My memory is such, that I can’t even remember what I was doing this time last week, let alone April 19th 1994. It would definitely have involved either Football (that’s soccer to any US citizens reading this), trying it on with a girl without much luck, a love of all food with tuna in it, or Jungle mixtapes. I thought I’d found my musical roots and had started to amass a vinyl and cassette collection to back that up. The only constant male role model in my life (my uncle), was a huge Reggae and Dub man, so Jungle was the natural progression. But the one thing I was not involved with at that time was Hip Hop.
Ok, so that may be a slight exaggeration but Rap was definitely playing the extreme background for me with artists such as 4Hero, Hyper On Experience, Terrorist and DIllinja (if you don’t know look them up) amongst others, ruling my speakers. I’d made some brief forays towards Hip Hop via NWA and the House Party movies but for me, many a school lunchtime was spent with friends getting bouncy to Rebel MC and Deep Blue, practicing the running man and doing jazz splits off of tables and the music room piano. Truth be told Illmatic passed me by upon its initial release and would have passed me by all together, had my head not been turned by the nasally melodic flow of the Notorious BIG.
The breakthrough for both my Illmatic discovery and my journey back to Hip Hop, full time, came through one of those friends you have that tries really hard to be cool but very rarely succeeds. Ironically he couldn’t remember the name of the album that ‘The World Is Yours‘ belonged to even though it was in his collection; but he was a part of the first family on my street to get cable TV and by consequence The Box (music television you control). In one fell swoop that video turned me on to Nas, Pete Rock and sampling techniques, which at the time represented the triumvirate supreme of the fabled ‘Golden Age’.
It was an unparalleled time for Hip Hop in that, the most popular releases (more often than not) tended to be among the best. Being critically acclaimed and popular was almost a given among the higher echelons, and getting into the scene in the first place still carried a mystique of being about the music itself, as well as the fame and fortune that went along with it. Both the mainstream and underground movements had an embarrassment of riches both in the booth and behind the boards, while the high level of respect that existed at the time between the two tiers will never be matched. Yet atop all of these luminaries, straddling both pillars without even minimal imbalance, stands the greatest achievement of any MC in history.
This is an MC whose concepts, at that time, caused his peers to completely rethink their approach to rhyme aesthetics, structure and schemes (and inspired more than a few copycats). This is an MC whose flow caused the esteemed Pete Rock, Large Professor and DJ Premier to ‘up their game’. There are but a handful of MCs able to swim in the same waters with those beat sharks and come out unscathed. It is probably the best compliment that can be paid that even though the three beat kings, plus L.E.S and Q-Tip, were either at or approaching the height of their collective powers, it is Nas the MC whose contribution is talked about above and beyond everything else as being the catalyst for what came after his debuts epochal release.
‘Ready To Die’ and ‘The Low End Theory’ both have pride of place among my all time listens and they are two of thee seminal albums of our time; but it was Illmatic that gave me a thirst to develop a deeper comprehension of the music I was listening to. It made me look beyond merely celebrating the greatness of a ‘beat’ or ‘rhyme’, but to assess what made it great. It made me appreciate the methods, processes and concepts that went into/go into the creation of not just Hip Hop, but all the other genres I frequent as well.
Nas’ Illmatic is about as close to Hip Hop’s version of the Carlsberg slogan as you can get. The holy trinity of Rhymes, Beats and Concept were all handled by people who were, not only at the very top of their game, but were to such an extent that it is the benchmark of all that have come since its release. It Is the yard stick that those MCs who really want to be considered great, measure themselves against. It is the little black book with the client list that everybody wants, but very few get to see. It is the summit of our cultures critical Everest. It is Hip Hop’s best advert for quality over quantity. It is probably the best there is, and it will probably never be bettered. With that said isn’t it a little ironic that it is only my second favourite album of all time?