The 'Illmatic' Origins
Though officially released on April 19th, 1994, Illmatic's own genesis can be traced back to almost three years earlier. It was the summer of 1991 and Queens-based hip hop trio Main Source released its acclaimed debut LP, Breaking Atoms. Buoyed by the dual talents of the group's emcee and in-house production wizard Large Professor, Breaking Atoms' penultimate track was "Live at the Barbeque" – a propulsive posse cut featuring one of the Professor's young protégés, a raw, 17-year-old then-unknown calling himself Nasty Nas. His obscurity would be short-lived.
When I heard 'Live at the Barbeque' I and I heard the way Nas spit I was just so blown away. No one was saying the crazy stuff that he was sayin' - DJ Premier
Imbued with indelibly nihilistic imagery, Nas' verse was delivered with a command and effortlessness that belied his newcomer status. His was the voice of a new rap generation for whom disaffection with any and all traditional social institutions fueled memorably outrageous boasts. But he was also savvy enough to avoid the novelty of mere shock value and acknowledge the currency of creativity.
After cutting a few rough tracks with Large Professor, Nas' 2-song demo would begin to make its way around the record label A&R circuit via former 3rd Bass rapper MC Serch, who'd signed the fledgling lyricist to a production deal. Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons passed on signing Nas, believing he sounded too derivative of Juice Crew veteran and fellow Queens emcee Kool G Rap.
But Faith Newman, a former Def Jam staffer who'd newly jumped to Columbia, felt no such trepidation, having already been fully captivated by "Live at the Barbeque." Upon hearing the demo track "Nas Will Prevail" (the precursor to "It Ain’t Hard to Tell") during an office visit from Serch, Newman was floored. In the 4-minute exhibition of lyrical fluidity performed over a Large Pro-looped excerpt from Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," she recognized the young lyricist's potential to sculpt his boasts into songs. Newman was determined to act fast.
I went down the hall to David Kahne who was the head of A&R at the time. It was like 7:30 at night. And I said to him, you know I just got here but if you never let me sign anything the entire time I’m here you have to let me sign this kid. - Faith Newman
The Core Four
The plan all along was for Nas’ lyrical invention to be the artistic focus of Illmatic. But Newman and Serch also understood that the scope of Nas’ writing required something equally musically special in support.
I was just happy to be the conduit to kinda connect the dots. - Large Professor
A core four of Large Pro, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip formed to produce Illmatic, each esteemed producer's work inspiring the other in intriguing and unexpected ways. After hearing an early version of the Premier-produced "Memory Lane," Q-Tip came with the contemplative, kalimba-accented "One Love." Impressed by the Pete Rock-produced "The World Is Yours," Premier went back and reworked "Represent" to its final, haunting configuration.
Gradually, Nas' vision for specific songs sharpened. In the case of "The World Is Yours" he urged a hesitant Pete Rock to extend himself beyond his normal musical comfort zone for the good of the track.
When Nas really likes something he’s really quiet and he starts mumbling. The next thing he says to me – ‘I want you to do the hook.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute – you want me to sing?' - Pete Rock
Unfortunately, with the project's budget tapped out and its contents hemorrhaging onto bootlegs from a variety sources (including a compliant, naïve Nas himself), time eventually expired on recording Illmatic. A late request by Nas to record four additional songs was denied. The album stood pat at 10 songs running a tidy 40 minutes. For its title, Nas pegged a piece of neighborhood slang:
‘Illmatic’ means realness. It means the epitome of ill. It means nothing sugarcoated. It means in your face. - Nas