The nineties were a time when the West Coast seemed to dominate the commercial scene, but lyricism reigned supreme back on the East Coast and there was one young MC that seemed unstoppable and destined to be crowned one of the greatest writers of all time. Nas came flying in just as the coastal rivalry started to escalate and he quickly set himself apart with a rhyming ability that was was far superior to many other artists of the era and by successfully sharing what life was like growing up in the bleak ghettos of New York.
You see, back then you couldn’t just pay a ridiculous sum of money for a “dope” beat then mumble a couple of hastily thought of words that don’t make any sense to you or the audience. You had to write actual words that people could rap along to and showed off your creative control over the English language.
Although there are many artists today that are known for their writing skills, his lyrical prowess remains virtually unchallenged and he continues to uphold a legacy that can only be left by a true wordsmith, one that continues to inspire generations of young MCs and uplift true fans around the world. There’s never been a better time to shed light on such a classic era and one of the culture’s most influential artists. This is hip-hop of the 90s.
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones (a.k.a. Nas) was born in Brooklyn, New York but discovered his love for hip-hop once he and his family moved to the infamous Queensbridge Houses and met his neighbour William Graham (a.k.a. Ill Will). The pair would often meet up to listen to music on Ill Will’s turntables but soon Nas would start writing rhymes and rapping over popular tracks while Will played the role of DJ. He briefly went by the name ‘Kid Wave’ before changing it to the more commonly known ‘Nasty Nas’ as he drove efforts toward putting together a demo.
After being introduced to up & coming producer, Large Professor, the young MC found himself in the same recording studio as Eric B. & Rakim and stepped into the booth to try and record his own rhymes whenever the opportunity presented itself. These tracks failed to materialise into a record for Nas but Large Professor managed to obtain a deal with Wild Pitch as part of the group, Main Source and made sure he included his young protege on their debut album.
One verse would prove enough for the aspiring artist to flourish and he would eventually be approached by MC Serch who saw to it that Nas finally get his record deal. It wasn’t hard to find producers that were willing to work with him as the rumour about his skills behind the mic circulated like wildfire and just like that, we got the greatest hip-hop album of all time.
In April of 1994, the world was blessed with Nas’ debut album, Illmatic. Even though sales fell far short of expectation, there are very few hip-hop albums that have received such an incredible amount of praise. The vivid depictions of life in the projects resonated deeply with MCs all over the map and brought to life a dreamscape of urban images that few could fault.
Despite all the love shown by critics, the label bosses insisted that Nas take his music in a more commercial direction, in order to keep up with the trend set by fellow New York rapper, Notorious B.I.G., and sent him into the studio with a larger production budget to back him up. Their efforts would pay off as Nas released his most commercially successful album in 1996 called It Was Written, wholeheartedly embracing his ‘Escobar’ alter ego on various tracks and adding mafioso flair to his poetic roots.
Following up on this newfound success, Nas planned his next album to be a double disc entitled I Am…The Autobiography but unfortunately, Mr Jones became one of the first to be hit by the new MP3 technology and many of the tracks were leaked over the internet. This prompted the rapper to quickly substitute the disaster with newly recorded material and instead, chose to present it as two albums, one called I Am… and one called Nastradamus in 1999.
The former was generally well received and remains his second highest selling release while the latter was criticised for its schizophrenic misdirection.
Beef with Hov’…
After throwing vague punches at each other on various tracks and mixtapes, Jay-Z made the feud official with his song Takeover, in which he made fun of Nas’ reputation and career. The lyrical powerhouse retaliated in full force with the song Ether that came off of his 2001 release, Stillmatic. The title of the album came from Nas’ attempt to revive the skills that made him who he is and it was a very successful return to form.
The diss track itself was seen as a far more brutal attack and only helped to fuel the flames of Nas’ comeback. In 2002, the rapper released his sixth album entitled God’s Son, an album that many music writers view as a very personal work that was inspired by his mother’s passing and the feud with Jay-Z, as well as a collection of bootlegged and unreleased material as The Lost Tapes which led many to wonder how good I Am.. could’ve been if these tracks had been successfully released the first time.
Where Is He Now?
Nas never stepped out of the music scene but unfortunately, no other album could match the inferno that was Illmatic. You can never question the MC that made writing rhymes a martial art in itself and we can always look back to his reign of supremacy in the nineties as a true example of hip-hop authority. If you want to get started listening to the works of Nas, then you should definitely give his debut a listen or even Stillmatic. True classics that any hip-hop fan should be aware of.
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Ryan C. Voller, Recording Artist – Producer – Lead Contributor for HowToMakeHip-Hop.com
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