The Ave Podcast with Cal Cee. Episode 181:20th Anniversary of Stillmatic
On the latest edition of The Ave Podcast, we break down one of the greatest albums of the 21st Century (for the culture). On Dec. 18, 2001, in the midst of the middle of one of the biggest Hip Hop beefs ever, you know when they say, the Rose that grew from the concrete? Well, through the back & forth beef with Jay-Z, as well as beefing with Rocafella Records (Jay-Z’s record label), and the critics turning on him, Nas ended up creating the acclaimed Stillmatic, his 4th studio album. The album re-solidified Nas’ name as one of the true Kings of the genre, going on to sell over two million records based off the success. Among other accolades, it also achieved one of the highest honours bestowed on an Hip Hop artist’s work: It achieved the mythical 5 Mics status in The Source Magazine. I’m joined by Justis from Beats By Bruises, DJ/ProducerDJ Keo, and SSA Family Member Shawn Adonis, as we discuss how important this album was for Nas’ career; Takeover vs. Ether and what it meant for Hip Hop; share our Top 3 songs from the album; and much more.
The Ave Podcast with Cal Cee. Episode 50: 2018 NBA Free Agency Predictions x Draft Lottery x Nasir
Today on The Ave Podcast, we break down the most important players of the 2018 NBA Offseason. I invite Julian aka Jules Da Commish to help provide the predictions on where LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard*, and the remaining important figures of the NBA Free Agency will end up. Plus we discuss the NBA draft, and share some quick thoughts on Nas’ latest album, “Nasir”.
*Yes….I understand Kawhi isn’t a free agent until 2019, but the way he’s wielding his leverage around, it sure as hell feels that way. Don’t you agree?
*** Thanks for tuning in, and don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast and the blog below, and also, the podcasts are now available for download.You can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, & Stitcher right now on your IOS or Android devices. ***
The Ave Podcast with Cal Cee // Episode 50
To download the podcast, feel free to click the link below:
To subscribe to South Shore Ave, click onto the Follow button, and enter your email address, or click onto the RSS Feed. Very special thanks to Julian aka Jules Da Commish for his guest appearance on this podcast. To check out my nominations on the NBA Regular Season Awards, especially seeing that the NBA Awards show is dropping tonight, please check out Episode 43 of The Ave Podcast. Why we’re waiting until now to find out who won these awards is beyond me.
The Ave Podcast with Cal Cee. Episode 26:Remembering Prodigy
Today on The Ave Podcast, we remember the career of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy. Simple as that.
I invited DJ Chris Nice(Grooves & Rhythms Mixshow, Fridays from 2 – 4PM on MyLime Radio), DJ G-Sharp(WTF Throwback Mix, Fridays 8 – 8:30AM on WPGC’s 95.5FM in Washington, D.C.), PressBasketball.Com’s own Will Strickland (The Open Run; Host/Organizer of Full Court 21 Canada), and past contributor to South Shore Ave Shawn Adonis(25th Anniversary of Juice,The MVPs of 2016) to discuss our favorite songs, the impact Prodigy made on Hip Hop, his star turn on Shook Ones Pt II, plus more.
*** Thanks for tuning in, and don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast and the blog below. The podcasts are now available for download. ***
The Ave Podcast with Cal Cee // Episode 26
To download the podcast, feel free to click the tagline right below:
To subscribe to South Shore Ave, click onto the Follow button, and enter your email address, or click onto the RSS Feed. Very special thanks to DJ Chris Nice, DJ G Sharp, Will Strickland, & Shawn Adonis for their guest appearances on this podcast.
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 albums in Hip Hop history. On March 25, 1997, about two weeks after The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, Bad Boy Records released the Life After Death double album. This album went on to cement Biggie’s status as one of the (if not the) greatest rappers in the history of its genre, with classic singles, being able to cover all areas & satisfy all listeners from the streets to the clubs. As we celebrate the anniversary of Life After Death, we’ll break down the top songs from the album, The Butterfly Effect, and if this album precedes Ready To Dieor not. My crew run, run, run, my crew run, run…..
Where were you when….
