A Trip Down Memory Lane: The Lasting Influence of Illmatic
Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of Nas's debut album, Illmatic. On Wednesday, I had the privilege to attend the opening of the Tribeca Film Festival to watch my friend and former colleague Erik Parker's documentary, Time Is Illmatic, directed by One9. Parker's film examines Nas's groundbreaking album, Illmatic, because it symbolizes the shift of hip-hop's nerve center and lyrics in 1994. The hip-hop music that came out of this period was deeply metaphorical, experimental, and conscious. On Illmatic Nas's use of imagery, metaphors, and alliterations brought his fiery couplets to life. Take for example these few lines from "Life's a B____":
I woke up early on my born day I'm 20 it's a blessing
The essence of adolescence leaves my body now I'm fresh in
My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it
One quarter through life some God-ly like thing created
Got rhymes 365 days annual plus some
Load up the mic and bust one/cuss while I puff from
My skull cause it's pain in my brain vein money maintain
Don't go against the grain simple and plain
These weren't just his stories, but history—a documentation of all the things possible in one of the most volatile times in New York City. For many living in the Northeast, the turning point came in 1993. Remnants of the urban riots that preceded the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King remained; years of boycotting South Africa's apartheid regime had culminated in an upcoming democratic election.
That summer in New York City, people were eagerly talking about this crew from Staten Island—who had formed like Voltron to create this super hip-hop group, Wu-Tang. Those of us who grew up in the late '70s and the '80s could easily recall the countless Kung-Fu flicks we spent our Saturdays watching. The name Wu-Tang instantly brought us back to those days of New York's blighted broken windows (although they were still broken since "Giuliani Time" had not happened yet). As playful as their name seemed, Wu-Tang's lyrics were reminiscent of the gritty New York streets we had come to call home for so many years. We had witnessed record incarceration of black and brown youths, the premature deaths of young people due to gun violence, and the waning days of the crack epidemic that had shattered the lives of many families.
When I left New York to attend college in North Carolina, I was armed with two things that would not only define my life but my generation's as well: the cassette single of Wu-Tang's "Protect Ya Neck/M.E.T.H.O.D. Man" and A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders CD. I had no idea the music bubble I was about to enter at school.
Nas's first unofficial single, "Half-time," was still popular, and all my friends and I were awaiting the arrival of his album. In North Carolina, all the non-Northerners had no clue who Wu-Tang was. They had not heard "Protect Ya Neck"; had not snuck into the City to party at the Tunnel without their parents' consent. During my first semester, I played that single so many times to remind me of home. Thankfully, the majority of my peers knew about Tribe's new album and we were able to converse about Q-Tip's transformation and the future of a group with which we had come of age. By the time Wu-Tang fever arrived, it was 1994 and hip-hop was on the precipice of change. Biggie famously said, "Kick in the door waving the four-four," and when his album Ready to Die dropped, it felt as if he had done just that. Nas had finally released Illmatic. I yearned to be home. Everyone was proud to be from the East Coast—even from the South—now that a new group, Outkast, had released its Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, which firmly placed ATL on the map.
Ever since the jheri curls–wearing West Coast gangstas N.W.A.'s "Came Straight Outta Compton," artists from the East Coast struggled for equal recognition. And in N.W.A.'s wake, the "Left Coast" was still going strong: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, The D.O.C., and the Geto Boyz. While on the East Coast, rappers unsuccessfully attempted to become and remain relevant outside New York City. Seeds were sown in 1993 with Tribe and Wu-Tang, but in 1994 with the release of both Illmatic and Ready to Die, the East Coast was back with a vengeance.
The intellectual lyrics of Nas and the party anthems of the Notorious B.I.G. were indicative of the opposing identities (backpacker vs. bling) the lyrics that still exist today. Illmatic and Ready to Die, plus other albums such as Redman's Dare Iz A Darkside and Gangstarr's Hard to Earn, would pave the road to keep the East Coast dominant for the rest of the '90s. It wasn't until Dr. Dre's 2001 when things began to balance out for both coasts and points therein. (However, during the turbulent late '90s, both coasts would lose their best rappers: Biggie and 2Pac.)
The end of my freshman year would be one for the history book. Wu-Tang was in town to do a concert at what could only be described as a juke joint in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. It was spring, and fraternities and sororities were crossing over new pledges, so when I heard some commotion outside, I figured it was another Greek event. One of my friends banged on my door and summoned my best friend and me downstairs because members of Wu-Tang were on campus. We ran outside and saw members of their crew mixing in with students. Other than the easily recognizable Ol' Dirty and Method Man, many of my fellow students had no idea who the Wu-Tang members were. I had studied every lyric of 36 Chambers; I had memorized all of their faces. I went up to Inspectah Deck and the GZA and began casually talking to them as if we were just picking up a conversation from the day before. Before we knew it, we were riding in the back of their tour van with VIP access to the concert. As I sat in the back, with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) blaring from the speakers, next to members of the Wu, I felt as if someone had transported me into a dream. I began spitting bar after bar of every song that played from the album. They couldn't believe that I really knew this stuff. Inspectah Deck looked at me and said: "You are an official member of the Wu." Yeah, I was. My girlfriends began calling me "Method Ann."
Just like the hook from Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers "can it be that it was all so simple then…" it was simple. It was refreshing. It was a time seared in the memories of those who were there and felt hip-hop's excitement up close and personal. I had no idea that I would have to leave New York to be this close to soon-to-be hip-hop royalty. Still there was no place else I wanted to be than home for the summer of Illmatic and Ready to Die. Summer 1994 was the calm before the storm, before the East and West coasts' beef. Twenty years later, I can still see and hear myself rapping along to the urgency in Nas's and Az's "Life's a B____" and then minutes later throwing my hands in the air to Biggie's "Big Poppa." Indeed it was simple, but it was also educational, uplifting, and fun. So when Nas took the stage on Wednesday night to perform songs from Illmatic, the audience stood at attention as he transported us all back with his nostalgic rhymes.
- The Wu-Tang Clan and RZA: A Trip Through Hip Hop's 36 Chambers by Alvin Blanco
- Books of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by Adam Bradley
- Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
- Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas's Illmatic by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai
- Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing by Roni Sarig