Minya Oh: 'I Was Never Gonna Not Want To Listen To This'
One of the quickest ways to find out where a rap album resides in the genre's pantheon is to ask how many Mics it got. During hip-hop's fertile middle period (roughly, the late '80s into the late '90s), The Source magazine reviewed and rated rap albums stringently and awarded up to five Mics, its equivalent to stars. In 1994, when it published its review of Illmatic, hip-hop's Bible had given out only six 5 Mic ratings in its six-year history — the last one had been more than two years previous and gone to The Low End Theory. A 5 Mic review meant that you had made a classic album.
The Source's 5 Mic review of Illmatic was written by Minya Oh under her pen name, Shortie. Today she's Miss Info, a radio personality on Hot 97, New York's loudest hip-hop station. She spoke to Frannie Kelley about her review, Nas, the "real hip-hop" debate then and now, and making LL Cool J cry.
FRANNIE KELLEY: When is the first time you hear a Nas track?
MINYA OH: At the time I was a Stretch and Bobbito fanatic, so I would stay up — I believe it was on Thursday nights, three o'clock in the morning, and listen to college radio 89 Tech 9. I'm sure Columbia University was not happy that that was the name of the show, but it was a college radio show done by two guys who were not at college. Stretch and Bob, along with their cast of characters, they would talk a lot, they would make fun of each other a lot, but in-between that, there were these gems. Songs that you could never hear anywhere else, freestyles that you would never get anywhere else. I remember them playing the early Nas songs which were "Live at the Barbeque" and "Back to the Grill Again" and "Halftime," which was off a movie soundtrack for a movie that no one had ever seen — and no one has seen since — called Zebrahead.
That show was known for lyrics. There were MCs going up there and spitting bars and bars and bars. But I don't think that there was anybody listening who didn't stop everything that they were doing or thinking and just pay attention to that little box on their desk with the antenna that they were probably holding just so, to get the right frequency. It was like it cut through the air. So this was Nas' voice — and you didn't really know who Nas was. He was rapper Nas, he was Nasty Nas, he was Nasir. And it just sounded so different but familiar at the same time.
I think that maybe the fact that he was, like, a child born from a lot of the hip-hop greats that we were all listening to, whether it was G Rap or Big Daddy Kane — he was like their son, but also a prodigy. He was blending the best parts of the old school, that sort of attitude and swagger and mythology but then making it very modern. And a little scary, because that era was filled with — kind of like the children of the corn? The children born from a lot of struggle, and born to express themselves through rhyme, and a lot of what they were seeing and then wanted to say was not pretty.
So I remember those were the first times that I came across this artist Nas that was also very mysterious; no one knew much about him.
Right. And so there was anticipation for the album?
Massive fascination, anticipation. It's funny because back then, something wouldn't really leak the way that it would leak now, where anybody could just download, you know: "That Drake album leaked on the web. Here's a link." It was little smatterings and you still had to work for it.
I think that Nas and his whole crew, they were all very proud of him so there were probably people walking around Queensbridge with full copies of the album. I was an intern at The Source at the time and there were definitely songs here and there. Maybe Matty C at The Source had a little something and Jon Shecter had copies that he wasn't supposed to have.
The demand was so great — and by great I mean, in a community that was so much smaller than the hip-hop community is now — that it felt like a movement. Everyone is clamoring for this. Without any of the marketing; there was no publicity. It wasn't like a, "We're gonna send out a series of YouTube clips." It was nothing like that. This all happened very organically.
Why did people want it so bad?
When I think about those days, a lot of it gets mixed together. But I do remember that there was a sense, especially in New York — The Source offices were downtown on Broadway — there was the changing of the atmosphere in hip-hop.
It was — the West had won, you know? We had come from the total annihilation of everyone's stereotypes of hip-hop with N.W.A. and through that, The Chronic coming up and blowing everyone's minds and also being a huge commercial success and then that seed planting and turning into Snoop Dogg, who had just released his album and that was huge. I mean, even the mainstream was talking about Snoop because it was a new face to hip-hop that was also a very salacious and sort of exciting and dramatic and violent one.