I’ll never forget where I was when Biggie Smalls passed. It was after the heinous East Coast – West Coast battle between Biggie & Tupac that dominated the landscape of hip hop music back in ’96. For those that don’t remember, it pretty much all started back at the 1995 Source Awards, when Suge Knight delivered his infamous “Come to Death Row” acceptance speech. Even back then, you got the impression things were going to escalate quicker than the News crew fight in Anchorman. It lead to Suge bailing out, and then signing Tupac out of jail, who at that point, was as rabid with anger and revenge as I’ve ever seen as a rapper. Or anyone really. He went after Biggie, Puffy, Bad Boy, and any East Coast artist that seemed cool with them. In songs and interviews, he went after them like the Hulk. (One of the most classic interviews, was the last interview he did with Toronto’s own Master T. I’m not even sure Master T got a word in after his first question). You know how everything snowballed after that: multiple rappers from both sides chose their allegiance to each coast sending out shots in almost every way possible. From videos of rappers kicking down buildings, to MC’s kidnapping LA-fitted wearing brothas, and throwing them over the bridge. As fans of Hip Hop, you felt forced to choose a side. I won’t lie to you, musically between the beef, Nas dropping, “It Was Written“, The Fugees running wild, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest dropping new material, LL making his second of 15 comebacks into the game……it was an incredible time. Overall though, it was getting to a dark place. Then in September ’96, things turned pitch black when Tupac was shot 9 times after the Tyson fight in Las Vegas, ultimately dying about a week later. Hip Hop lost one of its biggest and greatest stars just as he entered the sweet spot of his prime years. The speculations were wild and rampant as to who killed Tupac. Of course, one speculation was that Biggie and Bad Boy had something to do with it (which I never believed). Darkness was looming…..
…..and on March 9th, I was woken out of bed by my brother-in-law’s phone call asking if I’d heard the news about Biggie Smalls being shot and killed the previous night. I still remember brushing him off nonchalantly, basically telling him, “Get outta here, & stop believing the crazy rumours out there”. Once the phone call was done, I rolled out of bed, brushed my teeth, went to the couch and put on the TV. As soon as the TV came on, I saw Christopher Wallace’s face appear on CNN. I didn’t need to turn up the volume to know what I just heard wasn’t a lie. I was floored. At the time, this was my favourite rapper, with Nas being the only other rapper I put on that pedestal. All I kept thinking about was, I’ll never get to hear him rhyme again. I just couldn’t shake that fact out of my mind. I loved Tupac’s music and his talents, but his death didn’t hit me like Biggie’s did. Even when people were coming after him for essentially starting the “Name Brand/Playa” era that plagued hip hop for a while, or the content of some of his lyrics, I stood right by him. I mean shit, you heard him rap, right? Every song he dropped, every feature he was on, from 112 & Total, to Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard & Tracey Lee, it didn’t matter. You never caught him slipping. Best combination of flows, lyrics, and delivery that I’ve seen. So when I got my hands on a copy of Life After Death, it was bittersweet. On one hand, I couldn’t wait to see what he left behind, but you knew whatever it was, you had to really take it in. If Ready to Die was the launch pad to super-stardom, Life After Death was the album that put him into an orbit separate from any other rapper alive. The album not only went on to be one of the only Hip Hop albums to go Diamond (10M+ records sold in the US alone), it cemented his legacy as the greatest rapper of all time, even if he only had two albums in his catalogue. Can it be debated that his death elevated his status for the title? I mean, I guess so, if you want to argue it. However, before you start setting up your supporting arguments like a defence team, do yourselves a favour: pull that album out (either from your CD stash, iTunes, Spotify, etc.) and listen to it again. Twenty years later, if that album comes out right now, where does it stand lyrically? Even if you don’t like every single song on the album, how can you argue with the level of lyricism, or the attention to detail in every bar? How? I think this album was so big (for lack of a better word), that I don’t think the success of it mattered whether he was alive or not. In fact, I think it might have been even bigger had he had the chance to tour, or follow some of the songs with videos and marketing. Did his death affect the game in other ways? Absolutely, and we’ll get into that right after these messages…. This is The Ave Podc….. f**k, my bad. Haven’t written for a while now, gimme some time to shake the rust off. I’m on podcast autopilot. My damn wrists are fucking sore!
