Music

Nas Talks Illmatic

As Nas’ classic debut Illmatic turns 20, the man himself talks us through its making

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

“At the time [1994], Dr Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop’s Doggstyle were changing the game. You didn’t want to put out any garbage after those. We were the generation that saw Scarface, saw the drug deals being done, saw that politicians never came into our communities, so we took a harder approach to hip hop music. Some of the greatest hip hop came from my neighbourhood, too [Queensbridge, New York], so that was heavy in my heart. I had a big job to do.”

WORKING WITH GIANTS

“I’m not comparing myself to Michael Jackson, but it must have been how he felt when he went to Motown to work with their biggest producers. I made Illmatic with three of the greatest producers of the time: Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Q-Tip. It was a dream come true, but I wouldn’t have done the album any other way. I even mentioned in the studio about the cover being me putting Jesus in a headlock. They thought I was crazy. I wasn’t upset with Jesus, I was upset with the world. It would never have really been the cover; it was just some sh*t I was saying.”

SLOW BURNING CLASSIC

“I’d heard of the Billboard charts back then, but I didn’t understand the significance. I was just happy that Illmatic would get released in stores. But after that Notorious BIG had this humongous set-up for his record [debut Ready To Die], and it hit me; a gold, [or] platinum, record was something you need. A point of status. I thought it’d still be a good record in 20 years, but I didn’t think about celebrating the way I’m celebrating it now.”

ENDURING APPEAL

“I’ve met so many celebrities who tell me it’s their favourite album. I see these kids at my shows and I forget that Illmatic is 20 years old. I hear a new energy in hip hop now. [Artists] are growing, telling different stories. There’s a fresh music they’re bringing to the world, I enjoy that.”

llmatic XX – the special 20th anniversary edition – is out 14 April

(Images: Rex)