joint is a beautiful addition to the LP. With the song taking the form of a letter to someone in prison, it was a unique concept in the early nineties. The track contained the line “What’s up with Cormega, did you see him? Are you together?” referring to Cormega (a fellow Rapper from Q.B.) being in prison during that time. The track was subsequently referred to in Cormega’s reply also titled “One Love” from his début album “Testament”.
“One Time 4 Your Mind” produced by Large Professor is a slow track containing a more early-nineties flow from Nas, sounding more like an excerpt from a live cypher than a mastered track. Then comes “Represent” produced by DJ Premier, an understated track which features a chorus with a rowdy vibe. With a group of people shouting “represent!” in the background, the song contains references to The Bridge Wars and also sports great lines like “somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game” something which again has been referenced by many Rappers including Jay-Z. The track even has Nas bragging about being a dropout way before Kanye West.
“It Ain’t Hard To Tell” produced by Large Professor is a great way of ending the album, with a sample from Michael Jackson’s Human Nature the song is uplifting and with Nas rapping “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazing” it just affirmed his lyrical creativity in the golden era. Lines from this track in particular have been sampled and referenced countless times, proving what an impact this song and the entire album has had on the Hip-Hop community.
Never since Purple Rain has an album this short made such a big impact on music, but having said that Illmatic wasn’t a huge commercial success during the time of its release and apart from underground Hip-Hop fans, the mainstream didn’t seem to have a palette for introspective and meaningful lyrics. Popular culture at the time wanted stereotypical bullshit such as Gangsta Rap, they didn’t want conscious or thoughtful lyricism. Today the mainstream seems to regret their initial under-promotion of the album and Illmatic has since benefited (or slightly suffered) from a slew of retrospective overrating from the mainstream media. Not that Illmatic isn’t worthy of the praise it now receives but I distinctly remember these types of people not promoting Illmatic with such vigour during its initial release. Directly because of this, Illmatic sold under 60,000 copies in 1994 whereas something like The Chronic sold 3,000,000 copies, in fact the album took a further seven years before it reached platinum status whereas The Chronic went 6 times platinum confirming once and for all that the public generally prefer studio gangsters to street poets.
Back to the topic of retrospective praisers, these switch-siders may now laud Illmatic as a classic, but real Hip-Hop heads already knew that fact back in 1994 when the album was under-selling, where were all these motherfuckers back in the mid nineties? These hipster-ish interlopers who now speak about Nas’ début album during college lectures, in poncey publications, and in upper-middle-class articles are the epitome of annoying, they’ll only recognise a great work when it’s too late. Who gives a fuck if these uppity pricks like Illmatic now? It mattered to Hip-Hop if you liked Illmatic in the mid-nineties. If these same people had approved of it in ’94 we may have avoided all the perils and pitfalls Hip-Hop encountered as it morphed into the mass-consumed, hollow shitfest it is today. Maybe more Illmatics and less No Way Outs and we’d still have a credible genre. With the metamorphosis of Hip-Hop artists from street poets to suit-wearing, pimp-slash-gangstas, even Nas slowly became the antitheses of what he purported to be during his Illmatic days. When fans saw Nas pretending to be a Mafioso kingpin in the music video to Street Dreams (from his second album It Was Written) all our hearts dropped, but I guess I’ll leave that subject for another article.
So let’s not detract from the brilliance of Illmatic, the album was undoubtedly a classic from beginning to end, this release and this period is what Nas should and probably will be remembered for. This is without a doubt the best work from the Queensbridge lyricist, I just wish that more people had acknowledged that fact back in 1994 before Nas and East Coast Hip-Hop regrettably began to change their style.