The story has been told many times after more than two decades, but the genesis of what would become Nas' iconic Illmatic began in an office at Columbia Records around September of 1991. As the story goes, Faith Newman—then a fresh A&R who had just come from the Def Jam ranks—had been looking for Nasty Nas, the Queensbridge MC who lit the underground on fire with his verse from Main Source's "Live At The Barbeque," and MC Serch had finally delivered him. Popping in Nas' demo tape at the time, Newman wouldn't let the first song finish before demanding he be signed, going so far as to not let Serch leave the building without agreeing to sign Nas to Columbia. From there the work began.

Now, more than 20 years later, and with the 20th anniversary of the release of Illmatic coming up this week, Newman is able to look back at the decisions made with a certain type of perspective. The period of time while Nas was crafting his debut was chaotic, to say the least; Nas was living in the Queensbridge projects, his best friend Ill Will was shot and killed in early 1992, and Newman herself, looking back, says now, "I've never been around as much gunfire as I was when I was with Nas." But in between the stops and starts, the drama and the issues that they faced, Newman and Nas came out with a classic on their hands, with Illmatic immediately hailed as one of the greatest albums ever created.

With the 20th anniversary fast approaching, XXL spoke with Newman—now the Senior Vice President at Reservoir, a music publishing company that works with the likes of 2 Chainz and Scott Storch—about her memories of the time period, her relationship with Nas and the crafting of a classic. Dan Rys


On Signing Nas

Faith Newman: I had been looking for Nas since I was at Def Jam. Like everybody else, I heard Nas on the Main Source record ["Live At The Barbeque"] and flipped out, and went, "I have to find this kid, I have to sign this kid." And it coincided with me leaving Def Jam and starting at Columbia. I left Def Jam and then I took the month of August off before starting at Columbia in September of '91. So when I got back to Columbia, I had reached out to Large Professor and was asking about Nasty Nas and all this stuff, and he was telling me that he wasn't really ready, he was still working on him or whatever. So I was at my office at Columbia—I had just started, I was only there for two weeks—and [MC] Serch called me and said, "The kid you're looking for, Nasty Nas, I have his tape." So I asked him to come over—it was like 7:30 at night or something—and basically, like he says, I wouldn't let him leave without a deal on the table. I had walked down the hall to the head of A&R and said, "I know I've only been here for two weeks, but if you never let me sign anyone, I have to sign this kid."

His verse on "Live At The Barbeque," I had never heard anyone say the things he was saying. "When I was 12, I went to hell for sniffing Jesus." I was like, what kind of teenage kid is writing rhymes like this? And that was it. I wasn't the only one, but I heard something really special in this kid that was deep and poetic and not your regular, everyday rhymes.

Faith Newman Nas & Illmatic Producers

Photo Courtesy of Faith Newman, Reservoir

On Starting Work On Illmatic

Faith Newman: It didn't start right away, it was kind of a long process, as you know. My thing in the beginning was, I had been asked to come to Columbia because I was at Def Jam and Def Jam was distributed by Columbia, and so was Ruffhouse, and they wanted their own presence in hip-hop inside of Columbia proper. My fear in the beginning was, how are they gonna promote this guy? What are they gonna do? There's no infrastructure to promote this kind of record. So my initial thoughts were to bring it to Ruffhouse; if you look at the original vinyl for "Halftime," it says Ruffhouse on the label. Then I realized quickly after that that we didn't need to do that.

The demo tape had the original version of "It Ain't Hard To Tell" on it with different lyrics, and another song called "Just Another Day In The Projects," where he sounds a lot like G Rap on it. I think that was the feedback that they were getting from other people that they had shopped it to, that he was just another G Rap. I didn't hear that.

I remember one night in particular when he didn't come to the studio—and you know, we were spending money, and we were getting all these cancellations that we had to pay for—and I was very upset this one night, because I was getting a lot of pressure from the label, too. Like, what the fuck is taking so long, get this done. And he had left a legal pad with lyrics on it, and I read it, and I was just like, "Oh, shit. I will wait for this kid, seriously." I don't remember what it was; it may have been something that we didn't even end up using. But it was so deep. It was just in the studio in the vocal booth, the live room, on a stool. There's certain things I remember very clearly.

