FEATURE: Nas, The Genesis

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

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  • http://www.justice.gov.za GO-Getta’

    The impact of Illimatic in hip hop world……

    1 Ur favourite rapper’s rapper wish it was theirs

    2 Look @ the rap album covers ..how many duplicates of illmatic album cover

    3 Ur favourite rapper probably sample dead prez hook & make it a hot song

    4 Name a rapper it has’nt influenced

    5 The most arguably recognized rap album cover

    • b-ez

      fuck talking about the cover, the music on illmatic has yet to be topped by anyone in hip hop…. and fuck an ice cube nigga nas shut shit down with illmatic.

  • Pierzy

    Illmatic will never be equaled.

  • Bags

    IMO Illmatic singlehandedly saved New York rap. I was living in SC when it came out and all them cats were riding that bounce music but when Illmatic came out cats were really feelin’ it in SC

  • East SAint618

    ILLMATIC….. what can i say…. its just a beautiful work of art


  • tazz


  • tazz

    nas is the greatest ever


    Dude was only 20 when he dropped that classic.

  • http://tonygrands.blogspot.com tony grand$

    NaS is like……….

    Easily one of the most influential rappers ever. Illmatic might be the ONLY album where I know the lyrics to every single song. Well, that & “The Infamous”, & I’m from L.A. I can’t even say that about “Amerikkka’s Most” or “Death Certificate”.

    My son is only 6, but he knows who NaS is. Sometimes I catch that dude humming “I Can” in the tub. I made sure he heard that song before he could say the words.

    NaS was the reason I was sporting Timbs in ’94, calling dudes on my block “kid”. Cats was like, “why you callin’ me ‘kid’, cuz? ‘Sup with that, you live in Cali, nigga!”. Ha!

    I think he transcended hip hop. He helped usher (no Raymond) a new era & deserves the recognition he’s receiving.

    • makaveli1671

      Grands usually you make pretty rational, intelligent & sensible comments that I respect even if I dont agree with them…but with that being said how dare you shit on my man Cube like that? Death Certificate is one of the best rap albums EVER!!!!!! True Illmatic is timeless but in comparison to Death Certificate it just don’t measure up as far as lyrical content. I’m from Chicago & songs like Color Blind, Us, I wanna Kill Sam, Stay True To The Game, A Bird In The Hand, Mans Best Friend, Doin Dumb Shit, Horny Lil Devil, My Summer Vacation, Steady Mobbin, Look Who’s Burnin….shit I can’t think of a wack song on that album. If that album was dropped today it would still be relevant to today’s culture whereas Nas’s Illmatic wouldn’t be as much so. No diss to Nas he dope but Illmatic don’t come close to Death Certificate as far as lyrical content or production in my opinion

      • http://tonygrands.blogspot.com tony grand$


        I didn’t shit on anyone, my dude. I merely used that point of reference to show how much I liked NaS, & the impact Illmatic had on me when it came out. 1994 was a long time ago.

        I’m not taking anything from Cube or anybody else. But by the time Ill came out, being from out here, I’d had my west coast fill between NWA, King Tee, CMW, DJ Quik, Ice T, Donald D, MixMaster Spade, “the original” KDAY 1580, so I welcomed the change of music with open arms.

        Feel me? I have every Ice Cube CD, DVD he’s done. In fact, if it were a contest between who’s was my fav ever, it would be hard for me to pick between him & Cube (Redman #3 regardless), but since the article was about Illmatic, it took me back to where I was when I copped it. 18, fresh outta high school, first car, world @ my fingertips, that shit was the soundtrack to my life.

        • b-ez

          tony grand you’re one corny motherfucker.

        • http://tonygrands.blogspot.com tony grand$


        • 619

          I had to decide between buyin’ Illmatic and Cube’s joint back in Jr. High. I was in PA. visitin’ relatives, my first time on the East Coast, in the store with my grandma and I was trippin’ off the fact that they didn’t have Parental Advisory stickers. I decided to go with what I knew, the West. So I got my grandma to buy me Lethal Injection since the Explicit Lyrics sticker wasn’t on there, and I played that tape everyday in Jr. High, but I never knew Illmatic was gonna blow up the way it did.

    • Marco317

      ^^^^^^^^ I smell a stan …..

      • 619

        Stan who?

  • George Clooney

    The Citizen Kane of Rap. Orson Welles was never able to top his original influential masterpiece, and it’s unlikely that Nas ever will either. This was the blueprint before The Blueprint.

  • Enlightened

    Ok, Ok, I get it…and this is coming from somebody that thinks word for word, line for line, Nas is the best that ever did it but…
    get off Illmatic’s dick.
    The beats were subpar compared to some of his other work. I say, “I Am” (one of the most slept on albums ever) and “Stillmatic” are better and even “It Was Written” is close.

