Essential Records: Nas' 'Illmatic'

Posted by Billyjam, October 9, 2014 10:42am | Post a Comment
Essential Records Nas Illmatic

When it comes to "essential" hip-hop records they don't come much more essential than Nas' 1994 landmark, ten-track debut album Illmatic. The album's 20 year anniversary is being celebrated in grand style this year with a nice vinyl reissue of the album, the recent theatrical release of the award winning documentary about the album, Time Is Illmatic (see trailer below), and an ongoing tour by the famed Queensbridge emcee - fittingly titled the Time Is Illmatic Tour - in which the emcee performs the entire album in track-listing order following a screening of the new documentary. Nas' current California tour dates include two nights at the Fox Theater in Oakland (Oct 19 & 21) and two nights at the Orpheum Theatre in LA (Oct 18 & 22).

Like most hip-hop fans back in the early nineties I was most impressed with hearing (Nasty) Nas' lyrical flow for the first time when he spat his attention-grabbing verse, as one of several emcee guests on MC Serch's 1992 single "Back To The Grill Again" on Def Jam. By the time he released his first solo single, "Halftime" off the Zebrahead soundtrack, I was further convinced that this was an emcee to watch out for and consequently I couldn't wait for his proper debut. When Illmatic was finally released I was far from disappointed - well, maybe only over the fact that it wasn't longer than its ten tracks - but otherwise I knew that I had heard one of those rare releases that comes along only once in a rare while. It was one of those proverbial "landmark albums" that would be referenced for years to come. And now twenty full years later it still sounds amazing.

In addition to being a fan favorite, Illmatic had a ripple effect on hip-hop music being recorded (especially East Coast hip-hop releases) for some time after its '94 release. In retrospect, what is especially impressive is that Nas was only 20 years of age when this influential record was released. He was only 19 when he recorded the album and younger still when "Halftime" was recorded and released two years earlier. (Note: the "Halftime" 12" was reissued by Columbia Records for last year's Record Store Day).

When it was released in April 1994, Illmatic was unlike anything else up to that point in time. Its ten tracks were carefully crafted and its production utilized a perfect balance of hip-hop and Nassoul/funk/jazz samples which complimented Nas' multi-syllabic flow. A myriad of name producers worked on the album, including Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, and L.E.S. With the exception of a single guest emcee (AZ on the track "Life's A Beach"), Nas handled all of the mic duties himself. The album spawned five singles, including such hip-hop classics as "The World Is Yours" (see video below for this Pete Rock produced classic), the aforementioned "Halftime," "One Time 4 Your Mind," "N.Y. State of Mind," and "It Ain't Hard to Tell" on which Nas displayed his effortless command of the English language and his ability to flip the script with a non-stop display of clever wordplay epitomized by lyrics like, "So analyze me, surprise me, but can't magnetize me. Scannin' while you're plannin' ways to sabotage me. I leave em froze like her-on in your nose. Nas'll rock well, it ain't hard to tell."

Nas "The World Is Yours" (1994)


While Illmatic may not have been the biggest selling rap/hip-hop album of the '90s it was perhaps the most universally critically acclaimed record. Source magazine, which was revered as the 'bible of hip-hop' back then, bestowed its prestigious, highest rating of five mics on the album. While many once great albums sound dated or lack that same appeal years later, Illmatic truly stands stands the test of time as a recorded work of hip-hop excellence, which is why so many artists have paid homage to it, including Detroit hip-hopper eLZhi's 2011 release Elmatic. Since Illmatic's release other hip-hop albums, which are seemingly totally unrelated to Nas, are routinely compared to his landmark release. Illmatic has become a blueprint for what a truly classic hip-hop release should be. Ironically even Nas himself has been unable to release 'the next Illmatic.' Not only is the album Nas' finest work but it also considered by most tastemakers as one of the quintessential hip-hop releases of the 1990s.

Nas Illmatic 20th anniversary vinyl

To mark its 20th anniversary earlier this year, SONY reissued the album on vinyl as Illmatic XX [20th Anniversary] . [Buy Illmatic XX here on vinyl and here on CD].

The Time Is Illmatic documentary, which was shown on opening night of the TriBeCa Film Festival back in April, offers both the album and artist's back-story. As a kid, Nas grew up in a musically rich household (his pops was a jazz artist and Nas started playing trumpet at age two) in the sprawling, tough Queensbridge development (population 10,000) in the dangerous crime-filled, crack-ridden 1980s - something so vividly captured and poetically portrayed throughout the engaging lyrics of Illmatic. The documentary is screening at select theaters around the country, including at Oakland's New Parkway in the week ahead (see schedule/tix).

"Nas: Time Is Illmatic" Official Trailer (2014)

EPK (Electronic Press Kit) for Nas' Illmatic album (1994)
Essential Records: Nas' Illmatic (1994, SONY) Cover Art, Tracking, Production Credits:
1.     "The Genesis"  Nas, Faith N. 
2.     "N.Y. State of Mind" DJ Premier
3.     "Life's a Bitch" (feat. AZ) L.E.S. & Nas
4.     "The World Is Yours" Pete Rock   
5.     "Halftime" Large Professor 
6.     "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)" DJ Premier
7.     "One Love" Q-Tip
8.     "One Time 4 Your Mind" Large Professor
9.     "Represent" DJ Premier
10.     "It Ain't Hard to Tell" Large Professor


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Illmatic (2), Album Picks (146), 1994 Hip-hop (2), Queensbridge Hip-hop (2), Nas (28), Essential Records (35), Hip Hop (94)