Can you remember the way you were introduced to Illmatic? Was it love at first sight?
Hip-hop was the main music I listened to in the early ‘90s. I devoured every new hip-hop release that came out. I’d been aware of Nas since 1991 when he guest-starred on a Main Source track called “Live at the Barbecue”, which was produced by Large Professor, one of my favorite producers. He was incredible on that. It was a great time for hip-hop. So many incredible hip-hop albums came out between ’91 and ’94. In 1992, Nas put out a single on Ruffhouse called “Halftime”, which was a track from the soundtrack of [the Oliver Stone-produced movie] Zebrahead. That single totally blew me away. It still is one of my favorite hip-hop singles of all time. By that time, people in the hip-hop world were really aware of Nas, so when the album dropped in 1994, it wasn’t love at first sight, to be honest. It was a surprise.
You were expecting something big?
Yeah. All the real hip-hop heads were, not only because he was an incredible MC, but also because of the producers on the album, who were the cream of the crop at the time.
How were all the luminaries who played a part in the process apparent on the album? How would you characterize their input?
The thing about hip-hop at that time—which was very different than it is now—everyone strove to have their own sound. Nobody wanted to sound like anybody else. Probably more than any other music, people who were into hip-hop bought a lot of records because of the producer rather than the artist or the MC. It was quite unique.
On Illmatic, Nas worked with DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip. Even though they were all from New York, they all had their own distinctive sound. Premier usually only took one loop, but he could do something incredible and really simple with one or two bars. Pete Rock was more complex and slightly more soulful. Large Professor had really amazing basslines, and Q-Tip was still deep, dark and street, but slightly more abstract. It was almost like The Avengers—Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man all coming together on one team. I don’t want to take anything away from Nas, who’s an amazing MC in his own right, but he always needed a great beat behind him. And they were the best at the time.
It’s kind of astonishing that there were so many different people involved, yet the album is pretty coherent.
The thing is, all these guys are from New York, and New York rap was all sample-based. It was pretty raw, and so even though these guys all had their own distinctive sound, they all hung out together; they were all friends.
That’s true. As you said, you go a long way back with hip–hop, and you probably heard a lot of classic albums. What makes Illmatic so special?
All I know is that I never get tired of it. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to the whole album. It’s a short, too—it’s only got ten tracks on it, which was not typical, as a lot of albums used to hold 20 or 30 tracks. In contrast, Illmatic is really tight and focused. I love every track apart from one. I just think there’s something about Nas’ hunger to succeed on that record—I felt like you can hear that he came off the street into a vocal booth and just rhymed. It really has that immediacy and that hunger; you can hear it in his lyrics and you can hear it in his voice, and for me, it’s 1000 percent believable. I understand every word of it he says. Maybe it sounds silly, but it feels like he’s talking to me directly. His voice is just so direct. There’s something about that album. It was a point in time. So many different things combined to make it a special record.
It was his debut album, and it’s still hailed as one of the most important hip-hop albums of all time. That’s obviously quite a burden as well, but it’s really fascinating that he achieved this as his first album.
When it first came out, it wasn’t a success, though. It had critical success, but it didn’t sell. It took a bit of time to catch on. Looking at it now, for me, it’s always been a thing about Jay Z or Nas. If you ask me, Nas would wipe the floor with Jay Z in terms of rap skills—but Jay Z is the superstar today, not Nas. Nas is still the rapper’s rapper. Also, sadly, he probably hasn’t made a record quite as good as Illmatic—not a whole album, anyway. So, if you want to talk about the greatest record of all time, many people today won’t say Illmatic. People will say it’s Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, or they’ll say Kanye’s it’s 808s & Heartbreak. For me, Illmatic is a benchmark, but I’m the older generation. I don’t know if the new generation really understands. What they perceive as being “good rap music” now is totally different, as is rap music itself.
Just in terms of the production, hip-hop—especially from the East Coast—was much more sample-based. I think that kind of vanished over the years.
The other thing is, in a weird way, that album marked a beginning, too. Before, you’d have one producer producing the whole thing. From what I remember, Illmatic was the first time so many esteemed producers all produced on the same album. That kind of changed things, because after that, people started getting loads of different producers to do an album. It’s not like they said, “Let’s get Premier or Pete Rock because they’ll sell millions of records.” They got those people because they really worked with Nas and they sounded right. But the hip-hop environment changed after that; people lost their unique sound. Everyone started to sound the same.
I kind of lost interest in hip-hop sometime in the late ‘90s. I found the lyrics weren’t that interesting, and production–wise I was feeling underwhelmed. Illmatic is kind of a good example of what really worked for me with hip-hop, and I don’t know what went wrong there.
The major thing that went wrong was sample clearance, because for me, sampling was an art. Sampling wasn’t all about taking the most obvious sample you could. Before hip-hop I was into groups like The Art of Noise or all the Trevor Horn productions. I loved sampling from the very beginning, and whenever I sampled something, it was about being able to have my favorite artists, like the drummer from Soft Machine, on my track, and then I’d be like “Wow, I’ve actually got the drummer from Soft Machine on my track.” The idea that I could involve my heroes in the music that I made was a huge thing.
