wax Poetics
Photo by Mike Schreiber.

The Illest

Nasir Jones dropped his 1994 debut Illmatic as a living legend. And his use of several superstar producers on the same album set a hip-hop precendent that forever changed the game. Ever the visionary, Nas found stratospheric success with his follow-up albums by defining mafioso rap and embracing a burgeoning NYC production style that some saw as commercial but was really the mark of a new era. Almost two decades later, Nas remains at the top of the list when the conversation turns to MCs, lyricists, and simply who’s the illest. 

published online
Originally published in Issue 51
By Travis Atria

Nas witnessed the conception of hip-hop. He watched it gestate in park jams near Queensbridge, Queens, where guys would plug up their equipment and DJ, or rap, or break-dance. He saw its birth on the street outside his home. He watched artists like Marley Marl and MC Shan nurture it in its infancy and beef with KRS-One and his South Bronx crew about whose baby it really was. Then he took charge and brought it into adulthood with one of the best (some critics say the best) hip-hop albums ever made, 1994’s Illmatic

But, even before Illmatic, Nas had earned a reputation as a wordsmith with guest spots on Large Professor’s “Live at the Barbeque” and MC Serch’s “Back to the Grill.” When he finally released his own album, that reputation blew up, which proved to be a blessing and a curse. All of a sudden, he had a greater rival than any other MC—himself. While his next few albums sold well, the general consensus was that Nas had gone commercial. Everyone wanted Illmatic part two, and Nas didn’t produce it. None of that touched him though. He never wanted to make Illmatic part two. He was only interested in moving forward. As the 2000s progressed, Nas began finding critical favor again. He even ended a very public feud with Jay-Z, a man he clearly respects. This year, Nas will release his first new solo work since 2008’s untitled album. Recently, the man who saw hip-hop’s birth, and who once claimed that it is dead, spoke to Wax Poetics.

Your father, Olu Dara, is a jazz musician. What kind of music do you remember hearing from him as a kid?

He listened to jazz. He listened to African music. Fela Kuti. Heard Stevie Wonder. Heard some Coltrane. A lot of stuff was splattered around. I always thought it was strange, but it flowed. I saw it as a different kind of music that nobody else around me was listening to.

That must have influenced you, rhythmically.

Had to. No question. And, of course, in the neighborhood I grew up in, you had everything from the Musical Youth, you had Donna Summer, you had Rick James, the Mary Jane Girls, you had the Jacksons. So, you know, it’s just all of those combinations.

You once said that your family was different because not every kid had a father who was a world-traveling musician and would come home and tell stories about where he’d been. Do you remember any of those stories?

Man, just walking through the streets of Paris at night, you know, drinking good wine—and beautiful girls. I mean, I could assume the beautiful girls; he didn’t tell me that. People loving the music. Fashionably different than Americans. Different language. Different money. You know, just another world.

When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

I wanted to be on TV and do movies first. Music was second. I think it was the themes to TV shows and the music on the TV shows. It was the Jackson 5. They were one of the groups that made me really want to do music.

How old were you?

I had to be maybe eight when I saw the cartoon. Saturday morning cartoons was what I waited for all week, and when the Jackson 5 had the cartoon, it just opened my eyes to another world.

You came up in Queensbridge, which was basically ground zero for hip-hop. What was it like then?

It was a lot different than what it is today. Today, the economics are different, the politics are different, the streets are different. When I was coming up, it seemed like people were happier, and things were just brand new to the world at that time. Fashion was blowin’ up—companies like Adidas, Fila, all these things were coming into a new world, the ’80s. It was just a real interesting time. There was still crime, there was still bad shit, but for the most part, it was straight bliss. 

What changed it?

Crack killed everything. 

It seems like during that period, there was a lot of artistic creativity and invention happening. Was there a feeling that you were doing something new?

Yeah, it felt like we had something on the world that they didn’t know about that was coming up to surprise the shit out of ’em. It felt cool that they didn’t know. And here we are, the American language has been changed, fashion, sexuality has been changed, the way videos have been shot has been changed, movies, and so on. We all knew that [hip-hop] was about to change America and the world, but we knew that the world didn’t know it yet.

Was it was similar to when they talk about early doo-wop—on every street corner there was a group of kids singing? Were there kids rapping everywhere in the neighborhood?

