When 20-year-old MC Nas released his stellar debut Illmatic two decades ago this month, I must’ve been on the only person on Planet Hip-Hop who wasn’t checking for it. Of course I’d heard his rugged voice spittin’ fire on the opening of Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” talking mad junk about how he was going to hell for snuffing Jesus. And while I thought the kid was nice, I still wasn’t prepared for the precise poetics and grimy soundscapes on Illmatic.
With its upcoming anniversary (April 19, 1994) a major event in hip-hop history, Nas performed the album in toto with the National Symphony Orchestra in late March while we hip-heads counted down to the inevitable, countless Internet tributes. In addition, the unveiling of the much anticipated documentary Time Is Illmatic debuts on April 16, kicking off the Manhattan-based Tribeca Film Festival.
Since Illmatic is an often brutal, sometimes loving, and often scary document of New York City life back in 1994, documentary director One9 and writer/producer Erik Parker wanted to create a film that examined and celebrated the people, places and social conditions that Nas credits with shaping the brilliance of Illmatic. Much like the record, the filmmakers wanted to capture the wild complexity of the MC’s personal life back in the ’90s, and show how it made him into a respected icon who’s aged gracefully in his chosen profession.
“Nas is not just a rapper; he is a human being who is a living genius,” says One9, who is also an accomplished fine artist. A native of Washington, D.C., he and Parker worked on the project on and off for 10 years. “We talk about the history of housing, of Nas’s dad [jazzman Olu Dara] moving here from Mississippi, and the many friends he has who are dead or in jail. We tried to tell the honest story of Nas and the making of Illmatic.”
A former writer/editor for The Source and Vibe during the urban magazine heyday in the 1990s, Erik Parker brings a wealth of hip-hop knowledge to the project. Still in college when Illmatic was originally released, he says, “There is so much depth, beauty and struggle in those songs. On ‘One Love,’ with him writing his boy in jail, the song shows such humility. My other favorite is ‘Represent.’ To me, Nas represents a generation of men and boys struggling to find their voice.”
Rocking lyrical raw reality, Nas’s ghetto tales were not only illmatic. With booming tracks like “NY State of Mind” and “The World Is Yours,” it was also artfully thought provoking for a generation of hip-hop heads who grew up hard. Illmatic is important artistically as well as historically, because it represents a time, an era and the people of New York City two decades ago.
It would be an understatement to say that the bugged-out metropolis was a vastly different place back then. While the city’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, was in the process of being replaced by Rudy Giuliani, the streets of the city were rough, and the crack plague was still destroying communities.
With the rise of the drug, which debuted on the scene a decade before, had come hard times, desolate days and senseless violence. The neighborhood where Nas was raised, the Queensbridge Houses, was one of the hardest hit. Once towering symbols of the American dream when it opened in 1939, the projects had slid slowly into decay during the ’80s.
Shootouts between rival crews were common. Formerly fine sisters were strung out on rock, and brothers were being taken away daily in handcuffs or body bags. But for all its grime and crime, there were also lifelong friendships forged on the streets where DJ Marley Marl once lived, and MC Shan crafted “The Bridge” as a loving tribute in 1987, back when Nas was only 14 and would see the ghetto superstar driving around in an Audi 4000.
In 1999, when I interviewed Nas at Sony Studios in midtown Manhattan, the MC said, “I felt proud being from Queensbridge, building 4016. In the ’80s, we were dressed fly in Ballys and the whole building was like a family. To me, Queensbridge was much more than a housing project; it was the greatest city on the planet.” Like Chicago for Nelson Algren and Harlem for Chester Himes, the young rapper was a keen observer of the landscape in which he dwelled, making Queensbridge a principle character in his narratives.
Making mental notes that would inspire his art for years to come, Nas’s blood family—consisting of his late mother Anne Jones, daddy Olu Dara and little brother Jabari “Jungle” Jones—also helped him believe that his dreams were doable. “A lot of kids had fathers who were strung out on dope,” Nas told me, “but mine was into jazz. He showed me the other side of life by taking me to his shows or to the recording studio.”
Although Nas’s parents spilt when he was a boy, his mother was always there trying to guide her elder boy through the landmines of life that could easily explode in your face. “Moms looked out,” Nas explained. “She gave me a curfew, called me upstairs when it got late. She didn’t want me to be like everyone else. Mom made me believe I was special. She put that in my head. She stopped me from going to jail and not throwing away my life.”
Still, working to keep the family comfortable, Mrs. Jones couldn’t look after her boys 24/7, and the streets outside his project windows were enticing.
“Outside of my parents, my role models were the guys in the street,” Nas recollected. “Those guys in the street who never had much need for school, they seemed to be having all the fun.” Dropping out in 10th grade, he began devouring books on his own, reading while blasting hip-hop tapes. Having gone from reading comics to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other texts, Nas said, “I was listening to Public Enemy, KRS-One and Rakim, and those were the rappers that got me thinking on a higher level. Those guys sparked my imagination and quest for knowledge.”
Writing rhymes in his notepad, it was decided that his boyhood homeboy Ill Will would be his DJ. The teens pictured themselves as Queensbridge’s answer to Run-DMC. Homeboys since they were shorties, it all came to a screeching halt in 1991 when Ill Will was killed, shot in the back in a neighborhood beef over a woman. His spirit became as much a part of the Illmatic process as Queensbridge itself.
“We had such big dreams when we were out there on those streets,” Nas said. In memory of his slain friend, three years later Nas teamed up with producers DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S. and Q-Tip, working steadily in various studios to perfect the gem that garnered critical respect, the first cover of Ego Trip magazine, a five-mic review in The Source, a tribute by Michael Eric Dyson (Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic) and the upcoming documentary.
While hip-hop has often been compared to jazz (at least musically), to me the best lyricists are also bluesmen. With Illmatic, the manchild Nas formed an aural linkage with the fields of the South, the Windy City where Chess Records was founded, and Marvin Gaye wondering What’s Going On.
Nas was a post-civil rights bluesman in the new jack era shaped from concrete and boom-bap beats and words that continue to bleed with joy and pain 20 years after he put them down on tape. As Nas’s former manager MC Serch told the Time Is Illmatic filmmakers, “From the first time I heard him, I knew that kid was going to make history.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.