Most new releases seem to have a shelf life of two weeks these days, so it’s hard to believe that an album now turning 20 can still be as relevant as ‘Illmatic’, the debut record of iconic Queens, NYC rapper Nas. Catching up with him to talk about what is arguably the most influential hip-hop LP of all time is surreal.
“You were five-years-old when ‘Illmatic’ came out,” he says, coming to terms with what we just told him. “That’s amazing, because when I was five there were no rap albums coming out. At all. There was no such thing as a rap album.”
Tracks over the past few years such as Joey Bada$$’s breakthrough ‘Survival Tactics’, A$AP Nast’s ‘Trillmatic’ and J. Cole’s ‘Let Nas Down’ have all paid homage in some way to Nas’ debut record. The Queens legend attributes the record’s timelessness to its lucid realness and aspirational nature.
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Nas, ‘Halftime’, from ‘Illmatic’
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“Really, the topics that I talk about were topics that were around before ‘Illmatic’; streets, social economic status, people’s struggles,” he says. “I just told it crazy real, and it just talks about how to live in the circumstances and goes beyond, dreaming at the same time. Never just stay in the situation that you’re in.”
The combination of coming to terms with reality and dreaming of improvement is something relatable to any situation, and the two form a winning combination of the nihilistic realness shared by some of the era’s MCs and the incessant dreaming of others.
“Things go in circles. That’s what happens; rap music comes through different generations and everybody kind of just appreciates everybody. And I guess that at this time that particularly applies to ‘Illmatic’,” says Nas of the revisiting of themes and even reactions that remerge through generations.
Initially considered a controversial MC, he was known for the subversion of religious imagery pre-‘Illmatic’. In the two verses that preceded the album he rapped: “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” (Main Source’s ‘Live At The Barbeque’) and “Waving automatic guns at nuns” (MC Serch’s ‘Back To The Grill Again’).
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Sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve got until you live with it. Working on ‘Illmatic’, I felt like it was the best thing ever! But then, as it’s about to be released, you realise that there is a world out there and they’ve gotta approve.
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This wasn’t too dissimilar to the controversies raised a couple of years back with the rise of Odd Future – and although the skate-punk aesthetic of the LA teenagers feels a million miles away from the purist’s Holy Grail that is ‘Illmatic’, Nas originally intended to pose with Jesus in a headlock for the cover, as opposed to the classic image of the seven-year-old Nasir Jones superimposed over the Queensbridge Housing Projects that he grew up in. “All those years ago I was young and crazy!” he laughs, now aged 40, when questioned about the initial concept.
Considered by many the most important debut hip-hop record of the current generation, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’ has had many critics likening the album’s intelligent, observational take on its generation to ‘Illmatic’.
“I think it’s cool to put those things on him,” Nas says of the comparison. “Before that people put the Rakim thing on me, they put the Kool G Rap thing on me, and that’s an honour. But at the end of the day he has his own journey, I have my own journey, and that’s what keeps it going. I think he has a lot to give us all, and we should just keep listening.”
Lamar’s debut is already considered a classic by some, having only existed for a mere two years compared to ‘Illmatic’’s 20. The term is often thrown around too quickly and readily by the hip-hop community, and it is interesting to consider its meaning. Does the content make an album a classic, or is it the impact that it has? And therefore can something be an instant classic, or is it time that allows it to reach that status?
Nas considers both viable: “Sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve got until you live with it. You can have something like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’; I always knew it was good, but it just recently became one of my top 10 favourite albums. And then some of the others in my top 10 happened immediately. [Dr. Dre’s] ‘The Chronic’ came out and it was like, ‘Oh! My God!’ or [Snoop Dogg’s] ‘Doggystyle’ came out and you knew it was that. It didn’t take a lot of time.”
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Nas, ‘The World Is Yours’, from ‘Illmatic’
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With his own debut, Nas knew he was working on something special. In an interview with The Source in 1994 he boasted, “This feels like a big project that’s gonna affect the world.” In hindsight he admits that he didn’t quite know exactly how big the effect would be.
“I knew it was from what I wanted to hear,” he says. “I didn’t know how many other people would agree. Because you never know when it’s your first record, you can only have a hunch. The closer it came to it being released I started to feel it more and more. Working on it I felt like it was the best thing ever! But then, as it’s about to be released, you realise that there is a world out there and they’ve gotta approve, and you go from there.”
