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Timeless Affairs: Illmatic

Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.

Tijmen de Nooy Photography

The year was 1994 when 20-year-old Nas (also known as Nasty Nas) out of Queensbridge unleashed his seminal 10-track debut album 'Illmatic' and the world hasn't been the same since. For real though. This album is a pinnacle of New York hip hop, widely considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, and today we're about to take a trip down memory lane on the occasion of its 28th birthday.

Nas was raised in Queensbridge, the largest housing project in the United States, which was also home to Marley Marl, MC Shan, and the mighty Juice Crew and his lyrics heavily reflect the rough reality of his surroundings at the time. The cover of the album is a captivating childhood picture of young Nas, surrounded by the Queensbridge projects - so you already know we're in for a highly autobiographical album.

At the time, Nas was often heralded as the second coming of the God MC, Rakim. Catching a few glimpses of his poetic skill on Main Source's 'Live at the Barbecue' or MC Serch's 'Back to the Grill' got many on the edge of their seats waiting for Nas' debut release to drop. Particularly in the streets of New York. Right off the bat, Nas was perceived as an incredibly talented lyricist and it was clear that he has a whole lot to say. Discovered by Main Source's Large Professor who produced some of the tracks on Illmatic, later signed by Faith Newman (Sony Music A&R) to the Columbia Records label, Nas got himself a legit record deal. Also thanks to 3rd Bass rapper MC Serch and his Serchlite Publishing, who also Executive Produced the album.

Hooking up with some of hip hop's purest producers thanks to Large Professor, and having them combine forces throughout the album instead of choosing one producer for the entire project (as was customary up until this point), was incredibly innovative at the time. It was the first album we know to have multiple superstar producers and this combo was an absolute All-Star-Team on top of it all. Aside from Large Pro, we've got DJ Premier of Gang Starr, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, and L.E.S. Instrumentally on some superhero shit. Boom bap at it's greatest.

Lyrically? On point. No superficial gimmicks here. Grounded in reality, punching and extremely articulate, it's the type of lyrics you may study for years and still have your mind blown over and over again. Poetry. Just peep the way Nas breaks down the last track on the album and one of my personal favorites 'It Ain't Hard to Tell' with Harvard Poetry Professor Elisa new. Perspective.

But yeah, let's not get carried away here and rewind back to the beginning. The way the album opens with the subway theme from the legendary Wild Style movie (sampled off of a VHS tape) and snippets of Live at the Barbecue on the intro track 'The Genesis' is pretty epic right off the bat. Capturing the intense atmosphere of the Queensbridge projects and hip hop in the early 90s, setting the scene. Featuring the rapper AZ (Illmatic being his debut on wax) and Nas' younger brother Jungle.

'N.Y. State of Mind' with DJ Premier on the beat, this characteristic tight upright bassline and a hook sampling Rakim's line from 'Mahogany' is considered one of Nas' greatest songs of all time, capturing that Rotten Apple energy, the darker side of the city he grew up in, showing that it ain't all peaches and cream.

"It drops deep as it does in my breath

I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death

Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined

I think of crime when I'm in a New York State of Mind"

Also, the beat has been listed as #9 on Complex's 100 Greatest Hip Hop Beats of All Time.

Moving on to 'Life's a Bitch', fly jazzy track produced by L.E.S., featuring AZ and a beautiful trumpet solo by Nas' father Olu Dara, jazz trumpetist who also played alongside Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, David Murray and others. Allegedly Nas wanted to originally use Mtume's 'Juicy Fruit' for this track, but they ended up using the Gap Bands 'Yearning for your Love' instead - Biggie's 'Juicy' single only came out a few months after Illmatic.

