An Alternate Take On The Perception Of Nas’ “Illmatic” 25 Years Later
In the 25 years since Nas released the universally recognized classic Rap album “Illmatic” it’s become praised while modern Rap albums that follow its example are often derided. Let’s look at this album’s release through the eyes of someone who was an adult at the time it was released in April 1994.
“Illmatic” is regarded as an unadulterated Rap classic and is arguably the greatest Hip-Hop album ever recorded. Nasty Nas was considered the second coming of Rakim and his album was declared a classic months before it was even released by respected journalists at leading Rap publications like The Source and Rap Pages.
Not only was Nas’ album highly anticipated but it received an insanely elusive perfect 5 mic rating from The Source with the review being written by a young Minya Oh AKA Miss Info as Shortie. Even with all of the critical acclaim heaped upon the album it failed to sell like a blockbuster album initially due to a combination of heavy bootlegging and the lack of a crossover hit single to catch on at either radio or the clubs. This mistake wouldn’t be repeated on “It Was Written”…
This was not the fault of Columbia Records, mind you. The label put forth supreme effort to make sure Nas awareness was high amongst the mainstream press as college Rap radio and underground Hip Hop fanatics had been anticipating a full length project from Nas since his breakthrough debut verse on Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ” back in 1991 and throughout his guest appearance on MC Serch’s “Back To The Grill” (1992) and his single off the “Zebrahead” OST, “Halftime” (1992).
As I was trying to string along the timeline of Nas’ signing to Columbia, I realized that the post signing events all seemed to check out but the actual story leading up to him signing his deal didn’t. We know that Nas recorded his initial demo with Large Professor when studio sessions for Eric B. & Rakim and Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo fell through via Anton Pukshansky who was engineer for those sessions. Nas was set to possibly sign with Big Beat/Atlantic and it was actually Rob “Reef” Tewlow and Stretch Armstrong who brought Nas to MC Serch’s “Back To The Grill” session which T-Ray co-produced with Serch. It only took 25 years for the actual story to be told, apparently.
It seems that Anton Pukshansky called producer T-Ray about Nas after hearing him in sessions he engineered for Large Professor and the team of T-Ray, Reef & Stretch Armstrong were set to have Nas sign with Big Beat as they brought him to Serch’s session along with some other cats. Fast forward a few months after the album is released and now Nas has one of the lead singles on the film soundtrack MC Serch executive produced and was music supervisor of (“Zebrahead”) produced by Large Professor on Ruffhouse/Columbia with a song by Def Jam signee Boss co-produced by MC Serch and T-Ray.
To further complicate things, Serch & T-Ray co-produced almost half of Serch’s “Return Of The Product” album for Def Jam while T-Ray was an in-house producer at Big Beat/Atlantic who once worked there as an intern. In 1992, he also produced on Double XX Posse’s “Put Ya Boots On” which was mostly engineered by Anton Pukshansky and executive produced/A&R’d by Reef (as Daddy Reef) and Stretch Armstrong. It had been established that Anton worked with Large Professor who was making demos for Nas and Akinyele simultaneously who regularly worked with T-Ray who, in turn, worked as a unit with Reef and Stretch who all worked for Big Beat/Atlantic as A&R’s. The question is, why doesn’t anyone know this?
Where things get away from us is when we realize that the story of Nas’ signing typically only has one or two sources, Serch or Faith Newman. Faith Newman asserts that Large Professor initially brought Nas to her at Def Jam after she’d already left for Columbia several months previous so she wasn’t there but Serch brought him to her at Columbia in October 1991. Also, “Illmatic” took over 2 years to be released from when the recording process began.
The account of Nas’ signing was told from Serch’s perspective to Peter Rosenberg and Cipha Sounds back in 2014 but according to Stretch Armstrong and Reef it went quite differently. For one, Serch’s account is that Nas confided in him that the deal he was offered by Big Beat wasn’t one he wasn’t happy with. Serch told him that before he negotiated with his own friends and associates on Nas’ behalf first he’d need to sign to Serchlite Music.
Afterwards, he went to Reef and Stretch and told them the deal Big Beat offered to Nas is beneath an artist of his caliber. Reef and Stretch inform Serch that Craig Kallman at Atlantic wasn’t going to offer a better deal so Serch brought Nas to Faith Newman at Columbia. For the record, both Stretch Armstrong and Rob “Reef” Tewlow maintain this version of the story is a complete fabrication and hopefully in the near future I can include their sides in an updated version of this piece.
