Trackmasters Tell All: The Stories Behind Their Classic Records (Part 1)

Nas "The Message" (1996)

Album: It Was Written
Label: Columbia

Tone: “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.’

 

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?” - Poke

 

“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.

“So what happened with 'The Message' was I was at home watching the movie The Professional one night. The movie went off and the song ‘Shape of My Heart’ by Sting came on. I jumped up and said, 'Oh my God.' At the time, there wasn’t no Internet so I ran down to the record store, found out who made it, went home, and chopped it up. That was different for hip-hop at the time. It was actually the first time we experimented with Latin-feeling guitars.

“'Shape Of My Heart,' that’s a love song. You don’t get any more pop than that. Using that sample with Nas, it was like, 'Wow. Where are they going with this.' So it was a very popular sample, with a pop artist, and now you’ve got Nas rapping on it.

 

There was some undertones with him taking little jabs at other rappers in that record. [Laughs.] The 'Lex with TV sets, the mininum,' that line was directed right at Jay-Z. Jay was fronting hard with the Lexus in his videos and there was a little rivalry brewing. - Tone

 

“I brought the beat to the studio one night. It was at the end of a session, at Chung King, and they were like, 'What do we work on next?' I threw the cassette on and the intro had Nas really stuck because we got the intro from Scarface, which was really big for him. He was listening to it but when the drums kicked it he went bananas. He jumped up like, 'Oh my God!' Instantly, he knew the rhyme for the record.

“It took me a minute to really realize the picture he was painting. I was so caught up in the flow that he was putting on it that I didn’t even listen to what he was actually saying. The picture he on 'The Message' that was incredible.

“There was some undertones with him taking little jabs at other rappers in that record. [Laughs.] The 'Lex with TV sets, the mininum,' that line was directed right at Jay-Z. I’ll say it since they’re friends now. Jay was fronting hard with the Lexus, at the time, in his videos and there was a little rivalry brewing. It hadn’t really started yet, but it was brewing.”

Poke: “He definitely was referring to New York as a whole with that one king line. And I know 'Lex with TV sets, the minimum' was definitely at Jigga-man. Nas is very subliminal. You would have to read into it to know that he was even talking about Jay.”

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