This past Saturday officially marked the 20th anniversary of the hip hop classic Illmatic...and I lived it up. The album was sort of a turning point for me and for my musical tastes. When I first began listening to popular music it was all rock 'n' roll. There was nothing that could shake me away from the attitude, energy and swagger of rock music.. When grunge, alternative, punk and even metal exploded onto the mainstream music scene starting in 1991, I was a goner, sold on the acidic sounds, screeches and feedback that would become the soundtrack of my adolescence.
Now, that isn't to say I didn't like hip hop because I did. Ever since I saw Run D.M.C., the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J on MTV I had an appreciation for it. Albums such as Paul's Boutique, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, The Chronic and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) turned me on to the power and artistry of hip hop. The problem was that none of those albums made me fall in love with hip hop. At the time, I didn't know of any reason that prevented me from falling in love with hip hop, but looking back, it was because for me, even those classic albums and songs didn't sound like what hip hop should sound like. They all sounded over produced, gimmicky, more about image than substance. I just didn't believe what they rapped about. That all changed in June of 1994.
It's funny how you come across an album that you fall in love with and changes your entire perspective. I love hearing stories about how someone was introduced to an album. It's similar to listening to how your parents or grandparents met. You get sucked into the story wondering if they knew at the time when first meeting that their lives would forever be changed and connected. It sounds weird but when you really care about music the same impact can be seen and felt.
When it comes to me being introduced to Illmatic it was a result of a conversation I had with a few of my friends at lunch. I had mentioned that hip hop just doesn't do it for me, that I couldn't find anything to get out of it. That's when a guy I knew interrupted and asked if he could have a shot at changing my mind. I've always been open to new things so I agreed and he said he would bring in a tape for me to listen to and he guaranteed that it would change my mind about hip hop. I chuckled, not in a "yeah right" way but in the way you chuckle when you see a sign outside a restaurant that claims to have the world's best chicken wings.
The next day he handed me a clear Maxwell tape with the words "Nas Illmatic" scratched in black pen on the front. "Listen to this and let me know what you HONESTLY think." Not a problem. So, after I got home from school, I went up to my room and sat in front of my stereo waiting to be blown away. Slid the tape in the tape deck, closed it up and pressed play.
The first song was an intro with a few guys talking about weed, Hennessy, music and guns. Okay, easy to dismiss, well, so I thought. The intro ended with everything fading out and Nas left saying "Representin' is illmatic" and then it was followed by the beat to the second track "N.Y. State of Mind". It was right at that point that it had my attention. This dark, grimy, gritty beat sounded dangerous and untrusting. It was like the door opened up and I was being brought into another world and then Nas entered in with me. "Rappers I monkey flip 'em with the funky rhythm I be kickin'". I. Was. Done. I don't know what it was about that lyric but it sold me on what was in store for me.
I could go on and on about each track but it all ends with it winning me over. Each song was a story with characters. Stories that for me, a white kid who grew up the suburbs of a resort city, were impossible to relate to or even imagine existed. The album was a masterpiece and I knew it the second the last track ended. Those stories with those characters backed by heavy, dangerous and shadowy beats along with the dark themes of the lyrics forced me look at hip hop in an entirely different way. It forced me to go back to the classics from years before and give them another listen. I had a deeper affection for hip hop after that and it made me appreciate or criticize MCs that followed. When it came to appreciating music a little more thorough, Illmatic was a key album for me.
Twenty years later it still hasn't faded. Each cut sounds just as fresh, relevant and, in some cases, ahead of its time as it did when I first heard it. It ranks as my all time favorite hip hop album and nothing has come close to challenging it. Also, ever since I heard that album I had only heard one MC after that album that impressed me as much. Nas has stated that the word "illmatic" means "beyond ill" or "the ultimate". The title is fitting. Twenty years later, its still ill.