What we do know is Columbia entrusted four people with the task of making sure everyone knew that Nas’ debut “Illmatic” was forthcoming. They were Ashley Fox, Director Of Artist Development at Columbia, A&R Faith Newman, Tyesh Harris, National Director Of Rap Promotions at Columbia and publicist Miguel Baguer.
MC Serch aided unofficially as he actually was an A&R at Wild Pitch at the time and was managing Nas in some capacity but that was the core group tasked with spreading the word. What they did next was commendable considering it was a debut Rap album, they mailed out several advance copies of “Illmatic” in November 1993. Those advance cassette tapes were often guarded like Infinity Stones and never allowed to leave the premises while being listened to but by January 1994 Columbia was rushing to get the album packaging together for an early Spring release.
Nas appeared on Stretch & Bobbito’s show on WKCR on October 28th, 1993 to promote the album which he incorrectly thought was dropping in January. What did drop in January was the lead single “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, on January 18th, 1994 the 12” was shipped same day the Ralph McDaniels directed video was sent to video outlets and Nas’ electronic press kits/mini “Illmatic” making of docs were mailed out.
In addition, Columbia’s team secured press for “Illmatic” in The Source, Rap Pages, Vibe, Billboard and Rolling Stone to ensure awareness was high. However, at the time “Illmatic” dropped it was only the 29th most frequently played video on BET, not in the regular rotation on MTV outside of “Yo! MTV Raps”. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” had just rose to #19 on Hot Rap Singles in its 10th week on the charts and “Illmatic” entered at #2 on the Top R&B Albums chart in the May 7th, 1994 issue of Billboard as the Hot Shot Debut and 12th on the Billboard 200 so apparently Columbia’s promotional efforts weren’t for naught.
Unfortunately, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” was only at #69 on the Hot 100 Singles Sales chart down from #55 the previous week. Without a Gold lead or follow up single it wasn’t likely “Illmatic” itself would go Gold and as amazing as that album was, there simply wasn’t a potential crossover hit single on it.
OutKast, whose album was released the following week didn’t have the same issue and they went Gold in two months behind their Gold single “Player’s Ball”. They entered the Billboard 200 at #20 the week after “Illmatic” debuted, which dropped all the way down the #28 the same week. The following week “Southernplayalistic…” had dropped only 2 spots to #22 whereas “Illmatic” slid all the way down to 49th. OutKast’s debut album would go Platinum the following April but “Illmatic” didn’t even go Gold until 1996.
To further put things into perspective, the day “Illmatic” dropped Shyheim’s debut “AKA The Rugged Child” was also released and it kind of overshadowed “Illmatic” off the strength of his hit single “On & On” and the fact Shyheim’s youth intrigued audiences. While Nas had all the critical acclaim one could wish for, a dream team of producers and the Bible Of Hip-Hop itself cheerleading for him, he sold 165,000 units in his opening week. I know you’re wondering what this has to do with the album being an unadulterated masterpiece both lyrically and in term of production? I’m getting to that.
At the time Nas’ debut album was released, Rap fans focused on the quality of the album rather than its sales numbers. The only reason I even know how many units “Illmatic” moved in its opening week is because Serch revealed the numbers in a January 2014 appearance on Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg’s Juan Epstein podcast.
I honestly wasn’t aware that none of the singles were hits (although “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” actually succeeded at cracking the Billboard Hot 100, it peaked at #91) until I checked the Billboard archives. These aren’t things that even the most knowledgeable Hip-Hop head cared about in 1994, we all played that album for the next 4 to 6 months regardless of how many copies were Soundscanned or how its other singles charted.
One issue that I’ve had with the revisionist history behind “Illmatic” is the idea that it was this album in 1994 that changed the way Rap albums were made forever by involving multiple top Rap producers. If you simply read the liner notes of Rap albums made going back between 1989 and 1991 you’ll see multiple top producers on notable Rap releases such as Heavy D’s “Big Tyme” (Marley Marl, Teddy Riley, DJ Eddie F & Pete Rock), Big Daddy Kane’s “It’s A Big Daddy Thing” (Marley Marl, Teddy Riley, Prince Paul & Easy Mo Bee), Queen Latifah’s “All Hail The Queen” (DJ Mark The 45 King, KRS-One, Prince Paul, Daddy-O & Louie Louie Vega) and MC Lyte’s “Eyes On This” (Marley Marl, PMD, The King Of Chill, Audio Two, Grand Puba, etc.) just from 1989 alone.
