20 Apr 2024

Thirty years of Illmatic: Artists and pundits pay tribute to rap classic

From Music 101, 2:30 pm on 20 April 2024

Illmatic, the debut album by New York rapper Nas, is widely considered one of the greatest hip hop albums ever recorded. 

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Released on 19 April 1994, Nas' Illmatic is often considered as the greatest LP in hip hop, a sparkling microcosm of the culture itself.

Released on 19 April 1994, Nas’ Illmatic is often considered as the greatest LP in hip hop.

Released on 19 April 1994, Nas' Illmatic is often considered as the greatest LP in hip hop. Photo: NAS/ Sony Music

It marked-out the sights, sounds and stories of street-life within New York's Queensbridge housing projects with the observational insight of an investigative journalist and the literary wordplay of a prodigious poet.

Even more remarkable, Nas was only 20 at the time.

Rounding out proceedings was the inclusion of some of the most respected producers in New York at the peak of their powers.

The ensemble of DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and an up-and-comer from Queensbridge named L.E.S. provided the young emcee with music that was both as rigid as a concrete block and as serene as memories of playing with friends in the park.

On Friday, Nas and DJ Premier marked the 30th anniversary by releasing 'Define my Name' to tease a forthcoming collaborative project later this year.

Last month, New York State Senator Jamaal T. Bailey formally commemorated Illmatic inside the Senate Chamber.

"We were in college, we were finding who we were, Nasir Jones was making the greatest hip hop album of all time, Illmatic.

"1994 was the soundtrack to my youth.

"If you have a top five without Nas in it, you shouldn't listen to rap music Mr President."

Thirty years after the fact, artists and industry leaders in New Zealand have also paid tribute.

Dropping jewels

Industry veteran Phil Bell aka DJ Sir-Vere was one of the few in the country fortunate enough to hear Illmatic prior to its official release.

It is now considered his favourite hip hop album of all time, followed by the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die - another transformative debut offering from New York which emerged later that year. 

At the time, Bell was presenting the True School Hip Hop Show on 95bFM which he had co-founded a year prior, where he was being constantly fed promotional material by record company representatives.

Nas' name was already familiar to hip hop insiders following showstopping appearances on Main Source's 1991 track 'Live at the Barbecue' and MC Serch's single 'Back to the Grill' a year later.

His debut single 'Halftime' produced by Large Professor had also been out for more than a year.

In early-1994, Bell was given a cassette.

Sir-Vere, Ali and Shan backstage with Premier during a Gang Starr concert at the St James.

DJ Sir-Vere, Ali and Shan backstage with Premier during a Gang Starr concert at the St James. Photo: Supplied

"I remember vividly because it was a clear cassette with a red label on it and it had 'Nas Illmatic'.

"I only knew Nas from his verse on the MC Serch record and the single had been out.

"But then I got the cassette and I literally couldn't believe what I was hearing."

Bell proceeded to thrash the living daylights out of the cassette to the point where it snapped a couple of weeks before the album was released to the public.

"I was mortified because I'd played it so much in my car," he said.

"Everywhere I went I was playing this cassette…I've still got it actually and it's still broken.

"I was just astounded by [Illmatic] on all levels, it was just a watershed moment for me."

An avid record collector, Bell revealed he has more than a dozen different pressings of Illmatic from all around the world.

"Hip hop is primarily about storytelling and the storytelling on this record is impeccable...the ability to paint pictures."

Over the years, Bell has had the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the legends who worked on Illmatic including Nas himself.

He is friends with Premier who produced three tracks on the record 'N.Y. State of Mind', Memory Lane' and 'Represent'.

"I went to his house once when I was in New York which was a pretty crazy situation," he said.

One of Bell's fondest memories is when he opened for the New Zealand leg of Nas' 20th anniversary Illmatic tour in early-2015.

"Me being such a big fanboy of that record I was very blessed to have that moment.

"On the opening night I was there with my two deejaying buddies and my son Ethan.

"Ethan was wearing a Run the Jewels t-shirt and then Nas referenced an N.W.A song I played during my set.

"At that moment he looked upstairs and my son was wearing a Run the Jewels t-shirt and he said to him 'I love new school rap like Run the Jewels.'