Top Tracks from Life After Death
** DISCLAIMER – This is strictly a collection of my favorite songs from the album. I’m not ranking them here, it’s just too hard. Honestly. **
Even though I was a fan of the song, and Biggie did his thing (“B-I-G-P-O-P-P-A / No info for the D-E-A…”); I always felt like this song belonged more on Puffy’s album or the Mase album. As far as the video was concerned, it would have been better if Biggie was alive to make it. The golfing tournament/NASA alternative idea was weird at best.
If memory serves me correctly, this was the last video released for album. It was a cute touch using the kids to play the roles of the Bad Boy Family, but the reminder that he was no longer here made the video feel depressing nonetheless, much like the first time I watched “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” after Tupac died.
One of my underrated favourites that almost made the cut. Wanna know why it didn’t? After Biggie did his spin off of Bone Thugs’ flow (and did it better than they did you can argue), do you even listen to what the rest of the Bone members say, or do you immediately skip to the next record like I do? Can’t make the cut if I can’t tell you one lyric of what anyone else says for the remaining 75% of the song. Can’t do it.
…… and now, the Top Tracks….
“Ha, sicka than your average / Poppa twist cabbage off instinct / ni**as don’t think shit stink, pink gators / my Detroit players / Timbs for my hooligans in Brooklyn”
It was the aforementioned first single off Life After Death. Even in the midst of the Jiggy Era that some people hated with a passion, this was one of the best songs that came from it. The beat was cool (sampling Herb Alpert’s “Rise”), and it made you dance, but the way Big maneuvered through the track was almost too easy. The mentality of it almost seemed cocky. Meaning, he knew everyone from Jeru The Damaja, to The Roots, was coming after him for all the “named brand, living the rich life” style, like his lyrics were sponsored by Robin Leach. With that said, he went and made the song bigger than life, and it was celebrated almost immediately by the radio, the clubs, and the streets. In fact, the Vibe Magazine industry party that Big, Puff, and the Bad Boy family attended the night Big was murdered, dropped “Hypnotize” at the party…. and the reception from the fans and the celebrities was so huge, they played the song at least 8-10 times in a row that night. And this occurred in a city that apparently hated him. The song was destined to take off no matter what happened.
Did the video perpetuate the Jiggy Stereotype? With women swimming like mermaids in pools, to the tiger, to the car chase scene, to the boat chase? I’m going to lean towards yes. I can’t lie, the video didn’t make me hate the song, it kinda/sorta lived up to the lyrics, but it didn’t make me feel much better about the song like some of the other Biggie videos I watched up until that point like, “Warning“, or “Big Poppa“. Another thing, where the f**k was Puffy going in that car scene, when he climbs into the back of the convertible coupe?? It’s been 20 years, I still haven’t heard a reasonable explanation for that yet.
Interesting Fact: “Hyponotize” hit #1 on the charts two weeks after it was released, was #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 list, and was one of the biggest songs in music in 1997. It was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance the following year….. where it lost to Will Smith’s, “Men In Black“, who later went on to drop, “Getting’ Jiggy With It” a few months later. Go figure.
F***ing You Tonight ft. R. Kelly
“You must be used to me spending / and all that sweet wining & dining / well I’m f***in’ you tonight” – R. Kelly, chorus
“So no, caviar, Shark Bar, uh-uh / Strictly sex that’s sweaty and leftover spaghetti” – Biggie Smalls, 2nd verse
So let’s get to the obvious thing that sticks out first: The title. You figured with that name, it would only be made for your car or the clubs, but after you listened to it a few times, you realized the record label was gonna have to bleep out “F***ing” cuz everyone will have to hear it. Everything about the song was smooth, from the production, to Big’s verses, to R. Kelly’s vocals. It was a great marriage between all parties involved. It’s essentially the smooth version of Akinyele’s, “Put It In Your Mouth”. They’re both vulgar, both take the direction of the song in different ways, but the end game is the same.
