Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic

We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back to the musical Golden Era of 90’s music to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of one of the Greatest Times in Hip Hop history. On April 19, 1994, an up and coming 20 year old rapper named Nasir Jones released his debut album Illmatic, which would go onto become one of the top five greatest albums in hip hop. As we celebrate the album rerelease of Illmatic today (not to mention the release of the Time Is Illmatic documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival tomorrow), we will review the direction it took hip hop, the impact it had on its genre’s history, list the Top 5 tracks, and the most overlooked song on the groundbreaking album. It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine….

Illmatic launched the super producer era.

Before this album started, most of the big named rappers (either solo or group) had an in-house producer that handled most, if not all of the production. DJ Premier handled all of the Gang Starr beats. Pete Rock manned the board while CL Smooth mostly handled the mic. Both NWA and Death Row was handled by Dr. Dre. Public Enemy was handled by their in-house production team The Bomb Squad. Tribe was handled mostly by Q-Tip, RZA handled all things Wu-Tang, Black Moon had The Beatminerz, the list goes on and on. On Illmatic, the game was changed in that regard. It was the first album that had multiple big named producers contributing to the work. Not only that, but with regards to Primo, Q-Tip & Pete Rock, these guys were at the very top of the producer game in hip hop. It also set off a friendly competitive environment with all the producers. No one wanted to be the one that put out the subpar beat on what was supposed to be the coming of the next Rakim at the time. As much as they all supported each other’s work & sat in on each other’s studio sessions, it also kept them on their toes to deliver their best. Primo even stated that after sitting in on the session and listening to Pete Rock create “The World is Yours” and also listening to Q-Tip do the beat for “One Love” , he was so blown away he felt he had to go back to the studio to come up with something on the same level of what he had just heard. He ended up remaking the beat for “Represent.

Just think of how hot those producers were at the time the LP was created. Q-Tip was fresh off of making the Midnight Marauders classic album with Tribe Called Quest. DJ Premier was working on Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn LP just after the success of the Daily Operation LP and the ’92 summer smash Dwyck. Pete Rock came off of Mecca and The Soul Brother success, just helped Run DMC become relevant again with Down With The Kingand gave the world the House of Pain’s Jump Aroundremix a few months prior. All three of these guys basically were having MVP seasons & all of them (including Large Professor & L.E.S.) felt compelled to give the then 20-year old some of the very best work they had to offer. Within a few years, having the hottest producers on your album (if you were a big name & could afford it) became the norm to make your album. If you had the major buzz coming before your debut album came out, it was almost a prerequisite. The In-House producer didn’t become extinct necessarily, but it definitely took a huge backseat to the new method of creating an album. Illmatic was the original blueprint. 

Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park) is the most underrated record on Illmatic.

“Pumping for something, some’ll prosper, some will fail/Judges hanging ni**as, uncorrect bails for direct sales/My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails/I reinforce the frail with lyrics that’s real”

Not only is this track underrated, after listening to the lyrics yet again, this song may be the true soul of the album. Nas takes us back on a journey to his youth & touched down on everything from: his boy getting robbed for his sheepskin coat; to the friends whose lives have been lost; to the justice system that is designed to take down him & other black people, to the legendary drug dealers that ran New York City in the late 80s. More importantly, it also may arguably be the most lyrically dense song on Illmatic, which is saying a whole lot considering this is one of, if not the most lyrical hip hop debuts that ever existed. The belief in his rhymes is that he is the Verbal Massiah, here to uplift his listeners, inspire them, and give them a glimpse into the future of what the new standard of lyricism will be.

However, the song shines even more with the production of DJ Premier, and by flipping an old Reuben Wilson song into a laid back, underrated classic. The song brings out a 70’s nostalgic kind of vibe that marries Nas’ lyrics to the beat. As incredible as Primo was as the producer of all the Gang Starr classics (i.e. Code of the Streets), it was his work here & the other tracks (“N.Y. State of Mind”, “Represent”) from Illmatic that helped thrust him further into superstardom. Post-Illmatic, if you wanted your album to be hot, you had to get a Primo beat to make it official. In addition, to top it off, Primo provided his legendary cuts & scratches to the “Coming Outta Queensbridge” sample at the ending of the song, basically killing anything else left on the track that Nas didn’t already destroy in the first 3+ minutes. Trust me, the more you listen to the record, the more you realize this song doesn’t get its just due. 