It wasn’t everywhere, because you had to be good. You had all different things—you had break-dancers, you had all these different people of all different walks of life that was just hip-hoppin’ they own way. So, it wasn’t just everyone doing it that I can remember, except at the lunchroom table playing around in elementary school. Other than that, it was just real-ass dudes who were talented that were doing it.

Photo by Danny Clinch.
Photo by Danny Clinch.

Who were your first hip-hop influences?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kurtis Blow, New Edition, Run-DMC, Melle Mel, MC Shan. Really MC Shan, because he was reppin’ the ’Bridge.

I heard that in the late ’80s, you went into a studio where Rakim and Kool G Rap were recording, and you recorded some songs that have never been released with Large Professor.

Yeah, Power Play Studios. I was just trying to get into the music game. I heard a song that Large Professor had out, and some guys said, “Yo, you interested in fuckin’ with him?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So, we got in the studio and started fuckin’ around. That’s when he told me he was working at Power Play right near my crib, so it was nothing to go up the block just to check him out. I started working, and it was the big room in Power Play, so when I really started working, my start was in a major studio. That to me was like, I’m on the right track. I’m in the right place. I’m around the right people.

Did that turn into a demo? Did you use it to get your first deal?

No, that moment ended, but I stayed in touch with Large Professor. He was finishing up his album on Wild Pitch Records. He looked out for a nigga and put me on his album. Once he did that, we got some spins from the “Live at the Barbeque” record. That was starting to get a few people talking about me. Once they started talking, I said I might as well get a deal. The Columbia Records situation came about when I found that Faith Newman was trying to sign me. She had already signed Big L, and she really cared about hip-hop, and her ear was to the street. She had the power of the pen. She was making it happen for artists. It’s funny, because that’s the label I really saw myself on.

Who was interested even more than Columbia was Ruffhouse, Chris Schwartz. And, MC Serch had got involved. He was working on his solo album, and I was talking to Big Beat Records. The guys from there knew him and took me up there. He didn’t just want to meet me; he wanted to do a song with me. His song was “Back to the Grill,” which was like “Barbeque” part two in a way. But, he had Chubb Rock and Red Hot Lover Tone on that song. That’s when Serch told me, “Faith Newman is looking all over for you. Word on the street is you was dead.” I said, “I’m obviously alive. What’s poppin’ with Columbia?” We went to Columbia, and she was interested, but Columbia is a very, very White situation, and they weren’t really understanding the future of hip-hop, but Chris Schwartz was.

At that point, hip-hop was still underground. The mainstream hadn’t accepted it yet.
Right, no question. So, Chris Schwartz had the Fugees, Cypress Hill, and then me. I released a single on Ruffhouse, and Columbia bullied him out of the deal with me. They saw I had a future. Everything I wanted happened, because at first when I thought about being on a record company, Columbia seemed the most solid, the oldest, the most prestigious, the most powerful. I saw myself on nothing else but that kind of label.

Do you think your success opened Columbia’s eyes to the potential of hip-hop?

Well, in a way, but they had other examples before me. It shouldn’t have taken me to open their eyes to hip-hop. After they got me, they still dropped Def Jam. But they kept me, which is interesting, because they didn’t do right by any other hip-hop artist in the history of their label as far as their career was concerned. So I liked it, because I’m on a label with Michael Jackson. I’m on a label with the guy I looked up to as a kid. You gotta understand, Biggie wasn’t getting a deal. Labels wasn’t understanding Jay-Z. Here I am on Columbia Records. My labelmates were Sade [and] Earth, Wind & Fire. I felt like I arrived, and I was doing a hell of a job for hip-hop by being in a situation like that.

Illmatic was me askin' the gods of rap, 'Can I get in? I'm worthy of it.' At the same time, it was a life book. My life.

Tell me about making Illmatic.

No I.D. always tells me I fucked up hip-hop when I made Illmatic.

How so?

He said because I invented [the concept of] multiple hot producers for a hip-hop album. Every other hip-hop album was self-produced. It was Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Erick [Sermon] and EPMD, Large Professor and Main Source. How does Nas come out of nowhere and grab Pete Rock, Large Professor, and DJ Premier—the hottest guys in hip-hop—to collaborate on an album that makes sense? He said, after that, every album had multiple producers, because people wanted to hear more than one sound.