Now, I can only speak from a man’s POV, but strictly looking at the lyrical content, this is a great song. As you get into adulthood, and you start getting on the dating scene, you may start hooking up. Some more than others. Once you’re in the situation with someone where you get comfortable enough, you can ask for what you want, and sometimes…. you just want ass. You don’t want to have to go to a restaurant, or fancy show, or go out for drinks, or have a deep conversation, or even talk, and all the ancillary stuff. Sometimes, you just want direct action. No lovemaking, just strictly back-breaking action. Am I wrong for saying that? You know I’m not. Any man or woman can agree, which is partly why it was a popular song. Once you get past the vulgarity of it, it’s relatable. You listen to this song, and you’re not just nodding your head because you love the flow, you’re also nodding in agreement.
Sidenote: It’s funny, because at the time, R. Kelly was entering the heights of his prime, especially when “I Believe I Can Fly” was released the year before. Quite frankly, it made him a superduperstar with everyone who loved music. Maybe you thought for a split second he might go down that route, and stay making that nice, uplifting kind of music in the same vein. Nope! A few months later he was in the booth recording, “f**king you toniiiiiiite……f******king you toniiiiite….. said I’m f****ckin you toniiiiiiite” ad-libs. You gotta love Kells….. musically.
Long Kiss Goodnight
“Laugh now, cry later / I rhyme greater / Than the average playa hater, and spectators / Buy my CD twice / they see me in the street they be like, ‘Yo he nice’ / but that’s on the low though / Be the cats with no dough, tried to play me at my shows”
Towards the end of the second CD of the album, the last 3-4 songs start to take a darker turn. Starting with, “My Downfall“, where he gives us insight on what his life was like, from the death threats at the beginning of the song, to exploring the haters trying to bring him down (with DMC doing the chorus, one of my underrated Biggie tracks). Why I selected “Long Kiss” in this spot instead is due to the fact that the lyrics are just that much tighter. This was also the unofficial diss track to “Hit Em Up” that Tupac released the summer before. Such a violent record as a whole. Even if I don’t support that part of it, I can’t help but love the artistry of the wordplay.
“So don’t you get suspicious / I’m Big Dangerous you’re just a little vicious / As I leave my competition, respirator style / Climb the ladder to success escalator style”
“Some Creole C-O bitches I met on tour / Push a peach Legend Coupe, gold teeth galore / Told me meet ’em in the future later, they’ll take me shoppin’ / Buy me lavender and fuschia Gators / Introduce me to playa haters and heavy weighters…”
Underrated gem, plain and simple. But at the same time, it’s eerie that the end of the album the titles was so obsessed with death, but like a reoccurring theme, the bars are fire, especially the first two verses. So you kind of ignore the other stuff, even though the title of this track seems like some sort of premonition.
“We don’t get down like that, lay my game down quite flat / Sweetness, where you parked at? / Petiteness but that ass fat / She got a body make a nigga want to eat that / I’m f**kin’ wit chu”
Ok, I know I said earlier I wasn’t going to rank these songs, but f**k it, I got rank these last three at least, being that they’re my favorite songs on this album. The greatness of this record comes at you in a couple of ways. 1) It was storytelling at its finest, it literally played out like you were sitting on the couch with him while he was replaying it back. You can picture the story in your mind as he was telling it, and to wrap up the last half of the song retelling it to his boys was something I’ve never heard done before; & 2) the fact that the legend grew and grew as to who the Knick in the story was. I’m not gonna lie….. I didn’t even fathom this being true until John Starks admitted it on Highly Questionable a couple of years ago. Then all the rumours came out as to which Knick it was. Then you find out later on the same show a couple of years later when Fat Joe spilled the beans and stated it was Anthony Mason (which was later confirmed by Puffy himself). I would have never fathomed in a millions years that one of the bouncer-sized Knick power forwards would have been caught out there like that. And I really liked Mason too. I hope he at least had a triple-double that night. #RIPMason
“I’ve been in this game for years, it made me an animal / It’s rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual / A step-by-step booklet for you to get / Your game on track, not your wig pushed back”
So morally, this song is wrong. Just all wrong. Here’s a guy giving you the success guide on how to be a great drug dealer, sort of like a Thug Tony Robbins. It’s definitely not a song that was going to get him beside Big Bird on a Sesame Street episode, unless Big Bird was going to ship keys with him. Any detractors that had an issue with the content, I get it. Which is why Chuck D sued Biggie’s Estate and DJ Premier, and had them in court for years or it, he didn’t want his voice (The ‘1,2,3,4,5…’ voice is his, in case you missed it) associated with the promotion of drugs or drug sales of any kind. I totally get it, and he has the right to feel that way…… you hear that…….. yup…… it’s that “But” coming…. and it’s clapping louder than a King of Diamonds “athlete”….