In actuality, the Rap album that can arguably be credited with establishing the production line up aesthetic often attributed to “Illmatic” is Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth’s “Funky Technician” LP from 1990. The producers over the album’s 13 tracks were DJ Premier, Diamond D, Showbiz & Mike Smooth with co-production credits on a song. If you listen to “Funky Technician” from top to bottom it’s eerie how that album might’ve laid the foundation for what followed in later years.
The idea that Rap records were made for an entire decade between 1984 and 1994 before the idea magically came along for there to be multiple well regarded producers contributing to an album per Columbia Records for Nas’ debut is just ridiculous. Was it a common practice or widely practiced back then like it is now? No, but that was largely due to smaller recording budgets, the artist not wanting to go over budget to avoid affecting the possibility of them recouping and the label not willing to dole out exorbitant amounts of cash for top flight production talent if they weren’t already associated with the artist. What producer on “Illmatic” didn’t either have a direct or a personal connection to Nas through mutual friends? I’ll wait…
Was this album’s recording process far more publicized than other Rap albums made previous to it due to the fact the Columbia Records machine drilled this information into the the heads of the fans and the press? Yes. If you weren’t of record buying age in April 1994 would you just repeat this fallacy/misinterpretation of the facts in 2019 ad nauseam? Yes. However, I was 18 going on 19 when “Illmatic” dropped so I’m not falling for the banana in the tailpipe…
The hypocrisy of the modern Rap journalist heaping praise on albums universally recognized as classics even though they have no real connection to them, don’t revere them or likely haven’t even heard them is one thing, another is when people in this space make problematic or inaccurate statements regarding these same albums. For example, 30 seconds into Google Play’s mini-documentary for the 20th anniversary of “Illmatic” in 2014, Peter Rosenberg said that “in a lot of ways established Hip Hop as an artform to be taken really seriously”. Really, Peter?
Forget that by 1994 we’ve already seen Run DMC release “Run DMC” (1984), “King Of Rock” (1985) & “Raising Hell” (1986). Forget that by then LL Cool J had released “Radio” (1985), “Bigger And Deffer” (1987) & “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990). Forget that the Beastie Boys had released “Licensed To Ill” (1986) by then. Never mind that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince had released “He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper” (1988) by then or Public Enemy already made the epic albums “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” (1988) and “Fear Of A Black Planet” (1990). While we’re at it? Toss the memories of Ice T’s “Rhyme Pays” (1987), “Power” (1988), “The Iceberg/Freedom Of Speech…Just Watch What You Say” (1989) & “O.G. Original Gangster” (1991) from your minds.
Completely disregard the fact that the critical acclaim and sales success of albums by N.W.A (“Straight Outta Compton” (1989) &“EFIL4ZAGGIN” (1991), Eazy-E (“E-Z-Duz It” (1988)) and The D.O.C. (“No One Can Do It Better” (1989)) helped to legitimize Rap in the eyes of the mainstream press. Also, try to pretend Ice Cube never released “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” (1990), “Kill At Will” (1990), “Death Certificate” (1991) and “The Predator” (1992).
Try to kid yourselves into thinking Eric B. & Rakim’s entire back catalog between 1987 and 1992 didn’t make a solid case that Rap was a legitimate artform to both critics and the wider audience of music fans. Pretend that Boogie Down Productions’ output between 1987 and 1992 didn’t do the same. Coax yourself into believing that De La Soul’s “3 Feet High & Rising” (1989), “De La Soul Is Dead” (1991) or “Buhloone Mindstate” (1993) and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Low End Theory” (1991) & “Midnight Marauders” (1993) hadn’t already helped to cement that Hip Hop was a legitimate artform before “Illmatic” was released?
Shit, even Wu Tang Clan’s “Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)” was out by then! Problem is, oftentimes accuracy is out of the window when searching for a talking head who is willing to heap the most praise on a project possible for a mini doc…
However, in 2019 everything is about sales, streaming numbers, chart position, spins, “hotness” and “relevance.” It’s odd to see those that don’t appreciate the more lyrical, creative and artistic Rap of the day (let’s be honest, they just ignore it) heap praise on “Illmatic” considering if it came out today they’d probably think it was boring, too “throwback” & opt to hear something else instead. I could just see it getting “slandered” all day long on my Twitter timeline in my mind’s eye.
