Excerpts taken from the 20th Anniversary edition of ‘Illmatic,’ released by Legacy Recordings/Sony Music
Written by Sacha Jenkins
In the very beginning, Queensbridge housing project in Long Island City, Queens were inhabited by proud Americans who worked in the factories that pulsated on the fringes of the largest public housing development in the good old U.S. of A. World War II was brewing; Queensbridge and her 96 buildings were brand new, and somebody had to make parachutes and bullets in an effort to dead Hitler’s Final Solution.
Queensbridge was the best short stay hotel on the planet: the idea was, whether you made bombs or drove a bus — if you were a civil servant you could have a nice quality of life for cheap. You could save money and move out after three or four years. In no time, you’d have enough money to put down on a nice little house in East Elmhurst or Corona or somewhere way out on Long Island.
“Every human wants to live good — whether it be materialistic or whatever. We all live in a poor neighborhood, but who is making the best out of nothing? We’re dealing with nothing. So we’re trying to come up out of it. And we brag and boast amongst our peers to keep them going.”
Queensbridge was largely white back then. Irish and Italians and other Caucasian folk working on the picket fence dream that was sold on the silver screen. But black folks would eventually move in, and in larger numbers during the late 1960s. By the late ’70s, the vast majority of whites would take flight, and the complexion and culture of Queensbridge would go from day to night. The booming factories that surrounded “the Bridge” and employed her denizens would start to go bust in the ’80s. And while pioneering hip hop DJ and producer and Queensbridge native Marley Marl would work at the local Sergio Valente jeans factory for a time (designer jeans designed for women with flat asses ruled the world back then), the factory that had the greatest possibilities for advancement was mobile, and crack cocaine was the product these factories pushed. The African American population of Queensbridge would check in and stay much longer as the local “legit” economy would fade. For some, the housing development was a trap.
With crack, you could be your own boss. Metaphorically, you could go from being the guy who mopped the floors to the guy who counted the money at the end of the night at age 15 — if you were willing to dedicate your mind, soul and body to such an unstable profession. By the middle ’80s, because of the ugly storm that was crack, Queensbridge had to soldier through what was essentially a Katrina-sized disaster, where good people drowned and struggled to stay afloat while winds of despair swept oceans of tears into the eyes of innocent bystanders. Can you imagine what it’s like to see your friend’s mother offering up sex for five dollars? What it’s like to see whites on BMX bikes holding VCRs and car radios ride past your building with wild eyes, looking to unload their goods for cheap in an effort to cop a “Jumbo” from your homeboy? Times were tough and people did what they did to survive. And the various “systems” — of welfare, education and justice — would fail QB’s apostles miserably. By ’85, Nasir Jones’ father, Olu Dara — multi instrumentalist supreme and bona fide blues man down to the marrow — would move out, leaving his postal worker mother Fannie Ann Jones, and his younger brother Jabari Fret Jones (AKA Jungle) in an environment where in order to live you either had to kill, be killed or gingerly step over dead bodies like they were the cracks in the pavement that little kids swore would break your mother’s back if your toes tickled them. Nas says his mother’s cool and calm grounded him in ways that would prepare him for life in the real world. That every summer she would make sure that he and Jungle would experience North Carolina and connect with the heartbeats of his ancestors.
They say that the truth shall set you free, and in Queensbridge, hip hop music was gospel. One can speculate that the Con Edison plant directly across the street had a hand in generating the kind of electricity that made her emcees ultra magnetic; or you can cite the sheer size of the community itself (of course somebody is going to be able to rap when you have that many black people to draw from). But the talent pool in the Bridge was spectacular — the Juice Crew was born there — super producer Marley Marl and his motley posse of emcees who would inspire RZA and his beloved Wu-Tang Clan came to be there. Roxanne Shante, MC Shan, Poet & Hotday, Craig G, Tragedy AKA The Intelligent Hoodlum — all reared in Queensbridge. All of this superior music gave the young hip hoppers of Queensbridge a superiority complex that was well deserved. The place itself became this mythical land that was one part Motown and two-parts Hades. Your blood would rush just thinking about walking through that project maze, and the thrill of running into a choice emcee or watching Wild West scenes both thrilled and scared you.
