For me personally, Illmatic meant the world. I first got turned onto Hip Hop around the age of six when I heard Run-DMC‘s “My Adidas”. Then, it was the landmark single by them “Walk This Way’ featuring Aerosmith that perked my ears up to Hip Hop. Throw in some Beastie Boys and, of course, the first time I heard “Rappers Delight” and I was just as intrigued with Hip Hop as I was with rock, R&B, Gospel, and the Blues (the latter three were played in my Grandparents house daily).
However, when I heard Eric B & Rakim‘s “Paid In Full“, I could remember the billowing 808s and the Asian vocal sample and said to myself, “This is different”. This was funky as hell! Then I heard, “Thinking of a master plan/cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand” from this imposing monotone voiced-emcee. I, then, managed to listen to the entire album of Paid In Full when I was seven and had found my alternative to artists that I was heavy into such as New Edition, Debarge, Metallica, Megadeath, KISS, and Michael Jackson. I LOVED the album. I was immediately hooked by the crazy basslines and funky production. I was also turned on, around this time, to a group called Stetsasonic, the original Hip Hop band. I remember how different they were just by hearing “My Rhyme” and “Go Stetsa”; and not very long after that I heard “Talkin’ All That Jazz”. That did it. I was done. I knew that Hip Hop was going to be my favorite genre of music from that point on. Although I was still buying occasional R&B, Metal, and Pop, buying Paid In Full, In Full Gear, and Doug E. Fresh’s The World’s Greatest Entertainer (all around the age of eight) made Hip Hop my official genre of music.
Let’s fast forward to April of 1994. I was still in eighth grade at O.L.M. Catholic School and I was watching Rap City (hosted by Big Lez and, I think, Joe Clair at this time) when I got home. I remember seeing this video called “It Ain’t Hard To Tell“, and it immediately became my favorite cut in the world. I was already heavy into the New York/East Coast scene with me being a big fan of artists like Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun, Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and EPMD. However, this was somewhat different. This dude could RHYME, and I mean SPIT! I was enamored by the use of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (which is my all-time favorite MJ cut) and the funky drum pattern. It wasn’t long before I was literally freestyling this song often like most anyone else would just randomly sing their favorite song. About a month and a half later roughly, I got exposed to his follow-up single, “The World Is Yours“. Although it didn’t hit me with quite the same jolt as his first single did, I was intrigued by it nonetheless. I ended up loving it to the point where this became my new favorite song, and I was freestyling this cut as well. I was on pins and needles waiting on this album, as Nas became my new favorite emcee, replacing Jeru The Damaja.
In comes April of 1994. I managed to go to Peaches Records & Tapes to get myself three CDs that I REALLY wanted: M.O.P.’s debut To The Death, Gang Starr‘s excellent Hard To Earn, and Illmatic. I was stoked beyond imagination for finally getting this album that I so badly wanted from my new favorite artist. I had heard a buzz about it being bootlegged and how amazing the album was, but of course I needed to know it for myself. After all, I was also into the gangsta West Coast scene as well, for I was into Dre, Snoop, MC Ren, Spice 1, MC Eiht, Cube and even some conscious rap like Souls Of Mischief. I wanted to save the best for last so I put on M.O.P. first (this was the album that spawned their longtime riot-inducing anthem “How About Some Hardcore”). The album was dope, but somewhat underwhelming for me at the time. I moved on to Gang Starr and boy was that a banger! To me, Gang Starr was much like EPMD, if not better, in terms of consistency. Now, however, was the moment I had been waiting on. I popped Illmatic into my CD Player and one of the first things that struck me was the brief sampling of his verse on Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ”, which was ironic because I had actually bought Main Source’s Breaking Atoms months earlier and LOVED it, especially that cut but I had no idea that this was the Nasty Nas mentioned in the linear credits along with Joe Fatal and Akinyele.
