If 1994 is one of hip hop’s greatest years, then Illmatic is one of the richest cherries atop the proverbial cake. Whilst it might not have been the most immediately impactful of the year’s debuts, it still stands as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. We’re breaking down the samples throughout the massive album, from killer to killer. That’s right: there ain’t no filler here.
Illmatic: The Birth of a Revolution
It’s late 1993 in chilly Philadelphia. Jonathan Schecter, co-founder of The Source, is in a meeting with Ruffhouse Records founder and CEO Chris Schwartz. The conversation turns from established artists and business arrangements to the new and exciting, chief amongst which is a teenager from Queensbridge with little more than a track to his name. “By the way,” mentioned Schecter as they wrapped up, “I was wondering if you have any Nas?” He recalls Schwartz reacting with surprise, as if Nas’ two cuts – Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ” and Zebrahead single “Halftime” – hadn’t exactly set the East Coast ablaze. Schwartz rummaged around his cluttered desk and handed Schecter a cassette.
I put [the casette] in my bag, got back on the train to New York and I put in my Walkman and what I hear is probably the greatest hip-hop album of all time. It’s one of them, for sure. It’s the perfect album. It’s short, and every single song is incredible.” – Jonathan Schecter
That cassette was Illmatic.
When the record dropped six months later, The Source ran a two-page spread that christened the Queensbridge emcee as ‘The Second Coming.’ It was, in no uncertain terms, a landmark moment for hip hop. Not only was the young emcee a spiritual successor to Rakim, one of the coldest to ever rock the mic, but he encapsulated “the attention to detail of Slick Rick, the urban realness of Kool G Rap and the vocal presence of Big Daddy Kane.” He seemed a realisation of hip hop’s potential; a representation of what the artform could achieve.
It ain’t hard to tell that, a quarter of a century on, Illmatic still packs a serious punch. Nas’ rich lyricism is put to use exploring death and incarceration, extolling the power of ambition, musing over the transient nature of life and remembering the friends who’ve gone too soon. It cast the young emcee as a preeminent project philosopher, with lyrics as sharp as his eye for detail.
The making of Illmatic is itself a grand and thrilling tale. If you’re interested in the stories behind the album, check out the in-depth, comprehensive oral history of Illmatic written by our very own Shane Ryu. If you’re looking for a breakdown of the sounds, beats, and samples used to furnish the record, you’ve come to the right place.
In celebration of Illmatic’s 25th anniversary, we’re breaking down the all-time great beats from the likes of Preemo, L.E.S., Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip. Sit back, tune in and explore the sounds behind one of the greatest albums of all time.
Every Sample on Illmatic, Track by Track
“The Genesis” features a number of samples taken from a 30-second stretch of the first ever hip hop film, 1983’s Wild Style. Though a narrative feature, it largely functions as a hip hop time capsule, featuring appearances from b-boy outfit Rock Steady Crew, DJs Grandmaster Flash and Grand Mixer DST and emcees The Cold Crush Brothers. Graffiti pioneer Lee Quiñones serves as the film’s protagonist, supported by Sandra ‘Lady Pink’ Fabara, Patti Astor, Fab Five Freddy and Blondie’s Debbie Harry.
The quiet verses underpinning the Wild Style sample are taken from Nas’ guest verse on “Live at the Barbecue” by Main Source. The track is an essential part of Nas’ legend: this guest spot immediately elevated his profile, making his debut one of the East Coast’s most anticipated records. This anticipation was only compounded by the release of “Halftime,” included on the 1992 Zebrahead soundtrack. Fellow Queens emcee Akinyele also debuted on the posse cut, and went on to have limited success through the mid-’90s with a string of minor pornocore hits.
The track’s signature high-pitched horn hits are courtesy of Donald Byrd, though producer DJ Premier cuts the sample to create a new sense of rhythm. Whereas the hits are equidistant in Byrd’s “Flight Time,” they’re grouped into a three-two pattern on “N.Y. State Of Mind.” The 1973 Blue Note release was previously sampled on Public Enemy’s 1990 title track, “Fear Of A Black Planet.”
