Nas' iconic debut album "Illmatic" is 19 years old this year and it still sounds as fresh as it did in 1994. Here's a tribute to this masterpieces of hip hop artistry...
1994 marked the arrival of Nasir Jones AKA “Nasty Nas” onto the rap scene with his debut album Illmatic. Almost 20 years later we look back at why it is still one of the most fresh, cutting edge and important recordings in the history of hip hop.
Pre April 1994 no one could argue that in a hip hop sense the west coast of America was the centre of the rap universe. Dr Dre’s quadruple platinum selling “The Chronic ” (released at the end of 92) had become the blueprint that had launched the whole G Funk movement of hip hop, allowing acts such as Snoop Dogg and the rest of his doggpound to emerge as a result.
With the focus purely on that side of America, we were left under the impression that for the world of hip hop it was just one long sun sea and sex beach party in the Californian heat. Sticky green, gin and juice, bronzed babes in bikinis bending over low riders and shaking their booty in ways that would leave your average bowl of jelly feeling inadequate–that was the hip hop life.
Little did we know however that a relatively unknown 20-year-old rapper from Queensbridge, New York had plans to throw a molotov cocktail right into the middle of the west coast party, in the form of a debut album boasting an all star cast of producers, including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q Tip. In what was an exercise in how a hip hop album should be made, Nas, along with his talented cast of men behind the glass, brought us a hip hop album in the purest sense.
No annoying skits between songs, which upon hearing on west coast albums would take me through all manner of emotions from annoyance to confusion. Illmatic instead going with the tried and tested 10 tracks of pure and real hip hop format, showcased the lyrical talent of Nas over the top of the beats presented to him by what was a who’s-who of the cream of hip hop producers.
From the moment you hear the sample of Subway Theme from the film Wildstyle kick in on the grimy intro track “The Genesis”, you get the instant feeling that you’re not going to be needing your sunglasses and Hawaiian Tropic for this album. No sunshine to be found here, just pure hip hop at its rawest form, but oh how the cold dark dangerous Queensbridge streets never felt so hot.
The sample from the cult hip hop and graffiti art movie instantly filling your mind with images of New York City, subway trains and emcee battles, leaves you in no doubt where this joint is headed from the get go. From there you’re instantly seduced by one of DJ Premiers trademark simple but effective beats, complete with a dark sinister sounding rob-you-at-gunpoint piano riff as NY State Of Mind kicks in and there really is no way back from that point.
The whole album is littered with hip hop classics that despite their age, would go toe to toe with any tracks released within the past year. Very few rappers achieve longevity with their songs, generally due to the amount of rappers out there mixed with the sheer volume of tracks, guest appearances and collaborations that come out week to week, your average rap tune is out and forgotten about within a month.
One listen to Illmatic however and you’re given 10 reminders that Nas is far from average. Tunes such as Halftime, The World Is Yours and One Love have more than held their own when it comes to standing the test of time. Halftime especially, still has the hairs on the back of my neck standing up when I hear that dirty bass line and beat kick in every bit as much as it did the very first time I heard it played when it was included on the Zebrahead official soundtrack back in 1992. I’ve never performed a drive by shooting on anyone and should any law enforcement be reading I’d like to state I have no intention of carrying one out either, but IF I was of the drive by ilk then Halftime would without be my track to drive by to, high praise indeed!
With Illmatic, Nas captured the menace and threats lurking on every Queensbridge corner in a way that oozed with class and lyrical maturity, mixed with sheer matter of fact to the stories being told. Lyrics such as “I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of death” and “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half man half amazing” and “Yet I’m the mild money gettin’ style rollin’ foul, the versatile honey stickin’ wild golden child” ensured that comparisons with Rakim were to soon follow.
A comparison of such magnitude could’ve easily proved to be a monkey on the young rappers back, but with an old head on young shoulders Nas took the Rakim comparisons and set about carving out a career in the industry to the point where he can now (and has done for many years now) comfortably break bread with his peers at the top of the royalty of hip hop table, after a career spanning over 20 years.
Criminally Illmatic wasn’t the instant commercial success that a timeless classic of an album should’ve been. Sales were as low as critical acclaim was high, but nothing can remain secret forever and slowly the momentum was to build up to the point that when his second album “It was written” was due to drop, all eyes were on Queensbridge’s lyrical weapon of mass destruction.
Today Illmatic is regarded as not just one of the classic long players in the history of hip hip, but one of the greatest albums throughout all musical genres. Very rarely can a rap album make that kind of an impact across such a broad musical spectrum without having to compromise along the way by sacrificing some of its heart and soul, but then again very rarely does an album such as Illmatic come around. Almost 20 years on I’m still waiting on the next one arriving…