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Nas, 'I Am...' and The Year Hip-Hop Sprung a Leak

By Alec Banks

It's easy to forget that we didn't always have the ability to stream or download any song we wanted in milliseconds. The ability to get new music meant waiting for a specific release date, and then visiting a physical location where the CD's were locked up tighter than Fort Knox to dissuade sticky-fingered teens from sticking them in their bubble gooses. 

While the advent of streaming has tons of benefits, we can't forget that the transition from renegade file sharing —  to now — hasn't been without some notable speed bumps. Specifically, how Nas' third album, I Am..., become one of the first major projects to experience how the dangerous combination of anticipation — and surprising availability — bred disappointment. As a result, one of the greatest MC's of all-time was faced with a major crossroads that threatened his very legacy.

Nas' Illmatic and his follow up, It Was Written, demonstrated that there would be no sophomore slump. While the former was buoyed by critical acclaim, the latter established Nas as a certifiable superstar thanks to the commercial success that elevated the project to the top of the Billboard charts for four consecutive weeks and remains his best-selling record to date.

Third albums can be tricky since life tends to change a lot for artists during the period between discovery and sustainability. However, there is precedent which suggests that the tail end of the trifecta can produce an artist's best work. Look no further than Radiohead's OK Computer, Green Day's Dookie, The Clash's London Calling, Nirvana's In Utero, A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, OutKast's Aquemini, Missy Elliott's Miss E...So Addictive, and Beastie Boys' Check Your Head as proof that people can get even better with more experience under their belts.

Nas planned for I Am... The Autobiography (the original LP title) to be a double album. The first disc was going to chronicle his journey from birth to death by suicide, and the second disc was to add colored brushstrokes about the afterlife. With Nas' skills as an orator, listeners were promised a Queensbridge mentality within the gates of hell and beyond. However, no one was aware of what was on the horizon.

Around 1998, someone with the username "napster" revealed in an Internet chatroom that he'd been working on a piece of software that would allow people to dip into each other's hard drives and share their MP3 music files. Sean Parker, an aspiring entrepreneur, liked the idea. He suggested that he and "napster," — real name Sean Fanning — collaborate on what sounded like nothing more than a pet project.

Online, pirated media files were known as “warez,” from “software,” were distributed through a subculture dating back to at least 1980, which called itself the Warez Scene. In 1996, a Scene member with the screen name NetFraCk started a new crew, the world’s first MP3 piracy group: Compress ’Da Audio, or CDA, which used the newly available MP3 standard, a format that could shrink music files by more than ninety per cent. On August 10, 1996, CDA released to IRC the Scene’s first “officially” pirated MP3: "Until It Sleeps,” by Metallica.

American rapper and actor Nas, London, circa 2000. (Photo by David Tonge/Getty Images)



Nas during 1998 MTV VMA Party at Les Deux Cafe in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

Fanning had a finished product by the spring of 1999, and Napster was subsequently pushed live in May. By October, it had 4 million songs in circulation and a user base of 20 million.

Almost overnight, the idea of a "leak" became something drastically different than what had transpired in the past. In 1969, bootlegs from three legendary rock artists were released within a few months of one another. In July came Great White Wonder, a bootleg of Bob Dylan demos and outtakes; September brought The Beatles’ Kum Back, an early mix of Let It Be; and a Rolling Stones concert from November became Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be, one of the first recordings of a live show.

When Nas first released Illmatic, he even admitted to bootlegging his own debut.

"Everybody wanted a copy so I just gave them a copy," Nas told Revolt. "It was playing in the neighborhood, so I thought it was cool that the neighborhood had the copies first until I heard [that] it was in [Los Angeles], Chicago, and all these different places. I was messed up for a minute. It was dope, too, at the same time because I knew people liked it. It was cool.”

"Everybody’s got a mic now, it’s like a hobby/But more like a job ’cause bootleggers tryin’ to rob me!”- 2Pac "Guess Who's Back

Yet, the reach of a bootleg cassette was much smaller than that of a MP3 file.