……the song is genius. You know it, I know it. The way Biggie flipped those rules about the drug game was something very few rappers could do, much less even think about doing or pulling off. In fact, can you even think of another rapper that could have done this? On top of that, he spit this on the landscape of one of DJ Premier’s most recognizable beats he ever made. The way these guys meshed together on the boards and the mic, it was like prime Shaq & Kobe, without the beef. It’s a shame they only got together three times total……
“Your reign on the top was short like leprechauns / As I crush so-called willies, thugs, and rapper-dons / Get in that ass, quick fast, like Ramadan / Its that rap phenomenon Don-Dadda”
“This goes out for those that choose to use / Disrespectful views on the King of N-Y / Fuck that, why try, throw bleach in your eye / Now you’re brailling it”
……….and out of those three collaborations, it’s an honest toss-up between Unbelievable and this track as to which one’s my favorite. The beat alone for this is legendary enough. If I needed my own theme music, I’ve have this instrumental playing behind me while I do my George Jefferson walk. On top of that, this was Biggie taking care of all business went it comes to MCs trying to reach for the King of NY crown. Each verse was like a trapeze artist flipping through the air, doing on insane stunt after another. Just when you think it can’t get any crazier, they pull out the bowling pins to juggle while somersaulting backwards. I can’t even tell you which verse I liked more honestly. Just know when I played this album in doing my research for this post, this was the one song I played back-to-back at least 3-4 times in a row before I skipped to the next track. This track wasn’t meant for the clubs or radio, it’s meant for the streets and the Hip Hop heads only. It’s the best of Biggie’s lyrical talents, along with the other two I just mentioned, with a knocking beat to match. Can’t get any better, at least in my eyes.
Sidenote: It was also the introduction of The Mad Rapper. #Thisismyfourthalbum
The Butterfly Effect
As we all know, the Hip Hop world was forever affected when it lost 2 of its major stars being Tupac & Biggie. To take it further, when Biggie died, it left a gaping hole in the game, which left Hip Hop in a very weird place in 1997. The East Coast – West Coast beef was dissolving. Death Row Records was pretty much decimated, not only with Tupac’s death, but Dr. Dre leaving the label to start Aftermath, and Suge Knight going to jail for a few years. Then Bad Boy lost their biggest star with no one to replace him, no matter how popular Mase got during that time. His loss affected the career trajectories of many in the game, but especially the New York City landscape. And how could it not? Some careers for better or for worse went a different direction, and you have to wonder how big they would have gotten had Biggie still been alive. While I won’t focus in on every single rapper/artist who’s career got affected by the Biggie void (that list will take too long), let’s focus on three guys who were for the most part.
First off, let me give credit to Puffy, who is probably one of the biggest and best businessmen the music industry has ever seen, much less Hip Hop. He’s essentially an Icon, if not a superstar. His career was affected the hardest in a negative and a positive way. He lost his biggest artist to his business in a drive-by shooting, that was the result of an insane beef between two bi-coastal record labels, as well as a friend. We all know he is not a rapper, and his musical career was built off his swagger, which is fine. The label was so huge & he was so popular in ‘96, that he could take a chance and put out records himself. A lot of people loved “Can’t Nobody Hold me Down” (myself included), but no one was pinning him down as the biggest artist in hip hop during that time.
