“Explore rap, and tell me Nas ain’t all that”: Unwittingly prescient words from a precocious, young rapper releasing a piece of art, Illmatic, that would not only define him as an artist forever, but also be held up as a musical pillar of the entire hip hop culture. For hip hop fans outside of New York at the time, it bridged a gap from old school hip-hop to poetic, grim street tales, over the kind of gritty production that probably hadn’t heard unless a cool cousin had passed you a Kool G. Rap cassette or an underground mixtape. For hip hop fans lucky enough to be in New York, it was a volcanic eruption of an underground phenom that had been bubbling up for years and was now poised to open doors and ears for this type of work nationally, from Biggie to Mobb Deep. You’d be hard pressed to find a record that’s made more of an impact.
The celebration that has manifested for this modern classic fittingly goes well beyond the usual album reissue with new cover art and a few outtakes. Sure, there’s that, but a full-length feature documentary on Nas and his musician father, Time Is Illmatic, will debut on opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival in Nas’ hometown. He’s enjoyed headlining spots at South By Southwest and will grace the huge Coachella stages on both weekends. Perhaps the most surprising but supremely awesome symbol of Nas and Illmatic’s transcendence beyond hip hop will take place next weekend as Washington, DC’s John F. Kennedy Center’s One Mic Festival opens. Amidst the staid stages most often reserved for opera, ballet, and theater, Nas will perform Illmatic in its entirety as the National Symphony Orchestra bring to life the sonic tapestries of Large Professor, DJ Premier, Q Tip, Pete Rock and L.E.S. Two sold out nights with an entire orchestra at one of the most renowned arts centers on the planet? Explore that, and tell me Nas ain’t all that.
In addition to our own BYT contributors, we visited with DJ, author (Where’d You Get Those?,) and filmmaker (Doin’ It In The Park) Bobbito Garcia and award winning producer, screenwriter, and author Dan Charnas (The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop, and Def Jam: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label) to get some firsthand perspective on the record from two hip hop luminaries who’ve lived and breathed the culture.
What does Illmatic mean to you?
First of all, it should be said that, in my opinion, Nas’ Illmatic was hands down the most anticipated album in hip hop history. In my opinion. And absolutely for the 90’s. I would also say, in my humble opinion, that Illmatic was also the best album for hip hop in the 90s, and probably top three all time. In my opinion. I don’t base that on sales – I base that on quality and artistry. I was fortunate to be part of a radio show with Stretch Armstrong that introduced the world to Nas. His first public broadcast was on our show in February of 1991, three years before his album comes out. He came up again in ’92 when he was still unsigned, and then in ’93, he came up about 4 months before the release of Illmatic. Each were powerful performances. Stretch and I are co-producing a documentary about our show – that’s my next film and I’m directing it, and Nas is absolutely part of the story of our radio impact. He was a banner artist for the eight years that we were on together. Yea, I mean Nas was… was Illmatic.
To be fair, Nas did not change the course of hip hop. Rakim had already laid a blueprint for Nas to follow. What Nas was able to do was put together an album that was flawless. Unlike other artists previous to him that were in the same vein of realism, poetry, and unique voice, there’s no filler in Nas’ album. It’s not ten radio hits either. That’s a rare thing. Most albums came out either specifically envisioning getting radio airplay or specifically envisioning not getting any radio airplay. He just had ten bangers. He had a unique voice and was able to pull together, unprecedentedly, the three best producers in the world on one album, and he was selective enough to have beats that he loved. That was rare as well. A lot of times a record label would enforce an artist to rhyme over something that he or she wasn’t comfortable with, but Nas strictly went “Yo, I love these 10 beats – let’s rock over these.” It’s really a flawless album.
It was amazing that he was unsigned for as long as he was. At the time, I actually had the good and bad fortune of being passed Nas’ demo when I was an A&R rep at Def Jam. I was given his and Akinyele’s demos. I had already tried to impress upon Russell Simmons to sign Organized Confusion, which used to be called Simply II Positive MCs – Pharoah Monch and Prince Po. Russell passed on ‘em. So, when I got Nas and Akinyele I was like, “Nas is too lyrical for Russell. I’m not even gonna waste Nas’ time.” But with Akinyele and his punchlines and his comedy, I thought that might be more to the liking of Russell. That’s the one I forwarded, and he passed on Akinyele as well. When I interviewed Nas for Rap Pages, the first cover feature of his career, he gave me shit! [Laughs] He was like, “Yeah, you passed on my demo. You fronted on my demo!” I kept it in the story because I thought it was hilarious. Years later, it still pops up, like “Ooooh Bobbito fronted on Nas’ demo.” It wasn’t that I fronted – I loved it. We played it on the radio. It’s just that I knew Russell wasn’t going to sign him. And Nas’ demo came across Russell’s desk again, months later, and he still passed on it, so I was right.