So in New York, it was almost like everything was a response to what was happening on the West Coast. And everybody wanted to finally find and crown a boy king. I think that that's one of the things that got a lot of people hyped, is because if Rakim was the God, then he was not really, you know, in the mix as much. And all we were hearing were Snoop and Dre and G-Funk. And even in L.A., they were starting to diversify. There were Souls of Mischief and Cypress and people wanted — back home, everything was so regional and so personal in that way, that I think a lot of the hip-hop fans wanted to be able to claim something for themselves.
So regional down to the borough out here? So personal down to the borough?
It almost — I think it's personal and regional, but also, if there's Compton, what do we have that is equally as tough and exclusive and insular? So you have to look at like the biggest housing project, and that's Queensbridge, where they have their own language, where they have — it's not the same gang culture, but it is a gang, and definitely, definitely, their own style. Fashion-wise, there was a Queensbridge look, and Nas epitomized every part of that cool. From the army jackets to the Polo, North Face, his knit caps, the way he wore his hair, the way he rolled his blunts — everything.
So that was kind of like, "OK, well, you have your culture that is so well defined and now we're all learning it, but we're also maybe trying to copy it too much? And that's making people uncomfortable." Common talked about that on "Used to Love H.E.R." So, yeah, I think that around New York, it was like, "OK, well what do we have? Oh, now we have the next greatest MC." And it's just amazing that we locked onto that so quickly. I think now there's so much skepticism, but it didn't feel like there was any real pushback. It was like relief, like "We have someone."
There was not an argument.
Yeah, I mean, I think there was a lot of arguing obviously because of the 5 Mics.
Yes, well, I do want to get to that for sure.
But there was no argument about whether Nas was a tremendous talent and whether people were excited about him. I think that was pretty universal.
Yeah. Not to be corny but it ain't hard to tell. Yeah.
So in what form do you have the album? Do you get assigned the review?
Oh, absolutely. The process and the beauty was that I was literally an indentured servant — the happiest, happiest, most joyful indentured servant of all time. I was so excited to just be in the office working. I never — I don't remember getting paid. Maybe legally they had to, you know, buy me lunch. And so I was not a writer, an assigned writer. I was an intern who did anything, whether it was making copies or transcribing interviews — hours and hours of interviews — or, "Oh, we know that you're detached enough from the industry and you care about it so much, we want you to write reviews."
I would get an album and it would always be an advance cassette. I remember Jon Shecter and Reginald C. Dennis, those were my editors along with James Bernard, they gave me a cassette — I was already excited about Nas — and it was handwritten, all of the song titles. I still have that cassette. I always sort of believed that it was in his handwriting, like, "Here are the songs. Here's a copy of it. Let me give it to the record label." The record label then passes it onto The Source, which was The New York Times, the everything, of that era.
And it was just very simple. There wasn't a lot of pre-gaming there. It wasn't like they prepared me for, "You're about to listen to something really incredible." There was nothing like that. I think that that was actually what kept it kind of pure because, if you're this magazine of record about hip-hop and you give an album that you already believe to be very, very important to be reviewed by an intern who — and let's also be aware of the fact, I'm a Korean-American, girl, teenager, from Chicago. Those are all different elements that really, kind of, keep it blind. And they didn't tell me what to expect. They just said, you know, "You're gonna review this."
I knew that it was an honor, though, because everybody was already sort of talking about him. I remember that at the time I was using a bright yellow waterproof Walkman.
I had one of those!
Exactly. You thought that it was like, it was gonna last forever. And it had kind of this suction lock, you know, you close it and it kind of made a suction. I remember popping it into the Walkman and going to the subway. I lived in Harlem at the time, and I got onto the subway platform — I think it was the D train at Broadway-Lafayette — and when I started listening to the album and that intro comes on, "Genesis" and then "N.Y. State of Mind" --
And it sounds like the train.
Exactly, exactly. It felt like somebody dropped a hood over me. And I remember that many trains went by and I was still standing there listening. I finally went home. And I don't think that I stopped playing it for days, just over and over and over again. Mostly on headphones, so that's really when it fills your entire being.
I didn't have any of those deep thoughts back then. I just know, looking back, that's how I felt. And I remember having to write down my thoughts about the album and trying to analyze each song, also separate the beats, which were by superstars, you know, people that we were already really excited about and respected. To have them sort of bless this newcomer also gave it even more weight.