While gunshots rang out and ice cream trucks pumped numb circus music, young “Nasty” Nasir was running around with his friends, and hearing jams created by kids a few years his senior while dodging rounds and shelling them out, and sometimes being penetrated by them. Crews like the 41st Side of Vernon Posse, The 40 Busters and various bloodthirsty individuals would engage and cause a ruckus on The Hill — the center of Queensbridge where the supermarket and children’s center happens to be — like delusional child soldiers immersed in a bloody conflict against themselves. There was no glamor associated with the gun slinging; young black boys died senseless deaths and mommas cried. Nas’ neighbor and best friend William “Ill Will” Graham passed on as a result of the violence. It was a death that would transform the future legend.
Nas was from the 40th Avenue side of Vernon Boulevard; Mobb Deep’s Havoc was from the 41st Avenue side of 12th Street; how two strips of land could be worlds apart, yet so close remains a mystery. And while both “regions” have two distinctive identities, at the end of the day, when worst comes to worst, Queensbridge, overall, always comes first. Queensbridgians are a proud bunch. The jams in River Park — or at the community center — would bring everybody together. “We used to jam/in the Center/you had to pay so you could enter/go to the door/get frisked/just in order to get in/and if you wasn’t from this town then you couldn’t fight and win” rapped MC Shan on his 1986 QB classic “The Bridge.”
“Back in ’83 I was an emcee sparkin’”
— Nas, “Halftime”
The fact that kids had guns wasn’t a surprise in Queensbridge. It was a tool of the trade. Like a leather saddle for a cowboy. Nas was reporting from the frontlines; Nas’ reality wasn’t exploitative and embarrassing like the “reality” programming we see on major networks today. Nas gave life to words with his poetry. His words created opportunities for the listener to fill in some of the blanks: he wasn’t literal or linear. His imagination had an interest in putting your hand on the heartbeat of the projects — the pain, pride and politics of it all. This scribe knows his imagery is powerful because I hail from a similar time, in a similar neighborhood, about a mile away.
Back then, if you were a kid with big sprawling day-dreams and desire to go beyond what has been laid before you, the New York City public school system would eat you alive if you just sat there. Nas and this scribe attended the same junior high school — I.S. 126. I was bored as hell, but stuck with it. Nas wouldn’t finish, but he was consumed with the creative impulses that nagged him nonstop. If he would have stayed, an unorthodox mind like his would have been encouraged to apply to a vocational school (which is what they tried to get me to do), the thinking being that it’s better to have a young black man fixing cars as opposed to fixing to steal your woman’s purse…Nas? Nas wanted to steal ears.
“I rap divine god/check the prognosis/is it real or showbiz?/my window faces shootouts/drug overdoses.”
— “Memory Lane”
Ill Will was gone. His brother had been shot. School wasn’t the move. He’d become the day-to-day man of the house. Nasir, at a tender age, had to make sense of an environment that had no sympathy for the weak. He had to pave a way that would somehow suit his desires — that’s what everyone wants but so few achieve — especially inside of the kind of circumstances that surrounded the young, thoughtful poet. He just knew that he had to express himself. That expression was his only real commodity. That and his will to live to show and prove. Nas also had culture. Having a jazz musician father who’d traveled the world, who had a strong sense of self and a connection to his Southern roots — this gave Nas an advantage. It didn’t make him better — just different. Nas could sell crack. He even tried. But crack wasn’t the essence of who he was. He could talk about it, though — about that and everything else that emerged when the doors to the pissy elevators opened.
“I was surrounded by animals, and I knew I was the hope for us,” Nas reflected at the tail-end of 2013. He was verbally trooping back to the time when he made Illmatic and touching on what it meant to himself and those in his circle. “That record was a young man suffocating, and suffocating around him was his friends. But I found a hole, and I grabbed a knife and dug at that hole to get air for us. And that’s what it felt like. If there wasn’t hip hop, I would’ve had no way to tell that story.
“The generation before us — they were hip hop superstars,” he continued via telephone. “It was about being fly like Heavy D — who was a hero to me. I didn’t have that — my generation didn’t have that. Because those guys who came and did it before us did it so crazy that, there was no room. The generation before fought to be included in the Grammys, fought to be on big time radio. They fought to have the kind of exposure that other music genres received. My class? We were what was left when those tour buses rode off in the sunset. We were what was left on the block.” With his words, with his sage-dripping delivery, Nas made the projects feel like a living, breathing organism. Better yet, a friend capable of both sympathetically listening to you — or slicing you in the same breath. He did it because that was all he had to work with. Nas turned whine into wine.