What happened post-Life After Death? The L.A.D. album blew through the roof, due to the superiority of it from his peers, and the love from fans that felt even deeper for it once he passed. Then Bad Boy put out two Biggie tribute tracks almost immediately afterwards, starting with, “We’ll Always Love Big Poppa” by the Lox, which people seemed to like. The second one though, “I’ll Be Missing You”, which was done by Puffy (ft. Faith Evans & 112, and sampled The Police) blew through the moon. And I mean through the moon. It launched Puffy into superf**kingduperstardom, which nobody saw coming. Between this song, Puffy releasing Puff Daddy & the Family’s No Way Out album, L.A.D still running the radio/clubs/streets with all its singles, and Mase’s album dropping, Bad Boy reigned on the industry. They were the biggest wave, and filled the void for a while. I was in New York City most of that summer of ’97, and trust me…. it was the summer of Puffy. The Jiggy era was in full swing, and the Shiny Suits were out. Not even Wu-Tang’s Forever album could knock the momentum down a peg.
Would his career have been as big had Biggie been alive? Hard to say, because as a businessman, I’m really not sure if there’s anyone that would have stopped him from doing what he wanted. But musically….. No. I think he would have been huge, and his album still would have sold millions, but without that tribute song, I don’t think he would have taken off the way he did. It’s a bittersweet thing. His music career as an artist was never bigger than the time he filled that void. Even with all the remix albums, and the reinventions thereafter.
Listen, Bad Boy changed the game in 1997. To the point where other rappers starting sounding like them, and a lot of artist’s videos look like a baller’s wet dream, with the glamour and the fish-eye lens POV that was popular as hell back then. That Jiggy era was a real thing, and as much fans as that they got from that, oh boy did they have their detractors. There was a lot of people tired of seeing Puffy & the rest of the family, whether it was from rappers being jealous, or others feeling the shiny suit/baller life wasn’t representing the genre properly. It even bled into the Soca scene during Toronto’s Caribana parade, that summer when Puffy performed his hits on one of the Hip Hop floats, which pissed off a lot of the Soca community, and led to the banishment of Hip Hop floats on the parade route (there was even a song made taking shots at him for it).
How did the Jiggy Era start slowing down? DMX happened. Well, he wasn’t solely responsible, but his energy gave people a hot, new option to mess with. When he dropped, “Get At Me Dog”, it was one of the first signs that Hip Hop started breaking away from the Jiggy Era. Between DMX, Big Pun, and Canibus, they repped a new generation of rappers that made it cool to be street and/or lyrical again on a major level. When DMX came out, he blew up large & fast. He was street, gritty, passionate, fiery, and he was such a change from what we were exposed to the previous year…. that you just felt him. “How It’s Going Down”, “Stop Being Greedy”, and especially “RuffRyders Anthem”. Tell me any one of those records weren’t hot?! On top of that, he had a Tupac spirit, between the high energy and recording material at breakneck speed. The man dropped two smash #1 charting albums in the same damn year (“It’s Dark & Hell is Hot” & “Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of My Blood“)! AND they both debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts selling 6 million units combined.
Would his career have been as big had Biggie been alive? Yes. For this reason: his energy was so much different from where Hip Hop was going at the time. Even though Wu-Tang was there, and The Fugees were still riding high from “The Score“, Hip Hop was missing some of its aggressiveness. X tapped into that something fierce, and it resonated with people. Had Biggie been alive, he would have been touring all over for L.A.D, blowing the album up even more, and as much as people would have been rolling with it, I feel they would have been open to a new, changing voice too. X was so street & gutter though, I could’ve honestly seen Biggie doing a couple of songs with him.
Jay-Z has become the most successful rapper in history, between all his album sales, business ventures, and game changing moments. However, everyone has a beginning. It’s almost hard to remember this, but there was a time when Hov wasn’t on the top of the mountain. During the mid-90’s, it was hard to get through in the Golden Era. In ’96, he released his debut album “Reasonable Doubt“, which many people had a lot of love for, and claimed as a classic. However, some of the greatest albums in Hip Hop history were dropping almost on a regular basis (i.e. “Illmatic“, “Ready to Die“, “Only Built For Cuban Linx“…., “Doggystyle“, “The Score“, “The Infamous“, “All Eyez On Me“….. pick one). By the time he went to release “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1“**, Bad Boy was on top of the world, putting their influence on everything, Hov included. Any of you remember the “Always Be My Sunshine” video? Or “I Know What Girls Like“? He tried to make a reach for radio, but it didn’t quite work, something he later regretted.