Yeah, you called them the purest.
Because these were the guys that you go to when you — don't tell them what you want, they're just gonna give you exactly their sound. I mean, there's a Pete Rock horn. He could — if you name a comet, or a plant, it's kind of the same thing, where he has invented his own kind.
And obviously with Premier — I think the beat-mining and beat-obsessed people in hip-hop can almost sniff it out like a sommelier. "That's a Preemo scratch," from one scratch. With those guys sort of blessing this project, that was a big deal, so you kind of had to analyze that separately. But I knew, and I kept saying to myself, "This is so good."
But we had, in the office — and I'm the little dunny, I am just happy to be there — but all of the editors were very hardcore about, you know, a classic means a lot. There are no classics. There is no perfection. And in some ways, I'm sure people had said, "There shouldn't be any 5 Mic reviews."
I just kept saying like, "Let me listen to the beats: perfection." "Let me listen to the lyrics: I feel like I've never heard anything like this before." I feel like I know a world completely. Not just the outside of it, not just the folklore or the most exciting stories, not just the superstars of that area or that block. I know the small people and the children and the women. Everything that I tried to analyze, I just couldn't get away from the fact that I couldn't find anything wrong, and that I also didn't think it was ever gonna go away. Or that I was never gonna not want to listen to this.
I remember having that conversation with them. I don't remember what I said, and I'm sure I danced around it or apologized, but I was just like, "I really feel like this is a 5 Mic. I want to give it 5 Mics." And by no means was I the only person that gets to say — if I went rogue and said, "This is a 2 Mic album," they would definitely reel it back in and fix it up. But I think my separation from any outside influence affirmed what Jon Shecter, who was the editor-in-chief, was thinking.
And he believed that the whole time. Now, looking back, I know that he felt kind of like, "See, I told you all." And everybody else had to also get on board, but yeah, it didn't feel like that big of a deal to me.
Just because I was like, "I can't see what else to rate it, but you guys will decide." You know, "You guys will correct me if I'm wrong." But this is what I believe.
Did you think about — I mean, it sounds like the answer is no — but did you think about what it would mean to Nas to get a 5 Mic?
Not at all. Not at all. There was no — and maybe the beauty of the magazine world at that time, and hip-hop at that time, and my particular position at that time, as a nobody, also protected me from thinking about the consequences of things. Which is a luxury that nobody has anymore.
Even if you are a writer for a big website or a newspaper, your Twitter handle is attached and everyone can find you. So you think about those things, whether you admit it or not. And sometimes you think about those things and try to bait people into reacting to you.
But for me at The Source at that time, I actually wrote under a pen name to really give no one the tools to judge what I was saying outside of what the words were on the page. As opposed to writing down Minya Oh — obviously ethnic, possibly feminine, all types of wrong in The Source magazine — I wrote under the name Shortie: gender ambiguous, because that was the slang, still accurate, I'm very short, and you didn't know what race I was.
There were a lot of funny stories that happened because of that. There were many angry phone calls that The Source office got from artists who were threatening to beat up "that Shortie n-word," that I was a hateful person, that they would find me. I was glad that that was the way that I came into what I would do for the rest of my life.
But I never thought about how this would affect Nas. Maybe my editors did, because they kind of knew, "We are important enough to crown someone as the next coming of Rakim, or, the next person to, kind of, carry the mantle for New York." There were all of these loaded titles, and I only saw them when they came out as cover lines or on the page.
I was blissfully protected.
The people that were trying to beat you up — it was because you gave somebody else a 5 Mic and not them?
No, no, no, no, no. I wrote many reviews under the Shortie pen name. And some of them were very, very critical.
There's a story that I remember hearing, that Russell Simmons called the office, and he was screaming. He was allegedly on a treadmill, screaming at one of the editors because of the — I had written an LL Cool J review — and then he said that, "This guy, Shortie, made LL cry."
Oh my god!
This was the story. I don't know whether it was true, but it was just really, really funny. The editors got a big laugh out of that. There was a couple times.
I was really lucky to have editors who took into consideration more of like, how much I loved the music and how much I cared about the culture and studied it and wanted to know more, and more than the surface things. So I got to review Biggie and Jeru and Artifacts and all of these incredible, incredible albums.
