Still Ill

John Lydon, he of the Rotten monicker and rotting teeth, once directed his lyrical strength and potency with the venomous refrain that “anger is an energy”. He was right. When channelled in the right way, anger can deliver great things: Richard Branson, not that much he delivers could be described as great, has built his entire business empire on back of ranting and raging against the perceived inabilities of the competitive opposition – record labels, train companies, mobile phones, beards, fire safety in paradise islands, etc. and been extremely successful with it. However, it has been brought to this writer’s attention that one’s energy and prose has been perceived as “grumpy”. This is an accusation I am willing to accept, as it has produced some of the better writing you’ve all endured over the last few months.  So, its time to level the moody landscape. Kinda.

‘A golden disc from a golden age’

Regular readers of these pages will be aware of my love of music and my love of words. In 1994 I was spending a lot of my time and money on vinyl from the West End, hunting down rare East Coast hip hop records that spoke of a world that a 21 year old Hertfordshire coward could only imagine. My love of basketball and Nike sneakers was being brought to lyrical life by MC’s and producers, that were delivering what we now refer to as “the golden age” of an underrated and misunderstood genre.

On pay-day, myself and a colleague would get a cab from our department store day-jobs, and high-tail it to HMV on Oxford Street, and straight to the import vinyl section. Wednesdays seemed to be better for some reason. In the pre-internet days – remember them? – our information came from The Source or Hip Hop Connection magazines. We would hear on Westwood’s radio show or read reviews, but sometimes you just had to take a flyer on an album because of the production and samples list, the studio it was coming out of, or just the cover. In May of that year, we followed the usual ritual, and marched in, cash in hand, wanting new beats. What we found was an album that to this day would resonate as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time: ‘Illmatic’ by Nas.

From the ghostly cover, depicting a young black face over the projects of New York City’s Queens borough, to the echoing sample of Michael Jackson’s sampled voice at the end, it is as close to perfection as a rap album can be. The buzz had been building about Nas’ debut  since he blew onto the scene on Main Source’s ‘Live From The BBQ’, a short cameo that impressed nearly everyone. All except record executives who thought he was too young, raw and familiar. They were wrong, and everything they identified as weaknesses were the exact strengths that got people excited. MC Serch, half of 3rd Bass had the faith and sought a deal. He found one with Columbia Records, and they set about finding producers that could match the obvious talent of Nasir Jones for the album.

And it didn’t disappoint: the rattling subway train track and ghetto-blaster funk on the opening intro, conjuring imagery of b-boys and graf, the physical, financial and aspirational distance from the action and glamour of downtown Manhattan to the streets if Queens is there. You’re in another neighbourhood. And Nas is going to tell you all about it. The narrative is relentless, and delivered with such energy that it is impossible not to stop and take it in. I remember having to stop the first track ‘New York State of Mind’ two minutes in, and having to start again. I was dumbstruck.  So was DJ Premier, who with Guru made up the supreme duo Gang Starr: “Everyone in studio was like ‘Oh my God!'”

The next track takes it right down, and introduces AZ, who’s harmonious sing-song style worked as a perfect counterpoint to Nas’ harder, toned delivery. The intensity of the album is balanced perfectly from track to track: up then down, hard then soft, deep then shallow. I won’t quote lyric after lyric, as it would never do the skill and energy justice on the page as it will on the ear.

As with all classic albums, the favourite track changes from month to month, year to year, but I regularly anchor on this:

Produced by Q-Tip, he of Tribe Called Quest legend and digger of deepest crates in search of the perfect sample and beat, establishes a break that is perfectly measured, and the lyrics are possibly the best commentary by a MC, in this writer’s opinion. A letter to a friend in jail, detailing the everyday minutia of project life: what his girlfriend’s been doing behind his back, that he has a son, who got shot, who got arrested. It is a wonderful piece of linguistic skill, and whenever hip hop is challenged as being uneducated, simple, lacking artistry or generally being misrepresented, this is the track I grab as proof that the person is utterly wrong.  There are times when rap music can be the pits. But then who hasn’t had a shit burger? Yet fillet steak comes from the same animal.

My friend and DJ Terry Hooligan said this: “From ‘New York State of Mind’, to ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’, ‘Illmatic’ encapsulates the feeling, the emotion, the time and midst of all the music of a time in my life that was simpler and quite frankly golden.” If there was a golden disc, from a golden period, this is it. Get it in your lives, or re-investigate it. It might just change your mind.

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