How did Jay fill the void? Jay-Z then went out on the Puffy & the Family tour, opening up for Bad Boy, but ended up leaving the tour part way through. He then released a movie based on his songs from his 1st two albums called “Streets is Watching”, which garnered a lot of success on the streets and the underground. Then a few months later, his life forever changed when he dropped the “Hard Knock Life” single. Again, I was in New York stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn bridge when they dropped the world premiere on Hot 97. Once the track ended, I knew right there he was about to take over, like….it was a wrap. Not only that, but it came at a perfect time too. The Jiggy era was ending. Snoop was putting out a mediocre album on No Limit Records. Lauryn Hill was at her apex, but most of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was her singing. Nas had only done “The Firm” album in two years (which was cool, but not legendary), and was busy making “Belly“. Big Pun was major, but not major enough to fill that void. X was major too, and a superstar, but with all his success, he still wasn’t King of New York caliber. Enter Shawn Carter. He had the streets, radio, and the clubs buzzing with that record. He had the lyrical content, flows, swagger and style. Most importantly, he had the BIG co-sign based on the songs they did together, and The Commissions group they were putting together before Big died. He fit the description, and claimed the crown as the best rapper. Of course, that lead to him wanting to stomp out Nas as his only major threat to the throne, which lead to the epic Takeover/Ether beef (thank you guys), but that’s another story for another day.
Would his career have been as big had Biggie been alive? This is a hard question….but No. Jay has reached a mythical level in Hip Hop at this point, with generations of rappers being forever influenced by him. However, had Biggie been alive, I’m not 100% sure how big Jay would become. I think Big would have been the guy for at least a little while longer, and I’m not sure how that would have influenced Hov being in the lower position. Would he have gone for the throne after doing the Commissions collaboration? Would Nas have stepped up after L.A.D. with another huge album, stoking his competitive juices? Would Canibus have found better producers to produce his 1st album, and keep up with the competition? It’s all theory and we don’t know for sure what would have happened, and listen, Jay was nothing to sneeze at when Big was around. He was really, really, really nice. With that said, I never felt at the time he was a threat to Big, or even Nas until “Hard Knock Life” dropped. As much as I am a fan of his music (I own every one of his albums on CD, and have seen him in concert about 3 times), it’s hard to say his career path would have been the same had March 9,1997, had just been a normal day like any other.
** For what it’s worth, I actually became an official Jay-Z fan after the “InMy Lifetime” album. I was hooked on “A Million and One Questions“, “Friend or Foe ’98“, and “Where I’m From” among others. I didn’t care for the radio-type records including, “The City is Mine“, which tributes Biggie by saying he was essentially going for the throne in his honor. One thing I gotta ask: On “Where I’m From“, when drops the line, “People argue all day about who’s the best MC’s / Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas”, was that really an argument back then? I remember hearing that line and saying to myself, “They are???” all confused. Maybe other circles were really arguing that back then & I was just oblivious like Mr. Magoo.
Is “Life After Death” better than “Ready To Die”?
Now, this is a really tough question, much tougher when you break both classic albums down. To answer this question, I’ve recruited some past contributors to the site, and guests from previous Ave Podcast shows to get their thoughts on which album is preferable to them.
“Ready to Die” is better. Here’s why: 1) There’s 5 bonafied classics including “One More Chance“, “Juicy“, “Big Poppa” & “Unbelievable“. 2) It’s a game changer in terms of impact on the rap game 3) It’s a pre-Jiggy era masterpiece. Life After Death seemed tailored for a more commercial market 4) The album didn’t need as many guest appearances (only had one); and 5) It’s an indisputable must-have for any Hip Hop head.
Randall Walter – Etobicoke Thunder AAU Basketball Coach, Founder of CIS Sports Group, Previous Podcast Episode: State of The Raptors Address
“They are both great bodies of work. It’s like choosing between your children. I think it all depends on preference as I prefer “Ready to Die“. In my opinion during its release time, it had less “filler” radio party anthem tracks (if any at all) with more of an overall street sound. It was a start-to-finish classic album. Not discrediting “Life After Death“, but Big just came off more hungry (no pun intended) on his 1st album. I’m living everyday like a hustle, another drug to juggle. Another day, another struggle.”
