For anyone with even a passing knowledge of hip-hop, Nas' debut album Illmatic
—which dropped 20 years ago this Saturday (Apr. 19)—is a landmark, a stepping stone for the genre, and easily one of the greatest albums of all time. Beginning to end, in 10 songs that stretch barely 40 minutes, Queensbridge's finest laid out his life story, from his days as a kid pissin' in the projects' elevator to gun fights and stick ups with corner kids and homies from the block, to snagging mic time in the booth when the legends who walked before him didn't show up. In short, it's as close to perfect as anyone has come before or since to capturing the lifestyle, energy and emotion that comes from growing up in the projects of New York City.
But like any album, the product doesn't create, package and sell itself; there's a team of people outside of Nas, Large Professor, DJ Premier and the team of phenomenal producers that helped craft the sound and tone of the album. One of the most instrumental on that team was MC Serch, the former rapper from 3rd Bass who had just put out a song called "Back To The Grill," featuring a young Nas in one of his earliest performances on wax. Believing in the young Queens spitter, Serch agreed to help Nas secure a record deal, shopping his demo before finding him a home with Faith Newman, a new A&R at Columbia who had just moved over from her early days at Def Jam.
Together, Serch and Newman helped helm Illmatic
, handling the A&R duties, making sure samples cleared, smoothing out the legalities and tracking down the bootlegs that began to appear almost everywhere in the weeks leading up to the album's release. With the album's anniversary on Saturday, XXL
has spoken to a number of people who were instrumental in helping turn Illmatic
from a budding idea from a rising MC into a full-blown reality that would change the face of hip-hop forever. Here is MC Serch's story. —Dan Rys
On Meeting Nas
MC Serch: First time I met Nas, I was in Corona, Queens, at Kool G Rap's house. I was thinking about working with one of G Rap's artists named Whiteboy. G and I had been talking for a little while, and he was like, "Yo, there's this young spitter at my house, yadda yadda yadda, this kid Nas." So I met Nas at that point, briefly, we hung out. And then a couple of years later, I was working on my solo album [Return Of The Product], and I was working on a record called "Back To The Grill." I had O.C., Red Hot Lover Tone and Chubb Rock and my man Reese and Stretch Armstrong had brought by Percee P, The Riddler, a couple other artists, and Nas was with them. So originally, "Back To The Grill" had all these guys on it. Nas hung out, and when everybody decided to split, Nas stayed behind and broke bread with me, and I told him, "Do you want to jump on this record?" And that's how we kind of broke bread. He wound up coming back the next day and laying his verse.
On Getting Nas' Record Deal
MC Serch: [He laid his verse on "Back To The Grill"], and then he asked me to help him, that he had a deal that he didn't really feel great about, and that he wanted my help in trying to figure out what would make the most sense in his career. So I told Nas, look, I can't help you unless you're signed to [Serch's company] Serchlite. And I knew he had been talking to Big Beat and Craig Kallman, and I knew the guys over there, and I really didn't feel comfortable talking on behalf of an artist that wasn't signed to me. So I got them a production agreement that basically said that I represent Nas exclusively for his recording career. And I went over to Big Beat and spoke to Reef and Stretch and said, "Look, the deal you're offering him isn't a great deal, make it a great deal. Guy is gonna be one of the greatest MCs of our generation, he deserves to have a deal that represents that." At the time, they wanted half of his publishing; they were really not offering a great deal. And they said, look, this is the deal we're offering, we can't make it any better. So I said, okay, I get it, he's not signing here just so you know.
Then I went to see Russell [Simmons], and Russell was at his apartment with a woman named Tracey Waples. I played Nas' demo—which was "It Ain't Hard To Tell," "Halftime" and "I'm A Villain"—and Russell said, "Ah, he sounds like G Rap, and G Rap don't sell no records, I'm not interested." So I said, okay, you know, and then went over to Faith Newman at Columbia, and played the demo. Faith stopped me halfway through the first song, which was "It Ain't Hard To Tell," and said, "I've been looking for Nas, trying to get in touch with him," and she brought, at the time, the head of A&R, this guy David Kahne—who was like working on these pianos, like working on a symphony at the time, I'll never forget it, just an amazing musician—and they literally wouldn't let me leave the Columbia office until we had a deal in place for Nas. And that's how Nas got signed to Columbia.