The first cut after the intro was “NY State Of Mind”, and it was a menacing cut in terms of production (BTW I saw the linear production notes, and when I saw that Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and Large Professor all did beats on it, I was like “This will be GOOD”. Understatement of all-time right??) . Truthfully, in contrast, the lyrics are what drew me into the song. Lyrics like “I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane / life is parallel to hell but I must maintain” and “N***** be running through the blocks shooting/time to start the revolution, catch a body, head to Houston / Once they caught us off guard, the Mac 10 was in the grass and / I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin” hooked me, and I was hanging onto every word, every bar that was being said.
Then it was “Life’s A B****”, which featured a sample of another all-time favorite of mine, “Yearning For Your Love” by The Gap Band, so this was an immediate fave of mine before any words were spit. Some cat named AZ was featured on the cut that I could see mentioned on the credits. This dude MURDERED this cut and Nas had to follow that but he held his own.
Once I got to track six, “Memory Lane” I was in a very good place already, but Dear God when I heard this particular track, I literally repeated this track over and over so many times that I remembered the whole song by the end of the day. Besides the production being so hypnotic and engaging, the lyrics were as insightful and personal as you could get at this time. Bars like: “Word to Christ / a disciple of streets / trifle on beats / I decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace / I hung around the older dudes, while they sling-smack / the dingbat / they spoke of Fat Cat” and “I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat / childhood lesson made me see him drop in my weed smoke” are enrapturing to me and I couldn’t get enough.
I finally moved onto track seven, which was the Q-Tip produced “One Love”. I knew this was an album that was quickly becoming my favorite of all the CDs and tapes I owned, which was quite a bit at this time. I still had three more tracks to go before I made it to “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, in which I would be KILLING this cut because it was finally in my possession and not just recording the song from the radio and onto a blank cassette (the true origins of the mixtape if you ask me).
Track eight was “One Time For Your Mind”, a track that truthfully had less impact on me initially then the rest of the tracks on the album, but nonetheless was dope because it sounded like he was freestyling the whole time.
With track nine, “Represent”, this was just STUPID dope! I remember putting this on constant repeat as well. Come the sixth or seventh listen, I had the second verse down pat: “They call me Nas I’m not your legal type of fella / Moet drinking, marijuana smoking street dweller / Always on the corner, rolling up bless / when i dress / it’s never nothing less than Guess / Kobe walking down the block with the hat turned back / loved committing sins while my friends sold crack / This n**** raps with a razor, keeps it under the tongue, the school dropout, never liked the s*** from day one.”
Now, it’s here, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”. My S***!!!!! Needless to say, this was a religious exercise that I did practically all summer long. Don’t get me wrong, the year of 1994 was OUTSTANDING, with releases from Outkast (Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik), Da Brat (Funkdafied), Method Man (Tical), Organized Konfusion (Stress: The Extinction Theory), Scarface (The Diary), Redman (Dare Iz A Darkside), and definitely Biggie‘s debut (Ready To Die). However, in the midst of all this brilliance, greatness, and damn near perfection, it was Nas that wore the crown for best album of that year.
Ten years, and six Illmatic CDs later (I literally played them until they were warped and couldn’t be played anymore), it still remains as not only my favorite album of all-time (even mores than Boyz II Men’s II, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Metallica’s self-titled album, and Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full). This album made me LIVE for Hip Hop. I was more than just a big fan of it now. I started writing, rapping (trust me I’m not a threat to anyone), and producing (see the prior statement). I started looking at lyrics in an entirely new light and with introspection. I was nicknamed “Hip Hop” because of my almost insatiable knowledge and love of Hip Hop culture, but then I started to embrace it.
