Would anyone dare question Illmatic’s greatness? Fans of rap and hip hop across the nation have been united under their mutual respect for the album, which marks one of the greatest artistic endeavors the genre has ever seen and a landmark of modern music. Even Jay Z, whose disdain for artist Nas has been well documented, conceded that Illmatic deserves the praise it’s given.
Say what you will about Nas: His opus has stood the test of time. To celebrate his album’s 23rd anniversary, here are some facts about Illmatic you might not have known.
1. Nas was 17 when he started working on Illmatic.
It’s easy enough to argue how immature Kendall Jenner must be for involving herself with that god-awful Pepsi ad—until you realize Nas made a record before he was legally allowed to vote. (For the record, he was 20 by the time it was finally released.) Nas made a name for himself at a young age in Queens, where he teamed up with his neighbor Willy “Ill Will” Graham, played small gigs and was featured on tracks before producers began eyeing the young star to release songs of his own.
2. Russell Simmons passed on signing Nas.
Vision is 20/20 with the gift of hindsight, and nowhere is that sentiment clearer than the fact that Russell Simmons, renowned mogul and producer, passed on signing Nas to Def Jam. The decision was rooted in Simmons’ fear that Illmatic would be a commercial flop, which turned out to be somewhat warranted considering the album didn’t do great on launch.
3. Nas lost his book of rhymes so he made Illmatic from memory.
While on a train, Nas misplaced his notebook full of songs. This meant that Illmatic had to be completed almost entirely created from memory, or with new additions. Interestingly, he actually had the notebook returned to him after the album was completed, but lost it again shortly thereafter.
4. “NY State of Mind” was recorded in one take.
One of the most famous tracks off the album, “NY State of Mind” encapsulates the fear and anxiety of living inside a system intended to destroy you and keeping a level head. From the opening line (“I don’t know how to start this shit, yo…”), Nas set a precedent for the major themes of the album, as well as the focus and intent of his body of work thereafter. And it was all recorded in one take. It’s hard to imagine how a song so rich and distinct could be captured in its entirety with just a single effort, but such is the genius and expertise of Nas.
5. Pete Rock made the beat to “The World Is Yours” in 10 minutes.
Following the theme of completing masterworks in no time at all, Pete Rock, a producer on Illmatic, composed the beat to “The World Is Yours” in 10 minutes. “It’s a faster pace with the creation of the music now,” as he put it. “That’s not to say it wasn’t fast then, because in my time I was making beats in five minutes.”
6. “One Love” was originally called “Summer Vacation.”
Considering the infectious, continuous utterance of the title throughout, it’s no doubt hard for fans to wrap their heads around the idea of “One Love” being called anything else. Q-Tip, the man who provided the track’s beat, came to Nas with an idea surrounding his creation. When Q-Tip first gave Nas the beat, he had the idea of calling it “My Summer Vacation” because it was like a student who’s off for the summer and comes back and tells the class what he did. Nas had already completed two verses for the song, so he tried getting Q-Tip to see his vision instead. The way Nas has told it, when he was done explaining, Q-Tip’s only response was, “Wow, that’s it.”
7. Nas used Yellow Pages to find a recording studio and producers.
Just to put 23 years into perspective, Nas used Yellow Pages as a means of finding a suitable recording studio. Large Professor, Nas’ longtime collaborator, elaborates on the process: “It was a studio: Sty in the Sky. I think it was kind of crazy because he may have even looked that up in the Yellow Pages. I think he looked that up in the Yellow Pages and he was asking like, ‘Yo, who should I get?’ And it was like, ‘Yo, there’s this guy in Flushing, man. He’ll lace you.’ And that’s kind of what we did from there.”
Photo: Getty Images/Brad Barket