25th Anniv. Moment: Nas - May, 1994 [Interview]
New York Newcomer Hooks Up With All-Star Producer On “Illmatic” Debut LP
Originally published: May 1994
Perhaps it an be attributed to something funky in the water, but there’s been a steady flow of talented MCs and DJs who have streamed out of the mighty borough of Queens, N.Y., over the past decade. While Hollis gave the world rap legends like Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J, an endless array of talent — Marley Marl, MC Shan, and Craig G, among others — has also broken out of the Queensbridge Projects in Long Island City to reach the big time.
Queensbridge’s latest star is 19-year-old sensation Nas, who sports a hardcore street-style which pulls no punches. Formerly known as Nasty Nas, the rapper recently dropped his Nasty moniker (“I’m still nasty, but I don’t feel like I have to be telling people,” he says.) and a phat debut single, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” produced by The Large Professor. Over a crafty beat and a sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Nas shows his impressive rhyming abilities.
“I was rhyming since I was about nine,” recalls Nas, whose given name is Nasir Jones, but he’d prefer to keep that on the down low, “At first I was in [a crew called] the Devastating Seven, and there were seven MCs rhyming and shit. After that, it narrowed down to me and my man Bull. Then he stopped rapping and we got bored and I started writing and kept going; I’ve never stopped.”
With an unstoppable urge to rap, Nas pursued his ambition, but found it difficult to find an outlet for his music, which was influenced by his Queensbridge homies and Old School idols. “I was trying to get up in the studio back in the day, but nobody believed in rap that much back then,” he remembers. “Especially a young nigga like me, they weren’t into me doing my thing! Now things are different for a young nigga and that’s because rap has changed and they can get their shit off.”
After guesting on Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ” from the group’s seminal 1992 album, Breaking Atoms, Nas trudged onward. Thanks to a stroke of good luck, he hooked up with MC Serch, who at the time had just parted ways with 3rd Bass, and was heading up a solo career and his own production company, Serchlite Music. The two immediately hit it off. Seeing that Nas was having a tough time getting his music out, Serch invited him to contribute a track to the soundtrack of Zebrahead, which he was putting together.
“He was a cool cat,” Nas says of Serch. That song, “Halftime,” thankfully reappears on his first album. “I was trying to get a deal with Columbia and Serch had the soundtrack, and he thought that it couldn’t hurt for me to do a record for it. He thought that it would give me some recognition and could give me some leeway to do what I wanted to do to put me on the map.”
By all accounts, the gamble worked. illmatic is Nas’ , which showcased Nas with some of rap’s best producers, such as Pete Rock, Large Professor (formerly of Main Source), DJ Premier (Gang Starr), Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) and newcomer L.E.S. In addition to being his first full-length work, it’s also the end result of careful negotiations which forced the young gun to take a crash course in the music business.
So how did he assemble such a star-studded cast to produce tracks on his album? Simple. Nas knew most of ‘em from way back. “I knew Large Professor, and he used to tell me about this man Pete Rock. I knew of Pete Rock ‘cause he used to play on WBLS when Magic got off and it was the “In Control” show with Marley Marl,” says Nas. “Pete Rock got his props from spinning on the show, Large brought me to Pete Rock’s crib back in those days and he kicked me some of that Mecca and the Soul Brother shit. So I went back to see him and said, ‘Yo! I want to get a beat from you one day!’ He made the beat, called me up and that was it. I met Premier in the studio. He was in there for something and we wound up kicking it. Large Professor introduced me to Q-Tip.”
Over the trajectory of illmatic, Nas only raps about what he knows and he isn’t one to front. He’s positive and hopeful, but can’t help but to tell it like it is. Whereas some rappers like to deal with abstract matters, Nas sees tackling topics of the real deal as his strongest ability. “I love to hear niggas talk about real live shit that’s phat and new,” he says. “I’m always hearin’ niggas talk about guns and blunts, but it don’t take nothin’ to do that, you know what I’m sayin’? But when a nigga is kickin’ it and he’s tellin’ you about shit that he went through that’s raw as long as it’s in a precise poetic format, that’s the shit. It can’t be bullshit and it has to make you think and get hype.”
While “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” is all over the radio and is bound to be in a DJ’s mix near you, one of illmatic’s best joints is “Life’s A Bitch,” which is a realistic and hard-hitting look at someone trying to attain goals. His intentions behind the song? “I was thinking about doing this album and I realize right then that I couldn’t call all of the shots, but I can’t sweat that because I’m lucky that I can be heard,” says Nas, who likens illmatic as just one chapter of his long musical book. “Due to the hardships that everyone goes through straight up and down, life is a bitch no matter if you’re rich or poor. Shit happens to everybody, and you don’t have to be in the projects to get killed — things happen and there’s a lot of obstacles out there. I tell everyone to keep striving because you never know what can come happen for you if you keep on.”