While Paid In Full, In Full Gear, and Run-DMC’s Rasing Hell birthed me, Illmatic made me become one with Hip Hop. Although there was still special places in my heart for the prior genres, especially R&B, it was Hip Hop that became my being, and that’s what Ilmatic did for me. This was the epitome of ghetto poetry, kind of like a hood Langston Hughes was Nasir Jones. This was the most thought-provoking and insightful bit of poetry I had ever heard, it was just over subtle, yet incredible, production. Whenever I pop in Illmatic, I reflect upon that fourteen-year-old naive, Catholic school boy that off and on grew up in an environment much like what was projected in Illmatic, only the murder rate was nowhere near as bad, but the drug pushers, wine-os, bums, and muggers were on the money. This wasn’t just a murder-murder-kill-kill album, and this wasn’t necessarily a hardcore record either. It was, however, and real look at a young Black man trying to make it in this world, in spite of the bullet-laced poverty that was around him, and the only way he could maintain was through poetry and music.
I remember when The Source (back when it was the most reputable Hip Hop magazine there was) gave it the prestigious, yet rare, perfect five mic rating. I said to myself, “If this didn’t solidify this album, nothing will.” I often would call an album a classic if it gave me an experience that would change me and my perspective on Hip Hop music and the culture that surrounds it. There were many albums that I gave that moniker to later in my years, but Illmatic was the first album that did that to me within the first several listens. While other albums like It Was Written, I Am, Stillmatic, and his most recent Life Is Good album were all very good albums and were almost knocking on Illmatic’s greatness in a few instances, there will never be another Nas album, or maybe even another album period like Illmatic.
I’ve often compared albums like Common‘s BE, Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and Madvillain’s Madvillainy to the brilliance of Illmatic in terms of impact, game-changing lyricism and production, and the ability to make one have an experience just by listening, but at the end, there’s no such thing as a perfect album, except Illmatic. However, as a liver, breather, and eater of Hip Hop culture, I would want to see how many albums capture the essence of that album, whether it be musically, conceptually, or a combo of both. We need albums like the ones I just mentioned that gets the Illmatic stamp of approval. it’s great and needed for our culture, especially in today’s generation.
When I watched “Time Is Illmatic”, I went back to that pudgy, fat-faced kid with the high top fade and braces listening and being engaged to this masterpiece. There were some that knew the words without the text being on the screen, and there were others that only knew the words if they were on the screen (shame on you posers). The background behind the making of the album and the impact it made on artists such as Erykah Badu, Pharrell, and J. Cole were eloquently explained and one could really tell how much the album to them as artists and as fans of Hip Hop. In fact one of J. Cole’s mixtapes was called Villematic, while former Slum Village member Elzhi presented an album called Elmatic, which was al album solely dedicated to Illmatic. He literally redid each cut on Illmatic, only with his own lyrics and with a live band. It was a prodigious project from one of the game’s craziest lyricists.
It’s not often we get Hip Hop documentaries. Flicks like “The Show”, “Rhyme & Reason”, and the recent “The Art Of Rap” were tremendous show casings of Hip Hop and its evolution, but with Time Is Illmatic, this is more personal and shows the growth of a man through music and his passion for education beyond what traditional school would teach in today’s society. The point where he introduced a Hip Hop fellowship into Harvard university was a particularly proud moment to see.
Hopefully, if you missed it, it’ll be available on Blu-Ray, DVD or on Netflix because if you’re a true lover of Hip Hop, this is totally and completely for you. Note: this is NOT for those who think Young Thug, Future, K-Camp, and some of these other incredibly wack and talentless so-called performers are the new leaders of Hip Hop. This IS, however, for those who would like to see beyond what’s being currently fed to us, and a look at where Hip Hop SHOULD go.
Name another album that has impacted more emcees, critics, fans, and educators than Illmatic? Don’t worry, I’ll wait (long pause). I didn’t think so. I didn’t see Reasonable Doubt have a movie written and made about it. I didn’t see Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) have a book written about it. I didn’t recall The Chronic have an entire class taught about it. Nope. That my people was Illmatic. Those reasons, and more, are the reason Illmatic was, is, and will always be the greatest Hip Hop album of all-time, end of story.