The Players:

Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones a.k.a. Nas (Performer)
Jean-Claude Olivier a.k.a. Poke of Trackmasters (Producer & Excecutive Producer)
Samuel Barnes a.k.a. Tone of Trackmasters (Producer & Excecutive Producer)
Steve Stoute a.k.a. The Commissioner (Nas' manager)
Christopher Edward Martin a.k.a. DJ Premier (Producer)
Albert Johnson a.k.a. Prodigy (Performer)

Before The Album

Nas: “I wanted to make a street album with Marley Marl. I looked up to Marley as an inventor of so many styles of hip-hop music. I love what he did with Mama Said Knock You Out with LL Cool J. And being from the same hood, the second album had to be with Marley. So I started off with Marley Marl.

“I went in there and we went to work but Marley lives kind of far away. It always seemed like a mission to get there for me. We didn’t work every day, we picked the weekends. I didn’t [always] get out there either—I was getting in a little trouble here and there around my ways.

“After a while, some of my songs would appear as promos on the radio with all kinds of niggas rapping on them. And I didn’t even finish working on the song for my album. Like, I had a song called ‘On The Real’ that I didn’t finish. I was coming back to finish it and before I could, I’m hearing it on the radio with people rapping on it. I couldn’t understand that. I was hurt and I knew I couldn’t work like that.

“I had to rethink my whole album and figure out how to do it. I didn’t know what to do at that point because if I couldn’t do it with Marley, I didn’t have a plan B. I had to figure out something else, so me and Steve Stoute sat together and we had a meeting.

Steve Stoute: “I started working with Nas in 1995, in preparation for that album. I didn’t know Nas before that. I went to the projects looking for him without an introduction or anything. I just drove up to Queens and started asking for him and his brother Jungle pulled out a gun on me.

“He was like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you asking for Nas?’ They thought I was a guy from another project because I was a big guy and I had a Lexus. It was just the wrong situation but I worked it out immediately.

Nas: “Steve Stoute had done little things here and there in the music business so he’d been around but no one knew him. I saw him as fresh legs to run around this business with me. He wanted it more than anybody else. He was smarter than everybody else and we knew what we wanted to do. He was Cus D’Amato, I was Mike Tyson.

 

I went to the projects looking for Nas without an introduction or anything. I just drove up to Queens and started asking for him and his brother Jungle pulled out a gun on me. “He was like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you asking for Nas?’ - Steve Stoute

 

“When I started working with Steve Stoute, he managed producers. We had a vision to take it bigger than life. There’s a thing called sophomore jinx. I had to make sure that we blew people out of the park. I started hearing my style in a lot of people after Illmatic and I knew that I had to be 1000 notches above Illmatic or go home. That’s what we attempted to do.

“I guess I was lazy with it but Steve Stoute and Trackmasters didn’t just let me put out anything. They cared; I didn’t care. They were like, ‘Come on, the whole world is waiting for your next album more than they were waiting for your first album. Your first album came in and you charted low. It was good for a rap album with no big commercial records, but now the whole world is waiting for your second album, so take this shit seriously.’”

Steve Stoute: “I thought that Trackmasters knew the sensibilities between songs that were getting played on the radio and still had a credibility that a rap song needed. They could walk that fine line creatively. Nas knew that I represented Trackmasters so he trusted that. That’s really about it. Nas always trusts me.

“I had the unfortunate reality of having to make two records after an artist’s classic album. I had to make Mary J. Blige’s Share My World after My Life which was tough and I had to make It Was Written after Illmatic. Those are tough records to make because where does commercial success rub against artistic creativity?

“That was the issue, the honesty with those brands. I didn’t know what to say, honestly, about how to approach it with any science. We have to make a great album, the world is staring at us, you just came off of Illmatic. How are we going to launch it?

“I was 25 years old trying to build awareness for the album. The whole launch strategy with that album was very critical. It’s when I first realized that I was a marketer. The first thing that we did—since it was called It Was Written—was make notebooks. I had people handing out notebooks with the launch date on it. That was innovative, as far as I was concerned.

