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8 New York Rappers Explain Why Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ Is Important To Them

  • nehru-bronson-chinx
    Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Nas' classic Illmatic, and the Queensbridge rapper has been everywhere honoring the record that put him on the map, releasing IllmaticXX, performing the album in its entirety at Coachella, and popping up to perform it again at last night's premiere of the Time Is Illmatic documentary. But with so much press surrounding Queens' finest, XXL is taking a different track today; we've asked eight rising New York rappers about Illmatic, their reactions to it and how it affected their lives. Some are younger than the album itself, most weren't old enough to understand it when it came out, but each developed their own affinity for it and took it to heart. From fellow Queens rappers Action Bronson and Chinx to Harlem's own Bodega Bamz, here are their stories. —XXL Staff
  • bishopnehru-12

    Bishop Nehru

    When did you first hear Illmatic?
    Man, I wish I could tell you. Honestly, I don’t even remember. But I was young. I think probably the first time I heard it, I was probably maybe 8 or 9. Around there. My aunt is a huge Nas fan, she has all his tapes. She won tickets on the radio to his concerts and everything. So she is like diehard Nas fan. Ever since I was a kid, he was really playing Nas and into Nas. I think the first time when I could understand it was probably a couple years ago. Maybe, two, three years ago. Even sometimes when I listen to it, I catch new things. It’s a real good album. Real crazy album.

    What was your initial reaction?
    I guess I could tell you the reaction from a couple of years ago when I heard it again. When I heard it a couple of years ago, it was everything that was coming out a couple years ago, that was when the real trap stuff, Waka Flocka, was coming through strong. That was when that stuff was taking over. In New York, it was the same thing, people were listening to it as well. I was into trap stuff. I liked it, but I don’t like it as in I can listen to it over and over and over and over. I gotta have some type of variety to it.

    When I was exploring different types of music around that time a couple years back, I guess I just listened to Nas’ album again. I don’t even know how to explain it. I was just playing it again one day and from the intro to the ending, I was just amazed. It’s just like a total experience. It’s like you can feel that album.

    How did it affect you?
    I think it affected my rapping style a lot. I think it affected a lot of people’s rap styles. I think that was the first rap album that really changed the structure of how hip-hop was. There wasn’t really too much structure in hip-hop before that. It was still figuring it out. I think Illmatic was one of the first albums to really bring a structure. The verses, the choruses. Everything is really lined up.

    If you listen to Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, which came out a year before, you don’t really hear 16 bars, chorus, 16 bars, chorus. You kind of hear a sloppier, a lot more raw [strucure]. I think Nas was the first person to sit down and make it an art. He decided to really do something with it.

    Is there any rapper’s debut album that you feel is in the same league as Illmatic?
    I think there’s a lot of albums that are in the same league as Illmatic, just like there’s a lot of basketball players in the same league. It’s just how you rank them. I think there’s some albums up there in the same league. Enter The 36 Chambers, Ready To Die, ‘Pac’s albums. I would name them, but just the discography. Liquid Swords.

    What is your favorite song off Illmatic?
    “Life’s A Bitch,” “One Time For Your Mind, “Halftime,” “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” I’m basically naming the tracklist. “NY State Of Mind.” The only reason I can’t pick one favorite because it is so short. It’s only ten tracks. You’re like, "Fuck!" And all the tracks hit. I don’t know. I like all of them. “Memory Lane.”

    How does it hold up after 20 years?
    I think it still holds up very well. That’s crazy that I can listen to it now 20 years later and it still holds up against anything out. Twenty years later. I think it’s gonna stand 20 more years as well.

  • boedga_bamz_1

    Bodega Bamz

    Do you remember when you first heard Illmatic?
    Definitely; I first heard it when I was a teenager, because I was a young boy when it first came out. The first Nas album I heard was I Am..., and that's when I became a huge Nas fan. Then when I went back and heard Illmatic, I was like, Damn, this is the best rap album that's ever been created.

    What was your initial reaction?
    God damn, he was like 16, 17 years old, that's number one. And the shit that he's talking about is still relatable to this day. So the fact that a kid that was 16 years old was seein that shit in his hood around the time he was doing that was mind boggling to me. Coming from the hood, you see that, but for him to put it in words so great, it was amazing how he put it in words. And then I like the fact that he had no [big name] features on there. The fact that he had no features was like an introduction—none of y'all niggas is hot. I'm the best nigga out here, I don't need no features to prove a point, I know I'm the best. That was another thing I liked about it.

