It’s April 19, 2019. 25 years since the release of Nas’s classic debut album, Illmatic. I would love to tell you a story about how it was 1994 and I popped the Illmatic tape in the deck and it blew my mind! I would love to tell you, I couldn’t stop listening to it and it change my life the first week I had it. That would be a lie though. In April 1994, I was 12. Twelve and absolutely in love with A Tribe Called Quest and the album Midnight Marauders. I wouldn’t say at this age I truly loved hip-hop or even understood what I was listening to. If the beats caught me and I found a lyric or two interesting, I was sold.
With the above being said, I didn’t like Nas when I first heard him. The World Is Yours video looked drab and uninteresting to me. In fact, sometimes when I would see the video coming on during Rap City, I would turn the channel. I had no idea who Gahndi was, never seen Scarface the movie and even Pete Rock on the piano couldn’t sell me on why I needed to like this song or video. Needless to say, I wasn’t one of the purchasers of this album when it first dropped. Even though, I would be 13 in less than 30 days, this albums was a no go.
Great music takes time. Great music will also stand the test of time. Let’s fast forward to Summer of 1998. By summer of 1998 I had grown in ways that I probably shouldn’t reveal on this post. What I can tell you is that, I was 17 years old. By that age I seen gang culture, teen pregnancy and what the school would call “mob action”. I had seen the reaction to murder, suicide and understood why my Pops wasn’t at the crib. I had seen weed and remember I saw cocaine at least 10 years ago. I was also working, making my own money, having sex and writing my own poems and raps. Also at this time, movies like Juice, Boyz In Da Hood, Menace II Society, New Jack City, South Central, Friday and many others were consumed to the point of second hand memory. Those images and characters stood out to me for many reasons, even being from the small town of Freeport, Illinois. I definitely wasn’t the same 12 year old kid with the walkman on the huffy. That’s when this album made perfect sense to me.
All of a sudden, the references, analogies and the people Nas was talking to in the album gave me connection. Life really was a bitch sometimes. I did want to write my uncle and in prison, even though I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I felt my crew operated like his crew except we didn’t lose our “Ill Will”. I wasn’t really a knucklehead or in the streets like that, but some of the people I called friends from 12-17, different story. Some people showed me respect just because I was “Big Rick Son” and I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing. It was always love shown so I just embraced it and kept it moving. To sum it up, life had to happen to me at a certain speed for me to comprehend and appreciate this album. It truly is a project to grow with. You have to know some things and do some things to truly understand where he’s coming from on this album. Yeah, some songs are just “raps to enjoy” but if you listening to lyrics and trying to process them and feel them, you got to live life.
Nas was an artistic teenager who saw, heard and tried some real street shit. Many can identify with that even if the ultimate decision is,”this ain’t for me”. His ability to tell his story about himself and where he comes from is what makes him and this album special. Every street kid can’t paint a vivid picture of what they saw. Some block out memories due to trauma. Boy, did hip-hop win forever when Nas decided he wanted to tell his story in song. This album is a time capsule of a young teen from Queens who had a great talent and just needed to express himself and get a chance to get out of his current circumstance. That chance lead Nasir Jones to becoming one of the greatest emcees in hip-hop history. We are all better because of that chance.
For anyone doubting the classic status of Illmatic, I would like to say this. Illmatic is hip-hop’s first Science project. Before Nas, every rapper was packaged with a DJ or producer. Nas came in and with one feature made producers and DJ’s gravitate to him. Illmatic is probably one of if not the most cohesive project by multiple producers ever. The energy, vibe and concept is not lost track to track. There are stand out songs, but it’s not a song that makes you think “this shouldn’t be on the project”. Sometimes it’s not about how well an album sells, it’s how it impacts the game afterwards. This is truly one of those albums. Like Nas or not, you didn’t know Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor could all work together for one cause and on one album. You also didn’t know that this same collective would never come together for another artist or album again. It’s literally every barbershop/lunchroom argument dream. “Who you want to give a beat to Nas?” would be the question. In 1994, all of the producers who actually collaborate on the album would definitely had been an answer to the question. And the idea in itself is enough to make it classic. Now breakdown all the bars that are staples in hip-hop culture. It’s no denying that “Illmatic” will forever be regarded as classic to hip-hop forever. To every hand that played a part in this historic moment in hip-hop, thank you.