On The Beginnings of Illmatic
MC Serch: Whenever Rakim didn't show up at a session, Nas would be able to get little spurts of time here and there, but he hadn't had a budget to work on his album yet. Right after we signed to Columbia, we got working on it. Nas had very, very detailed and pronounced focus on what he wanted the album to be, and him and Faith [Newman] were just, like, in unison and in harmony in terms of the producers, what he wanted it to feel like, sound like. And my responsibility was really making sure that, as executive producer, everyone was getting paid, that all the legal was taken care of, that all the samples were cleared. I didn't want anything to go wrong with Nas' career; I didn't want him to have any lawsuits, any sampling issues, I wanted him to have this straightforward, huge career, that was way different than anything else that I'd experienced or any other artists of my day had experienced.
Everyone seemed to be very excited and have a lot of anticipation for what the streets were gonna say. I think [DJ Premier] really thought that this album was going to change people's perceptions of hip-hop. I remember him saying—I don't remember exactly which words he used specifically—but I remember him telling me, like, this shit is gonna change the game. Illmatic, the album, was going to change the game.
Originally, the album was going to be called Word Life, it wasn't going to be called Illmatic, for about two minutes. I was working with an artist named O.C., who was working on his album. And O asked Nas if he could name his album Word Life. I think Nas was gonna [switch to Illmatic] anyway, but he was playing with the idea. We were at dinner together, we were at a function—me, Nas and O.C.—and they were talking about it. I think they had a conversation, and O was like, "That should be the name of my album." So I don't know if it was an official, "I bless you with this" kind of thing, but after Nas put out Illmatic, O.C. put out Word...Life.
On Nas At The Time
MC Serch: His verse on "Live At The Barbeque" [was what made people feel differently about him]. I don't care who you were in hip-hop or where you were in hip-hop at the time that Main Source record was breaking out. When Main Source was breaking out with "Looking At The Front Door" and "Live At The Barbeque" and "Snake Eyes"? People don't give Large Professor and that Main Source album [Breaking Atoms] the credit it deserves as being one of the finest hip-hop albums of all time. And that being said, with as great as Paul [Large Professor] was as a producer and an MC, he was really giving this amazing showcase to this young, 17-year-old artist from Queensbridge a verse that literally gave people goosebumps when they heard it. It's one of the greatest verses of all time.
And I remember, a lot of people talk about now in hip-hop history, everybody remembers when Tupac, Bobby Brown and Biggie got on stage together and did "Party And Bullshit." What they forget is that same night, Large Professor did "Live At The Barbeque," and that was the first time Nas ever hit the stage in New York. A lot of people will tell you, that's the first time they saw Nas perform. The veil was lifted, and you got to see who the fuck this kid was. Because there was no video for "Live At The Barbeque." There was no viral. The social media was the subway.
On Nas' Goals For Illmatic
MC Serch: You gotta understand that Nas literally had certain, not only professional goals, but personal goals, that he wanted to achieve on this album. He wanted to get his mom out of the Bridge. He wanted to make sure that all his people were eating. He wanted his first car. He had personal goals that he was setting for himself along the way, in addition to his professional goals. And he was very blessed to be able to do a lot of the things he wanted to do for his mom and for his family along the way. I don't think a lot of artists really get that opportunity early in their career, and he was able to create this great vibe around him. I mean, he went through drama, he dealt with his boys going to jail; he dealt with a lot of those issues that a lot of guys, unfortunately, in that environment have to deal with. And he rolled very deep—he had a lot of dudes with him, a lot of shorties that he rolled with. But I think that singular focus just came from the gratitude he had for this opportunity that hip-hop was about to give him.
He was making marks in those goals. And like with everybody else, especially when you're 18 years old, those goals get grander and grander as you go. The cars get grander, the houses get grander, the women you're with get grander, the people who you take care of are more taken care of. And they become loftier goals. But he was able to attain all of those goals, and he was able to do that young. And I think the real blessing for him was that his mom got to see a lot of that.
On His Favorite Memories Of The Time
MC Serch: My personal favorite moments were picking up Nas, or meeting with Nas after sessions, and putting a tape in the car and listening in the car. [After the sessions] I would just be like, "Yo, how'd it go?" and he'd be like, "Yeah, it was good." [Laughs]
He had a show that we had booked for him—the record label and the booking agent—that was downtown. Not a lot of people knew who Nas was. Nas rolls up 40 deep. Four-zero. Forty. Like, "Yo, we gotta get these guys in." [Laughs] I'm just like, "Aight. Aight Nas." So I went to the promoter and was like, this is Nas, this is Nas' crew. So the promoter, being a smartass, said, "I'm only letting in the people who are gonna get on stage." I was like, "They're all getting on stage." [Laughs]
Nas was dead ass, like I'm not going in unless all my people get in, I'll be the last one in. So they literally bumrushed the stage, and he performed five songs off Illmatic, and the crowd was going crazy. But there were so many people rapping on stage, singing along, rapping along, un-mic'd—the only people who had mics were Nas, [his friend] Wiz and [his brother] Jungle—so literally, you got 40 heads on stage, like fuck it, I'll shoot you, don't fuck with my man, kinda like mocking the audience. And I'm standing by the speakers on the right, just laughing. All I could think of was, I think this is the greatest thing I've ever seen. This is chaos, but in the most controlled form ever. And his boys just had so much respect for Nas and Jungle that it wasn't crazy. It wasn't crazy—it was insane, if you know what I mean—but it wasn't crazy. And I love Nas for that; no one got left back.