At first, MC Serch, since he introduced me to Faith, I thought it was only right that I go through his production deal. He wanted to produce the whole album, but we had two different visions. After he played me some music, I explained to him my vision and what I wanted to do. I wanted Large Professor to executive-produce my album. [Professor] actually turned me down. He said, “I’m going through hell with Wild Pitch [Records], and my management is fuckin’ me over. I wouldn’t have time.” He said, “Nas, spread your wings and do it yourself. You know who you want to produce it; go out and get ’em.” Large Professor took me to Pete Rock’s house. So I went after them with my own vision to record this album, and I did it.

What was your vision for the album?

I wanted the sounds to represent the theme music to what the lifestyle of New York was.

It is a meticulous album. Everything about Illmatic seems like you were trying to prove something.

Yeah, definitely. I wanted to enter hip-hop music as an artist. At that time, I benefited from who represented hip-hop. That was Kool G Rap, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Rakim, EPMD, NWA. Those guys were hip-hop. How could I want to be a part of hip-hop if I don’t ask for my membership card with an incredible presentation? Illmatic was me askin’ the gods of rap, “Can I get in? I’m worthy of it.” At the same time, it was a life book. My life.

Illmatic is generally credited with changing the whole East Coast rap scene and introducing the mafioso style into hip-hop. Where did that come from?

That was lifestyle, you know? It was me and my boy who passed away, and another boy of mine who’s locked up, realizing that it was our turn to take the block, and we had to watch the movie Scarface. We turned off the lights and went to my boy’s apartment in the projects and watched it and came outside with a different understanding. This is before the records; this is when we was kids. 

How old were you?

Fifteen, sixteen. That’s just lifestyle. You can’t fake that. You can’t even label it. What happened was the whole rap game started to become obsessed with it, and even I got lost in it. But it was super fun, and it was just something that we all had to grow out of. 

What was it about that movie that rang true to you?

It wasn’t just that movie. It was what I was seeing outside and what I was hearing. So the movie on top of that just gave us another perspective on it. It gave us the cars, it gave us the taking-no-shit kind of vibe. It showed us how far it could go to be the man, from a fantasy point of view.

Photo by Danny Clinch.
Photo by Danny Clinch.

It definitely feels like hip-hop started as a description of real life. Civil rights–era R&B music was often about trying to make things better; hip-hop was about describing reality, not always with any message about making it better. Do you see it that way?

I definitely see it like that. I definitely saw it as the blues. I definitely saw it as the truth, and people saying what they felt. Also, with the gangsters, to go back to that, it wasn’t just trying to be like movies. Movies just happened to be there. That came secondary. Lifestyle was everything. The way Elvis Presley dressed, the way Jackie Wilson dressed, in some ways, was like an over-exaggerated pimp. The diamond rings, the emeralds, the tight pants—it was the style then. It didn’t mean Elvis Presley wanted to be a pimp. It didn’t mean a pimp wanted to dress like Jackie Wilson. And it didn’t mean that Nas wanted to be Tony Montana. It was just fashion. When you go to the high-end stores, this is the blazer they have. You want silk? That’s what the tough guys can afford, because they can spend $5,000 on a silk suit in the ’80s. If you’re that guy, then you can spend that kind of money too.

So I think the critics got lost and then so did the artists. Everyone got lost and didn’t realize that it was only natural to see a Jay-Z album cover with the mafia look, or the Biggie Smalls look, because that was what was fashionably in. And it didn’t hurt that the tough guys who made money off the streets wore those clothes. If Nas wore a Versace suit and so did one of these other guys that’s in the mafia world, it doesn’t mean I want to be him. It’s like, that’s the hottest fuckin’ suit for a real man, in my eyes as a New Yorker. So see where it gets blended up and twisted up?

But back to the other question—the civil rights, coming out of that—of course, we were left after the smoke cleared from the riots, and the Panthers were neutralized, and Jesse was fighting and speaking up, and James Brown was making music to encourage us. You take a sample from James Brown with that same “keep it pushin’ ” music, and you can rap over it, and we’re just doing stuff that James Brown would be doing if he would just be rapping, because he was a rapper to me. 

After Illmatic was a huge success, how did it change you? It seems like it would be a blessing and a curse when you’re trying to make your next album.