At the same time, in the same way that hip-hop nerds follow producers, hip-hop nerds follow samples as well. It was hugely important. I think putting samples in was a homage to something. I think about “The Genesis”, the first track on Illmatic. He uses a sample from [the legendary hip-hop movie] Wildstyle, and immediately, everybody hears it knows where it’s from. You’re paying respect by putting that sample in there; you’re paying respect to the forefathers of hip-hop. It’s not like you’re ripping them off. You’re actually saying that you have the knowledge and you’re trying to pass it on. To me, that’s what sampling was all about.
I remember a point when I was working for a record label and there was a company in New York that was employed purely to go through records and find samples. And that killed the music. I like my music to be a bit gritty and dirty and have some life in it, and as soon as you take samples out of hip-hop, for me, that kills it. That’s not the hip-hop I like. So that changed things dramatically. You’ve had Dr. Dre coming through and these programmers who were maybe more musical, but hip-hop was never musical for me anyway. It was like my punk rock; it wasn’t about the music.
What I liked about samples, which you mentioned, is that it’s a referential system, and you can connect dots. I tried getting into trap hip-hop and listening to mixtapes, and I thought nearly every track sounded the same.
You have Madlib now, who found a happy medium between sampling and playing, and then you had the late J. Dilla. Both were using an MPC and an E-MU SP1200. But they were programming pretty complex stuff, especially Dilla—he’s more abstract. But Madlib, when it comes to hip-hop sampling, is probably the king now. He uses stuff that’s so obscure that no one’s ever going to find it. He digs up so much weird shit and he’s so clever, flipping little bits…it’s still there. I struggle though. For me, the hip-hop that I find exciting doesn’t even call itself hip-hop anymore. I don’t necessarily want to hear hip-hop now, unless it’s a brand-new thing. And there certainly are people out there.
Do you see rappers or producers right now that you would say are on a similar level as Illmatic? Maybe Kendrick Lamar or something? He’s been heaped with praise, and music writers of course like to draw connections, but I’m not that convinced.
I’m not a fan of Kendrick Lamar. I don’t get it. When Nas made that record, he was just a kid. He didn’t make it thinking, “Wow, I can sell a million copies of this.” And he rapped. Rap now is pop music; it’s huge. You could easily sell hundreds of thousands of records. So I think any rapper now probably has a very different mentality. I’m really intrigued to hear an album by Jay Electronica, but it’ll probably never come out. He’s been teasing a long-player for years, and he’s got the talent and the mindset to do something really interesting. The singles that he’s dropped so far have been fantastic. But that album just hasn’t come out yet. Having said that, in terms of hip-hop full lengths, I am yet to hear something as good as Illmatic by Nas.
There were all these stories about the recording of the album, that he was such a natural-born talent that they didn’t have to do many takes, and how all the producers in the room were totally floored.
You can tell when a rapper comes in with the lyrics in his head and if his freestyles come from the heart or not. If someone comes in and reads off a piece of paper, it has a totally different feel. I can sense that. When they did “New York State of Mind”, he just came in and just did it—done. And they were shocked how amazing it was. There are a lot of these magic moments on the album. You know, New York was a different city then. There were still places in Manhattan you wouldn’t want to go. It was rough. Now it’s had the life knocked out of it; the whole thing is completely gentrified.
So Illmatic is like a pre-gentrification album?
Without a doubt. I’ve never really thought about it like that, but it definitely is. My favorite track is “New York State of Mind”. That sums it up. The producers and he all had a New York state of mind. That album could never have come out of any other city in the world.
Yeah I can’t imagine this coming from Los Angeles, that’s for sure.
They were on a different tip.
I really liked pretty much everything the Hieroglyphics Crew did back then, but, in terms of West Coast hip-hop, that was about it.
I liked the Pharcyde. What do you make of the other albums that Nas did later on? It seemed to me that he always struggled to keep up with his debut.
I think that Nas is one of the best MCs of all time, but he never made a good album after that. There are a few singles; I really love “Made You Look”, for instance. I don’t know what it is. He’s sadly been pointed in the wrong direction. I don’t know—bad management, whatever. The choice of music is just wrong. For me it’s a waste. Nas should have gone the way of Jay Z, but it sadly didn’t happen. And it’s too late now.
It’s not lack of skill. It’s more like bad consulting, maybe.
Totally, it’s got nothing to do with lack of skill. And the thing is that he’s not the same person anymore. He’s still a great MC…
But he doesn’t have that hunger anymore.
Just imagine: you’re this kid on the street that’s probably avoiding bullets, and you’ve got the chance to get in a studio to produce an album with some of the best producers of all time—an album that could change your life. There’s a mentality to that. Now, when you’re a multi-millionaire. You’re hanging out with Kanye, Jay-Z, the Kardashians—it’s completely different. And he’s older. He’s probably our age. But where he is now doesn’t stop me from still considering that album in my top five albums of any genre.
Published February 29, 2016.