    How did it affect you?
    When I heard it, I was already on my rap shit, so it wasn't an album that I heard that made me want to rap. I'm a huge Nas fan, Nas is one of my favorite rappers, and I love how he treats rap like a 9-5. He treats that shit like he's going in to work, and he's leaving at five. You don't see Nas too much in the tabloids, you don't see Nas too much fuckin' with this girl and that girl; he comes to do work, and then he goes home. So when I heard I Am... and It Was Written, and then I went to Illmatic, it just raised my lyrical ability. I'm like, damn, this nigga too nice, I really gotta step my own game up. So that's really what it was—I was already rapping, but when I heard Illmatic I was like, damn, if this is the shit he was rappin about in '93, there's no reason why I shouldn't be rapping like this now.

    What's your favorite song off the album?
    "Represent." I remember in my early beginnings as a rapper listening to "Represent," and I actually re-wrote "Represent" using my own words and his flow. I re-wrote the words, I had the three verses and I had the beat. And it was crazy, I actually wrote on the "Represent" beat because I didn't have the instrumental, and I re-wrote it like it was my song. That's how big that shit affected me. It was almost like, damn, I wish this was my song, so I wrote the whole thing.

    Is there another debut album that comes close to Illmatic?
    Everyone's gonna have a different opinion, but for a debut album that came close it would have to be like a Big Pun, Capital Punishment. There's not too many debut albums that really stamp. Or 50 Cent's Get Rich Or Die Trying. Those are the only albums I can think of that, as a debut, really shifted the whole fuckin' game. And it goes to show you that, the fact that people are still talking about that album 20 years later, that album gets its proper respect in hip-hop history. There are albums that are close, but there are no other albums that come close to that. And even the name, Illmatic, the cover was fuckin' fire; the way it was put together was amazing, man.

  • bronson_2

    Action Bronson

    When did you first hear Illmatic?
    Probably heard 1994-1995ish, I was about 12. I remember going to Price Club, which was Costcos, and they would sell CDs over there and I picked it up over there along with a see-through emerald green beeper.

    What was your initial reaction?
    At 12 years old, you just listen to it and it sounds crazy.  It was something that I never heard before and as time goes by and you listen to it every day and you start to understand what’s going on and catching exactly what he’s talking about. As your mind grows you just understand the amazing artistry that the man brought to the table. And the feeling. And to be his age writing shit like that is pretty prodigy-ish.

    How did it affect you?
    Of course, just the descriptiveness. Nas is one of my favorite rappers, period. If you want to sound like anybody you just want the smoothness and lyricism of Nas. It’s a seamless project. There is a reason why there are only ten songs on there and it’s only him. You have AZ as the only feature on there. At the end of the day it’s a fucking incredible album, it’s hard to fucking explain.

    Is there another rapper's debut album that is in the same league as Illmatic?
    Illmatic doesn’t stand alone, I don’t think, it’s up there like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... ODB's debut album to me is fucking incredible. But just Illmatic, being his age is what blows my mind at the age that he was doing that. Even when Mobb Deep was rhyming The Infamous album, you're 17, 18, 19 years old doing that shit. I don’t even remember what the fuck I was doing then. 

    What's your favorite song off the album?
    “One Love” is probably the best thing ever. Then “NY State Of MinD” and “Halftime” and “Represent,” you have a new favorite every single time that you put the album on.

    How does it hold up after 20 years?
    It sound as fresh as when it did when it first came out because there’s nobody since then that can come near Nas, lyrically, at all. Just his smoothness and his storytelling, just the words he chooses and the situations he rhyming about is just incredible shit.

  • chinx_new_self


    How old were you when you heard Illmatic?
    Shit, I had to be in the fourth, fifth grade or some shit.

    How did it affect you?
    That was the first hip-hop album that I ever heard that made me actually want to rap. 'Cause I'm from Queens and one of my uncles left his Walkman at my house in the projects one day and I picked it up, listened to it and I felt that was the first time I listened to hip-hop with curses in it. N.W.A was later, but Illmatic was definitely the one for me that made me want to get involved with music.

    I could relate. It just so happens that the first album that made me want to do hip-hop was from somebody that was from my borough. He was from Queensbridge projects, I was from Edgemere Projects but it was still the same thing in a sense. The same struggle, so I started to mimic his style until I found my own.

    What's your favorite song from Illmatic?
    Specifically it was that one line, "The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator / The type of nigga who be pissin' in your elevator" [from "Represent"]. I pissed in the elevator every other day. [Laughs] And I understood right then—not right then, but later on—the familiarness of what Nas was saying. I'm from the projects somewhat similar to where he's from, so it was like, man, I could relate to this stuff. It sounds cliche, but the type of stuff I'm saying is real.

  • smoke_dza_bangers

    Smoke DZA

    Do you remember the first time you heard Illmatic?
    I don't think I listened to it when it first came out; my cousin was the person who put me up on Nas and said I had to listen to this dude named Nas, that he was true. I was a Biggie fan all the way, so he was like, Yo, you gotta listen to this Nas dude. The first song I actually heard was "It Ain't Hard To Tell."