Faith Newman Pete Rock DJ Premiere

Photo Courtesy of Faith Newman, Reservoir

On Columbia's Stance Toward Nas

Faith Newman: I wouldn't pretend to tell him anything of what he should have been doing. I was coming from a place of the old school; I started at Def Jam when I was 20, where it was really about the music. We weren't thinking about hip-hop as a commodity, as commerce, we were thinking about it purely from a creative perspective. So I carried that over to Columbia. I can say now that it was the best thing that we ever did, but at the time I wasn't thinking, "Oh, we have to have a radio record, we have to shoot this video." It was none of that. I think, ultimately, he felt that that's why the second album [It Was Written] came out the way it did. But I think in retrospect, now, he recognizes that [Illmatic] was a piece of art. It was not supposed to be some hugely commercially successful thing.

There was some frustration. I had to save him from being dropped from the label a couple times. There were other things that happened that [Columbia] didn't like. There was an incident that happened with a gun and whatever. The president of the label called me in and said, "I can't have this shit here, I can't have this." He didn't have [a gun at the label], but his brother did. It's a long story; it was just a misunderstanding, and it wasn't his. I just said to the president, you signed up for this. I don't think you know where he comes from and what he's about; these things might happen again. It was like, you take it all or nothing. This is what it is. So that calmed things down for a while, and gave us enough time to finish the album.


On Nas At The Time

Faith Newman: Honestly, do I think he needed somebody with him? Serch was there. But he was, for all intents and purposes, really mature, because he was so intelligent. He was such a deep thinker. The problem was more his crew than it was him. Whenever there was trouble, it seemed to follow him because of the Queensbridge kids, not so much because of him. Ultimately it all worked out the way it was supposed to because he made this masterpiece, but do I think at the time... I don't think at the time it would have mattered [if anyone told him what to do]. There were times, if I went to Queensbridge to find him or whatever, it just had to happen the way it had to happen. You couldn't force it. He wasn't [bailing on studio sessions] just to be a fuck up, he was like, "I'm not feeling it today," or, "I don't have my rhymes right in my head," or, "I'm not ready." And I think a lot of people, including myself, were like, he's this teenage kid, but you're in awe of him because of his talent. So you don't want to push him in a particular direction and you don't want to push him to be something he's not. We weren't grooming him to be some superstar celebrity persona, he was just what he was. We just kind of let him go.

He had a singular focus. He knew about Biggie, and he compared himself to Biggie in the sense of, this is another guy coming up. But Biggie had "Juicy," so it was a different thing. Biggie made records to be commercially successful, and Nas didn't.


On The Death Of Ill Will

Faith Newman: [Ill Will's death] was the beginning of '92; he had probably just started [recording the album]. He was out of pocket for a few months. His brother [Jungle] had gotten shot, too, so it was a few months. It feels like longer now, but I don't think it was. I think he knew, or had maybe even a stronger conviction, reason to finish the album. It was through me and Serch that he said he was [ready to come back again]. I wonder if we gave him more of an advance—I think that might've happened—and then he was full-on, talking to different producers, making it happen. He was always a deep thinker, and different than a lot of the people around him in some ways, but I think it definitely affected him in terms of, I mean, if you listen to the lyrics after that, they're certainly more introspective and maybe angry. And maybe this desire to be a success, to make something of himself, and be able to take care of Will's family, or whatever it was, I think that he was more inspired.

I've never been around as much gunfire as I was when I was with Nas. [Laughs] I had to dive under a table once. It was just the culture in which he was living, especially after Will was killed. He had a show at a club, his first show in New York at this club called Muse, and we sent a car service to pick him up. There was a bunch of people, Jungle and Wiz, and whoever else was in the car. And I thought—up until two years ago when Jungle told me what happened—I thought that Jungle had a gun in his pocket and it fell out in the car, and that the driver turned it in to police. But what actually happened was, Jungle asked the driver to hold it for him while he went in to do the show... [Laughs] Well, Jungle called the police threatening them, then he sorta-kinda threatened somebody at the label, so that didn't go over well.

