How Illmatic’s Production Help me Understand why Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture.
Slumdog Millionaire was not my pick to win for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I saw the film back in December and thought it was good flick, but it was not anything that blew me away. Thus, I really did not understand how this movie so soundly beat out all the other great movies this year (Dark Knight anyone?). It was not until I received my April issue of XXL and I read the Illmatic tribute that I finally understood why so many people loved Slumdog Millionaire. While this film allowed the audience to be deeply apart of one man’s struggle to survive and find love, it was the backdrop of the movie that truly helped it reach a classic status. The stark backdrop of India’s poverty, violence, and globalization is what allowed Slumdog Millionaire’s simple but unique love story to seize the audience.
After reading the Illmatic tribute, I realized that Nas’s story on this record, like Slumdog’s story, is about a young inner city kid trying to survive in a place where poverty and violence are a constant. One could then argue that on its face Illmatic has a generic plot. Yet, when Nas’s unique lyrics are set against the backdrop of some the grittiest New York beats in history, his story becomes a classic dissertation on the crimes and predicaments plaguing New York City. Thus, I would put forth that the beats that form the backdrop of Illmatic are what permitted Nas’s lyrics to penetrate the hearts and minds of his listeners.
This realization made me feel the need to elaborate on Illmatic’s production. Even though it is only the backdrop of the album, the production is truly a star its own right. While, I could discuss every beat on this record, for the sake of length, I will discuss just a few of my favorite tracks where the production transformed Nas’s tenacious street tales in some of the most vivid pictures of New York City to ever grace Hip-Hop.
“N.Y. State of Mind” features Nas depicting the daily events and everyday people in his project. Nas does not paint caricatures of his neighborhood but rather he spits rhymes that sound like a short film, showing what he witnesses on a daily basis. His raw pictures of crack heads selling broken amps, shoot-outs, and drug dealers come to life though because of DJ Premier’s equally raw New York rhythm. DJ Premier’s gritty drums, meancing bass line, and haunting piano loops matched the emotions and mind frame of Nas on this opening track. Moreover, this foreboding and ominous beat captures the darkness and depravity of Queensbridge that listeners can imagine they are on the corner with Nas observing the scene firsthand.
“The World Is Yours” showcases Nas as motivational speaker, testifying to a message of hope and hustle as the best way to overcome the ills of the streets. Once again though, it is an accessible Pete Rock beat that propels Nas’s message further. Pete Rock simply combines driving sixteenth notes on a hi-hat and ambitiously drums with an upbeat piano loop. This rhythmic combination exudes determination and confidence making Nas’s message inescapable and inspirational.
On “One Love” Nas writes a letter to some of his street comrades locked up. This brutally honest letter not only portrays more vivid street tales, but also gives listeners a inside look at the mind and thoughts of those in prison. The desperation of prison and the dark drama of the streets materialize graphically over Q-Tip’s unembellished sound bed of vibes and hallow drums. The hallow and empty sounds on this beat permit the listeners to feel as if they too are in prison and are reading Nas’s letter over the shoulder of his friends.
The track “Halftime” is the most misleading song title on Illmatic because Nas’s cocky and energetic bars are far from a break in the action. Nas’s exhibition of ego, confidence, and raw skill are magnified by Large Professor’s beat. Large Professor utilized sleigh bells, a cracking snare and a bubbling upright bass line, forcing Nas’s philosophical braggadocio to grab hold of any listeners. For that reason no true hip-hop fan can say that when they hear Nas’s flow over this bumping beat that don’t believe Nas is “ace when he faces the bass”.
After look at Illmatic from this perspective, I realized that beats, like the setting of a film, are more then just a backdrop to the story of an album. The nation of India was far more then just the setting in Slumdog as India was so essential to the story it became an actual character in the film. I would similarly argue that while Nas is the main character on Illmatic, the beats play as characters themselves and that if Nas did not have such developed characters to interact with, his story might have remained not have grab listeners in such a profound way. To conclude then, I think Illmatic’s production poses a critical challenge to every producer in HIp-Hop. Illmatic challenges producers to not focus on simply making a hot beat but rather to focus on creating a rhythm that will full augment an emcee’s lyrics. This is what made Illmatic sound like an Academy Awarding winning film on tape and what made it a Hip-Hop classic.-B Nestor