    What was your initial reaction?
    Damn, this nigga can rap. At first there was a lot of things I didn't understand until later. But that was a very influential album, wordplay, production-wise.

    How did it affect you?
    It affected me, like, any time I go to create an album and I think of classic albums, that's definitely one of those classic albums that I think about. It set the bar high for anybody coming out of New York that's actually lyrical and trying to create a great body of work, they'll listen to that, they'll listen to Reasonable Doubt; those are the two things that stood out to me.

    What's your favorite song off Illmatic?
    "It Ain't Hard To Tell." The production, and how he attacked it, I thought it was brilliant.

    Is there another debut album that comes close to Illmatic?
    Reasonable Doubt, for sure.

    How do you think the album holds up after 20 years?
    It's still a classic. It still holds up the same way. I still have the same feelings that I had as a kid when I listen to it now.

  • cj_fly_6

    CJ Fly

    Do you remember the first time you heard Illmatic?
    Yeah, a couple years ago, actually. I didn't hear it when everybody else heard it. I was already rapping at the time.

    What was your first reaction to hearing it?
    I was in love with it. It was just an amazing piece of work to me. I just loved the instrumentation, the lyrics, the stories, everything. Just the stories and how it was told, it definitely had a big influence and left a big imprint on me to make music. The way it was structured, the structure of everything was great to me.

    How did it affect you as a rapper?
    I try to keep things genuine, too because of Nas; Nas wasn't a liar, he's very genuine with his music. He tells things from his heart and definitely tries to tell his own story.

    What's your favorite song off Illmatic?
    I remember, I had made a mix to go to college and I was listening to "One Love" a lot. Just the story on that was just crazy, I felt like I was a part of that. I had a homie in jail, and it was like that same type of thing.

    Is there another debut album that holds up to Illmatic?
    I think Kendrick made a good imprint with good kid, m.A.A.d city; I think projects like 1999 [from Joey Bada$$] made a great imprint for a first project as well. Kendrick has so many stories in the well, if he can tell each of them it will be great.

    Do you think it still holds up?
    Quality stuff doesn't die. One-hit wonders just come and go; quality music lasts for years. There are kids that are 13, 12 years right now finding that album saying, "Oh, this is amazing." The next couple years to come, it's gonna be the same thing, as well.

  • maffew_2

    Maffew Ragazino

    When did you first hear Illmatic?
    Shit, when it released. When it first came out. I was a youngin’ though. I was super, super, super young. I used to be a tag along with my uncle. Listening to all that ’89 shit. But I heard it when it first released.

    What was your initial reaction?
    I was so young so I didn’t really understand everything like I understand it as a man now. It was more like just the feeling that I got from it. It definitely resonated as something a bit more special than the other things that was going on. It was like a moment like everything freezes. It was all about Nas in that moment. It was rap’s golden child. The face of the culture. Like how they set up LeBron to be the face of basketball right now? He was the face of hip-hop. It was unreal. Being young, I still remember. It was on from like, “Halftime.” “Halftime” shit? Things was different. Everything around him, it was like an aura around him. “Live At The Barbeque” is crazy too, but the “Halftime” shit it was something so different about that.

    How did it affect your life?
    It inspired me as an artist to kind of fast forward my thinking and thought pattern, because even though he was like a kid, he wasn’t rapping like a kid. They were a lot of kids at the time and what was he, like, 17? 18? Maybe? There were other artists around that age too. I don’t want to mention nobody’s names and shit on nobody but they were other artists that was the same age, but it was just different. This shit was grown man. He was respected by grown men. His pen was respected highly by other grown men who pretty much owned the culture. The way that they anointed him allowed him his space even though they were working with him. We probably never see anything like that again.

    Is there another rapper’s debut album in the same league as Illmatic?
    I wouldn’t compare, because different times call for different things. Just what was going on in life, period. It was totally different. I wouldn’t compare different times to each other. I’m not into that. I think that was what it was when it was for that reason. That should just be left alone. Put a glass display case around that and put that in a museum. That’s history. I wouldn’t compare that to anybody else’s. 'Cause 20 years from now, some shit of mine they may hold dear. I don’t want that to be compared. Let that be where it is at.

    What is your favorite song off the album?
    “NY State Of Mind.” I mean, I love the album in its entirety. But, “NY State Of Mind.” Just how that record comes on and the title it just matches. Just “NY State Of Mind,” even if you never saw New York before, you can see the subway going through the tunnel. You can see the graffiti going on the wall. Everything that represents New York is all over that production. When he comes on that voiceover the track is just crazy. It's classic New York shit and at that time New York had the stranglehold on the culture. That’s my favorite joint. I could go all day about Illmatic.