There were two times we had a club date [with gun incidents]. Once when we were filming the EPK live thing, and somebody shot a gun in the air, and everybody panicked and ran, and then somebody robbed the cash registers; it was just a nightmare. And then again at his Gold record party, somebody shot a gun. You know, shit happens.


On The Album's Release

Faith Newman: It wasn't even that Nas submitted the album [with only 9 songs], it was that we had to put it out because it was so bootlegged. It was everywhere, and I know some people who were responsible for that. It had been leaked, all of the songs, the entire album, and it was so out there that we had to pull the trigger quick, done, put this out, no more recording, no more anything. But it's so perfect the way it is; there's no filler on there. We probably could have recorded at least three more songs; that was the plan, to have 12 songs on the album. But we just had to put it out. We never actually figured it out, but we think [the leaks] came from somebody at the studio. Back then it was all about cassettes, and everybody had a cassette. Enough people had cassettes that I think it hurt our first week sales.

Again, I come from a different school of thought. I was more impressed with the 5 Mic review [from The Source] and the critical acclaim than I was about, "Oh my God, are we gonna go Gold?" Eventually we did, and Platinum or whatever; it took years and years, but it happened. I think it hurt him, emotionally, because he felt—especially with what Biggie was doing—he couldn't understand making such a critically acclaimed album, but not having much to show for it in terms of sales, money, royalties. So that was an issue, which was why the second album... Well, we had our disagreements about that.

[The bootlegging] really annoys me. It does. It really does. It just, yeah. I think it would have changed things, and it would have made him feel better if our sales had been better, or whatever. Which they would have, it's just that people already had the album, so what would they go out and buy it for, you know?


On Nas' Relationship With Large Professor

Faith Newman: I tell Paul [Large Professor] that he was the first to see [Nas'] potential, so there was definitely a lot of respect—it was more of an older brother/younger brother thing, even though they were basically the same age. Paulie just turned 42, which just freaks me out when I say it. [Laughs] I went to Nas' 40th birthday and was like, oh snap, that makes me really old. Nas just respected his creativity. He's a very loyal guy. I think there was always this sense that [Nas] owed him a debt of gratitude for giving him a chance and putting him out there.


20 Years Later

Faith Newman: Watching him with the Orchestra Saturday night at the Kennedy Center [in Washington, D.C.], I don't even know. He asked me afterward, "How did it feel hearing those songs like that?" I can't even put it into words. You created a masterpiece, so it makes sense for you to be standing on stage with a symphony behind you. There's a reason that there's a movie, all this. There's a reason. It's like how somebody would talk about The White Album by The Beatles; anything that's become a part of the culture like that. And it's not like people didn't recognize it like that back then, because they did. Twenty years later, it's the weight of it. Because I don't know if you could say that there's been anything since that's come close—even his albums, not that they haven't been good. But I think that that was actually the curse in a way, because you make this masterpiece, and everything is expected to be like that. It's not gonna be like that, because you're not a kid who is sitting in the projects anymore, you're a recording artist who has these expectations and different experiences and touring and all that stuff. It's just a different mindset.

You know, look. I've been in the record business for a long time. I never wanted to be some celebrity executive. For better or for worse I never cared about making a lot of money; I made a lot of money for other people. But I'm just really proud, just that I could have been a part of the experience. Mostly that I could give him the platform. Because maybe somebody else would have signed him, but I did, and I let the world hear him, because they needed to hear him. And that's what I'm most proud of, because he deserved to be heard. His talent was so unique, that if I never signed anybody else, and that's what I said to my boss at the time. I've done a lot of stuff, some very cool things, but there's nothing really quite like being involved in Illmatic, because it was so special. So I would say that I was just happy to have been there to experience it. Happy to have given him this opportunity. The support that he needed to make it happen.

He is very special to me, and he has been very vocal about saying, "If it wasn't for you..." He is the guy who, he doesn't try to have some revisionist sense of history. He recognizes that there are people who helped him along the way, and he's just a really good, decent person when it comes to that. And I'm happy about that.

Faith Newman Nas Illmatic Photo Shoot

Photo Courtesy of Faith Newman, Reservoir

Previously: MC Serch Always Knew Nas’ Illmatic Was The Greatest Album Of All Time
Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic
Watch Nas’ Time Is Illmatic Trailer