Queensbridge Houses are the largest housing projects on the North American continent. It sits along the East River just north of the Queensborough (59th Street) Bridge that connects Manhattan to Queens. Looking down from the bridge on the 96-unit, six-story project rooftops looks like a labyrinth of Y- shaped buildings that span across a small landscape. The projects, clothed with weathered brick, gleam in the sky’s foreground like peculiar urban pillars that are definitive reminders of inner city blight.
These same projects that raised numerous stars like MC Shan, Roxanne Shante’, Marly Marl, Craig G, Metta World Peace and Mobb Deep, also raised one of Hip Hop’s most celebrated MCs. Nas. When MC Shan wrote his battle lyrics during The Bridge Wars against KRS-One, he was unwittingly prophetic when he said this about Queensbridge MCs.
This is the place where stars are born
And we are only the ones that can’t be worn out
– MC Shan, The Bridge, 1985
On April 19, 1994, Hip Hop was delivered a gift. Unwrapped of its magnetic coated, plastic film, was a cassette tape that changed the course of East Coast Hip Hop. Illmatic, Nas’ debut album, released by Columbia Records, sold an underwhelming 59,000 copies in its first week. With barely a peep of recognition outside of the East Coast upon its release, Illmatic managed to become one of the most important albums in Hip Hop history.
1994 was the height of the Boom-Bap era and Hip Hop was at the tail end of its 2nd Golden age (debatably between 1993-1994). While melodic hooks, sing-a-long rhyme patterns, and inner city gangster narratives (Gangsta’ rap) characterized the West Coast, East Coast Hip Hop was dominated by introspective lyricism, rapid-fire rhyme schemes and intricately layered production samples. At this time the East Coast was known for its alternative sound with groups like A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, who had jazz-like rhyme cadences and a bohemian-like artistry to their music. Though alternative rap represented a small portion of life in New York City it failed to capture the city’s alluring street life.
Los Angeles Raiders paraphernalia-wearing, Uzi-toting, jheri-curled gangsta’ rappers overshadowed hardcore rap from the east. Like many American cities of the Post-Civil Rights era, dismantled leadership in African-American communities led many youths to form offshoot political factions that eventually turned into street gangs. Los Angeles is a prime example and the music reflected its subculture of gang banging. New York street life was sporadically storied in Hip Hop, mainly by Queens native Kool G. Rap, but was never overstated like it was out west. With the help from executive producer, MC Serch, and producers, Large Professor, Pete Rock, DJ Premiere, and Q-Tip, Nas would change this.
N.Y. State Of Mind
Just a year before Hip Hop became corporatized with ghetto-fabulous music videos with million-dollar-plus budgets, Illmatic brought street-conscious rap to a new level. As an observer of his surroundings in Queensbridge, Nas was placed in a privileged position to be an objective poet, unlike many hardcore MCs who were often entrenched in criminal activity. Instead of being locked into seeing one perspective, Nas was able to see the circumference of his surroundings. His imagery in Illmatic illustrated a seductively gritty storyboard of New York’s underworld like no other MC had done before. From a critical standpoint, Illmatic helped to refocus relevancy in East Coast Hip Hop.
With only 10 songs and barely longer than an EP at 39:51, Illmatic captured everything we love about Hip Hop; subjects of youth, heartache, pain, love, death, friendship, theology, bravado, and crime. With respect to Hip Hop’s old guard, Nas uses an array of samples from Eric B. & Rakim, Craig G, T La Rock, and Whodini among others. He also begins the Illmatic with The Genesis that contains excerpts from DJ Grand Wizard Theodore’s Subway Theme and Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 cult classic film, Wild Style.
Nas’ rhyme-style is as unorthodox as they come. His pen game has an improvised structure like a jazz vocalist scatting lines from a scale. His usage of half rhymes and assonance is something to marvel. In Life’s A Bitch featuring AZ and his father, jazz musician, Olu Dara, Nas raps, “I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessing/The essence of adolescence leave my body now I’m fresh and/My physical frame is celebrated ‘cause I made it/One-quarter through life, some Godly-like thing created.” He continues, “I switched my motto, instead of saying f*ck tomorrow/That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto.”
Nas’ lingo is intentional, too. He incorporates New York slang in juxtaposition with original Hip Hop themes and New York street legends. In N.Y. State of Mind he raps, “The smooth criminal on beat breaks/Never put me in your box if your sh*t eats tapes.” A reference to break beats, speaking of the actual break in a beat, hence the name break-dancer. Making references to some of New York’s infamous drug lords, Nas raps in Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park), “Some fiends scream, about Supreme Team, a Jamaica Queens thing/Uptown was Alpo, son, heard he was kingpin, yo!”