Speaking of sampling, the samples used on this album alone are a complete delight on its own, ranging from jammin' grooves by The Gap Band, Donald Byrd's classic jazz-funk, magical Ahmad Jamal Trio jazz to Michael Jackson himself (his label mate at the time). We've gathered most of the cuts for you in a Spotify playlist. Some of the good ones are missing, like the NY State of Mind sample 'Mind Rain' by Joe Chambers, 'The Smiling Billy Suite' that Q-Tip flipped for the 'One Love' joint and the magical 'Thief of Bagdad' by Lee Erwin that Premo sampled on 'Represent' (which you can hear him talk about in detail in this episode of his 'So Wassup' series on YouTube)

Also, for 25th Anniversary of Illmatic, WhoSampled's own Chris Read has put together a bangin' mixtape with the samples:

What follows is the classic Pete Rock joint: 'The World Is Yours'. The hook hits me like a brick every time. Brings me back to the moment I saw Nas perform this track live in 2010 in the middle of nowhere in Slovakia (S/O Horna Streda) and I get proper chills reminiscing on that energy. Oh and how did Pete Rock make this beat in bare 10 minutes is beyond me. One of my favorite hip hop samples of all time. Ahmad Jamal's Trio with 'I Love Music'. There's also a famous remix of this tune by Q-Tip which later got sampled in Jay-Z's 'Dead Prezidents' (also apparently the main cause of their beef, but let's stay away from that rabbit hole for now). The track is also a nod to the movie Scarface with Al Pacino as Tony Montana, whose motto is "The World Is Yours".

"I can't call it, the beats make me fallin' asleep

I keep fallin', but never fallin' six feet deep

I'm out for presidents to represent me (Get money)

I'm out for presidents to represent me (Take money)

I'm out for dead fuckin' presidents to represent me"

Halfway through the album we got the Large Pro a.k.a. Extra P-produced jazzy boom bap track 'Halftime' that came out 2 years prior on the soundtrack to the indie movie Zebrahead. If you've got this album on vinyl, this is where you'd flip the record and take a breath. It's halftime.

"And ain't a damn thing gonna change, I'm a performer, strange

So the mic warmer was born to gain

Nas, why did you do it?

You know you got the mad-phat fluid when you rhyme

It's halftime"

The storytelling on the nostalgic 'Memory Lane (Sittin in da Park)' is out of this world. Reminiscing on his childhood when he's still sort of a kid, a teenager (he must've been around 18 when he wrote these verses), demonstrates that he's been through a lot in his short and fast life, over a Premo-produced beat with a soulful loop of Reuben Wilsons 'We're In Love' and vocal samples from Juice Crew members Craig G and Biz Markie (R.I.P.).

Yo, fuck, rap is real! Watch the herbs stand still

Never talkin' to snakes, 'cause the words of man kill

True in the game, as long as blood is blue in my vein

I pour my Heineken brew to my deceased crew on memory lane

On 'One Love', in his rap verses, Nas connects with his incarcerated homies, recounting scenes from the neighborhood. Inspired by Whodini's and Bob Marley's powerful tracks with the same name, even sort of evoking Slick Rick's 'Children's Story' type of storytelling on the last verse, who's no doubt his childhood idol. The song came together in collaboration with Queens native Q-Tip a.k.a. The Abstract. Peep this snippet from Tip's RBMA lecture, where he breaks down how One Love came together, plays a demo version of Memory Lane that inspired him in creation of this track and makes a mean Nas impression.

What follows is 'One Time 4 Your Mind' produced by Large Professor featuring Grand Wizard of Bravehearts, leading into the Premier-produced 'Represent' heavyweight bounce over this winter-y instrumental. Just imagine the energy in the studio when they were making this track, recording the gang vocals. What an incredibly powerful statement of a song. Ice cold. The last and exquisitely ethereal track 'It Ain't Hard To Tell', which we mentioned earlier, wraps up this remarkable benchmark of an album with a sample of Michael Jackson's 'Human Nature' sample (MJ was also his label-mate at the time on Columbia).

Illmatic remains the blueprint of supreme lyricism til this day. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Illmatic’s release, Apple Music released a short documentary featuring recollections from some of the album’s main contributors and as a cherry on top, here's a recording of the live performance of Nas backed by a Symphonic Orchestra, performing the album in it's full length at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Salute to the G.O.A.T., Nas. Cheers to Illmatic.


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James Brown
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