    How do you think it holds up 20 years later?
    Twenty years later, he’s in a league of his own. That record is classic.

  • 360-Rapper


    When did you first hear Illmatic?
    Shit, I first heard that when I was young. I was a little kid. I didn’t hear it when it first came out obviously. I was too young. Matter fact—I remember hearing Illmatic around the same time I heard Ready To Die. It was around the same time; that’s when I really started understanding music. And I told you, I was young. Illmatic for me in ’94 wouldn’t have translated to me. But when Biggie and Ready To Die came out, I was listening to Biggie. All my uncles and the OGs around the way were listening to Nas. They like, "You need to get on Nas! Nas! Queens! Queens!" I’m like, "Okay."

    They almost like they schooling me what to do. "Listen, this is what you have to do. You from Queens. This is what is supposed to happen." I’m like, "Okay, cool."  I’m listening and I’m listening and I am like, "Wow!" And then, going even deeper into it, listening to it constantly and every year after that or every couple of months going back, I was like, "Damn, this motherfucker really nice.’" This nigga was before his time for real. They say he was 18, 17 when he wrote that? Even today, I still listen to Illmatic today. It’s still elements that still translating on what’s going on today. It was kind of like he set the blueprint. I guess Rakim set the blueprint for him. And he set it for me.

    What was your initial reaction when you heard Illmatic?
    The beats. The beats are so organic. You know what it is, too? When I was listening to this, New York was different. So it's it exactly how life was in New York. This was when I'd go outside and see crack bottles on the floor. This was the time when New York was grungy, gritty. Everything he was saying, it was almost like narratin’ what the streets was at that time. When I first heard this, I am like, "Damn, this is like poetry." When I was a kid, that’s what I am saying. This is why I get upset today when they let people get passes by saying, "Ah, he’s a kid." What the fuck does that mean? Twenty-one is not a kid. Nas made Illmatic at 17. No passes.

    Did the album make you want to rap?
    It made me want to be better than that. If you listen to kids at the time when I was a kid, it would be Kriss Kross and ABCs and shit like that. If you listen to them or if you listening to somebody that you are looking up to like a Nas, it’s like, "Damn, I gotta strive to get to that level right there." Not what they doing. So definitely, it gives you something to work towards. That’s how the whole culture gets watered down when you got bullshit getting by. The bar is lower. I mean, back then the bar is higher. I still follow those rules today. That’s why I listen to the Nas', the Jay's. The Biggies still today. I was listening to ‘Pac yesterday like, "Oh shit." This is emotion in music.

    Do you think there’s another rapper’s debut that is in the same league as Illmatic?
    Nas is Nas. Nas is in his own league—that’s it. He’s a one of one. That’s it. You can’t clone him. You can’t clone none of these dudes. Even 50, you can’t make another 50. It was a moment, nah mean? You leave moments alone and that’s it. You leave moments alone and that’s it. You are trying to create a new moment if it is a new person. I hear the comparisons of what people say, but I am like, "Okay. If that’s your thoughts, that’s your thoughts." But of course you are going to have newer artists sounding like the older artists or reminiscent of them because it’s like they set it out for you. They set out the blueprint. It’s like Kobe and Jordan. Kobe had to look up to something to do what he had to do, or LeBron. They had to do it. Nas looked at Rakim. But you got Jay Z looked at Big Daddy Kane. And so and so. Drake looked at Kanye. It’s how it works. Me? I grew up on the 50's and the Nas' and this is what my style comes from. It’s like a mixture of all of them.

    What's your favorite song off Illmatic?
    Man, tough one right there. Damn. Shit. I have to say a tie—I can’t pick one. I can’t pick one. I would have to say “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” Definitely. "The World Is Yours"? It would have to be both of those. Tie between them two. “Half-man, half-amazing.” Aw man! “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus.” Remember that? “Live At The Barbeque.”

    How does Illmatic hold up 20 years later?
    Still strong as hell. Illmatic is better than the album that just came out two weeks ago. But, the newer kids today wouldn’t say that. They would say, "Nah, that’s whack." Not understanding is a form of not liking something. A lot of people won’t understand it or they’ll come to New York today and New York ain’t the same way that it used to be when Nas put that album out so they don’t relate to it. It makes you realize what you were doing at that time or where you was at.

Previously: 6 Big Takeaways From Nas’ ‘Time Is Illmatic’ Documentary Premiere
Nas’ Time Is Illmatic Documentary Has Been In The Works For 10 Years
MC Serch Always Knew Nas’ Illmatic Was The Greatest Album Of All Time
Illmatic A&R Faith Newman On Nas’ Wild Early Days
Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic
Nas’ 20 Best Lines On Illmatic
The Making Of Nas’ Illmatic — XXL Issue 112

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