Nas, Illmatic

'Illmatic' At 30: The Road to One of Hip-Hop's Greatest Debuts

'Illmatic' At 30: The Road to One of Hip-Hop's Greatest Debuts

Published Fri, April 19, 2024 at 11:15 AM EDT

Illmatic is widely regarded as one of Hip-Hop's greatest albums. If a classic can only be declared as such many years after its impact can be measured, then Nas' full-length 1994 debut is no doubt a classic.

The album cover art, the legendary lineup of producers and 10 perfectly crafted songs were a breath of fresh air in 1994 that served as a springboard for a young Nasir Jones. Comparisons to Rakim and other great MCs came swiftly from fans and critics alike, but four singles released between '91 and '94 would establish Nas as a top tier lyricist and greatly increase the anticipation for his full-length album.

Below we revisit the songs that paved the road to Illmatic.

"Live From At The Barbecue" - Main Source, 1991

In 1991, Queens trio Main Source released their debut album, Breaking Atoms. Amongst the many gems contained on the album was “Live At The Barbecue” featuring Nas, Joe Fatal, Large Professor, and Akinyele. Over a Bob James sample, each MC destroys the mic device, but it was the first MC who introduced himself as Nasty Nas who earned the most rewind value, hands down. If some of his lines were intended for shock value, then he surely achieved his intended goal.

Verbal assassin my architect pleases/when I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus/Nasty Nas is a rebel to America/police murderer I’m causin’ hysteria/I melt mics ‘til the soundwaves over before steppin’ to me ya’ better step to Jehovah”.

Columbia Records A&R rep Faith Newman, who signed Nas, explained to NPR that "Barbecue" was the first time that she heard him.

"I had been looking for him, and I asked Large Professor to introduce me," she explained. "He said that Nas was kind of young and [I should] talk to Akinyele. I was like 'I like Ak but it's this kid.'"

"Halftime" - Zebrahead Soundtrack, 1992

Produced by Large Professor of Main Source, "Halftime," from the Zebrahead soundtrack, was a musical gumbo of boom-bap drums and samples by The Average White Band, The Cast of Hair and Gary Byrd, all cooked to perfection by The Large Pro. Lyrically, Nas dropped a staggering display of punchlines and clever wordplay.

He spit: "I used to hustle, now all I do is relax and strive/when I was young, I was a fan of the Jackson 5/ I drop jewels, wear jewels to never run it/with more kicks than a baby in a mother's stomach."

The song was just enough to feed the hungry lovers of lyrics who had been waiting to be served again after "Live At The Barbecue." "Halftime" was Nas' first video, introducing him to a wider audience.

"Back To The Grill" - MC Serch, 1992

"Back To The Grill" was the second single from MC Serch's 1992 album, Return of The Product, and featured Chubb Rock, Red Hot Lover Tone and Nas. Once again, Nas drops clever punchlines and metaphors heavy with shock value.

"Finesser, keep a TEC-9 in my dresser/lyrical professor, keep ya under pressure/mind like a computer, the inserter/paragraphs of murder, the nightclub flirter/this is Nas, kid, you know how it runs/I'm wavin' automatic guns at nuns/stickin' up the preachers in the church, I'm a stoned crook/serial killer, who works by the phone book/for you, I got a lot to shoot and songs to hear/my rhymes are hotter than a prostitute with gonorrhea."

"Back To The Grill" was further confirmation that Nas was a standout MC, and fans wanted more.

"It Ain't Hard To Tell" - 1994

The Large Professor-produced "It Ain't Hard To Tell" saw Nas drop Nasty from his moniker. Many fans thought that "It Ain't Hard To Tell" was his debut, highlighting the fact that "Halftime" was a sleeper underground banger upon its release. "It Ain't Hard To Tell" contained a loop of "Human Nature" by Michael Jackson and featured Nas' at his most lyrically clever.

"Hit the earth like a comet invasian/Nas is like the afrocentric Asian, half man half amazin'/my mic check is life or death, breathin' a sniper's breath/I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps/deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond/sneak a Uzi on the island in my army jacket linin'. I

Illmatic came later in 1994 (with "Halftime" and "It Ain't Hard To Tell" included), and Nas was dubbed the second coming of Rakim shortly after.

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