“If I had to choose between the two my heart (and mind) go with “Ready to Die“…
To this day I close my eyes and let Biggie tell his stories in a way only he can. Let’s take “Warning” as an example. It was if you were in the room with him at 5:46 in the morning mad as f*ck that the phone was ringing. You knew exactly what was going on with every verse.
As much as I love “Life After Death“, the sheer impact of “Ready To Die” had when it wad released cannot be matched. Biggie’s first album was half of Bad Boy Records’ big splash into the Music Industry. Together with Craig Mack’s “Project: funk The World” Bad Boy blessed us with the genius of “Big Mack“, which was a promotional campaign that revolutionized how urban music was marketed in the 90’s and early 2000’s.
The impact Ready to Die both musically and from a marketing standpoint was unparalleled.”
“While celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Life After Death“, Biggie’s final musical offering before his untimely death, I reflect and ask myself if this album was better than his introductory album, “Ready to Die“. My answer to this question is a very uncertain and unconvincing ‘Not Reallllly…. ish’. It’s hard to actually pinpoint exactly why I feel this way, especially when you look at tracks that can still rival any present day song 20 years later with a perfect balance of lyrics and beats; i.e. “Kick in the Door“, “Ten Crack Commandments“, and “Long Kiss Goodnight“. The album even included the necessary commercial songs, that were dope without compromising his lyrical integrity; i.e. “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems“.
I guess if I were forced at gunpoint, being interrogated by Jack Bauer threatening to shoot out my kneecaps unless I gave him a definitive answer, I would tearfully blurt out “There were just too many songs, and way too many of them were fillers!” I mean almost all the tracks on the album were lyrically solid, but for some reason, I never felt like listening to them, some of the beats and hooks were forgettable, and others like “Notorious Thugs” just hurt my ears, yes I can appreciate that Big showed his ability to switch up his flow and hang with the Bone Thugs boys…. I get it…. but my ear drums still told me it was just flat out a bad song. I think if they had taken out some of those filler tracks, it would have made the album more solid in its entirety, and more on par with how I felt about “Ready to Die“.
Me: All I’ll say is this: “Ready to Die” is one of the best Hip Hop albums ever made, but on L.A.D, he was lyrically superior as an artist. By that point he really came into his own, he could literally rap any way, style, or flow, and knock it out the park. In ’97, no one was on his level. The album was literally a movie……a movie that went maybe 10-15 mins too long in retrospect. Disc 1 is better than Disc Two, and if they had kept the album to one disc, maybe transfer a few songs over to Disc One, this might have been Top 5 all-time. It’s still an undisputed classic to me, but because of length, I’ll take “Ready to Die“…. barely. His untimely death leaves his legacy as the greatest, missing the chance to put out a wack album, or people getting tired of him, or Biggie having to reinvent himself in some way, etc. It’s like if Michael Jackson died right before Thriller was released, how much greater would we remember his career? Mind you, he’s still the greatest now, even with a full career intact. It sucks that we don’t have a lengthy catalogue from Biggie to choose from. With that said, as fans of Hip Hop music, let’s hope someone in the future comes along and blows us away with their talent again.
Cal Cee // South Shore Ave
To subscribe to South Shore Ave, click onto the Follow button, and enter your email address, or click onto the RSS Feed. Very special thanks to DJ G-Sharp, Shawn Adonis, Randall Walter, Kevin W., and Julian Da Commish for their contributions to this posting.
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 Illmaticdocumentary 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 OperationLP and the ’92 summer smash “Dwyck”. Pete Rock came off of Mecca and The Soul Brothersuccess, just helped Run DMC become relevant again with “Down With The King” and gave the world the House of Pain’s “Jump Around” remix 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.
“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 OuttaQueensbridge” 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.
“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 “OneLove”. 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?
“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”
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.
“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….
“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, “Oneon 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….
“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