Still Ill
In spring 1994, a chip-tooth kid outta Queensbridge released a 10-song debut album that set a new standard for hip-hop lyricism. Fifteen years later, XXL takes a trip down memory lane to get an in-depth look at the making of a classic. It’s Illmatic. Yeah.
Compiled by Timmhotep Aku, Carl Chery, Clover Hope, Rob Markman, Starrene Rhett, Anslem Samuel

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of XXL Magazine, marking the 15th anniversary of Illmatic.

They called him prophet. Poetry was a part of him. And on Tuesday, April 19, 1994, when 20-year-old Nasir Jones released Illmatic, his debut album on Sony Music’s Columbia Records, true-believer hip-hop heads rejoiced. It felt like revelation.

The journey began three years earlier, with Main Source’s 1991 posse cut “Live at the Barbeque.” On it, the rap world was introduced to an upstart MC from Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses. Queensbridge, the largest housing project in the U.S., was home to Marley Marl, MC Shan and the mighty Juice Crew, who’d fallen to the Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions in the famous “Bridge Wars” of the late ’80s. The son of jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, Nas was discovered by Main Source’s Large Professor—and was still in his teens when he stole the “Barbeque” single with lines like, “Verbal assassin/My architect pleases/When I was 12/I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus!”

New York streets were buzzing heavy. 3rd Bass rapper MC Serch signed Nas to his Serchlite Publishing and started shopping for a record deal. Not all of the industry’s honchos were as enthused (Russell Simmons, for example, at Serch’s own label, Def Jam Recordings, turned him down for fear of commercial failure). But Sony Music A&R Faith Newman eventually signed Nas to Columbia Records.

With an all-star team of New York beatmakers abetting Large Professor’s production, work began on hip-hop’s perfect album. Nas’ first recorded solo track, “Halftime,” appeared on the soundtrack to the 1992 indie flick Zebrahead, whetting fans’ appetites for what was to come. In the years leading up to the album’s release, overzealous DJs began liberating unguarded tracks via mixtapes and the college-radio circuit. In the face of such early bootlegging, Columbia rushed a short, 10-song Illmatic to stores in ’94—nixing original plans to include more material.

New York purists and the rap press raved, but Russell was right: The album was not a huge commercial success, selling a mere 330,000 copies its first year out. Its cultural impact, though, has proved to be immeasurable, marking Nas’ messiah-like arrival and the beginning of a nine-album, multimillion-selling career. A decade and a half after its release, XXL assembles the people who were there to bear witness.—ROB MARKMAN

Nas: Queens rapper, a.k.a. the Prophet
Jungle: Nas’ Brother, one-half of rap duo Bravehearts
Faith Newman: Executive producer, former Sony A&R
MC Serch: Executive producer, one-third of Queens rap trio 3rd Bass
DJ Premier: Brooklyn (by way of Prairie View, Texas) producer, one-half of rap duo Gang Starr
Large Professor: Queens producer, rapper, member of rap group Main Source
L.E.S.: Queens producer
AZ: Brooklyn rapper
Olu Dara: Nas’ father, jazz trumpeter
Pete Rock: Mount Vernon producer, one-half of rap duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth
T La Rock: Bronx rapper
Busta Rhymes: Brooklyn rapper, former member of rap group Leaders of the New School
Grand Wizard: Queens rapper, one-half of rap duo Bravehearts
Q-Tip: Queens rapper, producer, member of rap group A Tribe Called Quest