In February 1999 — almost two full months ahead of the album’s original March 30 release date — 13 unreleased tracks from Nas’ forthcoming album were leaked online. As a result, it prompted him to push the album back and reconfigure the entire track listing.

While 2002's The Lost Tapes thankfully salvaged songs intended for the album like "Poppa Was a Player," "Drunk Myself," and "Fetus (Belly Button Window)" — an homage to Jimi Hendrix's "Belly Button Window" — the decision to strip these songs from I Am... created a devastating ripple effect.

Gone was the entire concept, the double disc, and songs that gave the project heart and soul. Notable additions which were never supposed to be on the album included the lead single, "Hate Me Now" which led to a string of missteps which cast a dark cloud over the project — specifically the music video — which not only rubbed the devout the wrong way — but also caused people to believe he was doing what 2Pac had already done two years earlier with his Jesus crucifixion imagery on the Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory album cover.

"There's a play in New York City where a black man played Jesus, and caught a lot of flak," Nas told Rolling Stone. "I think, even the mayor at the time, Giuliani, was against it. So my thing was I wanted to be crucified like Jesus in the video, to get back at all those people that don't want to see a Black man doing his thing."

He later revealed on The Late Show that another song from the project, "Dr. Knockboots," was a miss, saying, "It was one of those songs I regretted doing. I regret letting people talk me into putting it on an album. The name 'Dr. Knockboot' is corny.”

The leak had industry-wide repercussions. Mobb Deep's fourth album Murda Muzik was notably leaked ahead of its planned August release date. Loud Records eventually intervened — removing and tacking on different songs from the original advance copy.

JAY-Z's fourth album, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter was supposed to be released the last week of 1999 so that it could be the first number one album of the new millennium. A leak forced Roc-A-Fella to move up the album release party a full month. It was reported that before JAY-Z took the stage at Irving Plaza, Dame Dash shouted into the microphone, “Fuck the bootleggers!”

Later that night at Q-Tip's album release party at the Kit Kate Kub, JAY-Z confronted Lance “Un” Rivera, a friend of his and a producer on the album, whom he believed was the cause of the leak. He allegedly stab him and was placed on three years probation.

“There is no analogy between bootlegging and anything that happens in the streets,” explained Jay-Z in his 2010 book Decoded, “unless you count niggas going up in stash spots and straight robbing you.”

While the international version of Vol. 3 remained the same, Jay changed a few pieces of the North American releae. He removed the Missy and Twista featured “Is That Yo Bitch,” as well as his attempt at repeating the success of “Hard Knock Life,” the Oliver Twist sampled “Anything.”

The I Am... leak continued to reverberate when Nas released his fourth album, Nastradamus, later that year. While commercially successful, it received mixed reviews, with Kevin Powell writing in Rolling Stone, "Nastradamus offers little in the way of prophecy, and even less for the next chapter in Hip-Hop."

It's unclear if Nastradamus was always planned, or if Nas released the project because he was unhappy with the events of I Am... If the latter was indeed true, Nas had put out four albums — with half impacted by turmoil that simply hadn't existed prior to Napster's existence. 

By the summer of 2000, Napster had dramatically expanded. About 14,000 songs were being downloaded every minute. Record companies responded with a "sue first" mentality which created a major rift between bands and their fans bases. The music industry’s litigation worked, at least on paper – Napster was served with an injunction and shut down its server in July 2001. 

By 2003, global recording-industry revenues had fallen from their millennial peak by more than fifteen percent. The losing streak continued for the next decade.

In an alternate universe, both I Am... and Vol. 3 don't get bootlegged. Perhaps there's no "Takeover" vs. "Ether" battle either — which despite the harsh words — strengthened Hip-Hop culture. In fact, one could make the argument that Illmatic actually benefited from being bootlegged.

As Faith Newman, one of the architects of the album recalled: " 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."

For those who have remarked, "Nas fell off" sometime around 1999, just remember there's a lot more to the story.