Those were the best times — some of the best days of my life. Definitely.
How many debuts ever got 5 Mics? How many albums ever got 5 Mics?
I'm not, like, a Source magazine historian, so I don't necessarily know all of the albums that ever got 5 Mics, but I know that one thing that was very clear about The Source was — it called itself "The Bible of Hip-Hop."
At that time, it was so much work to be a hip-hop fan. It was a lot of work, and that work and that effort also created a different kind of camaraderie. If someone loved hip-hop, you knew what they went through to hear it, to find it, to experience it live and so you automatically had something that you related to them with. And reading The Source was just a — you knew that you were going to universally have that exact same experience with every single other person across the country, possibly around the world.
I think that that golden age of The Source, that value was not lost on the editors; they took everything really seriously. That's why — I know that, for Reggie Dennis, he didn't want to have a bunch of 5 Mic reviews floating around. That was kind of the Holy Grail. It's there, but we all know it doesn't get handed out.
There were a couple albums that did get 5 Mics and I think that there were a couple albums that deserved it in hindsight. What messed it up is that later on in life, The Source went through a lot of different changes and then they started to retroactively award 5 Mics.
Oh, I forgot about that.
Which is just, I mean, that's just a terrible look. And then there were other albums that clearly shouldn't have even gotten any mics, much less 5. There was a Lil' Kim album that was — it wasn't the Lil' Kim album that should have gotten the highest rank in her career.
It's hard for me to itemize all of the ones that won and didn't win and got robbed and whatnot, but it was a rarity that really — especially for a new artist — you were kind of stamping them. It's almost an unfulfillable prophecy. Like, "You are going to be classic. We don't know anything about you yet, but this moment in your life — how could it ever get any better?"
And I think that, to his credit, Nas has sustained that — it's not like every album of his has been a classic, but you never felt like he can't lyrically deliver. So maybe it meant that much to him, too. Maybe it formed — not his success — but, mentally, where he wanted to always kind of uphold.
I don't know. I've never actually asked him, and I've interviewed Nas so many times. A good friend of mine, Andrea Duncan Mao, she works for Fuse and she said that she actually had a conversation with him where she told him that the same Miss Info that he sees all the time and sits down with and talks to — I mean, I've been to Brazil with Nas and interviewed him there and all over the world — that I'm the same person. And I think that it was kind of a surprise to him, which is bizarre.
But I've — you know, it's not something that I bring up a lot, either. He's still definitely one of my favorite MCs and I don't think that anybody can take the way that he's handled his career away from him; it's an amazing 20 years.
Yeah. It's exciting that he's making a new album, too.
Yeah, and also, I'm actually really excited about Lost Tapes II. That's what I want.
I mean, I loved Lost Tapes. I felt like a lot of the things that had been thrown away and were uncovered were in feeling the very same as Illmatic, actually.
The interesting thing when I look at Illmatic versus the albums that had come out right before it — whether you look at Enter the Wu-Tang or some other New York albums — I felt like there was a change from the participant to the observer. I thought that Nas, a lot of times, was, like many poets, channeling the things that were around them. As opposed to with Wu-Tang, where you felt like they were living it, it felt like he — and he always kind of accepted that he was sitting up from a bird's-eye view, sort of sitting up in the projects, looking out the window, and able to see everything and have context. Whereas I think that if you're telling the cinematic story of you running the block and you killing these people, and you hustling ... It felt different and it felt more introspective and a little bit sad.
That's what you get from Illmatic and you definitely get that in Lost Tapes, too. So that's why — I want more of that. More of the throwaways.
F--- this happy s---.
Yeah, exactly. Oh, I just saw the movie and that was my takeaway, too. It was so good. And there was so much despair and sadness, but in the most energizing way. You know, I don't want to hear your stories of opulence. I don't want to know about all your riches and your furs. I want to know about your pain. I thought that the movie delivered that. And, god, Jungle, his brother --
Oh my god.
And hilarious in the same --
Star of the movie.
Literally in the same breath he would break your heart and then make you laugh. But yeah, I was blown away by the whole movie. Especially because it ended — it ends and you never really see any of the hip-hop culture association that the mainstream has of, like, people ballin' out and poppin' bottles and doing all of this stuff.