Despite often being considered a modern-day problem associated due to the Internet, leaking was also an issue for the release of ‘Illmatic’. With parts of the album having been in circulation up to a year prior to the its release date – executive producer MC Serch claims to have once discovered 60,000 bootleg copies of the album in a garage – the heavy anticipation was an early indication of the album’s success.
“Columbia was tripping,” Nas recalls. “It was a good thing, but it wasn’t really. It was everywhere, months even before it was released.” With the album’s forthcoming re-release he feels a similar way, explaining: “People have already heard the record, so when it comes to the re-release we just put some extra gems on there, and it kind of feels like it was in the beginning. It’s a celebration of a place where I can analyse and look back at my life and stuff and think about how grateful I am.”
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Things can happen for whoever, whoever you are. If you focus, you can get whatever you want if it’s meant to be. And that’s how it’s worked out for me.
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Building such hype off the back of just two guest verses and a soundtrack appearance (‘Halftime’ originally appeared under the moniker ‘Nasty Nas’ on the Zebrahead OST) seems unthinkable in the Internet generation. With consumers looking for a quick hit, and not investing time into absorbing lyrics and flow patterns, the market moves a lot faster nowadays.
“You gotta be ahead of the curve, you gotta move faster,” Nas explains. “But when it comes to making your music, you make your music and whenever it comes out it comes out, and you can’t worry about that. You play it the way you want to play it; it can leak before, it doesn’t matter, as long as I’m really proud of what I’ve put out.” He’s clearly not overly concerned with how the product reaches his fans.
And if those fans are ever to admit a fault surrounding Nas’ catalogue, it’s almost exclusively the opinion that he peaked too early. This is often the case with music fans who can be guilty of wanting repeats of the material they fell in love with, rather than allowing the artist to experiment and grow. This can undoubtedly be a touchy subject for the musician, but Nas doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s interesting because that’s bigger than me, and I’m sure I’m guilty of holding artists to that, too,” he admits. “It’s something that I look at and it trips me out a little bit, makes me laugh. I just think about it and, with certain artists that I like, I like some of their works more than the others and I only want to hear certain albums. It’s just the way things are.”
With ‘Illmatic’ held in such high esteem in the hip-hop community, it’s considered almost blasphemous to favour another entry of Nas’ catalogue (although a few have braved fighting for his second album, ‘It Was Written’) and listening to the album is almost a rite of passage for new hip-hop listeners. As a youngster, Nas felt this way about Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s ‘Road To The Riches’ and ‘Wanted: Dead Or Alive’, Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’ and ‘Follow The Leader’ and, closer to his release, loved A Tribe’s Called Quest’s ‘Midnight Marauders’. However, he isn’t able to agree with fans regarding the best of his own discography.
“I don’t have a favourite,” he states, referring back to his Stevie Wonder reference earlier in our conversation. “I think it’s like ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ – I need more time to decide which is my favourite.” He is still very much in the midst of building his catalogue, and isn’t removed enough at this stage to look at it objectively.
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Nas, ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, from ‘Illmatic’
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And while his first record still holds such relevance in contemporary hip-hop, so does the artist himself. In the same year that Kendrick Lamar released his debut, Nas dropped his 11th studio album, ‘Life Is Good’. Regarded by many as a return to form, his third Def Jam-released solo record scored him a US number one, and his first taste of top-10 success in the UK. Led by the breakbeat-fuelled single ‘Nasty’, it was the closest Nas has sounded to his Columbia debut in a long time.
Twenty years ago, however, the pre-‘Illmatic’ Nas found himself turned away by Def Jam. The legend goes that the label’s co-founder Russell Simmons thought the young rapper sounded too much like fellow Queens rapper Kool G Rap, and he therefore signed with Faith Newman at Columbia. He describes the move from Columbia to Def Jam following his double-disc LP ‘Street’s Disciple’ as “surreal”, humbly explaining his respect for both labels.
“I’ve been on two of my dream labels. It’s like getting everything you ever wanted,” he says. “Things can happen for whoever, whoever you are. If you focus, you can get whatever you want if it’s meant to be. And that’s how it’s worked out for me.”
The aspirational mindset of ‘Illmatic’ has clearly served him well, and despite hitting such a notable milestone, it feels like Nas is still far from done dreaming.
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photos: Danny Clinch
This feature appears in issue 94 of Clash magazine – details.