Nas looks back at Illmatic and how the record was formed.
The month that marks the 20th anniversary of the brilliant Nas classic, Illmatic is upon us and it has all who were around for the album's release looking back in introspection about the influential record. That's why BBC Radio 1 (not quite our equivalent to NPR, but close enough) dedicated a segment talking to Nas about the celebrated album.
The thing is, Illmatic might not have been the same if Nas recovered a key ingredient to the record itself: hit notebook.
"I lost a book. For fun, I just wrote in that notepad, 'whoever finds this, 'I really need'" says Nas. "I was forced to kinda remember what I wrote there and come up with the rest of it on my own. When the album's done, I get this package with the guy's name and number on it."
But he added in his trademark raspy voice, "I figured out I didn't really need what I had in there," before noting that he has lost the book again so he's asking for it again. If you have it, he assures, you will be compensated, as it's much more valuable now. It's strange though to think that had he not lost the book, the record might have come out really different from what Illmatic became, probably for the worst.
But the real success of Illmatic is owed not only to Nas but the team behind the record.
“It’s my first album, man, and I had a dream team of those guys,” Nas said. “L.E.S. is from my neighborhood. He’s a friend from around the way. So, he was not even in the game. And I was happy they was not mad that he was on the album. Because to have those guys, the guy behind Tribe Called Quest. You know? And again, all the albums back then were produced inside the camp, in-house kind of projects…So, albums like this in rap were never done before. Especially with a new guy. So, here I am this new guy and I get to have Q-Tip, Premier, and Pete Rock all on my album? On my first album? It was like—And no one had seen nothing like it before. So, I can’t tell you how lucky I was then and how lucky I am now that I was able to get them.”
So how exactly does a young up and comer get his hands on such talent? Well, as Nas explains, Large Professor helped orchestrate a lot of it, particularly on the Q-Tip front.
“Well, Large Professor was the guy I knew,” he said. “He was the one that was putting me in touch with all of those guys. They were friends of his already. Cause he was already in the game and he saw us and everything. So, they already had relationships. So, what I told him, I said ‘Yo, I really wanna work with Q-Tip. You think he’ll do it?’ And he said ‘Yo, Tip’s a cool brother, man. I’m gonna introduce y’all.’ So, I was like ‘Alright cool.’ So, it just was a matter of time of whenever Large Professor was ready to make that meeting. And when he made it happen he brought me to Tip’s crib and Tip already had the idea for me. He had ‘One Love’ and he played it for me…So, I wrote that song just the way life really was. Writing your friends in prison.”
Illmatic turns 20 on April 19th. Keep an eye out for our retrospective on the acclaimed record in our "Classic Rotation" series. And listen to the full interview below.