It never gets to really the trappings of Illmatic's success. It just ends right there.
Yeah. Yeah, and the history. I really liked it.
I liked it too. You want to look at the review again and see if there's anything else you want to bring up?
You know what's funny is that, to this day — I don't know how long it's been, but it's been at least 10 years that — I refuse to read my review.
I don't, I can't even. I can't. It's the slang and my --
No, no, no. I know what you're talking about.
It makes me cringe. Even in the movie, there's a little, there's a pull-quote, and I'm like dropping down in my seat. I both — I'm so proud of being even a part of that moment.
One: I'm incredibly grateful to my editors for letting me do that. Especially given the fact that there were very few women writers, zero Asian-American writers. So that was a huge, huge deal. It also meant so much to me personally. The album changed my life and really set me on my path of wanting to be in hip-hop and cover hip-hop.
But yeah, the wording — I feel sort of emotional about all of this. And I was also kind of running away from it, in some ways. Because I think the Miss Info right now is in a very different place, and hip-hop is in a very different place. There's a value put on things that sometimes I'm uncomfortable with.
But I think that — and I said this to a couple of different people — you do a lot of things throughout your job or even your personal life and a lot of it, you were dead wrong. And you look back and you know. "Ugh, how did I think that?" Or, "How did I wear that? And why did I date that guy?" And all of these things. But there's a couple things that if you're really truthful with yourself that you're like, "That was dead wrong. That one, I was on point." And so that's one moment — one of the very few — where I feel like, thank god I did the right thing.
You close the review by saying, "If you can't at least appreciate the value of Nas' poetical realism, then you best get yourself up out of hip-hop." So what — to you, today, what is the value of Illmatic?
When I wrote it 20 years ago — what I imagine I meant is — I imagine that that was my own personal struggle sort of seeping out. And that was from women in the office who didn't think that I should be working at The Source — classic women-on-women hate. That was from me feeling like an alien, this strange creature who wouldn't get out of the room even though I was from Chicago, so ostensibly I'm a hick. I was small and young and Korean and nerdy and all of those different things that didn't necessarily fit, but I was so determined to be there.
So I think that maybe that line was really about me saying, "It's not what you look like or whatever's on paper. It's really like, 'Do you feel this?' I feel this — whether you think I should or not. And if you don't, then there's something wrong with you.' Or, 'This isn't for you.'" So it's me defining my own inclusiveness in hip-hop. I think that that's probably what I was speaking to without meaning to.
Now I think that's really interesting because you can kind of compare it to a lot of the things that people feel uncomfortable about with the coverage of hip-hop, or the fanship of hip-hop. Whether you go to a music festival and everyone there knows the one song that a hip-hop legend is performing that happened to have been on a bubblegum commercial, but doesn't know any of the other songs and also doesn't care to know them; doesn't want to hear any of them.
There's a lot of talk about cultural tourism, cultural vulturism, and whether you, in your comfort, can enjoy the pain or the struggle or the violence of someone's work. And I think that it really goes back to — if it means something to you, if it speaks something to you, if you can relate to it, then you have a right to love it and you have a right to own it, yourself, right? But you have to dig deep down inside and figure out where is that love coming from. Is it a fascination or almost like a comedy — of errors? Or is it — is there actual concern? Is there an emotional tie because pain is kind of universal?
And so even if the pain of someone like Kendrick — on the West Coast, completely different lifestyle, completely different set of struggles — if you kind of relate to that because you have your own — whether it's mundane or trivial in somebody else's eyes — whether you also feel like you don't know whether you're gonna make it. Or, you think that everyone's against you. Then I believe — and I guess I thought that back then — that you have a right to be in that circle with that piece of art and call it your own. So, yeah, that's maybe what I meant.
It makes all the sense in the world to me. Why do you think that those feelings, that inclusiveness that happens within hip-hop, doesn't happen outside hip-hop? Like, "If you can't understand this, walk away."
There's something in hip-hop that — an internal struggle about the idea of authenticity. And that goes hand in hand with exclusivity. It's the whole reason why you can almost tie a word, a slang word, or an outfit, a brand name to a specific year — maybe even down to the month: when it comes up, when it's out, when you will be stamped a poser if you mention it.
