It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since I pulled my pennies together to purchase Nas’ Illmatic on cassette. I’m about to date myself by documenting how it all went down but it’s imperative to explain how Nas changed my life on April 19, 1994 and began a frustrating love and hate relationship that has lasted 20 years.
Before there were blogs, the only way to get unreleased music was by little cassettes that DJs put together with a variety of songs that was mixed together. Not this nonsense that you find online mistakenly called “mixtapes.” If you had a mixtape, it was similar to being in possession of a sacred scroll. Considering I lived in Las Vegas, the fact that my uncle used to bring me mixtapes straight off of 125th St. in New York made me a music God during my adolescence. Ron G and Doo Wop mixtapes on black Maxell cassettes overflowed my drawer with early music from Wu Tang Clan, Jay Z, Big L, Royal Flush, Mobb Deep and others. But it was this Main Source song that blew my mind.
“Live at the Barbeque” featured this kid named Nasty Nas that was just spewing poetic recklessness on the mic that I had never heard before. As soon as I heard “Verbal assassin, my architect pleases/When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” I lost my fucking mind. “Who says that?” I thought aloud. As a kid just entering his teenage years and looked to artists like Chuck D and KRS One to elevate my mind state, it’s safe to say that hip-hop did more parenting than my actual mother and father did. The influence was heavy but Chuck D and KRS One were very straight forward with their rhyming. Aside from Rakim, I hadn’t really heard anything that poetic and abrasive all at once. But I was hooked. I bought every rap magazine I could find that had information on this Nasty Nas fellow. I had my uncle scoop up the Zebrahead soundtrack just so I could play “Halftime” over and over again until Illmatic dropped.
By the way, the Illmatic is easily the most amazing name for a debut album in the history of forever-ness. I never heard the word before and haven’t heard anything like it since. But I digress…
When I picked up the April 1994 issue of The Source and read Shortie’s review of Illmatic, my anticipation reached parts unknown (I would meet Shortie, who you know today as Miss Info, during my tenure at BET and, to this day, she doesn’t know that I worship the ground she walks on). A 5-mic review was unheard of back then when The Source actually meant something (I have since had the pleasure of conversing for hours with Jonathan Shecter in person about Illmatic and his time running the mag). Hell, it was the hip-hop Bible and I took Shortie’s words like the gospel. Those three weeks until Illmatic dropped moved slower than a countdown to Christmas (and we all know how slow time ticked by when you were a kid). I must have annoyed the hell out of cashier at the Warehouse with my hourly calls that week in hopes that they got a copy they could sell me early. But April 19th came and I ran from my house to the mall and tossed my quarters and crumpled dollars onto the counter like a real G would and George Jefferson strolled out that bitch. Three steps later the plastic was shredded off the cassette and the tape was popped into my Walkman.
That twenty-minute walk to my house was the most glorious walk I ever had as a 15-year-old. Oh yeah, I definitely ditched school that day just so I could consume Illmatic in all of its poetic beauty. The “Wildstyle” sample on The Genesis set the tone and Nas blew the door off the hinges with “N.Y. State of Mind.” You’ll be hard pressed to find an opening combination as potent as “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Life’s A Bitch” and “The World Is Yours.” To hear three wickedly written songs produced by DJ Premier, L.E.S. and Pete Rock in a fifteen minute span was completely unheard of back in 1994. You’ve got to understand that shit like that just didn’t take place before Nas and forced every emcee to not only reconsider their approach to rhyming, but how to cultivate the soundscape of an album.
Keep in mind, I lived in Las Vegas and the city swore it was the illegitimate child California tried to forget about. A Death Row Records album pumped out of every speaker within a 5-mile radius. It was either that or Too $hort, MC Eiht, DJ Quik or, hell, even a Bloods & Crips album that infiltrated my ears. So when I went to school the next day and sat at the lunch table debating why Nas was far superior than anything the West Coast had put together, you can see why the older kids dismissed me with the swiftness. But I was persistent, kicking Nas’ rhymes that I wrote down on my legal pad and then explaining them to the lunch table like class was in session.
Illmatic was my everything and my friends’ resistances to it only made me preach harder.
To this day, Illmatic is my most purchased album ever. I’ve bought the cassette/CD at least 9 times. 3 times my tape popped, I had at least two CDs stolen and I lost, misplaced, broke, scratched or simply played the other four copies until they died.
I just knew that Nas would be the greatest emcee to ever exist in the universe…until he wasn’t. And why he wasn’t is the exact reason why this crazy love/hate relationship I have with him exists to this day.
And the hate, isn’t so much that I disliked Nas. I hated that Nas wouldn’t be as great as I thought he could have been because I felt that he conformed so much to sell records. And it wasn’t because he wanted to, but because he had to. If there was any such thing as being too far ahead of the curve to the point it hurts you, Nas was it. Although Illmatic is considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time, it sure didn’t sell like it. Nas’ lyrical eloquence that existed as scripture which documented Queensbridge culture was simply too jarring for many to adjust to. It was like bringing Malcolm X to an Aerosmith bikini beach party. It just wasn’t welcome at the time.
To go from “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” to “Wisdom be leaking out my grapefruit, troop I dominate break loops, giving mics men-e-strual cycles” is like eating 12 bags of Skittles and then trying to ingest a glorious filet mignon. Your body is going to reject it at first. And people did reject it. Week one sales were a wretched 59,000. By comparison, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle sold 802,858 copies in its first week when it dropped on November 23, 1993. The Murder Was The Case soundtrack pushed 329,000 first week copies when it released in October 1994. As incredible as Illmatic was, it’s abysmal sales prompted a shift that would forever haunt Nasir Jones. And I not only hated it, I despised it.
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