    His rhymes and concepts on Illmatic were his best, but albums are more than just the rhymes.

    • George CLooney

      “I Am”? Better? The only album you could have mentioned that would have been worse is “Nastradamus”. And I think most people prefer to pretend that shit never even happened.

      Let me guess, Dre’s best shit was “Presents…The Aftermath”, Public Enemy never quite topped “New Whirl Odor” and Michael Jackson saved all his best songs for “Invincible”, right?

      • opm509

        hahahahahaha! that shits funny invinclbe Im an mj fan and I mont even play that shit although that cut he rapped on was kinda dope

        • amar

          hahahha i’m actually picturing the real george clooney saying that..

          anyway, illmatic is my 2nd album ever made by any artist. First is it was written. That’s all i’mma say.

    • Shinobi Shaw

      you must be a young cat. You think the beats on I am & Stillmatic are better then beats by the most respected producers of all time(Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor Q-tip)? NY State of Mind kills every beat on I Am (including the one Premo did himself) & all the Tracks on Stillmatic! It was written is his second best but that’s when the com bug got to him!

      • RDS

        I don’t think it’s fair to say the producers now are better than the producers before, especially since a lot of the best producers were DJs or came from DJing. The sound and the equipment at that time was nowhere near what it is today. The basics that those dudes laid will forever be the groundwork for many of today’s most influential artists. There was a more organic feel, I think to music then. Today’s music, even if it’s not by a southern rapper, is synth heavy. When Busta came out with “NY Shit”, I was like “oh shit…this album is about to have an entirely different sound than what’s out there”. Same with Lupe’s “Kick, Push”. Sonically, it’s different from everything that was on the radio at the time. I love music as a whole, but I can’t just chill at the crib listening to Lil’ Jon all the time. There’s a time and a place for everything. To somebody like me, it’s difficult nowadays to find something fresh and unique in music whereas back then, everything was fresh and unique because pretty much anybody could pick up a mic. Everybody was trying to be thought provoking (ATCQ, Public Announcement, Nas, Goodie Mobb, Scarface) or they were trying to make the clubs rock (DJ Quik, Outkast, Jay-Z, and remember Quad City DJs? haha). But the shit that was in the club? COMPLETELY different from the sound that you hear now in the clubs. Again, now it’s a lot of the synth stuff. Back then there were anthems. Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby!)”, Naughty By Nature “Hip Hop Hooray”, Outkast “Southerplayalisticcadillacfunkymusik”, Dr. Dre and Snoop “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a G Thang”…I can go on and on.

        No disrespect to anyone intended, but, IMO, T.R.O.Y. instrumental > ANY current producer’s record and I dig a lot of these new people like Focus and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League (especially the new shit they’re doing for Ross). It’s not something a young cat can necessarily go back to, listen to it and say, “oh, it’s alright, but Kanye West is better”. For the younger generation, they will have this new crop of music to look toward. I’m only in my early 20s, but I grew up listening to the 90s music. I grew up with Nas, I grew up with Jay-Z, I grew up with these dudes that the young cats say are oldheads. I guess that kinda makes me an oldhead musically, but the music back then had a different feel than it does now. So to me, I’ll always compare the new music with that era, not because I don’t necessarily like what’s being done now, but because I have specific memories of music back then. The skating rinks, the house parties, field trips and local dances, first kiss, first booty call, etc. Back then there was a lot less to worry about than there is now that I’m an adult. I guess I just value all the Illmatic, It Was Written, Chronic, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Like Water For Chocolate, Reasonable Doubt/Hard Knock Life, etc albums. because I LIVED through them. You know?

        That’s all I’m saying.

        • FlapJack

          Kill yourself

        • RDS

          Wow…took your every brain cell you have to come up with that. Understandable you didn’t want your head to explode adding a third word…

        • FlapJack

          Kill yourself, please?

  • http://xxlmag.com TJ

    The best that ever did it….point blank period. If you are a true hip hop head that gets inspired by raw lyrics then there is no one better!

  • anutha_level

    great interview man

  • Prince Caesar

    I agree..Nas is the best to ever do it. Style over substance. I don’t see how cats can compare niggas like Lil Wayne to Nas.

  • sealsaa

    Classic material, and has yet to be topped. I read in the XXL feature of Illmatic that when it dropped, it sold something like 300,000 copies in its first week. The thing is, people in the interview were talking as if those numbers weren’t impressive for first week sales. Perhaps not by today’s standards, but I wonder what the average first week sales figures were for a rap album in 1994

    • http://tonygrands.blogspot.com tony grand$

      What’s good Sealsaa?!

