He kept changing on the world since barbecue. From Illmatic to last year’s controversial Untitled LP, Nas has constantly evolved, going from a wide-eyed project youth to hip-hop’s chief political pundit. Despite all the growth, it is the Queensbridge Housing Projects native’s debut that remains his most revered work to date. In fact, there are only a handful of hip-hop albums that fans speak of in the same sentence (Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to name a few). The production was stellar, with contributions from Large Professor, DJ Premier and Pete Rock, but what was even more impressive was the wordplay exhibited by the then-20-year-old MC. Memorable lines like “I never sleep ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death” from “N.Y. State of Mind” or “Nas is like the Afro-centric Asian, half-Man, half-amazing” from “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” proved that the young rapper was wise beyond his years.
Fast forward, April 19, 2009 will mark the 15-year anniversary of Illmatic’s release. To celebrate Nas sat down with XXLMag.com to talk about his rookie season and the creation of a true hip-hop classic.
XXLMag.com: First off what does the word “Illmatic” mean? Can you break that down?
Nas: Illmatic is supreme ill. It’s as ill as ill gets. That shit is a science of everything ill.
XXL: So what was the climate like in rap when you were coming into the game? Do you remember?
Nas: It was a lot of characters, the superstars in rap were super, super stars and it didn’t leave room for a new generation. How were we gonna come after the superstars like Heavy D and Salt ‘N Pepa, Run-D.M.C., Rakim, KRS, Cool J? They were bigger than life. Just the average dude on the block, that wasn’t really the superstar guy, it didn’t look like it was an easy game to get into. We loved the whole culture and now [it was time to] make room for the new. From our perspective, we were lookin’ at the superstars as kinda of corny when compared to what we had to go through everyday on the block. We looked at it like, “Man this is what’s real, lets tell this story.”
XXL: You lost your rhyme book on the way to record “Life’s a Bitch” right? How did that affect you?
Nas: Yeah I lost a couple of ‘em [that day]. One day I was bored and I wrote, “If you find this send to…” and I wrote my address because I lived in the projects back then and I wrote down that there would be a reward… But by the time the album was done the guy called me and he didn’t want a reward and he sent it back to me and I thanked the man and it was all good. I realized the stuff that I had came up with for the album was a little more developed, more than the stuff I had written down. The stuff I had written down was kinda dated and kinda old.
XXL: AZ has gone on record to say that at the time he didn’t think his “Life’s A Bitch” verse was up to par and you had to convince him that it was dope. Do you remember that?
Nas: Yeah he went through, I don’t know if he remembers, but he had spit a lot of shit for me and a lot of A’s shit [was] rapid fire shit. A lot of his shit was hyped… I remember I was just telling him to lay back a little bit with it. Then he spit a few joints for me all crazy. When he spit that one, that one fit what I wanted to fit on the album, what Illmatic was about. That one fit perfect. It had to be something that fit, that one was the perfect verse.
XXL: It was you who originally laid the hook for “The World Is Yours,” so why did Pete Rock end up on the final version?
Nas: Pete was more experienced in the booth, laying vocals and producing vocals, so mines weren’t up to par. He knew exactly how to do it and get it sounding right panning them through the speakers and everything… I give that to Pete Rock, you gotta credit him with that, he brought the track that brought it all to life.
XXL: Large Professor ushered you in the game, what was the exact role that he played in your career early on?
Nas: Yeah I remember I told him to executive produce it because he’s the guy who put me on and put me on the Breaking Atoms album. He was around all the big dogs and he still put me on that shit. He produced my vocals, he’s the one that taught me how to stand with the mic, how not to say my words, how not to pop too much in the mic. Basically he was the first person to ever produce me and he kinda had a sound for me so I couldn’t think of working with anybody else.
XXL: How’d you come up with “One Love” and the whole concept of it being a letter to your man in prison?
Nas: It represented just that nobody was doing nothin’ like that. I didn’t want to do records the way that everybody was doing records. I wasn’t like, “Yo this record is gonna tear the club up, BDS gonna be crazy on that one.” No it was like “Let’s go the opposite way.” Let’s sing this song for the men locked up, for the kids, for the single parents who was experiencing their son being locked up; girlfriends having their boyfriends locked up, brothers having their brothers locked up. A part of the community was missin’ when those guys would go away so this is how I was affected. It’s like “Yo that’s my homeboy who was just there and now he’s on the other side of the wall and we both fighting still together in the struggle.” We gotta keep that love, you not dead man, you still here, keep it one love, keep it 100.
XXL: When you first shouted out Cormega on that record, did you ever think he would come out and be accepted as a rapper?
Nas: That was just my man and I didn’t see it as come out and be known. There was a side of me that knew I was gonna change the game, but I didn’t know how many people would respect it. I just knew that the street niggas would, so that meant everything to me. So that meant if people would hear him in the streets and fuck with him, then that meant everything. It was just like, I didn’t think that far when I came to writing it, nobody knew who I was at that time, so it was just shouting out my dude.
XXL: You guys have had your problems, where do you and Mega stand now?
Nas: I’ll tell you man. I don’t have any regrets in life, but I just hate that me and him had a disgruntled situation, I hate that because we go back. I never liked it, I never liked it. It’s something that I blank out of my mind, it’s something that didn’t even happen really to me, that’s how I blank a lot of shit out. It was just stupid… When you get older you realize how many things were dumb, how many things don’t really hold no weight today. When we were young and we handled it like as if we didn’t see the rap world. It just went the wrong route and I got nothing but love for him, man. In reality that’s like, I see him as a part of family, like a distant cousin at this point.
XXL: You put Queensbridge back on hip-hop’s map after MC Shan took that loss to BDP. Were you nervous putting your hood on your back like that?
Nas: The whole thing was it had to be real, because everything else was so lights, cameras, action, gloss. I had to stand out and be the guy who had the projects behind me. Really the record had to represent everything Nasir Jones is about from beginning to end, from my album cover to my videos. My record company had to beg me to stop filmin’ music videos in the projects. No mater what the song was about I had ‘em out there. That’s what it was all about for me, being that kid from the projects, being a poster child for that, that didn’t exist back then.
XXL: Illmatic was so influential to the culture, when it was all said and done did you think it would resonate the way it did? We’re talking about 15 years.
Nas: Hell yeah. The shit is that serious. When you get a chance to put your words out there it’s that serious. I respected my audience like how I felt that other artists out before me was respecting me. I respect the audience to this day, I respect their intelligence so it’s important that they know that and that’s why I put that kinda work in.-Rob Markman