In discussion with Trevor Jackson on “Illmatic” by Nas (1994).
Can you remember the way you were introduced to “Illmatic”? Was it love at first sight?
Hip-hop was the main music I listened to in the early ‘90s. I devoured every new hip-hop release that came out. I’d been aware of Nas since 1991 when he guest-starred on a Main Source track called “Live at the Barbecue”, which was produced by Large Professor, one of my favorite producers. He was incredible on that. It was a great time for hip-hop. So many incredible hip-hop albums came out between ’91 and ’94. In 1992, Nas put out a single on Ruffhouse called “Halftime”, which was a track from the soundtrack of Zebrahead. That single totally blew me away. It still is one of my favorite hip-hop singles of all time. By that time, people in the hip-hop world were really aware of Nas, so when the album dropped in 1994, it wasn’t love at first sight, to be honest. It was a surprise.
You were expecting something big?
Yeah. All the real hip-hop heads were, not only because he was an incredible MC, but also because of the producers on the album, which were the cream of the crop at the time.
How were all the luminaries who played a part in the process apparent on the album? How would you characterize their input?
The thing about hip-hop at that time—which was very different than it is now—everyone strove to have their own sound. Nobody wanted to sound like anybody else. Probably more than any other music, people who were into hip-hop bought a lot of records because of the producer rather than the artist or the MC. It was quite unique.
On Illmatic, Nas worked with DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip. Even though they were all from New York, they all had their own distinctive sound. Premier usually only took one loop, but he could do something incredible and really simple with one or two bars. Pete Rock was more complex and slightly more soulful. Large Professor had really amazing basslines, and Q-Tip was still deep, dark and street, but slightly more abstract. It was almost like The Avengers: Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man all coming together on one team. I don’t want to take anything away from Nas, who’s an amazing MC in his own right, but he always needed a great beat behind him. And they were the best at the time.
It’s kind of astonishing that there were so many different people involved, yet the album is pretty coherent.
The thing is, all these guys are from New York, and New York rap was all sample-based. It was pretty raw, and so even though these guys all had their own distinctive sound, they all hung out together; they were all friends.
That’s true. As you said, you go a long way back with hip-hop, and you probably heard a lot of classic albums. What makes “Illmatic” so special?
All I know is that I never get tired of it. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to the whole album. It’s a short, too—it’s only got ten tracks on it, which was not typical, as a lot of albums used to hold 20 or 30 tracks. In contrast, Illmatic is really tight and focused. I love every track apart from one. I just think there’s something about Nas’ hunger to succeed on that record—I felt like you can hear that he came off the street into a vocal booth and just rhymed. It really has that immediacy and that hunger; you can hear it in his lyrics and you can hear it in his voice, and for me, it’s 1000 percent believable. I understand every word of it he says. Maybe it sounds silly, but it feels like he’s talking to me directly. His voice is just so direct. There’s something about that album. It was a point in time. So many different things combined to make it a special record.
It was his debut album, and it’s still hailed as one of the most important hip-hop albums of all time. That’s obviously quite a burden as well, but it’s really fascinating that he achieved this as his first album.
When it first came out, it wasn’t a success, though. It had critical success, but it didn’t sell. It took a bit of time to catch on. Looking at it now, for me, it’s always been a thing about Jay-Z or Nas. If you ask me, Nas would wipe the floor with Jay-Z in terms of rap skills. But Jay-Z is the superstar today, not Nas. Nas is still the rapper’s rapper. Also, sadly, he probably hasn’t made a record quite as good as Illmatic—not a whole album, anyway. So, if you want to talk about the greatest record of all time, many people today won’t say Illmatic. People will say it’s Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, or they’ll say Kanye’s it’s 808s & Heartbreak. For me, Illmatic is a benchmark, but I’m the older generation. I don’t know if the new generation really understands. What they perceive as being “good rap music” now is totally different, as is rap music itself.
Just in terms of the production, hip-hop—especially from the East Coast—was much more sample-based. I think that kind of vanished over the years.
The other thing is, in a weird way, that album marked a beginning, too. Before, you’d have one producer producing the whole thing. From what I remember, Illmatic was the first time so many esteemed producers all produced on the same album. That kind of changed things, because after that, people started getting loads of different producers to do an album. It’s not like they said, “Let’s get Premier or Pete Rock because they’ll sell millions of records.” They got those people because they really worked with Nas and they sounded right. But the hip-hop environment changed after that; people lost their unique sound. Everyone started to sound the same. Read the rest of this entry »