      Yeah, back then to go gold as a rap act that wasn’t crossover meant huge success.

      A lot has changed since then, on top of the fact that, no disrespect to anyone, many dudes on this site weren’t old enough then to be cognizent of that.

      • George Clooney

        True indeed. The only singing on that shit was by Pete Rock. And the only “crossover” track was still hardcore (remember that word).

        In terms of influence, Illmatic had a bigger immediate impact on other rappers than even autotune would. Today’s legends were yesterday’s Nas dickriders. Forget about sales.

        • valdez

          actually, nas was the 1st rapper to sing, if memory serves. he would sing on his hooks alot.

        • http://tonygrands.blogspot.com tony grand$

          Nas might’ve done dome singing, but dude, he’s FAR from the first rapper to do that. I’ll let you research that. But here’s a freebee; Nice & Smooth.

      • George Clooney

        Indeed. And the only singing on that shit was by Pete Rock. Plus the only “crossover” track (It Ain’t Hard To Tell) was still hardcore (remember that word?).

        In terms of influence, Illmatic had a bigger immediate impact on other rappers than even bullshit autotune would. Today’s legends were yesterday’s Nas dickriders. Forget sales.

  • eugene

    illmatic is still a classic no doubt nas is tha greatest of all tym

  • Yessir

    NAS is definetly one of the top 4 of all time. Except for a few, hip hop is basically out of control.


  • $ykotic

    This post verifies what I said on the “Are you not entertained” blog.

    Classics like this should still be played. And not just remembered.

    NaS would be a prime candidate for the contemporary rap forum. Old good music with refreshing new music for the 30+ crowd. Meanwhile reaching some of the 30 under heads because the catalog has withstood the test of time.

    NaS can put out an ANTHOLOGY. Selective few can even sell greatest hits.

  • Jonsey

    Best album ever it’s straight fire none can compare!

  • sealsaa

    What up Tony!

    “The inner city never sleeps/full of villians and creeps/that’s where I learned to do my hustle/had to scuffle with freaks/i’m an addict for sneakers/20′s of Buddah and bitches with beepers/in the streets I can greet’cha/about blunts i’ll teach’a/inhaled deep like the words in my breath/I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of death/I lay puzzled as I back track to earlier times/nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind/”

    • http://tonygrands.blogspot.com tony grand$

      “Be havin dreams that I’m a gangsta, drinkin Moets, holdin tecs/makin sure the cash came correct then I step/investments in stocks, sewin up the blocks to sell rocks/winnin gun fights wit mega cops/but just a nigga, walkin with his finger on the trigger/big enuff figgas until my pockets get bigga/i ain’t the type of brother made for you to start testin/give me a smith n wesson, ill have niggas undressin/thinkin of cash flow, buddha & shelter/whenever frustrated imma hijack Delta/in the pj’s, my puente sprays, bullets are strays/young bitches are crazed, each block is like a maze/full of black rats trapped, plus the island is packed/***********, to where we on until my peoples come back black/im leavin where the nights is jet black/the feens fight to get crack/I just max, I dream I could sit back/& lamp like Capone with the drug strip sewn/or illegal luxurys like rings, flooded with stones homes/i got so many poems I don’t think I’m too sane/life is parellel to hell, but I must maintain/& be prosperous, yo we live dangerous, cops could just/arrest us, hangin us we held like hostages/its only right that I was born to use mics/& the stuff that I write, be even tuffer than dykes/I’m takin rappers to a new plateau, thru rap slow/my rhymin is a vitamin held without a capsule/the smooth criminal on beat breaks/never put me in ya box if ya shit eats tapes………

  • ShowTime

    I never listened to an album more intensely than Illmattic.. Someone said the beats were subpar..What?? Maybee 15 yrs later you might think tha beats are jsut aight. But aint no way you would say their subpar in 94..that comment exposes either your youth or the time when you first listened to the album.

    Nas is like the only dude I can respect really.
    At least artistically. Dude kept Evolving and as a dude who was listening to Illmatic in eighth grade whos a Man now..and A dope artis hiself..I feel like Im in step with where he’s taking his music.

    Jay has kind of disapointed me. I think he’s gonna redeem himself with BP3 but well see.
    But If it more of the same Im a be sick to my stomach.

    When he said what you tryn do kick knowledge..I think he put himself in a Box.He booby trapped himself. Hopefully BP3 can make him whoodeni.

    Musicians are so crittical of each other. Right now the only artist I can listen to besides myself are AZ Nas Face TIP Cube Murs, Jay Electronica and a Few others.

