Where To Start With… Nas
When Nasir Jones, better known simply as Nas, released his debut album Illmatic in April 1994 it was at a time when the New York hip hop scene had been dominated for several years by ‘alternative rap’ – the kind of jazz-sampling beats and conscious lyrics produced by acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul that had been a reaction to the ‘gangsta’ rap of the West Coast.
Along with debuts from Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, Illmatic was one of a trio of records released in the space of a few months that changed the game for East Coast rap, ushering a new era of hardcore hip hop that would shift the focus away from the West Coast scene and firmly back onto the blocks of New York City.
Hailed as a masterpiece by many and one of the few records to receive the coveted ‘five mics’ rating in hip hop bible The Source, Illmatic is a landmark that still sounds just as relevant today as it did back then. Next week, 20 years after its release, a special 20th Anniversary reissue will hit the shelves, accompanied by a documentary covering the making of Nas’ seminal debut album named Time is Illmatic.
Featuring production from such luminaries as Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, there are any number of standout tracks, including ‘Halftime’ and ‘NY State of Mind’, but in truth Illmatic is the kind of record you can – and probably should – play from start to finish.
Named Illmatic XX, the 20th Anniversary edition will include a remastered version of the album as well as a bonus disc containing remixes, previously unreleased tracks and demos from his early career. For those in the know, Nas and his debut need no introduction, but for anyone getting into his work for the first time we’ve picked out 5 of the best tracks from his long career in the rap game to get you started…
(click the links below to find the albums in our download store. You can also find Nas' artist page here)
N.Y. State of Mind (from Illmatic)
It was hard to pick a single track from Illmatic, but if you put a gun to our heads we’d probably have to go with ‘N.Y. State of Mind’. Featuring DJ Premier’s piano-sampling production and Nas rapping about the trials of living in one of New York’s poorest neighbourhoods, right from the start you realise that this is no fake braggadocio, this is real. According to Premier, Nas hadn’t even finished writing the lyrics when they did the first take and you can actually hear Nas say ‘I don’t know how to start this shit’ at the beginning, but that just shows how talented a rapper he is.
If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) (from It Was Written)
Illmatic was always going to be a tough act to follow and his sophomore effort It Was Written received some mixed reviews on its release, but the undoubted highlight of this record is ‘If I Ruled The World’. Featuring Lauryn Hill providing her considerable vocal skills on the chorus, Nas raps about his vision for a brighter future with lyrics like “So many years of depression make me vision / The better living, type of place to raise kids in / Open they eyes to the lies history's told foul / But I'm as wise as the old owl”. Backed up by some sparkling production from Trackmasters it’s one of our favourite ever Nas tracks.
Nas Is Like… (from I Am...)
Taken from his third full-length I Am… and with DJ Premier once again taking up the production duties on this critically acclaimed album, Nas Is Like sees the rapper talking about dropping the ‘Nasty’ part of his name: “As far as rap go, it's only natural I explain / My plateau, and also, what defines my name / First it was Nasty, but times have changed / Ask me now, I'm the artist, but hardcore, my science for pain”. Based on a sample that had the crate diggers scratching their heads for more than a decade, Primo revealed in his 14 Deadly Secrets that it came about by chance: “I found this old record that I was gonna throw away. It was a ten inch record from a Lutheran church, and it was pink with a black fish on it. And I was gonna throw it in the garbage, 'cuz it didn't look like it had anything hot on it. But somethin' told me "before you throw it away, put it on the turntable, see if you can find something on it". The rest, as they say, is history.
Hip Hop Is Dead (from Hip Hop Is Dead)
The title track from his 2006 album of the same name and based on samples from Incredible Bongo band’s ‘Apache’ and Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, the lyrics find Nas talking about the commercialisation of rap music and his doubts about whether modern hip hop is artistically viable: “Everybody sounds the same, commercialise the game / Reminiscin' when it wasn't all business / It forgot where it started / So we all gather here for the dearly departed.” One of his better tracks in recent years.
Too Many Rappers (from Hot Sauce Comittee Part Two)
Technically speaking this is a Beastie Boys track, taken from their 2009 album Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, but Nas features prominently and we like it so much we had to include it on our list, especially since it sees two of New York’s best hip hop acts on the same track. On the hook line Nas complains that there are “Too many rappers, and still not enough MCs” and the Beasties’ raucous, raw production is the perfect backdrop. We love it, and so will you.