'Illmatic' at 30: The Enduring Legacy of Nas' Hip-Hop Masterpiece

AZ and L.E.S. explore the transformative impact of Nas' seminal album and its everlasting influence on the rap landscape.

In music, some albums forever shift the landscape, leaving an indelible imprint on pop culture. These works of art transcend time and become the gold standard artists strive to reach. Undoubtedly, Nas’ Illmatic is such an album. The “Holy Grail” of hip-hop, the LP is an undisputed masterpiece that continues to grow in influence as the years pass. Considering Nas’ origin story and the status he would occupy in the culture, he seemed destined to create an album that would redefine the genre.

Born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, Nas came of age in the Queensbridge projects, one of the epicenters of hip hop that launched the careers of legends such as Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, Craig G., Tragedy Khadafi, and several others.

After honing his craft, Nas made one of the heralded debuts on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” at 17 years old. His verbal wizardry and intricate rhyme patterns immediately drew comparisons to Rakim and Kool G. Rap, who would go on to be an early supporter of his fellow Queens brother. But Nas was no cheap imitation. His arrival signaled that a major voice had entered the game. With the assistance of MC Serch, Nas signed with Columbia Records.

Related: BET Talks Reflects on 30 Years of Nas' Illmatic: A Hip-Hop Masterpiece

Released on April 19, 1994, Illmatic created a new blueprint, the current motif of many albums today. Traditionally, the customary practice was for one or two producers who would curate the entire project. Changing the game up, Nas enlisted the 

Large Professor, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock, who provided Nas the perfect sonic backdrop for his poetic prowess. Another producer on the album was an up-and-coming beatmaker and fellow Queensbridge native, L.E.S., who was also making his debut behind the boards. He spoke about how he first met Nas and the buzz surrounding him while making the album.

“We grew up in the same hood. When you live in the projects, you see a lot of people. I was a little older than him,” L.E.S. told “His friend Ill Will used to buy mixtapes from me. So he saw me DJing and doing my thing and I saw him making his moves with being a rapper and linking with Large Professor and Kool G. Rap.

Another up-and-comer was an MC from Brooklyn who just happened to be around while making the album. His name was AZ. As he made noise in his borough as an MC, mutual friends linked him up with Nas. He spoke about meeting his future frequent collaborator.

“We were just both local rappers from my neighborhood when I met him because it was on a phone call. We both had homies in Queensbridge and Brooklyn who knew each other, and they were on some ‘My man is better than your man ‘type of thing,” AZ told When we got on the phone,  we started rapping to each other before he had record deals.”

Nas, Steve Stoute, and Others Create Hip-Hop Grandmaster Awards To Provide ‘Contributors Who Didn’t Get What They Deserved’

“Halftime,” the album’s first single, also appeared on the Zebrahead soundtrack and was produced by Large Professor. The song was a reintroduction to Nas’s adroit lyricism, and the perfect track to set up the LP, although it was initially released in 1992.

As good as “Halftime” was, there was no denying the utter brilliance of “It Ain't Hard to Tell,” which was masterfully produced by Large Professor. Sampling Michael Jackson's "Human Nature '', and a video directed by Ralph McDaniels, “It Ain't Hard To Tell” was a tour-de-force of lyrical dexterity and musicality.

L.E.S.’ first track on a major label ended it becoming an instant classic with “Life's a B*tch” featuring AZ, who gave the first verse of his legendary rap career. Deploying a sample, "Yearning for Your Love" by The Gap Band, the track also featured a solo from Olu Dara, Nas’ father, on the cornet at the end of the song. It was the first collaboration between Nas and his father. L.E.S. recalled creating the track and knew it was special when completed.

“I already had “Life's a B*tch” looped up. Nas called me and told me to bring all my discs to the studio and that was one of the first songs that I played. I liked the sample and the vibe of it,” L.E.S. said.

Unlike the other producers who specialize in “boom-ba,p,” L.E.S. always had a crosser appeal with his production, which would garner him platinum plaques and Billboard smashes in the years to come.

AZ shared his memories of how his first verse on wax became one of the greatest debuts in hip-hop.

“I didn’t want to be on Illmatic. I just wanted to be supportive because we had the same aspirations. One time, he asked me to come to Chung King's studio. I was going to the studio so it was exciting to know somebody that was going to work on an album. So I was just going to support Nas,” AZ recalled. “By the grace of God, it just happened. I just heard this instrumental, and he asked me to spit what I was rapping in the booth. I entered the booth and did it, and the people's reactions were crazy. 

“After the fact, he was like, Yo, I kept that record on the album.” I was like, “Get outta here.” That’s how it happened,” AZ added.

The jazz-influenced, Pete Rock-produced “The World Is Yours” became one of Nas’ signature songs and the first time the producer sang on a record.

Another jazz-inspired track was “One Love,” produced by Q-Tip was built up on Nas’ letters to his incarcerated friends, including Queens rapper Cormega.

DJ Premier's contributions showcased the undeniable chemistry between the producer and Nas on the street anthem "N.Y. State of Mind" and the boom-bap swing of "Represent," which is one of the best shoutout songs ever.

While it’s easily one of the best-produced albums of all time, Nas’ lyricism is the show's star. His introspective storytelling was otherworldly, and his skills were already exceptional, adding to his mythos as an all-time great. He raps on “It Ain’t Hard To Tell"

“This rhythmatic explosion/Is what your frame of mind has chosen/I'll leave your brain stimulated, niggas is frozen/Speak with criminal slang/begin like a violin End like Leviathan, it's deep? Well, let me try again.”

In its first week of release, the album debuted at number 12 on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 63,000 copies. While the album was not a commercial juggernaut, Illmatic earned rave reviews from most music critics, including the highly coveted 5 Mic rating in The Source Magazine. A slow-burner in sales, the album was eventually certified gold in 1996.

It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" in 2020.

In just ten songs, with top-tier production and an incredible guest feature, Nas caused a seismic shift in the rap game for the East Coast when the West Coast, namely Death Row Records, was dominating the scene.

Already a prodigy, Illmatic made Nas a legend, for better or for worse. Although his subsequent work would be more diverse, commercially successful, and reveal other dimensions of his genius, many judged it against the foreboding shadow cast by his classic debut. 

30 years later, Illmatic is still the crème de la crème of 90's New York hip-hop and remains one of the best rap albums ever.

Illmatic was the changing of the guard in hip-hop. Speaking for myself, first, it was Rakim who changed the game with the fluidity of poetry. When Nas came into the game and brought Illmatic to the table, it did the same thing,” AZ said. “The impact it had on me was that it allowed me to bring my voice to the table, speak my truth, and it gave me my path. It’s in the history books The impact of Illmatic will last for eternity. It still gives me the same vibe when I listen to it. It’s like hieroglyphics to me. I love Illmatic and the world loves it. It’s one of the top five albums of hip-hop that changed the game.”

“It was the lyrical content. NAS and AZ were trying to drop jewels with their lyrics,” L.E.S. noted. “Especially for us who lived through that time, it was almost like a blueprint for how we walk the streets. I mean, it's just, it just feels different. And that's why when you put it in today you can relate to it.”

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