I was still hangin’ in the streets, as everybody was. There was nowhere else to hang. I was hangin’ around with street dudes who were telling me constantly, “Look at the success that Biggie and Snoop are having. You are as big as them, if not bigger. You need to go back in there and do another album.” I said, “I’m going in with Marley Marl. He’s a legend from Queensbridge. He’s one of my greatest inspirations.” What happened was, I would record with Marley, and then because he lived all the way upstate, I would plan a trip up there when I had time to go complete the song. And before I could plan that, the records I was working on for my second album I heard on the radio as radio promos for WBLS. So you can imagine how I felt. There was a song called “On the Real,” and there was a song called “True Dialect.” Then Marley put other niggas on “On the Real,” and it really blew me away, because these were songs I sat in the studio working on for my second album. I hadn’t even finished them. I knew there was no way we could continue working like that. So I had to figure out who I could work with who would really be concerned with making a Nas album. I found [record exec] Steve Stoute, and I saw him as a true hustler. He opened my eyes up to what winning meant, as far as showing me, “These other guys out here are selling their records. They are showing up. You’re not showing up. We can’t even find you.” He said, “Nas, you gotta give a fuck.”

A lot of critics felt that you had become too commercial with your next album, 1996’s It Was Written. Did that affect you?

I felt the light of God on me with the second album. I felt like I was really blessed. I felt like we had overdone the label’s expectations, my expectations—we passed it. We had a lot of people on our heels. A lot of guys were coming up, from Jay-Z, Biggie was killing everything, Wu-Tang. It was a lot of these amazing hip-hop dudes and dudettes. Lil’ Kim was killing shit. The movement of hip-hop, the light shined on us. The world was starting to open up and accept us. We figured out how to make them respect us and not have to sell out or do a record, like they used to make you have one house song on your album. We erased that. Biggie erased that. I erased that. So, when people said, “It went too commercial,” we just laughed. If we’re talking about, “Open every cell in Attica, send them to Africa”—“If I Ruled the World”—we were opening the world. The Fugees’ The Score album opened the world. So when we had Lauryn Hill on a record and it blew the fuck up, it was meant to be. When we started hearing a little hate that it was commercial, we knew that we were doing something that was beyond people’s understanding. You have to know that when you’re in the music business, even if it’s the most street, underground record and the world doesn’t buy it, [it’s] because they don’t get it. You have to know you’re doing something beyond people’s understanding, and everyone’s not going to know what it is at that moment. We were happy. We were ecstatic. We knew what we were doing for this culture that we loved. And the next record, we found the “Hate Me Now” shit. We got that record, and it was like, “This will go out to all the people who are mad at the commercial success.” Like Quincy Jones said—people wanted to see blues singers in overalls and dirty clothes, strung out on alcohol. So when Quincy Jones wore a suit and wasn’t a wino, they didn’t expect that. We had to open the doors, and the world wasn’t ready. We loved every second of it.

In 2006, you released an album called Hip Hop Is Dead. What did you mean by that, and do you still feel that way?

When I say hip-hop is dead, that doesn’t take something away from whoever is poppin’ today. But we all know what’s dead. It died with ’Pac and Biggie. It died when the artists that really were the guys that laid the template for all of us sort of grew into a more mature chapter in their music, from Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Kool G Rap, KRS-One. Whatever the politics of this business they were dealing with that made them not as out there as they used to be, it died when it shifted, and then Biggie and ’Pac died, and that was the last of it. But the life of it is [Lil] Wayne, know what I’m saying? I saw Wayne onstage somewhere screaming on the mic, “Hip-hop is alive.” Wayne’s alive like a motherfucker. Jay-Z is still around. Eminem is a fuckin’ lyric warrior. It’s still here, but we know the spinal cord of it has been crushed, turned to ashes, and blown away years ago.

Tell me about your new album, Life Is Good.

What I’m doing with this album is what I wanted with Rakim, what I wanted from Kool G Rap, what I wanted from KRS-One at some points in their careers, back, say, ’90, ’91. I wanted this kind of record from them, and I guess I could say that it’s more honest, more personal, more into the soul. I’m not taking away from them—that would be blasphemy. But what I’m saying is that I’ve been way too honest, and my life has become an open book in the last two, three years, so I embrace that musically. And also I’m staying true to what my hip-hop is, to what the shit I love is. I notice even some of the young lyricists—these guys have already made their second album. When I was coming around, there was the sophomore-jinx thing. “He made his first classic, now can he make his second one?” These guys are past that, and they’re still acting like they got no nuts when it comes to their music. So I’m going to carry that sword and that shield, and I will be the sacrificial lamb once again for them. I don’t say this in an egotistical way. Whoever don’t like it can suck my dick. I’m coming, and I’m bringing hip-hop with me. I want to end it like that.

Travis Atria is a musician and writer in Gainesville, Florida, and is currently writing a biography of Curtis Mayfield.

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