On His Role As Executive Producer
MC Serch: I was pretty lucky. Danny Rubin and the guys at Sample Clearance Limited who worked with me, they had just started their agency, they were great. They got everything done really fast, everyone was really super supportive. Even the publishing company, they weren't trying to break their neck, or break Nas' neck. And because he was so known in hip-hop, but he wasn't so well-known culturally outside of the inner culture, they weren't really charging him a whole lot for his sample clearances. And he got very fair deals; he got to keep a lot of his publishing from that album.
I knew from the minute he walked into the studio. There was a lot of, to me, "a ha" moments that made me realize just how impactful he was gonna be. But I think one of the big moments was when we were getting word on the street from people that there were bootlegs of the album. And that there were people who had these garages full of like 60, 70,000 cassettes of Illmatic with like Nas on the cross. [Laughs] We busted this guy in the Bronx, we got a tip from a dude, and the cops literally raided him and confiscated 70,000 cassettes that were about to hit the street with this terrible drawing of a rapper that was supposed to be Nas on the cross. Just a terrible drawing.
On The Album's Difficulties
MC Serch: I was working on a show for MTV and I had gotten one of the first pressings of "It Ain't Hard To Tell," and it was one of those talent shows, where I think it was a lip sync talent show that MTV was doing. And the audience was about 300 young people from Brooklyn, Queens, all over. And there was a DJ, and I had him put it on and said, this is Nas, his first single, I want to play it for y'all. And I look into the audience, and there were about three or four dudes that knew every word already. I had literally just come from pressing this record. So I went up to these dudes and was like, "How do you know every word to this?" and they were like, "Oh, it's on Easy LP's mixtape." I was like, I didn't even know Easy LP had a mixtape out, and that it had "It Ain't Hard To Tell" on it. And it was leaked by a woman from the Columbia office who did mixtape promotion and college radio promotion, and here I am thinking I'm ahead of the curve, and not even realizing the promotion that was going into the discussions over Illmatic.
I think the most difficult thing was dealing with the urgency of the label and the crush from the street wanting the album. We didn't have a timetable for the album, but there began to feel like one when we started to hear about all the bootlegs and the leaks and people having the album. We had one incident where we really had to rush to get into the studio, and it was a very difficult personal moment for me at the time, but I knew I had to do what I had to do to get it done. Besides that, Faith and Columbia really let Nas go at his own pace. They didn't really put a time limit on him until there was forced to be a time limit. And then it got to crunch time, and we had to mix and master everything. I guess because time is truly illmatic, it all seems so seamless now. It didn't really feel rushed or forced, we didn't feel that much pressure. We came in under budget. We did the album the right way. We went about it the right way.
On The Album's Reception
MC Serch: I was already, for me, Executive Vice President at Wild Pitch [Records]. I was working on finishing Word...Life with OC, and working on "Fat Cats And Bigga Fish" with The Coup. I was in another head space. So for me, I knew how great the streets were anticipating and respecting that album. What people don't talk about was that the second week, he only had like a 5 percent drop off [in sales]. It was crazy, the anticipation, the buzz, the feel from the streets. It was a marvelous time for hip-hop.
20 Years Later
MC Serch: That means I have a 20-year-old [daughter]. That means Nas has a 20-year-old, because my daughter and Destiny were born a month apart. But no, I'm not surprised [at Illmatic's legacy]. I just knew. I knew it was the greatest album of all time. I just knew, to me, in my involvement, that I might be involved in some great projects. And I was; I think OC's Word...Life is one of the most underrated albums of all time. It's just an amazing record, and what it took to get that record done was amazing. Working with Marc Ecko, and working with Jay Z, and working with the artists I've worked with—whether it was on the radio promotion side, or whether it was on the brand building side—I always knew that Illmatic was gonna be the one thing that would really stand the test of time, and it would have my name on it. It's amazing. It's really amazing.