You can just look at Jay Z. He's literally created a time when he tells you you must wear button-downs. If you don't, then you look sloppy. Oop, no more button-downs; now we're going to this. "Timbs — all Timbs." "No, no Timbs." "Oh, wait, you know what? These Timbs are OK." It's a rollercoaster that you have to be ready to strap in and ride. The reward is the inclusiveness: now you're in.
Then, at the same time, hip-hop wants to expand and be successful. If EPMD once said, that you shouldn't go crossover, now it's all about going crossover. Because now it's rewarded with money and money also equals greatness.
These are all things that I think — it confuses some people. They don't know whether they should include you because now you're part of their support or their team, or whether they should shun you because you don't know any better — this is only for those who get it. I think that that's something that is very difficult. I'm trying to think what is the --
It's the word "real." It keeps coming up. It came up during Nas' Coachella set. Everybody just keeps saying, "This is real hip-hop. This is real." You use it in the review. I hear it everywhere all the time. It's the incessant, interminable, constant debate.
I remember that there was a big debate about whether something was authentic given the background of the artist. Around that time with Illmatic, there was also Onyx, which was the antithesis of real. Those were, like, club dancers that were recruited. It was almost the Menudo of rap. It was like, "OK, this is it. You're gonna put on these army jackets and you're gonna throw your guns in the air and it's gonna be hardcore."
And Jam Master Jay was their manipulator.
Which is kind of bizarre.
This is gonna be hardcore, but the same way that, you know, Rambo is hardcore. With Nas, I think it was so real because you also weren't given all of the answers. It was lots of mystery. In that album, there were tons of names of people that you wanted to know more about, but if you didn't actually grow up in New York, or even live in Queensbridge, you would never know.
But they were so fascinating. There were times I remember that we would analyze all of the liner notes for, especially like, all the Wu-Tang albums and Nas and Gang Starr. You would look at all the thank-you's.
And you would analyze like, "Who is this person?"
Look at their name, it's fascinating. Who is Big Oogie? And maybe somebody would put you on and say like, "Oh, he hustles; he does this." "Oh, he's a legend." Nas was dropping all of the big drug dealer names and the infamous criminals and the different areas of Queensbridge, all of the very specific outfits and clothing labels. I think that it felt real because you weren't given the answers. It made you have to go find out more. It wasn't a fictional storyline. It was historical non-fiction.
Nowadays, real is used as a snobby qualifier for whether something appeals to your gut or your head. There's lots of hip-hop elitism. Like, the more words that you cram into one verse, that means that it's high quality. If it's just a youngster repeating the same three words over and over again, or a name over and over again, or "Versace," then it's not real. You know, there are good — great — trap music songs, and then there are terrible ones. And there are amazing lyrical rap songs, and then there are really boring, insufferable ones. So that is the argument.
The realness argument now is one that I don't have. Whereas I think back then when I wrote about something being real, I meant it in the way that it really makes you think and want to know more. It really sounds like you're learning about an entire place that exists, and it's not a producer, handpicked fiction.
Right. Yeah, I've been lately most worried about the whole real debate — that it's really more masculine versus feminine. It's stressing me out.
That's interesting. In the context of what? Of whether something appeals to a female fanbase or a male fanbase? Or in the context of whether it defines some sort of non-macho emotions?
Like real vs. unreal is the same as hard vs. soft. And soft is, yeah, a certain category of emotions — admitting vulnerabilities and acting female. People will put Drake and Future in this category. But even somebody who — if chicks like this song, then --
Then it's not real hip-hop.
That conversation, the "real hip-hop vs. that's not real hip-hop" is definitely one that happens a lot in New York. Because of the insecurities of --
Yeah, totally. You know: "This is really where it started so we should really be supporting the artists who are still really rapping but are not necessarily succeeding." Regardless of whether they are really rapping well. So I think that's a lot of that.
But then the other debate that you're talking about is really interesting because I think that, now, showing emotion and maybe appealing to a wider fan base is a requirement for succeeding. And then if you don't — if you don't diversify — then you're gonna be stuck in this pigeon-holed version of what hip-hop is. I think that that's an old school way of approaching hip-hop and it's also not reflective of the very diverse fan base of hip-hop. So you end up dating yourself.
