Twenty years on, Nas’ debut album still sounds the business
Time flies. It’s 20 years this month since Nas released his debut album “Illmatic”. Nas was a twenty year old kid from Queensbridge when it dropped, a tyro in musical terms, albeit one with already fully-developed genius rhyming skills, a superb lyrical flow and an amazing observational skill when it came to capturing and recreating vivid pen-pictures of life and moods on the streets.
1994 was a very good year for hip-hop, a golden age of an era when some of the most important names were at the top of their game. The Wu-Tang Clan had released their groundbreaking and game changing debut album “Enter the 36 Chambers” in late 1993 to set things up and the Notorious B.I.G would enter the game later in 1994 with “Ready to Die”. There was also “Ill Communication” from the Beastie Boys, an album which consolidated their place in the pantheon, Jeru the Damaja’s “The Sun Rises In the East”, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik”, a debut from two southern dudes called Big Boi and Andre 3000 AKA Outkast, “Resurrection”, the debut from Chicago seer Common (then known as Common Sense) and “Do You Want More??” from Philly leaders the Roots sneaking in just before the year ended.
But then there’s “Illmatic” and it’s time for a new paragraph to mark what it meant to the canon. When you stick it on and listen to it today, the confidence and ability of the kid still hits you right between the ears. Up to the time he released “Illmatic”, Nas was a largely unknown quantity. He’d hooked up with Large Professor and had MC Serch from 3rd Bass looking after his business interests, but “Illmatic” was still a bolt from the blue.
The cover features the seven year old Nas staring at you with the Queensbridge projects as a backdrop. That was Nas’ neighbourhood, the largest public housing scheme in the United States, a densely populated estate rife with crime and social problems (many caused by a management decision in the 1950s to move out white families and move in African-American and Latino families instead).
Nas took it all in: you wouldn’t have “Illmatic” or Nas without taking it to the ‘Bridge. He didn’t have to go anywhere else to get inspiration. In many ways, he couldn’t go anywhere else but he got all he ever wanted from those projects. “When I was a kid I just stayed in the projects”, he explained in a 1994 interview. “Everybody’s mentality revolves around the projects. Everybody’s gotta eat. It’s just the attitude out there, it’s just life. You can’t be no sucker.”
“Illmatic” is a chronicle of what Nas saw, heard and felt growing up in those concrete streets. Many other hip-hop acts came out of the Bridge – Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, Mobb Deep, Capone etc – but none quite captured the claustrophobia, routines, fables and street hassles of those projects and his time like Nas.
What’s fascinating is how those scribbled lines in Nas’ notebooks have become such commonplace quotables in the hip-hop canon. From “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death” to “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me”, “Illmatic” is wall to wall with lines and phrases which have become indelibly embedded in the culture. Relistening to the album, you find yourself suddenly startled as you remember that this is where the line first appeared. Furthermore, you’d forgotten that it was Nas who had scribbled that line in the first place.
On “Illmatic”, Nas extended and expanded the form. Lyrically, hip-hop had already moved on at that stage from the hip, the hop and the bang bang boogie of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight”. Street poets and rappers like Public Enemy and NWA had laid down the tough law, gangsta rap had come up from the streets and the hippy conscious rap of the Native Tongues troops had added splashes of colour and psychedelia to the canvas.
But “Illmatic” was something completely different again. This was dense, intricate, involved, a Dylan kind of insight coming up from the streets. Tracks sounded haunted and mature, as if the youngster had already been scarred by the things he’d already seen. And there’s a truth behind that. For instance, you’ll find several references on “Illmatic” to Ill Will, Nas’ pal who turned him onto hip-hop in the first place. He was shot dead in Queensbridge in a drunken brawl, but he’s here in spirit and rhyme, especially on “Memory Lane” and “One Love”. There are other ghosts in the “Illmatic” machine too and you wonder what happened to these other teenagers and dreamers and project characters that Nas name checks throughout.
Soundwise, it was turned on and tuned in. Nas invited his dad, fabled jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, onboard for “Life’s A Bitch”, but the rest of the album also tips the fedora to those soul and jazz albums gathering dust under record players in Queensbridge living rooms. Raw soul-jazz loops and samples create the contours for “Illmatic”, an album which showed that you had to know where you’ve come from in order to know where you’re going. Spin it today and it sounds as fresh as the proverbial daisy – maybe it’s time for a jazzy hip-hop redo?
That was the sound of New York City hip-hop in 1994, an album so in tune to the inner city hussle that it became the record to copy (Notorious BIG was all over that buzz as mocked by Ghostface Killah and Raekwon on “Shark Niggas (Biters)”) or attack (listen to Jay-Z throw some punches on “Takeover” from 2001’s “Blueprint” album: “I sampled your voice, you were using it wrong, you made it a hot line, I made it a hot song”). Even today, 20 years on, “NY State of Mind” and “The World Is Yours” define that era like nothing else.
“Illmatic”, though, didn’t happen in isolation. 1994 was when hip-hop was reborn again. Rap was raw and from the heart again. The lessons from the previous 10 years had been learned and hip-hop was now a very distinct language with its own lexicon rather than a mere musical dialect. Watch a film like “The Wackness”, set on the streets on New York in summer 1994, and the sound just pulsates from the screen. These were the good times.
It really appeared as if the stars had aligned. Of course, it wouldn’t last – nothing ever lasts – and within a few years, you’d the whole, stupid, silly Notorious BIG/Tupac thing, you’d Puffy Daddy getting ideas above his station and you’d hip-hop as a business taking over from the art. Of course, you still have gold amidst the grimness – Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt’s last albums are examples of a great age happening right now – but for a few beautiful months from 1993 through to early 1995, hip-hop was fresh again, a sound which was re-invigorated and renewed. Many of the acts who emerged that year never quite hit the same high spots again – Nas certainly never found the same momentum again despite some valiant attempts and good albums in the meantime – and hip-hop has changed too much for that sort of widespread innocence to take root again. You can never go back, but listening to “Illmatic” is the next best thing.
(You can hear me talk about the album on RTE Radio One’s Arena here)