First Rapper To Bring a Platinum Plaque Back to the Projects: 15 Years of Charting “Illmatic

From the culturally bare streets of Leipzig, Germany, Eric Corson has had an unorthodox relationship with Nas' magnum opus.
By    December 2, 2014

by Eric Corson

The first time I listened to Illmatic I must have been 12 or 13, and I hardly spoke any English. I was living in Leipzig, Germany, a town deeply steeped in centuries old culture (think Goethe and Bach) but was, in the mid-90’s, still stuck in a limbo between a dreary socialist past of industrialized building blocks and abandoned chemical plants, and a revitalization symbolized by breathtakingly renovated art nouveau buildings and futuristic trade fare grounds.

The hip hop scene was small and insular. One of the first things you learned as a new inductee were the four elements of hip hop and how to tag New York-style. I immediately took up graffiti with a fervor. There was a clear hierarchy for music. Illmatic, and the more recent Wrath of the Math and Hell on Earth: good. It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, Regulate…G Funk Era and, yes, All Eyez On Me: bad. I was told repeatedly that Illmatic was, and would forever be, the best hip hop album of all times. So I bought the record. But at the time, my jam was Redman’s Muddy Waters, which horrified my father when I printed out most of the lyrics one day and asked him to translate them into German for me.

If I ever listened to Nas with any regularity back then, it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. I was more attuned to music I could understand viscerally: The Beatnuts, M.O.P., Redman. With Nas, there was a language barrier. I knew he was good, I just couldn’t comprehend it fully.*

Half a decade later, I had moved to a small town in Switzerland. I had given up graffiti on account of too little competition and was rapping instead. My record collection had expanded to a few hundred albums and Illmatic was still among them, nestled in the East Coast, major label section, next to Big L’s Livestyles ov da Poor and Dangerous and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. Except that I didn’t listen to it nearly as much as those two.

I must have felt about it the way I feel about the copy of Infinite Jest standing on my bookshelf right now. I always hear how great it is but I somehow don’t feel like taking a crack at it just yet. Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and The Streets’ Original Pirate Material were my jams then. My English had improved enough that I could listen with a dictionary on my lap and understand most of it. No longer did I need to rely on my dad’s unenthusiastic stabs at deciphering slang from a generation that puzzled him.

I remember that one morning I got up and inexplicably chose Illmatic as my early morning soundtrack. I was suitably impressed, I think. Nas’ flow was the kind of technically impeccable word-waterfall I aspired to myself; the lyrics were, as far as I could tell, conscious and “deep” enough for my backpacker sensibilities; and the beats were little boom bap masterpieces. But it was all cerebral pleasure, until I got to “One Love”. Even though I didn’t fully grasp yet what that song was about, something about the mood and Nas’ urgent, raw delivery was so arresting that I listened to the song over and over again.

But then El-P’s Fantastic Damage and Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow came out the same summer and that’s all I would listen to for a long time.*

I moved to New York after graduating college. I landed in Newark, took the train into Manhattan through dystopian industrial landscapes that reminded me a lot of East Germany in the 90’s and finally arrived at Grand Central. I came armed with a 120GB iPod loaded with a carefully curated selection of rap albums that were in my mind synonymous with New York: Ready To Die, Step Into The Arena, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Illmatic.

I stepped out of Grand Central onto 42nd Street, put my headphones on, pressed play and proceeded to walk through Manhattan for hours, taking in the sights. A curious thing happened though: I was so overwhelmed by the sensory overload of New York’s streets that I was too distracted to pay attention to the music I was listening to. What I had imagined to be the perfect soundtrack to my long expeditions through every nook and cranny of Manhattan and Brooklyn became but a part of the background din of harried pedestrians balking into their iPhone 3’s and suicidal cabbies honking at drivers acknowledging the existence of traffic regulations.

After a year or so of living in New York I got used to the hustle and bustle and was able to walk around and actively listen to music again. But by then, Action Bronson had become my quintessential New York rapper. Of course, when Get On Down released a special limited edition of Illmatic I was first in line to buy a copy on vinyl and add it to my collection now way too big to ship over en toto from Europe. I came home, put it on my turntable and sat down with a Brooklyn Brew to just listen. I was an adult, in perfect command of the English language and was a self-proclaimed New Yorker. I was finally ready to enjoy Illmatic as it was intended.*

I thought back to that moment the other day after a screening of the documentary Time Is Illmatic at the Landmark in Los Angeles. Nas was speaking on a panel. Someone had asked him how he stays grounded with all his success and how he still keeps that rawness in his music, that emotional honesty. He answered that it’s his duty as an artist to speak about the truth as he perceives it. The only way he can really do that is by being a participant observer at all times. Getting caught up in the celebrity lifestyle would strip him of this ability. So he distances himself from everything, in order to talk about real life in detail.

Like Walt Whitman said, “both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” That’s the genius of Illmatic, the incomprehensible wisdom of Nas at 19 years old. Nas was not a rapper spitting about the streets, he was a human being sharing his reality, raw and uncut.  He was an insider looking out and an outsider looking in at the same time. The album might have changed gangster rap forever and spawned countless “CNN of the streets” type records but almost none had that brutal honesty, that ponderous mood, that searing humanity.

That’s exactly what hit me that day back in New York. Suddenly, I wasn’t listening to the best rap record of all times, I wasn’t listening to a perfect New York record, I was listening to a 19-year old kid crying out “society set me up for failure but I will share with you what I see when I look around me and maybe we can realize that we share the same humanity. We all suffer, we all triumph, we all lust, we all have regrets, and we all dream of a better tomorrow.” In other words: One Love. It took me 15 years to realize that. And that’s the reason why Illmatic sits on the top of the pantheon for me. The rest is just myth making.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!