It was around 1990 when Nas first surfaced, when he did Main Source’s album. I was very friendly with Stu Fine – the president and founder of Wild Pitch – when that album came out. We all knew who Nas was, and “Halftime” came out in ’92 or ’93. There was definitely a very long windup to that album. It took Nas two or three years to get to the point where he was releasing his own music. Faith Newman or (MC) Serch would be better to talk to about that, because they were the most intimately involved in the creation of that music. They were his A&R person and executive producer, respectively. I was in California when the actual album came out. I think the party had kind of stopped by that time. If I could point to anything that squeezed out some of the diversity in hip hop, it would be the advent of Cypress Hill and Dr. Dre. Things became darker, more weeded. Not that those weren’t amazing albums – they were – but the culture was changing in response.
I think Nas was a part of that. The fact was that what we wanted as a collective were street tales. Nas wasn’t gangster rap – he was a street poet, and it’s a very different vibe, a very different approach. In some ways, Nas opened the way for even Biggie. Ghostface Killah said it on the album: “They bit off of Nas’ shit!” He said it as if the whole Biggie album, the cover, was supposed to be some rip off of Nas. I don’t agree with that, but, I wouldn’t want to overstate the impact of the one album. It was an album that every hip hop head could appreciate and respect. I know at The Source it was huge. John Schecter tells the story of getting that cassette and playing it incessantly. He played it for everyone, and it became one of the first, if not the first, “five mic” album in The Source. It was a five mic album, instant classic, and that’s how heads really thought about it. It was everything that they wanted. It was incredible beats, sophisticated lyrics, a New York approach to things. Frankly, for me, I had a renaissance with that album back in 2010 when I started playing it again for some reason. You know when you go back to a piece of art after fifteen years you hear things that you didn’t hear before because you’re a different person, and it really is something. Really, really is something.
I turned 16 years old on the day when Nas released Illmatic. I was nowhere near as cool as the guys at school or at home who kept up with the rap magazines and the underground mixtapes, but even I knew who Nas was, and why Illmatic was important. By 1994, I was reaching that point of maturity where I realized that all of the music I loved (especially rap) was corny as fuck, and that my taste needed to get really tough (and discerning), really fast. The last rap album I purchased before Illmatic was Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, which was the perfect intro (from a production level) to moving from the likes of MC Hammer and daisy-age De La Soul-types to learning how to “cause mass hysteria.” However, I felt like once I had Nas’ cassette in my hand, I’d be immediately equipped with some heretofore unlearned knowledge and immediate power to do just about anything I wanted.
As the only 13 year old kid in Arizona I was for sure that no one else knew about Nas’ album coming out and treated the release of his debut as the event that it was (weren’t all album releases a big deal in ’94?) I remember my mom taking me to Tower Records (RIP) and running to the hip hop section and BOOM!!! – for $8.88 there it was – Illmatic. Now mind you, this was in the hey day of Death Row records and a few months before Ready to Die dropped (and a week before Outkast’s debut album dropped.) So it was a big risk to drop $10 on an artist who I really had only seen on Yo! MTV Raps. I liked “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” (come on, that Human Nature sample!!) so I bought it, got home and listened to it as another beautiful sub 100 degree day in Arizona unfolded.
Ten tracks: an intro and nine bangers. No skits, no bullshit. Illmatic is twenty years old and still a pleasure to listen to, not just because of Nas’ supreme delivery, but its efficiency. Clocking in at a lean 40 minutes, Nas exhausts himself describing his insomnia and adolescent frustrations. My introduction to Illmatic lacks romance: I searched for “Best rap albums ever” while bored in school one day. The recommendation for Illmatic was as ubiquitous back then as it is now. From its devastating opening couplet on “NY State of Mind” to the dizzying outro of “Ain’t Hard to Tell,” my weak mind was dramatically embiggened by the strength of street knowledge. One love.
Illmatic came out in ’94, I was in 2nd grade. My family is West African so I was always listening to our culture’s music or hip hop, one or the other, or some of that 90s R and B. I first got into Nas’ newer stuff, but as I got older I just kept going back to Illmatic, particularly “The World Is Yours.” In our generation we’re all doing so much, nobody wants to stick to the standard route, there’s a million things we want to do and it’s true – the world is ours, whatever we want do to we really can. He’s really saying something. His music is not just for you to dance to, not for the club, he always has a message and that’s been huge to me. The only time I’ve felt like that, recently, is Kendrick Lamar.