From New York’s Queensbridge Houses, a teenager scripted a work of art so raw and compelling that twenty years later its stories still ring true, full of yet-to-be-mined jewels of wisdom, studied religiously, and revered by the Hip-Hop community.
Nasir Jones, aka Nas, son of Anne Jones and jazz musician Olu Dara, older brother to Jabari “Jungle” Jones, and friend to Willy “Ill Will” Graham, was first and foremost a member of the Queenbridge and extended Hip-Hop community, molded by its culture and raised on its blessings and ills.
This influence is exemplified in the cover artwork of his debut Illmatic (1994), with his translucent childhood face superimposed on an image of Queensbridge. This notion, that circumstances and community shape who we are, has been reimagined by artists from Notorious BIG for Ready to Die (1994) to Kendrick Lamar for Good Kid M.A.A.D City (2013). The essence of Illmatic was Nas baring his soul through exploration and discussion of his community. To understand the one is to begin understanding the other, and both are worthy of attention.
As an icon, Nas stands as the guardian of a craft. From the “Genesis,” Nas ties the project to Hip-Hop culture. Sampling seminal Hip-Hop film The Wild Style (1983), the opening track introduces topics such as coming of age, the relevance of radio, realness, and what it meant to represent before echoing out, “it’s Illmatic.” Throughout the album, these ideas are visited in vividly painted verbal landscapes. Nas takes on the challenge not of speaking for his community, but allowing his community to find voice through him. The subject matter was immediately relevant, and it was this connection to the community and culture that Nas has kept close, earning him respect that has lasted for more than 20 years.
Illmatic changed the game, creating a before-and-after divide where nothing was the same. “I’m taking rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow/My rhymin’ is a vitamin held without a cap-sule,” was his claim, and more prophetic words would be hard to find. Illmatic saw, for the first time, a group of producers come together to work on a single emcee’s project.
Q-tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, L.E.S., and Large Professor all joined together, each contributing their sound to accompany Nas’s wordplay. Other emcees were forced to take notice and climb for the new plateau, as Nas’s organic mastery of rhyme structure, imagery, and poetic devices raised the bar of what it meant to be a skilled emcee. Influencing every artist for the past twenty years, his fingerprints are everywhere, as he continues to set the model of what it means to be in the Hip-Hop game.
Much has and still will be said about Illmatic and Nas. I wrote this article not out of belief that my views are novel nor that my insights are inspired. Rather, it is born out of deep respect for Nasir Jones, his craft, and the lasting impact his art has left.