Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai loomed large in India’s consciousness back in the summer of 1994. The former was crowned Miss Universe that year, while the latter took home the title of Miss World. For me, both events faded in comparison to the suicide of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, whose passing shook me like the death of someone particularly close. This doesn’t make sense now, in hindsight, but felt normal at the time because, as teenagers, we tend to give our heroes a lot more importance than our family members.
A lot of us back then, a captive audience in the dawn of satellite television after economic liberalisation finally came to India, seemed to have singers, musicians, and bands as personal heroes. Movie stars from Hollywood were as big as they are today, but we couldn’t track their lives on an hourly basis the way Instagram now encourages us to. Instead, some of us used our free time to minutely pore over albums and try to make sense of individual songs in a manner that short attention spans have now rendered obsolete.
In April that year, the American rapper Nas (presumably because Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones wouldn’t fit on cassette covers) dropped his debut studio album, Illmatic. It was introduced on MTV India via a music video for the last track, It Ain’t Hard to Tell, and promptly dropped out of heavy rotation a few weeks later. There were bigger releases and events occupying MTV’s attention at the time, given that Roxette had released Crash! Boom! Bang!, rapper Warren G had made a bigger splash with his debut Regulate…G Funk Era, Blur had effectively kicked off Britpop with Parklife, Green Day had turned into stars overnight with Dookie, and Michael Jackson had married Lisa Marie Presley.
Illmatic could easily have faded away like so many rap albums of its era that were almost willfully entrenched in their geography and milieu. Slowly, however, and almost inexplicably, it started to build momentum. By the end of that decade, it had achieved platinum status in America. There was no similar groundswell in India, of course, because a movie like Gullyboy (which Nas was Executive Producer on) was still decades away from conception, but Nas still managed to make an impact among those who dutifully tuned into the show Yo! MTV Raps. 25 years after its appearance, Illmatic routinely tops lists of the greatest and most influential hip-hop albums of all time.
There were early whispers of greatness within the rap community, even if they weren’t obvious to listeners like me on the other side of the planet. As a young rapper, Nas was sometimes referred to as the new Rakim, which was a huge honour given that the MC has long been celebrated as one of the most skillful writers to wield a microphone. As early reviews of Illmatic started to trickle in, there were repeated references to his disavowal of gimmicks, the refreshing absence of cliché, and the power of what some critics called “poetic realism”. This was serious praise for someone who had just turned 21.
The opening of It Ain’t Hard to Tell — the first taste of Nas for thousands of people who didn’t immediately purchase the album — is strongly representative of his style, which is probably why it was made into a music video. “It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, then prevail / The mic is contacted, I attract clientele…” Those two lines alone contain internal rhymes, examples of assonance and slant rhymes. They are an impressive marriage of relevance and skill, showcasing just what makes rap such a compelling art form, and why Nas’ flow is easy to identify but hard to replicate.
When I eventually did get around to listening to Illmatic in its entirety, one of the things that stood out almost at once was the sound. This was a period when heavy bass and rock samples were routinely used as the bedrock for rappers to rhyme over. Nas, on the other hand, seemed to favour what sounded suspiciously like piano and avant-garde jazz. I didn’t recognise any of the samples used, which was great because it pushed me and others like me into all kinds of directions as we searched for the origins of those tunes. For those who did understand the samples, it made for a more profound listening experience, which is how Illmatic managed to attract African-Americans as well as suburban Bombayites who cared enough to listen.
It was also a welcome change from the gangsta rap that would eventually define that decade and overwhelm it, creating rap superstars in the process while simultaneously tainting the movement and reducing it to the simplistic braggadocio so many of us still mistake it for. What Nas was consciously doing is what pioneers across genres of music have always striven for, and only sometimes succeeded at, — he was going against the grain in an attempt to break the mold.
Nas’ last major appearance was in 2018, on his self-titled album produced by Kanye West. Its second track, Cops Shot the Kid, gets its name from the recurring sample of a song called Children Story by Slick Rick. “White kids are brought in alive,” he raps, “Black kids get hit with like five.” In that pithy couplet, he encapsulates the rage that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. Much of what Nas has been saying on his 11 studio albums covers themes such as urban poverty, inner city violence and the damage inflicted by gang rivalries. The murder of rapper Nipsey Hussle, on the opposite coast from where Nas grew up, shows that little has changed on the ground. That Nas’ arguments are still valid a quarter of a century later be depressing to think about, but credit to Nas for constantly finding new ways of putting his ideas across. The message itself may be worn out, but the messenger is potent.
I can still listen to Illmatic and stumble upon something new every once in a while. The sounds are still fresh, the words still compelling. In an age of streaming singles and music that dates within a week, there just aren’t many albums one can say that about.
— First published in GQ India, June 2019