The Top 5 songs on Illmatic. In order.

Just remember, this is my list and my opinion. If you feel differently by all means, feel free to share. Who doesn’t want to have heated discussions about Illmatic? You can probably flip these 5 songs about 100 different ways in terms of ranking, but however, let’s review the list.

Just know this was hard to rank. HARD. 

5. One Love (produced by Q-Tip)

“On the reals/All these crab ni**as know the deals/when we start the revolution all they probably do is squeal/But chill…”

“So I come back home, nobody’s out but Shorty Doo-Wop/rolling two Phillies together in the bridge we call ’em oo-wops”

Probably the best “jail letter to my homie(s)” record ever recorded. Many artists have tried to follow in his footsteps of keeping connected with his friends in jail as years gone past, but nothing touches “One Love”. Q-Tip blesses Nas with the Xylophone’d out track that almost making you feel like Roy Ayers was sitting by your speakers. How he makes that instrument work in hip hop like that I’ll never know.

One part I have to bring up: forget the part about him providing updates on the hood, or him trying to provide advice to twelve year old Shorty Doo-Wop rolling up blunts (maybe he should have, you know, taken the blunts out of “Doo-Wop’s” hands instead seeing that he may have been a senior in elementary school??), but couldn’t they use a better girl as his boy’s baby mother in the video? She has a faint moustache! I know this was 1994 & everything, maybe the budget wasn’t huge, but video chicks came from this era of hip hop. There’s no excuse for this just like there’s no excuse for a uni-browed chick to get a close up head shot. Even back then, it always confused me when I saw that part. Of course shorty don’t care, she’s got excessive facial hair & she still has dudes trying to get with her. Why would she care?

4. Life’s A Bitch (produced by L.E.S.)

“Visualizing the realism of life in actuality/F*** who’s the baddest, the person’s status depends on salary”

“Life’s a bitch and then you die/That’s why we get high/Cause you never know when you gonna go”

– AZ

Think of how sick AZ’s presence was on this song. Firstly, he was the only guest artist on the whole album outside of Nas’ boys conversing at the beginning of “One Love” & chanting the song title on “Represent”. Secondly, his debut verse & hook was so hot that he started a major bidding war between record labels, eventually signing to EMI Records later on that year. A year later, he dropped the classic Sugar Hill track off of his debut album Doe or Die (which had a lot of gems on it) & helped to spin off his rap career. All of this came from his verse and the hook alone. That was the power of this album. If you produced something hot or in this case, spit something hot, you were gonna become a star if you weren’t one already. It’s amazing how album sales for Illmatic were slow coming out the gate even though it was revered at the time.

It’s even debatable that he even outdid Nas on his own track, though if you listen to Nas’ verse I’m still not so sure. Either way, Life’s A Bitch was the song that formed future collabos and The Firm album from the duo. Nas’ pops Olu Dara comes in with the smooth sounding horns at the end of record & adds a classy touch. Here’s an interesting fact: Nas originally wanted to sample Mtume’s Juicy Fruit, but L.E.S. didn’t have the record. So he ended up sampling The Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love instead. Imagine that, he would have beaten Biggie to the punch had he come out with that first, mostly likely forcing Biggie to use another sample to make “Juicy”. Actually, no……I don’t wanna imagine that.

