Saturday, April 19 is the 20th anniversary of the release of Nas's debut album, "Illmatic." Though the set was not immediately a commercial success — it took seven years before it would reach platinum status — it was critically acclaimed, considered by many to be one of the best hip-hop albums, and one of the few records to receive a perfect 5 mic rating in The Source magazine.
With his pick of A-list producers DJ Premiere, Large Professor, L.E.S., Pete Rock, and Q-Tip, and MC Serch as the executive producer, Nas recorded the nine-song album that includes a number of classic tracks, "Halftime," "One Love," "It Ain't Hard to Tell," "The World Is Yours," and "Life's a B----."
The record is being celebrated with a new documentary, "Time Is Illmatic," which opened at Tribeca Film Festival, and the double-CD, "Illmatic XX," that features remastered songs, demos, remixes, and freestyles.
Below, we share five little known facts related to the 1994 release:
1. Russell Simmons turned down opportunity to sign Nas.
MC Serch was instrumental in helping Nas get his first deal. According to an XXL interview with Serch, Nas asked him to help him negotiate an offer on the table from Atlantic Records subsidiary Big Beat. When Serch was not able to reach an amenable agreement, he pursued other options. Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons reportedly said Nas reminded him of legendary rapper Kool G Rap. "G Rap don’t sell no records. I'm not interested," Serch claims Simmons told him.
2. Nas's first major feature paid off.
Nas made his debut on Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque" from their 1991 album "Breaking Atoms." Not only was "Live at the Barbeque" the last song recorded for the album, it was recorded multiple times, Main Source member and producer Large Professor told Complex. For the final recording, all of the featured artists — Nas, Joel Fatal, and Akinyele —happened to be at the studio at the same time.
"But this session, I threw the bassline in the beat," LP remembers. "Times before we were just practicing when I would throw that beat up because it was just the drums. This time, it was like, 'This gotta count.'"
LP said the lyrics just flowed. "I wrote my verse right there," he said. "Fatal had a combination of dudes collaborating with him on a verse. Ak was always ready. And Nas, he always has books and books of rhymes. So he took this piece of this rhyme, and that piece of that rhyme, and put it all together."
The album was critically acclaimed, plus scored a hit with "Looking at the Front Door." Nas's verse stood out.
When Serch played Nas's demo for Faith Newman, who was an A&R for Columbia Records at the time, Newman interrupted the first song, "It Ain't Hard to Tell." "I've been looking for Nas, trying to get in touch with him," she said. Newman began her search for the young rapper when she heard his "Live at the Barbeque" verse.
3. Nas lost his notebook of "Illmatic" lyrics while making the album.
During an interview with BBC Radio 1's Zane Lowe, Nas recalled misplacing a cherished book of rhymes during the recording of the album. "I had lost a couple of books, or a book, I can't remember," he said. Fortunately, he had the foresight to write his contact information in the book. "For fun, I just wrote in that notebook, 'Whoever finds this, I really need this. Send back to this address.'" With the notepad missing, Nas recalled as many of the rhymes as he could, but otherwise was forced to write new lyrics. It wasn't until he completed the album that the book was returned. "After the album's done and everything, I got this package and the guy's name and number was on it and I called him." Nas didn't know if the Good Samaritan knew he was a famous new rapper, but he refused to accept any reward for his generosity. Unfortunately, though, Nas lost the book again.
4. "Illmatic" was not the album's original title.
Nas initially planned to call his debut album "Word Life," Serch explained in an interview with XXL. But he decided to let another rapper O.C. use the title instead. Serch, who was working with both artists, told the magazine, "O asked Nas if he could name his album 'Word Life.' I think Nas was gonna [switch to 'Illmatic'] anyway, but he was playing with the idea."
5. Nas's father suggested he drop out of school.
Nas's decision to quit school in the 8th grade is addressed in the documentary, "Time Is Illmatic." The condition of the schools in Nas's Queenbridge, New York, neighborhood were a big concern for the rapper's father, blues musician Olu Dara, "Time Is Illmatic" producer One9 tells Yahoo Music.
"Why would someone who comes from such an educational background like Olu tell someone to drop out? He felt at that time the school systems were more detrimental for his son," One9 says. "At that point and time he felt, 'I can help [my sons] with ways that go beyond the school system.'" Nas, who is considered one of the most intelligent and prolific rap stars, at one point was placed in lower-level courses until his mother pulled him out, One9 says. "Nas was such a well-read kid, him and his brother [Jabri 'Jungle' Jones]… If the school system is beating you down where you don't feel whole, you have to make that choice." One9 and writer Erik Parker are hoping to use the documentary as a tool to examine education.