One of the country's most celebrated poets emerged from the largest housing development in North America just over 20 years ago. This month, Oakland’s Fox Theater offers you a chance to hear and celebrate the cultural staying power that is Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, otherwise known as Nas.
Illmatic, Nas’ 1994 debut album, continues to stand apart as a crown jewel of '90s hip hop. His unflinching delivery and terse lyrical code serve as a historical account of that decade's inner city life and times. The storytelling and soundscape of the album and its raw energy all continue to represent communities under perpetual pressure, so relevant to a nation in which brutality, unemployment, and bias compose daily challenges.
On each of two evenings, the first is already sold out, Nas will perform his debut album in its entirety. Part celebration for having created what some have referred to as a Bible of hip hop, the performances will follow screenings of the documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, a film that explores the origins of that first, landmark album and the conditions from which Nas rose.
As a writer, my awe centered on how Nas shoved young poetry out of containers too small to accommodate it. New York City, its nascent slam poetry scene, any pair of stereo speakers, nothing could hold the godson’s vision. He transcended social devaluations of the black body with a worldview that rewrote and spoke his personal cosmos to such a degree that the culture, this American musical culture, shifted.
For me, not knowing him as the son of a jazz trumpeter, Nas’ single on the soundtrack to Zebrahead was my introduction. Then, a chance encounter with Illmatic in the stacks of a college radio station pulled me in soon after its release. Grazing turntable needle to record, the "Subway Theme" intro followed by the "Human Nature" loop a few grooves down -- it all sounded like youth poised on the cusp of the impossible.
In thinking about the album's sonic launch from Queensbridge to Oakland, I reached out to a couple of quintessential Oakland artists, Shock G and Del the Funky Homosapien, for their impressions of young Nas bouncing into hip hop at the tail end of what many refer to as its golden age.
Del the Funky Homosapien: I was a pretty intense hip hop head back then, so anything that eventually became a staple, I had already known about for years before it broke through. That includes Nasty Nas.
"Live at the Barbecue" was a down-the-line type song off of Main Source’s first LP and Nas was the first rapper on it. Not many people in Oakland were that onto hip hop, not at that point. So nobody really was up on Main Source, much less Nas, [but] immediately I gravitated toward his flow.
Shock G: I was hooked line and sinker from the second I heard, “I was raised where the nights are jet black, the fiends fight to get crack.” Nas! I always believed a lot of his appeal and longevity is in what he doesn’t say. Some emcees are conscious-less; anything that sells a record. Not Nas.
Del the Funky Homosapien: He was soooo dope that his flow just stuck in my head over the years. And it wasn’t even the profoundness that we know of as Nas today. It was extremely graphic though, which is something we associate with Nas primarily.
His album dropped, but it was the lead up to that -- his single from the Zebrahead soundtrack... Nas wasn’t really known out in Oakland even when his album dropped. It was a hip hop staple of course, but it wasn’t Snoop Dogg or Dre. [Nas’] kinda music [took] some getting used to, like electronic music today. It was too new.
Shock G: I once playfully challenged Nas. In the Digital Underground song, “Wind Me Up” I said: “Nas, you can have the world, I want the universe -- Not for myself, I put all others first.” Ha, he never responded, he prolly never even heard it.
Del the Funky Homosapien: If you were hip to that scene [Illmatic] was a landmark. Most in Oakland were not up on it though, not until much later, like his second album with the Puff Daddy- and Lauren-assisted material.
Shock G: Born in the right place with the right pipes and the right parents! His Royal facial symmetry, butter NY accent, and velvet voice doesn’t hurt either, ya smell me?
Nas: Time is Illmatic screens Oct. 19 and 21, 2014 followed by the artist’s live performance of his now-classic debut album. For tickets and information, visit thefoxoakland.com.