3. It Ain’t Hard to Tell (produced by Large Professor)

“Deep like The Shining/Sparkle like a diamond/Sneak an Uzi on the island in my army jacket lining”

Nah, nah, nah. Rewind that back…

“Deep like The Shining/Sparkle like a diamond/Sneak an Uzi on the island in my army jacket lining”

Oh my Gawd!! The first time my friends and I heard this line, our brains exploded. Back then, it was like going from Sega Genesis to a PS4 overnight without gradual process. Lyrically it was unlike anything we had ever heard. When we saw the video, it was simple, but still cool enough that it affected us to the point that we believed in all things Nas. If they sold Nas socks, Nas baseball caps, Nas jackets, Nas hoodies, Nas Fun Dip, Nas water bottles, Nas .40 ounces, Nas poutine (I am from Montreal, so…), whatever it was, we would have literally cleared the shelves of it. We were sold like that. Throw in Michael Jackson’s Human Nature sample which SWV also previously sampled to make a huge hit in the summer of ’93, some of the other gems and flows that he dropped on this song (Nas will analyze/Drop a jewel/Inhale from the L/school a fool well/you feel it like Braille….), & giving us the term “half-man/half amazing” and it was over. O-V-E-R.

It’s strikingly amazing that this song is only ranked third on my list. It could have ranked higher but, well, there are two reasons why….

2. The World is Yours (produced by Pete Rock)

“I sip the Dom P watching Ghandi ’til I’m charged/Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin”

In my opinion, it’s not only my favorite song off Illmatic, but it’s my favorite Nas song ever. More than “Street Dreams”, “Nas is Like”, “2nd Childhood”, “The Message” and, “One on One” & every other classic he ever put out. I’m an absolute sucker for piano loops, so that piano intro right at the beginning caught my attention. Pete Rock comes in to sing the question “Who’s world is this?”, Nas drops the lyrical gems. It’s not a complicated track, but the flow and the production is incredible. Quite frankly, it’s one of Pete Rock’s greatest beats. The mellow landscape allows Nas to paint the vivid picture of his life & how he views his surroundings. The video then captures the laid-back & mellow vibe but intersects shots that matches the lyrics.

Does it also help that the song is about 30% better because the song title is lifted from the silver Globe in the indoor water fountain/pool that Tony Montana had in his living room, before he fell in it by way of the shotgun blast to his back? Hell yes!!

More than that, similar to like Memory Lane, this song hits you right across the chest in a soulful, nostalgic way. You can just close your eyes, and you’re transported to your teenage days (in my case, back to 1994) trying to navigate through the pitfalls and obstacles that come in front of you. Funny thing is, even when that song was released, the song made me feel nostalgic too. No, it doesn’t mean that I closed my eyes & I was playing with Legos in front of the TV waiting for Transformers to come on. It just means that it had an old familiar vibe to it, that made it forever timeless. To this day, it remains the flawless diamond above the rest of gems on this album. I won’t even get into the remix for this track, which was almost as sweet as this original.

However, there was another song that was more significant….

1. N.Y. State of Mind (produced by DJ Premier)

“The smooth criminal on beat breaks/never put me in your box if the shit eats tapes…eats tapes…”

“It drops deep as it does in my breath/I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death”

When you peeled the plastic off your CD or cassette and stuck it into your stereo or Walkman, right away Nas snatched you up with this opening track. And to think, he didn’t even know how to start the song off.

As the legend goes, when he stepped into the booth to rap, he was confused as to how to start the track. The beat threw him off a bit. He even stared off with some ad-libs,

“Straight out the fu**ing dungeons of rap/where fake niggas don’t make it back…”

& then literally says a few seconds later,

“I don’t know how to start this shit…”

As he looked up from his notepad, DJ Premier was literally waving at him already counting down for him to catch the beat. 4, 3, 2, 1….

& then in one take, Nas sheds the nerves & rips through the first verse like a veteran, stunning everyone in the studio. After he finished, he stepped out of the booth & asked in all seriousness, “Did that sound cool?” The entire studio erupted, completely freaking out over what he spit.

That moment & the song set the bar high for the rest of the album as a listener. If this was the first song, what the hell was the rest of the album gonna be and sound like??? Even though “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” was already released & was blowing up on radio everywhere, we were still waiting to hear the finished product. The beat by Primo was so eerie & menacing on top of everything else, it just took it to another place. This song was never released on the single, as the other ones mentioned in the top 5. With that said, it remains the most important song on Illmatic without question.

The Illmatic album cover represents the official Declaration for Hip Hop Greatness.