"It was this beautiful full 360 moment for me."

DJ Sir-Vere’s son Ethan with DJ Premier in Auckland.

DJ Sir-Vere's son Ethan with DJ Premier in Auckland. Photo: Supplied

'He was like an observer'

Tom Scott shares some common ground with Nas. 

Even the modestly spoken rapper of Home Brew and Avantdale Bowling Club can acknowledge this.

Both came from jazz origins via their respective fathers.

Nas' father Olu Dara played a trumpet solo on the backend of 'Life's a B*tch' and Scott's father Peter is a jazz bass player.

It was the storytelling clout of early Nas that informed the West Auckland rapper's pen game.

"It's stupid to even say because he's like a god and I'm just a little rapper in New Zealand.

"Studying the way, he was like an observer, or a griot or a reporter for the village.

"I feel like I tell the tales of my neighbourhood which is primarily Avondale, or West Auckland, or this little set of islands we live on.

"I'm the storyteller for my neighbourhood like he was for Queensbridge."

The lucid pictures of Illmatic also served as creative sway for Scott who would go on to win the Taite Music Prize in 2019 for Avantdale Bowling Club's eponymous debut.

"One thing he does so well is that he'll paint a picture in your head…'sneak a uzi on the island in my army jacket lining'.

"There's four different things to picture almost, the prison, the prison on the island, the type of machine gun and this army jacket he's sneaking in.

"Bro that's one line and he's painted so many visuals for you."

Nas promotional shots from 1994.

Nas promotional shot from 1994. Photo: Supplied / Sony Music


Nas was gifted an all-star cast on Illmatic.

So often had rappers relied on a sole beatmaking partner, this record broke the mould by thrusting multiple producers into the mix, establishing a semi-competitive atmosphere throughout sessions.

DJ Premier previously revealed he retooled his beat for 'Represent' in the lead up after he heard Q-Tip's pause tape masterclass on 'One Love'.

The result was some of the best jazz-laced instrumentals of the era from beatmakers already admired courtesy of work with their respective groups (Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, Main Source, Pete Rock & CL Smooth).

Brent Park aka Parks, the producer and songwriting ally of award-winning artist Ladi 6, describes Illmatic as "the perfect storm".

"It's all those ground-breaking producers were really in their prime," he said.

"It was the perfect combination of all those producers and Nas peaking at the exact same time.

"Pairing producers with rappers is so crucial and surprisingly hard to get right and it has to happen organically."

Parks came up through Christchurch's small hip hop faction in the 90s and would join performing arts collective Pacific Underground, an outfit which would include a young emcee from the eastern suburbs named Scribe.

Scribe himself has spoken of the influence of Illmatic over the years, and the album was seen as a reference point during the making of The Crusader, a monumental emcee alongside a lineup of producers.

"I can definitely say Malo (Scribe) at that time was definitely influenced by what Nas was doing," Park said.

"It's a portrait of living in Queensbridge at a time where there as a lot of violence and a lot of poverty and Malo was doing something quite similar."

 'He is forever chasing that dragon'

New York rapper Nas

Nas promotional shot from 1994. Photo: Supplied/Sony Music

Blessing and a curse?

It's often debated whether Illmatic was so good that left an unreachable yardstick for the artist in the ensuing years.

Fans of later albums such as It Was Written, God's Son, or even Stillmatic where he scorched Jay-Z during their iconic early-00's rivalry are usually outspoken about this school of thought.

Ex-Real Groove editor and former RNZ senior music producer Sam Wicks falls into the former camp.

"I think it remains impeccable and a perfect album.

"The fact that this debutant was able to get a Michael Jackson sample across the line is ridiculous.

"It also remains an unachievable watermark for Nas, he is forever chasing that dragon.

 "Every beat on that album is bespoke and brings everything to life."

Wicks has previously spoken to both Nas and DJ Premier, their respective dispositions could best be described as poles apart - Preemo the enthusiastic "super fan" of the culture and Nas the softly spoken introvert.

"There's very few Nas interviews - and as an interviewee - where he is not introverted.

"He comes to life on the mic."