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Illmatic: 20 Years Later

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By Brandon Gross

As life-altering introductions to new music usually go, they typically happen by way of an older sibling, or in my case, my best friend's older sibling. In hindsight my influence's Beverly Hills-Jew-boy obsession of all things hip hop (and at the time, that really meant "Black") seems cliche, however, Alex was what we'd now call an "early adopter." Stacks of The Source magazine piled high in the bathroom, sliding dresser drawers with built in cassette tape space were filled with every release ever mentioned in the mags, and the walk in closet was lined with baggy Girbaud denims.

Alex was a high school senior doing typical LA senior kid things out of reach of my pre-bar mitzvah status, so the music and weed smoke that seeped through the door was kept at a distance until I joined, Alex, his brother (my pal) Adam, and their family on a trip through the Holy Land.

It was on this trip, stuck on a small bus riding through the Israeli desert, that a pair of yellow Walkman Sport headphones were plugged into my virgin ears. From the walkman pumped the upbeat and easily accessible Michael Jackson "Human Nature" sampled "It Ain't Hard to Tell," the first single by a then 19-year-old rapper called Nas.

"This dude is what's up... he's like the second coming," Alex claimed. Probably an insight ripped from the pages of The Source, but it was true. (Upon meeting Nas I supposedly told him that he was "the messiah of rap," which my crew still teases me about to this day.)

But that moment was the catalyst for what has since been my ongoing love affair with hip hop. This adolescent fling has lasted the test of time, most likely because it was built on the foundation of a true classic, Illmatic.

As any music lover can relate, my musical leanings have shaped a large part of who my friends are, professional pursuits, personal identity, and the lens in which I view the world. And 20 years after the album's release, it's clear that this isn't simply a case of my impressionability, but in fact, the album stands strong like Masada among the annals of few and far between flawless hip hop records.

Nas is the quintessential street poet. A sensitive thug with an uncanny ability to portray a complex and vivid look into the grimey underworld of New York rarely accurately depicted. His beef with Jay, and the Oochie Wally identity crisis is easily forgivable when you think about your own maturation and evolution from kid to adult. Watching Nas as a guest on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect was cringe-worthy, awkward at best, though demonstrated the characteristically bashful and introverted personality of many other gifted poets (e.g. B. Dylan)

To commemorate the 20 year anniversary of Illmatic, I've tried to capture a few lines of what makes each of the 10 tracks so phenomenal.

The Genesis
I didn't realize until years later that it was a sample from the groundbreaking NY street/graf film "Wild Style," which was pretty obscure. It also opens with Nas' at the time only prior recorded appearance from "Live at the BBQ," the teaser verse that really started all the pre-Illmatic buzz. It's so raw, hearing Nas and his crew talking shit, "when it's real, you doing this even without a record contract... been doing this since back when." This is where it all started. Goosebumps to this day.

N.Y. State of Mind
I didn't get this track at first. It's salty, grimey, rough on the edges. As a Cali kid having spent little time on the bitter East Coast, it was tough to relate, and I'm not even talking on a socio-economic level, I just mean the sound. But over time, like how our palate's evolve to appreciate bitter wines over Maneshevitz, this track is pure vintage. The lyrics, the vibe, so effortlessly capture a dystopic NYC at the time. "In the PJ's, my blend tape plays, bullets are strays/Young bitches is grazed, each block is like a maze /Full of black rats trapped plus the Island is packed/ From what I hear in all the stories when my peoples come back, black." It heightened my empathy for what it must have been like in the projects of NYC without being preachy. It's just hard as fuck.

Life's a Bitch
The only guest feature on the entire album, meanwhile only a couple MC's today can carry an entire record without a guest feature on every single track. Nas's pal, AZ, is passionate here, he also sounds like he's 16. "Life's a bitch and then you die, that's why we get high" essentially an enjoy the moment mantra Eckhart Tolle could get behind. Nas' father plays sax on the end of the track. The guy is the son of a jazz musician, it's clearly in his blood. There's melancholic optimism woven into this track, it's not all doom and gloom. It's a gorgeous tune.

