When Nas released his debut album Illmatic 20 years ago on April 19, 1994, he knew he had something great on his hands. What he didn't know was that Illmatic would go on to be considered one of the single greatest bodies of work in hip-hop history, and one of the best debut albums in music, period.

In that era, the people around Nas knew he was special; talk to anyone from Illmatic executive producer MC Serch to Columbia Records A&R Faith Newman to producers Large Professor and DJ Premier, and they'll all say something similar: that Nas knew exactly what he wanted out of his musical debut project. The laser focus that allowed Nas to identify the exact sound and story he wanted to tell was one of the biggest strengths of Illmatic. "I think that singular focus just came from the gratitude he had for this opportunity that hip-hop was about to give him," Serch recalled two decades later, remembering the drive that set a young Nas apart.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of IllmaticXXL spoke to Nas about the early days and the impact that the album had on the shifting hip-hop landscape around him. But this being our XXL Freshmen 2014 issue, we also asked Esco if he had any advice for our 12 new Freshmen on how to go about crafting a classic debut.

"I would just say, put your heart, blood and soul into the music and everything into what you’re doing, and put your love for music into it," Nas said in our interview, on newsstands May 20. "Give it your all, and don’t be anybody but you. And strive for absolute greatness."

With each of this year's Freshmen either prepping their debut full-length, working on new music or, in the case of August Alsina, promoting the debut record he just dropped, advice from one of the game's all-time greats falls right in line with this exact point in their careers. You never know who might produce the next Illmatic. —Dan Rys