JuMani’s Book Cypher – Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic

It was written…On April 19th, 1994 Nas gave us Illmatic at the ripe age of 20 coming out the rotten apple known as NYC. In celebration of its 23rd year anniversary, JuGatti and I decided to pick up “Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic” for the month of April. This book was a collective from several authors, scholars, and hip-hop aficionados alike deeply analyzing Illmatic in its entirety song by song. Some of those included Marc Lamont Hill, Michael Eric Dyson, and Common. It ain’t hard to tell the impact Illmatic had on hip-hop and this book gives a great look from all different angles coming outta Queensbridge.

See what JuGatti and I deciphered in our latest Book Cypher.
1. Where does Illmatic fall on your all-time album list?

Manito: On my all-time album list, Illmatic is in the top 10 for me. On this album, I feel like I developed a true sense of who Nas is as a person and as a rapper. Nas put you in the NYC streets and in his spirit at the same time with his rhymes, he really captured the essence of a NY State of Mind. If you look up “the art of storytelling” you’ll find Illmatic. Nas gave a great debut of his skills, from lyricism to delivery and those samples made it so dope. It was rugged, it was raw, it was real, it was ILL.

JuGatti: Oh Illmatic definitely takes my top spot on the all time greatest albums list! For him to be a newcomer and just blow the hinges off the door on his first attempt is just amazing. Not to mention he was 20 years old when it released. Lotta wisdom for a person of that age. Feel as though this album was a gift and a curse for his career. With it being so groundbreaking it was an impossible shadow to escape from. No matter what he released, the gripe would be “it ain’t no Illmatic tho.” So I guess it was a Catch 22 in a sense for him.

2. Where does Nas fall on your all-time list?

Manito: This probably sounds super typical but Nas is third on my all-time list. You know…”I’m from where niggas pull your card and argue all day about who’s the best emcee, Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas” Except Jay is first in my case, but I’m sure you guys already knew that.

JuGatti: I put Nas snuggly in the #3 spot as far as all time artist. Though my list fluctuates a lot, Nas usually maintains his spot in the top tier crowd. Just his consistency as far as pen wise has stayed steady over a 20+ year career. Sure he dropped a few duds as singles, but I can’t say I’ve heard many verses where the lyrics just weren’t there for him. Shit even in 2016 he had one of the hottest song of the year with “Nas Album Done” even though he lied to us about it being done *side eye emoji*

3. Which chapter did you like the most and why?

Manito: I enjoyed the chapter about “The World Is Yours” the most. It was written by James Braxton Peterson. I loved the analysis on nihilism and “the bleak reality of ghetto life,” this writer took such a political perspective from this verse and opened my mind up. This chapter also touched the “rap game/crack game” subject that’s so common in hip-hop, Afrocentrism, and Nas’s ideological complexities. Peterson also ties this song in with the hood classic “Belly,” and it’s only fitting considering this album inspired the movie. In addition, Peterson connected this song to the viewpoint of fictional character Tony Montana from the movie Scarface, whose philosophy was also “the world is yours.” He dissected this song on  just about every topic possible. 

JuGatti: The chapter I liked the most was the “One Love” chapter. This chapter discussed the plight of the jail system which was something we touched upon heavily in our first book review. Also I felt as though this chapter brought everything around full circle. This album came out in 1994 and the unjust prison system is still alive and thriving today. I also enjoyed the story within the chapter of the lives that were directly affected by the song and the system. Though the song isn’t seen as a political onslaught, when you delve deeper into the lyrics you realize the message of hopelessness and despair that ring through. How Jerome’s niece got shot on a getaway. How the guys baby momma was hanging with a crew he didn’t like. But there was nothing said person can do because he is locked up. Sad story.

4. What song(s) of Nas’ catalog do you think could’ve been added to Illmatic without messing up the flow of the album?

Manito: I would put “Nas Is Like” on there, minus the fact that it contains a few scratch samples from “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” Nas takes his time to explain what defines his name with his MAC-10 loaded with metaphors. I think it’d be a great way to truly introduce himself since Illmatic was his first album. Plus with DJ Premier blessing this song on production, it stays consistent with the the presence Premo had on Illmatic. 

JuGatti: I believe “Fetus” could’ve been a dope intro song to start the album. In chronicles the tale of how he saw life through his “belly button window.” Pretty creative shit. He also sampled “One Time” in the chorus so that would’ve been an ill foreshadowing of what was to come on the album.

I also like “Live Nigga Rap” featuring Mobb Deep. This could’ve been added towards the end of Illmatic, maybe right before “Represent.” With Illmatic being an ode to life in Queens, NY it would’ve been nice to see the conglomerate expressed with the collaboration. This would show the unity and entities found within the borough. Also, both acts were up and coming at the time so it would’ve been a tough formal introduction to the Mobb for some fans.

5. Explain the significance of Illmatic in hip-hop.

Manito: Yo where do I start…The cover!? I believe Nas spearheaded the movement on using baby pictures as album covers, which would also be picked up later that year by B.I.G., then much later by Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar. It also brought a re-focus back to east coast hip-hop at that time and kicked off a battle for N.Y. between him and Biggie and a few years later with HOV. It also helped birth Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents,” and the rest is history. You gotta admit that “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song” line from Takeover was epic. 

JuGatti: I think Illmatic changed the landscape of hip-hop in a trying time. 1994 was pretty much the prime golden years of hip-hop with people dropping classics left and right. At that time however, hip-hop had started to migrate to the West. Dre dropped The Chronic a few years prior to this, Doggystyle had released a little earlier as well. NWA by the time had broken up, but their gangsta rap manta was still running rampant. Ice Cube had left the group and began his string of consecutive classic albums released. The West was just more appealing at the time. Illmatic helped return the crown back to the east coast. It was pure lyricism. I never realized that Nas didn’t even spit any choruses for his songs on Illmatic. He was solely focused on the wordplay, the beats etc. The shit that hip hop purist fiend for. Also, it was an album that had everyone on notice. I find it impossible to believe that a rapper of any time hasn’t been influenced by Illmatic. Even if not directly, in some way, shape, or form every hip hop album since has had an essence of this in their work.  

JuGatti and I have more dope reads to come so make sure you’re subscribed. Link up with my partner in reading, JuGatti too!

Website: http://stoopkidz.com
Twitter: @_JuGatti , @stoop_kidz
Instagram: @JuKnowIt

If you’ve read Born to Use Mics or are thinking about picking it up , feel free to drop a comment below. You can share any and all suggestions or reading recommendations with us anytime. Time is Illmatic.


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