“Another tactic we did was I would give everybody parking tickets. I took NYC parking tickets and I copied them and printed them out. On one side was a parking ticket and on the other side was the release date of the album. Everyone thought they got a parking ticket and then it was just promotion for a Nas album. [Laughs.]

 

I guess I was lazy with it but Steve Stoute and Trackmasters didn’t just let me put out anything. They cared; I didn’t care. They were like, ‘Come on, the whole world is waiting for your next album more than they were waiting for your first album. Your first album came in and you charted low. It was good for a rap album with no big commercial records, but now the whole world is waiting for your second album, so take this shit seriously.’ - Nas

 

“Another thing I did was, I actually made a mixtape called QB’s Finest. I took three classic beats and put Nas freestyles on them. I inserted the mixtapes into a subscription of The Source magazine. So everyone who subscribed to it, got the magazine but it had a mixtape in it with Nas’ freestyles. What I was trying to do was set the market up. Just because we have Lauryn Hill singing doesn’t mean that Nas is not still on his llmatic shit.

“I was nervous all the time. I was mastering and Q-Tip said to me, ‘You’re killing his career.’ I was so nervous about that. Q-Tip was so important, Q-Tip was like, ‘This ain’t it.’ Q-Tip [had a big role on Illmatic] but he didn’t produce on It Was Written. Nas is an artist’s artist. My whole thing was I didn’t want him to end up being like Kool G Rap.

“I went into thinking about the launch strategy. I thought he had much more potential than Illmatic because I felt like everybody liked Illmatic but they just wanted him to stay there. But the record had not gone gold at that time. I just want to see this guy win.”

Tone: “In ‘96, we had just finished Soul For Real’s album and we had Mary J. Blige out. Nas had always been a friend of mine since ‘Back To The Grill’ with MC Serch. At the time, I was a rapper and Nas was a rapper. There was kind of like a rivalry thing between us. I think there was a small part of just getting used to that. Also, me not being a rapper anymore and producing now, and Nas trusting me producing tracks for him. That was big on his part to look past that.

“At the time, we were managed by Steve Stoute, who was also looking to manage Nas. In the conversation Steve had with Nas, he said, ‘You know, once you’re in with Trackmasters, it tends to produce the record.’

“That didn’t really sit well with Nas because Nas was known as an underground rapper and we’d had a lot of mainstream success. In the beginning it was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. But Nas agreed to give it a shot and we were all excited.”

Poke: “We felt a lot of pressure because Illmatic was a benchmark in hip-hop. The thing about Illmatic wasn’t the records themselves or the album, it was the movement behind it. So how do we make it that?”

Tone:“We both managed to ignore the criticism that people started to give us because here we were going in with Nas and we were going to make radio records with him. But Nas didn’t really know what we knew, which was that we come from the underground. We come from Kool G. Rap, Big Daddy Kane, The Real Roxanne. We come from that era. That’s what we do.

 

I was nervous all the time. I was mastering and Q-Tip said to me, ‘You’re killing his career.’ I was so nervous about that. Q-Tip was so important, Q-Tip was like, ‘This ain’t it.’ - Steve Stoute

 

“You’ve got to understand, Nas is used to dealing with producers like Large Professor, Q-Tip, Premo, where they’re giving him raw hip-hop. Our whole thing was raw hip-hop is good—and we love it—but it has to have enough of an appeal to get the people in the stores to buy your record. Not just your homeboy on the block.

“One of the main things that we thought about was producing Nas and making it so that he doesn’t lose credibility. The word ‘sellout’ was a big word, back then. If you got labeled with that word, as a rapper, you were finished. So we had to make sure that we could get him stuff that was middle-of-the-road—that radio could understand and that the hood could understand.

“Once Nas got comfortable and we had a gameplan on how to make this album, things started to magically come together. We knew that, in doing this album, we were going to have to bring in other people, like DJ Premier, to make it a broad enough album so that people don’t say that we tried to make this guy a commercial rapper.”