Nas – 30 Years of Illmatic


Reading Time: 5 minutes
Illmatic Album Cover credit by Columbia Records

Hip Hop in 1994 turned dark but in a good way. In the same streets that created breakdancing and block party DJs, an age of lyricism would take the culture upward. Enter Nas’ Illmatic, an album that served as a biblical symphony in music for thirty years.

The Genesis

Young Nas credit by the Best of Underground Hip Hop

Nasir “Nas” Jones became an aspiring Hip Hop MC after its emergence in his neighborhood of the Queensbridge projects in Queens, New York. Nas and his friend “Ill Will” Graham became proud fans of fellow Queensbridge residential collective Juice Crew, whose teen elite MC member Roxanne Shante threatened a then younger Nas to “get his sh!t together, or I’m gonna f*** you up next time I see you” when he (Nas) first nervously recited his rhymes to her.

Although Nas feared and idolized the local legend by writing rhymes more, his spark came from the tragedy of when his best friend, Ill Will, was murdered. “To me, it made him take life seriously,” said Jungle, Nas’s brother. “Cause he was right on the verge of getting that record deal around that time. And it was either you sell drugs and be in the hood forever, or you do this music shit.” Nas’s next chapter will be guided by a fellow Queens MC who mentored the young Queensbridge artist to success.

It Was Written

Large Professor-DJ Premier-Nas credit by Rachelle Clinton

Large Professor, aka Extra P, was the frontman of Hip Hop trio Main Source. Although known as an MC, P, as a producer, saw the gift in a young Nas and gave him his first shine while appearing on the song Live at the BBQ. Where a then teenage Nas amazed ears rapping about being a street disciple who kidnapped the president’s wife without a plan while punching Jesus. The impressive performance by Nas would develop a rising anticipation for a debut album, which landed him a deal with Columbia Records.

Before 1994, most of the Hip Hop album formula was composed of one rapper and one producer/DJ. Illmatic became one of (if not the first) albums created with a super-producing team. The all-star producer roster included icons who became legends, like DJ Premier of Gang Starr, L.E.S., Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and Large Professor. “I feel like Large Professor is Nas’s sound,” said DJ Premier. “Because the sound that made us fall in love with him comes from Large Professor before anybody.”

I Gave You Power

Nas credit by Reddit

Nas debuted Illmatic on April 19th, 1994, and instantly lived up to the street hype and beyond as a body of work. Each song in rhyme was sharp with Boombap beats and rhymical grooves that blended perfectly with the MC’s raspy voice. Yet, the album’s tone was set in its lead single, which would become a lifestyle anthem.

The World Is Yours, produced by Pete Rock, is Illmatic’s signature sound. Nas poetically raps a thin line between possibilities and poverty. The song’s music video shows the Queens MC imitating the Scarface film pool scene of luxury while simultaneously showing Nas back in his neighborhood gritty projects.


Nas in the Studio credit by 2DopeBoyz

Illmatic also showcases the sentimental value of inner-city life with reminiscing songs like Memory Lane and the heartfelt rhyme prison letter in One Love. One can visualize smoke from the New York sewer streets with a first listen of N.Y. State of Mind while Life’s A B!tch hits brutally.  “I wanted to give you that feeling of New York at nighttime,” said Nas. “You know you look at things, like shots going off every night. You see what’s happening around you. Pregnant ladies trying to smoke crack. Dudes is late night waiting to rob you, and you’re just maneuvering your way through that.”

Illmatic showed that Nas’s penmanship with rhymes was a godsend. “When I heard him rhyming, it was like, oh, this is the level you gotta rhyme at,” said Common. “You gotta rhyme this good.” On Halftime, Nas cleverly raps, “You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer. That’s like Malcolm X catchin’ the Jungle Fever.” The Michael Jackson sampled It Ain’t Hard to Tell delivers the album’s most iconic “Half-man, half-amazing” line that became a catchphrase. The song Represent served as a Queens anthem that resurrects the borough’s respect lost since the legendary Bridge Wars battle with lines like “The streets is filled with undercovers, homicide chasing brothers. The Ds on the roof tryin’ to watch us and knock us.”

God’s Son

Illmatic is a masterful art with influence that overvalues the album’s commercial sales. Michael Eric Dyson, co-author of Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, said, “That album gave us in praise a kind of panoramic vision of what it meant to be a young Black person struggling for survival.” Alicia Keys celebrates Illmatic greatness that exists outside its genre, saying, “It was so honest, and it’s so truthful that it’s never gonna not be one of the best albums of all time.” Compton MC Kendrick Lamar speaks on Nas’s impact on his work, saying, “You can hear the influence of my music, you hear the influence of my storytelling.”

From a creative side, Illmatic represents a change in the guard of Hip Hop. Nas was a prince who immediately became King. Illmatic is an album that is also a time capsule of what was happening beyond the starlit, tall, tourist-attractive buildings of 1990s New York city; his words placed one in the center of the Queensbridge experience. The creation of Illmatic became a five-mic stable of a classic Hip Hop record and a musical soundtrack of the Black American struggle.

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