Queensbridge rap legend Nas went back in time, 20 years to be exact, with NPR's Franny Kelly and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest. Commemorating his debut album, Illmatic, NPR gave an hourlong interview about the beginning of his successful career.
The MC touched on the foundation of the album: his inspirations, his neighborhood, and exploring NYC. "Tribe's movement was encouragement to get out to the world...everyone wanted to stay on the block," stated Nas. He reminisced about one friend he had that was willing to go out of the neighborhood with him. They headed to Washington Square Park to check the scene and soak in what it had to offer. It was one fateful day that they saw Jarobi White in the park with his crowd. They decided to follow them to see where the "it" clubs were and they ended up at The Vault. "I had a real quest with a member of Tribe early before I had any records of anything," he said. He stated that he was lucky to have been around when Tribe first came out.
The interview wasn't solely focused on Nas. Nas himself did some questioning about the beginnings of one of his inspirations: A Tribe Called Quest. Fitting for the moment, Nas asked about Tribe's debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Ironically Nas' favorite song, "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," was originally a demo that made it, with some edits. Fun fact: member Q-Tip was 15 years old at the time when he spit the verses on the track. Coincidentally, when Ali Shaheed answered the same question, his favorite Nas track "Ain't Hard To Tell," too was a demo track that made it to the debut album.
While "Halftime" may have been the first single and music video off of the album, "Ain't Hard To Tell" is what Nas considers his first single. It was in 1991, three years before the album's release, when it all truly began. He teamed up with producer Large Professor when he was about 17 years old, and hit the studio. At that time he says, they were using Eric B.'s studio time that Eric pre-paid for, and it was then he started working with legends Eric. B and Rakim. Nas stated that his first time he heard his own music was when he was walking and heard "Ain't Hard To Tell" blasting from a car radio.
It wasn't until 1992 that "Halftime" came along, originally as a soundtrack for the film Zebrahead that was also produced by Professor. By that time, half of Illmatic was already written. "N.Y. State of Mind" and "Represent" were "tweaked to make it up to date." "Life's A Bitch" and "One Love" were the only fresh tracks off of the album. Nas admitted pushing himself to make a tenth track but it wasn't until two years and $250,000 went by, he knew he to drop the album.
NPR editor Franny Kelly delved into the core of Illmatic. "Who was it made for?" she asked. Nas responded:
My surroundings, hip hop communities, and to be the number one MC / rapper... most of us are out to be the best. I made it for other rappers, other MC's, hip hop groups, artists, singers, people in the arts. That's who I made it for, but it comes from the street, so my surroundings wrote that album. I made it for them, it's the theme song for my surroundings...it was already written and produced by the streets."
During the remainder of the interview, he gives insight on relocating to L.A., performing at this year's SXSW Music Festival, the making of upcoming documentary Illmatic Films, mentoring others, and more. You can download the audio in the player above.
For Nas' latest music, news, and tour dates, check out his Zumic artist page.