The World is Yours
My top tune for a hot minute. The jazzy upbeat piano riff is inspiring. It's a feel good track that like the track before packs a punch of optimism while rooting the realities of everyday living in lyrics like "dwellin' in the Rotten Apple, you get tackled, caught by the Devil's lasso, shit is a hassle." It reminds me of one of the first times I visited NYC on my own. I hopped a cab from JFK and sparked wide-eyed conversation with a South Asian immigrant cabbie "New York City is the BEST! What an incredible city." He laughed, "Not really, we're just here working to the bone so we can get the fuck out of this place."

Halftime
This track took years for me to fully appreciate. It comes halfway through the album and almost acts like a breather for just how real the album is about to get. The pace keeps the momentum moving. It affirms Nas' knack for clever wordplay, historical references, and all around confident flow. It sounds like it was recorded in one take, it's just that fluid. "You couldn't catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer, that's like Malcolm X, catching the jungle fever."

Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)
The track's organ and background "ooohhhh" is so soulful and really softens the rest of the album's rusty new york city edge. You could shut your eyes listening to this and be transported to whatever the equivalent of a lazy Sunday porch swing with your homies is. There's a ton of multi-layered slang that even after years of ghetto speak self-inculcation I still don't understand, but it doesn't matter. It's really just a dedication to those no longer with us, deceased, behind bars, whatever. Nas is a poet of the people.

One Love
I'll stand by this poetic letter to a locked up homie as the heaviest, most heartfelt and emotional hip hop tracks ever #yesemo. I searched far and wide for the original and rare Heath Brothers sample Q-Tip used to power this track and finally found it in a basement in London. Nas essentially reassures his incarcerated fam to "stay strong" and not to worry, "out in New York the same shit is going on/the crack head's stalkin', loud mouths is talkin'" Nas is the mouthpiece for a collective boiling point here. On one hand it's frustration with 'the system' but also an existential crisis never heard before and rarely again in the genre. "Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack/Mind's in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts/Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera/Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er/So I be ghost from my projects, I take my pen and pad / For the weekend hittin L's while I'm sleeping/A two day stay, you may say I need the time alone/To relax my dome, no phone, left the nine at home." He just keeps running on the track. This is a sentimental rallying cry to rise up.

One Time 4 Your Mind
Maybe the least accessible track on the album for non-hip hop fans. Also the shortest in run time. It still crushes. It's a bit of a coming of age, chest beating rap in which Nas proclaims his arrival on the rap scene. He manages to balance braggadocio and humility here, all the while letting the vets know he's a force to be reckoned with. The ease in which he delivers his bars here is mark of a genius. Kind of like how McEnroe played tennis.

Represent
"Represent" reminds any suburban kid maxin' back in the safety of his mom's SUV that the projects are definitely no fucking joke. The opening line barrels out and sets the tone "straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle/get murdered on the humble" as a crew of homies barks threats from the background. Another track that I didn't necessarily 'get' upon my first listen of the album, but is now probably my #1. It just gets you so amped up as his crew shouts the to the point chorus "represent, represent." The monikers of his homies he calls out in the end puts any Goodfellas mobster roll call to shame with names like "Droors," "wallet head," "Lakey the kid," "Black Jay," "Big Ooogie," and "the Hillbillies." If the NRA were to embrace any hip hop track, this one definitely makes a good case for why everybody should be packing a 9mm... it just sounds so cool.

It Ain't Hard to Tell
I talk about this tune upfront. The lead single that was the bait for the album to begin with. It started as my favorite, poppy, accessible sample, fun... over time it's catchiness waned for me and felt almost too superficial. But there's plenty of genius here. It's the perfect gateway drug for the rest of the album and for me, quality hip hop.

Also check on the great NPR "Making of Illmatic" piece here.

My Nas "Life is Good" review for Mass Appeal.