Queensbridge, 1994. Across the river from Manhattan, residents in America’s largest housing projects are fighting through unforgiving circumstances. Beginning in the 1980s, a dramatic influx of crack cocaine flooded the streets, leading to increased violence that has caused residents to fear for their safety. For many aspiring artists, however, these chaotic surroundings become inspiration for burgeoning music careers.
Countless hip-hop pioneers — Marley Marl, Roxanne Shante and Prodigy, among others — have called this housing section their home, but on wax, it’s most closely associated with Nas, the living legend whose landmark debut Illmatic was released 25 years ago today (April 19).
Then and now, Illmatic serves as a time capsule, giving listeners a glimpse into the world of Queensbridge, painting a picture of the crime-riddled streets with clever wordplay and vivid storytelling.
Only 20 years old when the album was released by Columbia Records, Nas had wisdom beyond his years on Earth. He rapped with the poise of a veteran emcee, defying industry standards of the time as he recruited an all-star team of producers to lace the project with rattling, timeless beats.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Illmatic, we spoke with seven highly respected individuals in the music journalism space to hear their first impressions of the album — and how it’s impacted hip-hop culture over the past two-plus decades.
For some, that has meant watching the joy in their children’s eyes as they discover a classic album from a previous era; for others, it’s meant recalling memories attached to each of the album’s 10 songs — memories that are embedded in their identity. Whatever the reasoning, the reputation Illmatic holds today is just as strong — if not stronger — than when it was released in 1994.
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