If “Illmatic” dropped today, many of the Rap writers who praise it and talk about what a masterpiece it was due to the fact it’s been universally recognized as a classic for 25 years would instead have clowned its opening week sales in the face of how much time, money and effort his label put into promoting it and talked incessantly about its “dated” sound. They’d likely remark that Nas needs production from Metro Boomin’, Tay Keith, Cardo or Mike Will Made It and guest verses from 21 Savage, Young Thug or Travis Scott. They’d treat Nas exactly like they do Roc Marciano and Ka today, like second or third tier Rap citizens when they actually make the most concise, timeless Hip-Hop albums of the present day Rap world that have inspired countless other emcees to follow suit.
“Illmatic” was not an easily accessible Rap project by any stretch of the imagination. It was geared towards those who appreciated music from previous eras and challenged the listener. It was dense, layered and took multiple listens to grasp even though it was short by 1994 Rap album standards. In many ways it was a Jazz album made for those that had the attention spans and a high enough level of maturity to fully accept it.
“Illmatic” had the same amount of songs on it as the Soul/R&B/Funk albums Gen X’ers grew up hearing on 8 track cassette, 12" vinyl or cassette tape during the late 70’s to mid 80’s. It forced multiple producers to all get on the same page to craft a concise Rap album with no notable guest appearances other than unsigned MC AZ who opened the song Nas received The Source’s Hip-Hop Quotable Rhyme Of The Month for.
In an era of short albums, playlists, and radio or club pandering, “Illmatic” sounds extremely out of place in the mainstream; reason being is because it’s an example of painstakingly crafted art in an era of disposable music. It kills me that I see people in the music journalism space who praise this album yet ignore modern Rap made that follows its example. Everything about “Illmatic” was made to appeal to a specialized audience as opposed to chasing big sales numbers. Nas’ debut album was purposely built to stand the test of time and age like Angela Bassett. Each song was made with the mindset that it was part of a greater body of work.
The album opens with “The Genesis” which uses music from the score of “Wild Style” as well as audio from the film’s opening scene. In 1994, few people outside of New York had even seen “Wild Style” to fully grasp the significance of the album’s intro. “Wild Style” wasn’t widely available for sale or rental on VHS at the time and the only places to purchase it were mail order ads in the back of The Source or from catalogs in imported graf magazines. This was not easily accessible music that catered to the listener, you had to take three steps towards it. Nas is the son of a Jazz musician & Bluesman, after all.
That doesn’t stop people from lying that they even recognized the audio used on the “Illmatic” intro even 25 years after the fact. It cracks me up that even Nas had to borrow a copy of “Wild Style” from Faith Newman in order to use it for the album intro because almost no one had it and that people still can’t admit they hadn’t seen it yet themselves. Faith says that Nas never returned that VHS copy of “Wild Style”, either…
Also, around the time Nas appeared on the scene there were several other up & coming young emcees out including Redman, Biggie Smalls, Big L, Akinyele, DMX (The Great), (Joe) Fatal, Kurious (Jorge), Grim Reaper, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes (Leaders Of The New School), O.C., etc. signing deals with majors. The fact of the matter is Nas was overshadowing some of his labelmates and adversely affecting their careers due to the sheer amount of press and attention he was receiving, in particular Kurious (Jorge) and Big L.
The reason so many heads of my generation fell in love with “Illmatic” is because it dredged up nostalgic feelings when music meant so much more to our lives, when we all huddled around the radio because it reflected the voice of our community and was genuinely invested in our well being. Back then records seemed to perfectly capture the spirit and flavor of the times they were made in. “Illmatic” drew directly from the classic albums of the past, set the standard for that era and in turn inspired many classic albums that followed it.
“Illmatic” is praised today and regarded as a classic even though it was overshadowed by The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic debut “Ready To Die”, which was powered by the hit singles “Juicy” and “One More Chance” back in Fall 1994. Nas and “Illmatic” also failed to receive any accolades at the 1995 Source Awards from the same magazine that the previous year regarded him as the “Second Coming of Rakim”.
First, Nas watched Biggie rack up award after award on August 3rd, 1995. Next, the Russell Simmons helmed concert video “The Show” was released 3 weeks later starring Notorious B.I.G., Wu Tang Clan and Warren G but not him. Under the management of Steve Stoute and the direction of Tone & Poke of Trackmasters Nas would finally achieve the breakout commercial success that eluded him on “Illmatic” years earlier, alienating many of his core fans in the process but gaining over a million more ensuring he never has overshadowed by his peers like that again.
The week of this classic album’s 25th anniversary we’ll read countless think pieces, album retrospectives and oral histories plus see several mini documentaries about the impact and legacy of “Illmatic”. Amazing considering it took this same album almost two years to initially go Gold, another 5 years after that to go Platinum and there are numerous Millennials who consider “It Was Written” to be the superior album.