Nas did more than just shake up hip-hop with Illmatic, he turned the Queensbridge Houses into a monument.
Twenty years ago, Nas raised the bar for hip-hop with the release of his seminal debut, Illmatic. Working with the finest producers of the era, the young rapper created an extraordinarily vivid account of life in the projects, describing his surroundings with detail and sagacity well beyond his 20 years. Released to instant acclaim, Illmatic is hailed as arguably the greatest hip-hop album ever made, while the Queens native was exalted as the second coming of Rakim, hip-hop’s chipped-toothed savior with an uncanny ability to turn his words into lucid images worthy of 35mm film. For just under 40 minutes of brilliance, Nas served as the narrator, walking listeners through his habitat: the Queensbridge Houses. His scenic account of urban residency has earned Nas praise as possibly hip-hop’s greatest storyteller, all while turning the projects that raised him into a place of hip-hop folklore.
Located in Long Island City, the Queensbridge Houses are a massive complex located just south of the Queensboro Bridge, for which they’re named. With over 3,142 units home to nearly 7,000 people, it’s the largest public housing development in all of North America. The colossal structure is divided into two Y-shaped buildings: the South Houses on the 41st Street side and the North Houses on the 40th Street side, where Nas grew up.
His scenic account of urban residency has earned Nas praise as possibly hip-hop’s greatest storyteller, all while turning the projects that raised him into a place of hip-hop folklore
A 2012 WNYC feature revealed that less than a decade after their 1940 opening, the number of white and black residents adjusted, as the white community shrank while the black population increased every year since the city began keeping records in 1946. As WNYC points out, until the 1950s, the NYCHA and the city in general were among the few places in America where the projects weren’t segregated. However, the 1944 G.I. Bill that offered low-cost home ownership options in the suburbs was rarely an option for blacks, who were often subject to discrimination.
As the 1960s arrived, it became increasingly easy for the poor to enter public housing, and the Escalera decree of 1971 made it difficult for the NYCHA to evict tenants who violated rules. Crime, specifically the drug trade, ripped through the projects during the 1970s and 1980s, setting up the enclosed world that produced Nas and other Queensbridge talent.
Since the 1980s, Queensbridge has been hip-hop’s unlikely Garden of Eden. No other NYCHA project has manufactured a larger aggregate of hip-hop talent, but while Nas’ name will always be synonymous with Queensbridge, others came before him. Marley Marl and MC Shan surfaced during the decade, founding the legendary Juice Crew, which featured fellow Queensbridge natives Roxanne Shanté, Craig G. and a young Tragedy Khadafi. Marley Marl and MC Shan penned the first Queensbridge anthem, "The Bridge," but suffered a resounding loss after battling the Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions. Still stinging from KRS-One’s star-making taunts on "The Bridge Is Over," Queensbridge hip-hop retreated back to the projects, quietly waiting for a worthy pundit to restore its glory.
If Queensbridge is hip-hop’s Garden of Eden, then Nas is the messiah that resurrected it from the grave of irrelevance. "I was coming from the legacy of Marley Marl, MC Shan, Juice Crew kind of vibe," he told MTV News in 2007. "At that time, the Queensbridge scene was dead. Dropping [Illmatic] right there said a lot for me to carry on the legacy of the Queensbridge pioneers." But Nas, who left listeners in awe with his verse on Main Source’s "Live at the BBQ" as a precocious 17-year-old, had talent far superior to that of his predecessors. He didn’t just extend the legacy of Queensbridge, he created his own. He became the standard.
Great auteurs posses the adroitness to turn settings into characters. Both Spike Lee and Woody Allen often make their beloved New York City as prominent a figure in their films as any actor, and through Illmatic, Nas turned the Queensbridge Houses into a living, breathing entity. For nine songs, Nas provided voice-over for the exploits of Queensbridge, which was the victim of post-crack New York City. "We were recovering from the roaring ‘80s," Nas explained to Zane Lowe during a recent interview about the album’s legacy. "By the time the ‘80s hit, Nike was becoming Nike around then and adidas was becoming adidas. The economy in New York was really bad, and [there was] this big, big boom; an influx of drugs and semi-automatic weapons." Illmatic highlighted the same social issues seen in New Jack City, yet it unfolded in a more expressive fashion and felt visual due to the intricacy of Nas’ lyrics.
Illmatic opens with "The Genesis." From the Wild Style segment and portion of his "Live at the BBQ" verse to the slice-of-life conversation between Nas, his brother Jungle and AZ, it’s a montage of his origin. The album is Nas’ personal Book of Genesis, an ode to his humble beginnings in Queensbridge. He relays the reckless mentality cultivated by a lifetime in a "maze full of black rats trapped" on the album’s opening track, "N.Y. State of Mind." The sunny Gap Band sample on "Life’s a Bitch" betrays the existential hopelessness of both Nas and AZ’s lyrics, which reflect a skewed view of life’s meaning—the result of a presumed life sentence in the projects. That rampant nihilism is countered by the Scarface-influenced "The World Is Yours," where Nas details the quest to dodge inner city plight ("Dwelling in the rotten apple, you get tackled/Or caught by the devil’s lasso, shit is a hassle") en route to the American dream.