The World Is Yours
This all made a lasting impression on a kid from the south that dreamed of having a career in New York City someday. Though I had never spent any significant amount of time in New York City, besides a trip I took with my aunt in 1989 and spending summers upstate in Rochester with my dad, I could vividly imagine what living in the city would be like vicariously through the context of Nas’ music.
My world was centered in Hip Hop as a skinny 14-year-old kid growing up in Lithonia, Georgia with Vibe magazine subscriptions, wallaby’s, root sticks, Tommy Hilfiger, hockey jerseys, etc.
My brother from another, Dre, and I were still mischievous adolescents trying to figure out who we were. Stealing Tampa Nugget and Phillies Blunt cigars from our local convenient store and getting high enough to build up the courage to kick sub-standard freestyles was our favorite pastime. In 1994 Illmatic was the backdrop of our lives. It was the album that continually crept its way to the forefront of every venture we undertook.
Finally getting the recognition it deserved, Illmatic went gold in 1996. Nas was riding high off the commercial success of his second album It Was Written and Hip Hop had changed. The Death Row-Bad Boy beef was a dark cloud looming over the industry. Thug Life was the mantra. Hip Hop had changed and so did circumstances for my friend Dre.
Usually, before we did anything together we would ask one another if the other was down for it. The night Dre decided to involve himself in an illegal venture that could have potentially brought upon felonious charges we went our separate ways. This time he didn’t ask me if I was down for the ride and I didn’t volunteer myself. Dre was later arrested and spent some time in jail.
During his stay I contemplated writing him but didn’t know what say. I remembered One Love from Illmatic and wrote him the first verse of the song. “What up, kid/I know sh*t is rough doing your bid/When the cops came you should’ve slid to my crib…”
Later that year when he was released I asked him why he didn’t ask me to go that infamous night. I’ll admit that though my heart wasn’t in it to go, there was a part of me that felt slighted that I wasn’t asked. His answer was reaffirming. He said that if I had gotten arrested along with him and his comrades he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.
The lyrics to One Love are considered in some circles to be one of Hip Hop’s most lyrically sound and sonically composed songs. Produced by Q-Tip, One Love samples Smiling Billy Suite II by The Heath Brothers, One Love by Whodini, and Parliament’s Come In Out The Rain. The song features Nas writing a series of letters to an incarcerated friend detailing events that have happened in Queensbridge while his friend is away
The parallels drawn from Illmatic to my life growing up are no coincidence.
It Ain’t Hard To Tell
Illmatic is just as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, if not more. It has become a topic in intellectual circles. Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic, edited by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai, is a collection of essays interpreting Illmatic from a scholarly perspective. Contributing writers include Dream Hampton, Marc Lamont Hill, and Greg Tate to name a few. Jeff Weiss, playwright and contributing writer to the LA Weekly said this about Illmatic. “Illmatic is the gold standard that boom-bap connoisseurs refer to in the same way that Baby Boomers talk about Highway 61 Revisited.”
Hip Hop has changed a great deal in 20 years. Sharp criticism has come down from Boom-Bap connoisseurs on the lack of lyrical substance in Hip Hop today. The generational divide is only growing larger as a number of newer MCs are embracing a more pre-packaged sound that produces “microwave” music and large revenues.
A failure for new MCs to live up to the standard of albums like Illmatic has often been referred to as the crux of this issue. This has proved to be a curse for both new MCs, who can never live up to the standards of Boom-Bap connoisseurs and for Nas, who has been criticized harshly in the past for not creating another Illmatic.
These two generations are not completely lost in translation, however. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d City has drawn comparisons from critics to Illmatic because of its lyrical composition and street sensibilities.
On April 15 Illmatic XX will be released celebrating the albums 20th anniversary. XX will include re-mastered versions of all 10 original songs plus 10 more unreleased tracks. The release of XX will hopefully restore faith in Hip Hop for Boom-Bap connoisseurs and re-introduce a part of history that a new generation of kids didn’t have the privilege of growing up with.
Furthermore, Illmatic is a classic album that I believe will stand the test of time. I agree with the Jeff Weiss when he wrote that, “Its an example of how great rap can be...” However, I will venture to take that a step further and say that Illmatic is a template, not for what all albums should sound like, but as a panorama for the limitless potential and intellectual aptitude of Hip Hop.
Illmatic XX available on iTunes ——-> IllmaticXX
© Copyright Eddie Savoy Bailey III, 2014
Written by: Eddie Bailey of The Savoy Media Group