Hip-hop purists might find this hard to believe, but the lyrical masterpiece of Illmatic wasn’t constructed by just one man. Every great writer needs a great editor and for Nas it was Large Professor. Extra P would bring Nas to studio sessions during the making of Eric B. & Rakim’s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em and drop jewels.
“He helped me because I only knew half of what was going on,” said Nas, to Mass Appeal back in 2002. “I knew about the pen touching the paper. Paul knew that too, but he also knew to tell me, ‘Don’t say this. Take that out. Why would you say this? That makes you look crazy! This word don’t make no sense.’” He taught me everything.” IT WAS WRITTEN EDITED!
2.Russell Simmons Passed On Signing Nas
Hip-hop history is filled with missed opportunities and almost moments. Kanye was going to sign to Capitol Records, Game was going to sign to Bad Boy, and Eminem was looking to sign to an underground label before Dr. Dre came calling. Turns out the same is true for Nas.
Nasty was going to sign to his current label Def Jam back in the early ’90s but Russell Simmons passed on him because he feared the album would be a commercial flop. In retrospect, it might seem like it was a short-sighted decision but Russell was right; Illmatic failed to go gold in it’s first year. Nas later recounted the entire situation on the song “Surviving The Times” where he said he was compared to Kool G Rap, “Russell said I sounded like G, the nigga fronted.”
3. Nas Did “N.Y. State of Mind” In One Take
What’s crazy about “New York State of Mind” isn’t just that it’s Nas’ best song ever, what’s crazy is how many tries it took for a young Nas to get it just right.
“He did that in one take,” explained to DJ Premier. According to Nas, the original verse was close to 60 bars which he wrote in the studio that day.
“If you listen to ‘N.Y. State of Mind’” continued Premier. “You’ll hear him going, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ because he literally just wrote it. Before he started the verse, I was signaling him going, ‘One, two, three,’ and he just goes in.”
4. It’s Short Because It Was Rushed
One of the most distinct features about Illmatic is its length. At a mere 39 minutes and nine songs, it’s the type of album that proves that sometimes less is more. However, the tracklisting was more a result of rush than design.
In the years leading up to the album’s release, the streets were so thirsty for Nas material that enterprising DJs started putting album cuts on street mixtapes and playing the songs on college radio.
In fact, MC Serch once claimed they found a garage filled with 60,000 bootleg Illmatic albums before the album’s release. That’s why Columbia rushed the Illmatic’s release in ’94 and dropped their original plan of making it a larger, longer project.
5. Nas Wanted To Sample “Juicy Fruit” Before Biggie
Biggie’s best song “Juicy” was released in 1994 and built over a sample of Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit.” But it turns out Nas was also a big fan of “Juicy Fruit.” So much so that according to Nas, he asked producer L.E.S. to bring the record to the studio so he could sample it.
But L.E.S. didn’t have that song so he brought The Gap Band’s “Yearning for Your Love” and looped that up instead. Once Nas heard the beat, he forgot all about Mtume’s hit and opted to rhyme over the Gap Band sample and make “Life’s A Bitch.” Both songs are great, but we can’t help but wonder what could have been.
6. Nas Begged Large Professor To Executive Producer The Album But He Refused
“I wanted him to executive-produce that record, but he told me that I had to do it on my own,” explained Nas. “I was like, ‘Please! Executive produce my album.’ And he said, ‘Yo, my shit isn’t even straight.’” What Extra P was referring to was the messy breakup with his group Main Source that he was going through at the time. Large Professor would go on say that he wasn’t interested in signing Nas and that he wanted Nas to go out and make his own money.
7. Large Professor Almost Had To Smack The Hit Out of MC Serch
After Large Professor pulled out from being the album’s executive producer, Nas teamed up with MC Serch. But it wasn’t all good. “Paul was with me,” said Nas. “And he had to scream on Serch and almost smack the shit out of him.” We’re not sure what the alleged almost altercation was about, but we’d much rather get the gasface than get smacked in the face.
8. Busta Rhymes Could Have Had The “Halftime” Beat
Busta Rhymes once told XXL that Large Professor made the beat that would later become “Halftime” in front of him. But once Busta got the beat, he didn’t know what to do with it. He told XXL, “Then I heard it on ‘Halftime,’ and I was like, Goddamn, I was a stupid ass for not touching this beat!”
9. Q-Tip’s Original Idea For “One Love” Was “My Summer Vacation”
Leading up the album, Nas wrote a record that was about sending letters to friends in prison and he wondered why no one had done it before. When he went to the studio, Q-Tip suggested the idea of doing a song where a kid reads a letter in class about what he did during his summer vacation. But Nas had a different kind of vacation in mind…
10. AZ’s Verse On “Life’s A B***h” Lead To A Bidding War
AZ was initially hesitant to drop a verse on “Life’s A Bitch” but then eventually did and it turned out to be a classic. In fact, it was so well received a bidding war began over who would get to sign AZ. In the end, AZ signed with EMI and dropped his underrated debut Do Or Die in 1995.