Like all of my favourite classic albums, I got into Illmatic somewhat late.
It was 2001, and seven years after the fact, that in an ill-lit one-room on the top floor of an inner-city student block, my brother shuttled a relic of a cassette towards me, claiming it had been dubbed all the way back in ’94, and that inside the grubby plastic, whirling around those two black coils, was the best hip-hop album recorded in recent memory.
And it was in that setting, my brother out for cigarettes and I sprawled eagerly in front of the box – right hand gradually raising the volume, left hand attending the EQ – that I heard Illmatic for the first time and a looped breakbeat from the film, Wild Style, introduced me to the album that would go on to irrevocably buckle my expectations for what was (and still is) possible in Hip-Hop.
You could start anywhere when looking for what it is that made Nasty Nas’ debut album an instant classic. There was the lyrical ingenuity with its sharp, lucid images; the controlled buttery flow that recalled, built on, and then deviated from masters like Rakim and Kool G. Rap – and the poignant, lushly-textured and complex production by New York’s avant-garde producers.
But to isolate one element would be doing the album an injustice: Illmatic was the sum of its parts. It worked cohesively, and captured the feelings behind each element on a track, imbuing a cinematic view of the New York underworld, and placing as narrator a new kind of Hip-Hop protagonist: a gangsta with a vision as highly poetic as Ezra Pound, a b-boy with insights that could roll with Cornel West’s, and a 20 year-old emcee who devoted the wizened heart and eyes of the artist to his streets.
Each track on Illmatic felt like an ode, an intricately written piece that added detail to an urban nightmare: a strung-out basehead crouched there, stick-up kids waved their weapons over there –a Hitlerian police force stalked everywhere. And in and between that was The Prophet’s voice expressing both a wary vulnerability: “you see the streets have me stressed somethin’ terrible” and a defiant call for ghetto survival: “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death.”
And if Nas’ verses felt like glimpses of a squalid urban landscape flitting past a window at high-speed, then producers Dj Premier, Pete Rock, Q-tip, L.E.S, and Large Professor were the conductors of the sonic A-train that took him from Queens to Manhattan and back again.
The chemistry, especially on tracks like “The World is Yours” with Pete Rock, “One Love” with Q-tip and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” with DJ Premier, brings about the kind of nostalgic familiarity you feel when everything suddenly falls in place and is just right.
Illmatic brought down low-art/high-art distinctions and in their wake left the boom-bap sound of a Hip-Hop voice that could speak its intelligence and anger in the black, white, and gray of artistic achievement without missing a step in its street quality.
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