If you think that hip-hop is only for black fans, you're ignoring all of the people that really love you and really want to listen to you. If you think that it's only guys, or if you think that it's only New Yorkers — even urban vs. suburban: if you think it's only urban, you do yourself a huge disservice.
Because if you are telling a truth about yourself, or even just having fun, then those things are very universal. I think it all depends on who is relating to you the most, regardless of where they come from or what they look like.
I keep thinking — what I woke up and wrote to myself in the middle of the night — is that the way that Illmatic is timeless, it's because facts don't change; moods change. Trends come and go — we feel different. But tell a very factual story, then you're good. The tricky thing with that --
Or also to tell a very personal story. Or to observe something that has happened, and then repeat it, is a moment in history — you're almost being a historian.
And that does not change, nor does it go in and out of style. Right?
Which is really interesting to think about. Right now a lot of albums are sort of — let's say the way that Kanye approaches making albums. They're very specific to who he is at that moment.
"I just broke up with this girl and I am upset; I am angry." 808s.
"I am on top of the freakin' world. I've got this hot chick." That's Yeezus.
"I am also wildly rich and very influential, but I am angry because I want more." More Yeezus.
So I guess you have to be in that timeframe with him, or in that mind state with him, to really love the album?
Right. Maybe. Or that you can at least — maybe that's what makes it a work of art. It is an accurate depiction of somebody's feelings --
In that moment, yeah.
Yeah. And so you can appreciate it for what it is. Or you can respect it for what it is, even if you don't like the aesthetics of it. Maybe.
I think that, in that sense, Illmatic is both a historical document and, still, a work of art because you're seeing it through the eyes of someone who doesn't feel that hopeful and has nothing at that moment and just kind of wants to get back at the world. Wave guns at nuns and all that other stuff. So it's kind of like the best of both.
One of the things that people who don't like hip-hop love to talk about is that it's not factual: "He's exaggerating." "That didn't really happen, it wasn't really that bad." "He's just trying to look like Scarface when he says, 'The world is yours.'"
People who are living comfortable don't want to admit that there are dead-ends out there, that there are projects that you can't get out of --
That's funny. I have never had that conversation with anyone who picks apart the songs, and feels like Nas is exaggerating, because — especially compared to hip-hop today, which is almost science-fiction — the lyrics in Illmatic are pretty muted. And the way that they're so realistic is because, again, it's not really explained to you; a lot of it is almost in code. Lots of names being dropped of people that are not famous. Lots of street descriptions and very tiny moments that are being talked about that are very specific to 100 people. Some of the lingo, when you look at it on Rap Genius, it's all wrong.
Because there are things that you only knew if you were around at that time. Like, you know, there's a line about being "telephone blown," and it's not about your telephone blowing up, and ringing. It's about your face being opened up with a razor, which was called a "telephone cut" because it went from your ear, to your mouth, and it was gruesome. And I knew lots of kids walking around — even girls — walking around with these scars. Those are little tiny things that make it very realistic.
And I think that the bravado that is in a lot of the songs was totally realistic. Everyone had to feel somewhat invincible in order to just not get downtrodden on the fact that all your friends are going to jail or you really don't know whether you should hustle or whether you should get a horrible minimum wage job. So, yeah, you take on that Superman or Scarface attitude because that's kind of the only way that you can get through it
What's also interesting about that song specifically — the chorus is, "The world is yours."
The chorus is, "The world is yours." You hear Pete Rock saying that and Nas saying that and you're like, "Are they ...? They're trying to encourage me to keep just keeping on." Of course the imagery is a Scarface imagery, but he was a success story for a lot of people. And it was almost a proclamation that you can be OK. So I always listened really closely to that song and wondered — it's kind of like a self help song.
I think I got it — if there's anything you want to add or go back to or anything like that?
I love all of the excitement around the 20th anniversary. I think that's been incredible. And also emotional and sad in some ways, because you immediately have to start thinking about a time when you just loved everything. I mean, I was so excited about every moment. I would go to shows that I really had no business going to and who knows what I was wearing and I'm pretty sure I was alone a lot of the time.
But then you're just happy like, "Wow. We survived." And especially for Nas, like, "Oh, you thrived!" I'm happy that I was around during that time and I was able to speak on it and that people remember.