    Becoming a dope Lryicist has Killed my ablitlity to enjoy other ppls music as oppose to when I was strictly a fan and rap was just a hobby.

    Can U feel my pain. Jay I need a classic.
    sorry yall I had to vent. lol


    • FlapJack

      All I Have is Shine <<<<<<

  • micman

    Nah, Illmatic didn’t sell 300,000 first week out. It only sold 300,000 the first year!!!! I don’t think NaS is the best rapper ever but this album stands head and shoulders above any other rap album ever made. I go into a trance when I listen to it. Like a painting put into words. It is incredible.

  • Supanice

    Illmatic inspired me to write my first 16 thats the problem these days Hip-Hop isn’t as inspiring as it used to be,the album is Amazing theirs nothing more i can say than what the rest above have already said NAS IS A GENIUS!!!!!!!!


  • sealsaa

    @ micman

    Wow, thanks for the correction. That IS shitty for first year sales. Then again, the buzz for it wasn’t really that big, not in Chicago, anyway. But I guess thats what makes Illmatic so endearing. The fact that despite its lackluster sales, and lack of notable commercial success, its still considered the best album of it’s time.

  • oskamadison

    The second verse to Memory Lane will straight body most cats’ catalogs.

    • Who Dat?

      Damn, I forgot about that verse. It’s the best rap verse ever put together. ” I reinforce the frail/ with lyrics that’s real”….awwww what happened to rap?

  • I am legend

    the best rapper the do it him and Pac hands down the proof in the puddin.

    • valdez

      ^^DEFINITELY have to agree with that statement. It’s good to know some ppl DO know what they talkin bout when it comes to hip-hop.

  • P

    Nas is articulate and a real thinker, too bad Pac never had a chance to mash with nas cuz that would have been some real classic black movement type shit, these two dudes was on the same level are far as conscienceness is concerned, both can paint pictures with words, can you imagine…..crazy

    • P

      me against the world blended with illmatic

    • valdez

      not to pit the 2 against each other, but i’m not sure that is an accurate statement. pac was actually raised by black panthers, real political prisoners. so pac really had no choice but to be what he was. he saw the struggle up close, 1st hand in a way that nas hadn’t because of wjo pac’s mother was and the ppl she was associated with.

      that being said, it is all the more amazing that nas turned out to be who he is. i feel like he shoulda came with an album like untitled much sooner than now. but then again, everyone gets it at different times i suppose.

      i just feel like nas wasted much time & breathe with albums like “i am and “nastradamus”

      but yeah, i think it’s safe to say that had pac not been assasinated by the us gov’t, they woulda eventually hooked up. i mean, imagine that. especially in today’s political and economic climate.

      but at the same time, that shows u how big of a thread pac really was to the establishment that they had to actually kill him and early, i mean he was only 25. nas is way more laid back in his approach to educating his listeners as well as his actions.

      pac, on the other hand, they knew they had to get rid of him. they knew what it would eventually be a serious problem considering his upbringing and the direction he was going mith his musical content.

      imo, nas is just scratching the surface and putting it out there with “untitled”, whereas pac’s music was infused with that kind of rebellious, black-empowering material since 2pacalypse.

      i mean, pac was suggesting that the black race in america as a whole develop our own political structure, etc. these are things that are unheard of in hip hop today.

      but i know this post is about nas and not pac so i’ma just chill for now.

      • yoprince

        lol @ “i’ma just chill for now”

  • P

    think about it, a combination of me against the world and illmatic

  • iliveonce

    stillmatic was just as good as illmatic..

    the lyrical content was just as potent. so was i Am and the Lost Tapes, also it was written.

    the reason that illmatic get’s so much props compared to other albums was BECAUSE OF THE TIMING!








  • valdez

    nas > ________.

    why?? the message.

    best albums?? how ironic…

    illmatic, untitled

  • Genral

    I love how everyone sleeps on nastradamus….

    Go and listen to the intro on that album… Prefered Nastradamus to HHID, but has nver made a Wack album.

    Nas is Ill man. the Jay comparasion are childish. Rapping is about Rapping not about business.

    Reasonable Doubt was solid – but that came out two years later and no-one heard that until 2001 lol

    When Illmatic dropped, I was 15 – I listened to that for 6years straight,

    Best Rap album hands down…. next to

    Muddy Waters – Redman
    Liquid Swords – GZA

  • Correll(hellrell860)

    Men I grew up on Nas, word up, Illmatic is definitely a classic but you can forget about the rest of Nas’s early joints don’t have me start dropping names of songs, for real honestly when I’m listening to my ipod i just can’t go a single day without hearing something from Nas it doesn’t matter dude is a genius and a legend no doubt, much love