Along with Tribe’s Midnight Marauders album cover, Illmatic is in the category of the “most classic & original” album covers ever. Unlike Marauders, the Illmatic cover has been replicated repeatedly. This was the first cover that didn’t feature someone posing hardcore or otherwise on the cover, or have some kind of artwork done, or the artist/group’s logo sprawled on the front cover. Instead, it has Nas’ face as a kid blended in with the Queensbridge project buildings in the background. Nobody at the time knew what to make of it, until we started hearing tracks spew from the album. As time went along, it started being viewed as one of the greatest albums ever made in the genre (even though it did not reach gold status in the first year). Others started following the Illmatic artwork, starting with the Notorious B.I.G. on his debut album Ready to Die. While Biggie’s album became a certified classic & worldwide smash, some knocked him for copying Nas’ album cover, including Raekwon and Ghostface Killah who called him out subliminally on the infamous “Shark Ni**as” interlude off the legendary Only Built For Cuban Linx LP.

Whenever viewing the album cover, it’s automatically equated to “ultimate greatness”. Don’t think our favorite rappers don’t feel the same way. Starting from Common, to Lil Wayne, Drake, Kendrick Lamar and more, they have all used a variation of this blueprint. Personally, I feel it’s a way to not just pay homage, but a statement to the masses that, “this is my greatest work, I’m reaching for elite/iconic status right here”. It’s no coincidence that those albums in particular were either good if not straddling the greatness line. It’s the “Baby Picture Theory” I call it. You put a baby pic or pre-teen pic of yourself on your album cover in hip hop, and it better be damn good…..because you know what it’s gonna be compared to.

Sidebar/Wild angled question: Can you imagine if after all this time, Nas really stole this idea for his album cover from Nirvana? It may sound crazy, but that “Nevermind” album they had back in ’91 was HUUUUGE & I’m not even a rock guy. PLUS that album had “Smells Like Teen Spirit” & I don’t know Nas personally, but he had to have loved that song. Who the f*** didn’t like that song??? Tell me you didn’t love that song. I f***ing dare you!

Illmatic is the greatest East Coast album ever.

With deep apologies to Jay-Z, Biggie, Tribe, Wu, Redman, Boot Camp Click, Eric B & Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, The Roots, Talib Kweli, 50 Cent, Mase Puff Daddy DMX & every other hip hop classic album I’m forgetting from the East Coast, none of those albums are deified quite like Illmatic. They just aren’t. For most rappers, they all strive to have Jay-Z’s success and/or be revered like 2Pac and/or Biggie. Everyone is forever trying to retrace their footsteps of success, but every rapper strives to make an album that is on the level of Illmatic. In their own way, rappers have followed in Nas’ path. From using their album cover as a spinoff of Illmatic or having a short tracklist (i.e. at least two of Kanye West and Common’s albums have a limited playlist), or even trying to be lyrical & heartfelt (i.e. J Cole), everyone’s used this album as a barometer to strive for greatness.

The formula was so tremendously successful, it’s a wonder why Nas himself hasn’t followed suit. He’s delivered many great albums since this Illmatic (including 2012’s “Life is Good) as well as collaboration projects like The Firm & Distant Relatives. They have all been good if not great, but none of them have quite matched up like his first album. It shows you how hard it is sometimes to replicate greatness, & it has nothing to do with Nas’ skills as a rapper/lyricist. One of the biggest complaints for Nas is the production selections in the past doesn’t match his talents. Doesn’t matter how good his albums are, there always seems to be a few beats that seems like they don’t belong there. Every time I purchase (yes, I said purchase) a Nas LP, a part of me keeps expecting a flawless LP, where his skills & the beats are one & the same.

I’ve heard rumors that he is thinking about making Illmatic 2. Normally I would cringe to hear these album sequel projects. Only this time, because of the stature of the original, Nas would literally have the ear of every major producer in hip hop about wanting to get on the project with him. It would be a producer’s dream. Until that day becomes a reality however, we’ll have to continue to honor the original. An album that was ahead of its time, but yet the future is still trying to catch up to it. #IllMatic #20Years

Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

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4 thoughts on “Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic

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  3. Pingback: Golden Era: Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx… (20th Anniversary-Ish) | The Baseline

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