“With my generation,” Nas added, “it was like ‘no, I don’t have shelltoe Adidas, I don’t have the Public Enemy Flavor Flav clock around my neck. No, I don’t have the rope chains like Eric B and Rakim. But you know what I got? Timberlands. You know what I got? These buildings around me, dog. This is what’s happening; New York State of Mind. The rap artist is not just rapping about Mutant Ninja Turtles; the rap artist is talking about life he sees in the street.”
That’s exactly what Nas did — he talked about street life with a level of artistry that fans hadn’t encountered before. It was rhythmic and smooth; challenging yet undeniably head-nodding. It pulled you in and made you feel something that he wanted you to feel. He knew that music was a possible avenue of expression since he was a shorty. “My first time in the recording studio was because my pops played jazz — so I was in there with him just watching,” said Nas around the time of the release of Illmatic. “But I made my own moves when I met this kid Large Professor from Flushing, Queens. He was working with Eric B and Rakim and Kool G Rap. I must have been 15, 16. He used to get me in the studio while he was working with them. He would get me to record songs and stuff like that.” Being that close to such inspirational hip hop figures at that time made Nas feel like he was onto something. Between those sessions and rubbing elbows with QB’s rap celebs at the local bodega, he must have felt that something was in the cards. Still, Nas was a realist. “I never got the chance to get those songs on wax,” he said. “I’m kinda happy I didn’t because I need the time to mature, really. And focus on how I wanted to be looked at as a rap singer.”
“Shorty’s laugh was cold blooded as he spoke so foul/Only twelve trying to tell me that he liked my style/Then I rose, wiping the blunt’s ash from my clothes/Then froze/Only to the Herb smoke through my nose.”
— “One Love”
“I’m A Villian,” a Jae Supreme-produced cut included in this collection, is an important, telling gem from the aforementioned era. He spits lines like “The projects is where I rest/and the streets keep me stressed” and “I got cops putting chalk on the street/and this is done once a week” and “My voice is like magic/my cassette is the clip and your radio is a automatic.” This is early, raw Nas, where you can hear Kool G Rap on the flow and a tinge of The Intelligent Hoodlum when considering how the subject matter is processed. These locals are his teachers, but Nas would eventually take their lesson plans and re-write the entire damn curriculum. “Army certified/keep a rent-a-ride” — words joined together that create a picture-perfect frame of a Queensbridge go-getter — rugged army wear and a rental car at the ready for missions to nightclubs or drug runs out of state. This track is telling because it is a humble sketch in comparison to the advanced work that would follow — how Nas arrived at such complex signatures in the amount of time that he did is simply staggering. He continues to ride the funky bassline and ends the song with “Nas the parlay-er/you better say your prayer/I’m the New York City slayer/I play hi-post and then lay low/parlay slow and wear horns not a halo/and keep killing…cuz I’m a villain…
And everybody in the Bridge is a Villain.”
Nonetheless, Columbia Records A&R woman Faith Newman must have had a crystal ball, because little ’ol “I’m A Villain” is the song that landed him a deal with said major, major label. Queensbridge’s finest was now trading lyrics with the likes of Bob Dylan. How does it feel?
The production on Illmatic is flawless; it was the first time such an all-star squad of producers had been assembled — Pete Rock, DJ Premier, L.E.S., Q-Tip, his old buddy Large Professor. Everyone involved knew they were about to blow minds; Illmatic was the blueprint that many successful emcees would follow in its wake. Nas’ lyrics and delivery, however, are what ultimately pushed him over the edge, and have guided his career ever since. It was the words that would help him navigate the evil on the streets and would lift him to victory when the situation called for a lyrical battle.
It is his words that make him the hip hop generation’s Bob Dylan: an enigma who constructs sly images with words; images that are both gritty and ethereal, direct yet abstract, intelligent but honest about the blissful ignorance that can sometimes prevail.
No one had done it the way he’d done it before and that is why, 20 years on, Illmatic is universally recognized as one of the greatest full-length records in the history of human kind. He made poetry pop when radio was inundated with tarts, and we’re all still chewing on that.