For nine songs, Nas provided voice-over for the exploits of Queensbridge, which was the victim of post-crack New York City
Preceding the touching letter to a friend in jail ("One Love"), the requisite weed-smoking track ("One Time 4 Your Mind"), an account of disaffected youth at odds with rivals on both sides of the law ("Represent") and Nas’ assertion as a phenomenon ("It Ain’t Hard to Tell"), the most visceral description of his years in the Queensbridge Houses comes on "Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)." In the opening bars ("I rap for listeners, bluntheads, fly ladies and prisoners"), Nas proclaims himself the ghetto’s griot, an orator who speaks for all residents. The warmth of DJ Premier’s production enhances the nostalgia of Nas’ flawless lyrics, which span violence, drugs, dice games and liquor poured on the concrete in remembrance of the fallen. The chaos is described with such calm insight that you feel as if you’re seated next to Nas on one of the park benches.
Like many project buildings, the Queensbridge Houses of that period were a petri dish of societal ills. Nas was able to absorb and harness that contained decay and recount it with such expertise that the grim realities that he discussed seemed more sentimental than downright depressing. The mentions of his friend Willie "Ill Will" Graham’s senseless murder, wars with police and references to legendary gangsters like Alberto "Alpo" Martinez, Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols and the Supreme Team are delivered with the beautiful detail of sepia-toned photographs. Nas—as he said in his very first sentence on wax and declares once again on "Memory Lane"—is the street's disciple. The Queensbridge Houses were his education, and with DJ Premier’s signature scratched hook, he brands "Memory Lane" a collection of distinct Queensbridge stories.
"I always say my environment wrote that album," he told Lowe about Illmatic. "I was just an instrument in the middle. New York wrote that album—Queensbridge, specifically." Nas was in the middle, serving as the medium between the happenings of the projects and the outside world on Illmatic. This was also achieved through the album’s artwork, which features a young, nappy-headed Nas’ face superimposed over an intersection in the Queensbridge Houses. It’s meant to represent him looking out at the world at an age when he had just become receptive to his surroundings.
"[The picture on my album cover] is me when I was 7 years old. That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That's the year everything set off. That's the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right," he told MTV News back in 1994. "The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn't leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there's more out there."
Nas used this theme on the cover of his first four albums, with the image evolving from an observant child to a grown man who had seen the world (It Was Written), a pharaoh (I Am…) and a prophet (Nastradamus). Though each depicted his growth from boy to man, the concept was the same: Him facing the world, with the Queensbridge Houses—an undeniable part of his identity—in the background. As he told Rob Markman on the 15th anniversary of Illmatic five years ago, "I had to stand out and be the guy who had the projects behind me." He did just that, both figuratively and literally.
Similar to hip-hop itself, both Nas and Illmatic are creations of the NYCHA projects. Where hip-hop was born in a Bronx apartment, unintentionally fathered by DJ Kool Herc and sharpened in the city’s parks, Nas’ van Gogh was developed through years of surveillance in the Queensbridge Houses before the rapper honed his skills in the park, then shared them with the world. "I'm straight outta the Queensbridge projects. I been around for a little while. Enough to see how it gets down in the street. I seen the jams [in my projects]. I used to hear the beats out the window," he told MTV about a month after Illmatic was released. "At a certain age I was able to go to the jams and see how it goes down. From that time on, I was at every jam out there. That kinda got me into this hip-hop music thing."
The Queensbridge Houses were Nas’ canvas, which he brought to life through rich, colorful depiction
Illmatic is a collection of vignettes about the trials and tribulations of the ghetto, the product of Nas’ careful study of the turmoil he grew up in. The Queensbridge Houses were Nas’ canvas, which he brought to life through rich, colorful depiction. He brought an allure to something ugly. Two decades later, that arresting representation has made Nasir Jones a legend who was granted the opportunity to perform his magnum opus at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. with the help of the National Symphony Orchestra. Illmatic is credited with revitalizing the Queensbridge rap scene, opening the door for subsequent acts like Mobb Deep, Cormega and Nature. He wasn't the first to talk about Queensbridge, but nobody had ever done it with the proficiency he exhibited on Illmatic. The album also solidified the Queensbridge Houses, which already stood out because of their size, as hip-hop’s most revered and discussed public housing project—a landmark in its own right.
Like Illmatic, the Queensbridge Houses will live on as a timeless relic, because, as Nas said on "Life's a Bitch," "time is Illmatic."
If you couldn't tell, Julian Kimble has been waiting to write about Illmatic for years. Follow him on Twitter.