The drums throughout are lifted from the break in Kool & The Gang’s “N.T.,” a 1971 live recording. The track, which is an abbreviation of “No Title,” later reappears on Illmatic closer “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” Though it fell far before their commercial success, “N.T.” has become a frequently sampled track, appearing on tracks by producers such as Diamond D, Pete Rock, The Bomb Squad, Madlib, Marley Marl and Nas’ mentor Large Professor.
The eerie piano loop that underpins Nas’ story of violence and fear is sourced from the heart of Joe Chambers’ “Mind Rain.” The track was included on his 1977 LP, Double Exposure. Not only was this the first sample of “Mind Rain,” but it was the first sample of Joe Chambers’ work altogether. Following DJ Premier’s flip, it took almost two decades for the distinctive piano to reappear on a few drum & bass cuts.
The voice that says “New York state of mind” at 2:18 belongs to none other than Nas forefather and God MC, Rakim. The lyric is sampled from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Mahogany,” a track from their penultimate record, Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em. Though less famous than their earlier efforts, Paid In Full and Follow The Leader, the record received a perfect ‘5 mics’ in The Source. The same vocal sample reappeared on Nas’ 1999 sequel, “N.Y State Of Mind Pt. II.”
The final vocal sample is a reflexive one, with DJ Premier lifting Nas’ own “Nasty Nas” phrase from his guest verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbecue.” It’s the second and final time that the track is sampled on Illmatic, having already appeared on “The Genesis.” Breaking Atoms was the only Main Source album featuring founding member Large Professor, who produced Illmatic cuts “Halftime,” “One Time 4 Your Mind” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.”
The atmospheric sample that underpins the existential track is courtesy of legendary soul outfit The Gap Band. The ambient synthesizer is lifted from “Yearning For Your Love,” a track included on the group’s fifth album, The Gap Band III. Though “Life’s A Bitch” is the track’s definitive sample, it’s appeared on more than 50 tracks, including joints by Will Smith, J Dilla, Heavy D and A Tribe Called Quest.
The drums on “The World Is Yours” are a slowed sample of the break from The Rimshots’ “Dance Girl,” a 1974 disco track. The Rimshots were a one-time house band for Sylvia Robinson’s pre-Sugar Hill Records label, All Platinum Records, though they’re best known for co-writing the Soul Train theme song in 1972. The group were short-lived: soon after releasing their second album, they broke up.
The distinctive piano riff that loops throughout “The World Is Yours” is built from two juxtaposed samples of Ahmad Jamal Trio’s “I Love Music.” The one-off trio consisted of Jamal on piano, Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums. This track was the first to sample Jamal’s track, though fellow Illmatic producer DJ Premier soon followed Pete Rock’s lead and used elements of the track on Jeru The Damaja’s 1996 cut, “Me or the Papes.”
Nas himself interpolates the titular refrain from T La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours,” a 1986 hip hop single produced by then-up and comer Rick Rubin. The single was the first issued with the Def Jam logo on the sleeve, and predates Russell Simmons’ involvement in the legendary label by a few months. “It’s Yours” has become a famous refrain in hip hop, since appearing on almost 300 separate tracks.
The high-pitched horn that punctuates the T La Rock-inspired phrase is courtesy of Jimmy Gordon and His Jazznpops Band. “Walter L,” a track from the group’s only album, Hog Fat, is later sampled on Illmatic cut “One Time 4 Your Mind.” A prolific drummer, Jim Gordon was convicted of murdering his mother in the midst of a 1983 schizophrenia-related psychotic episode. The now 73-year-old remains in prison.
Both the distinctive chime-heavy break that runs throughout “Halftime” and the wordless vocal that punctuates the verses are taken from Average White Band’s “School Boy Crush.” Originally included on their 1975 LP, Cut The Cake, the R&B single has since become a hip hop staple thanks to the breakbeat at the open. The very same festive bells were sampled on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” six years earlier.
The bassline that complements Average White Band’s percussion is taken from an esoteric source: the 1971 Japanese Cast Recording of the Hair OST. The bass on “Dead End” is largely obscured by the vocals, though if you listen very closely, you can hear remnants of these vocals on “Halftime.” The year of recording is alternately given as 1969 and 1971, though it seems the production was in full swing by the end of 1970.
The trumpets that first appear 0:58 are taken from the opening to Gary Byrd’s 1973 single “Soul Travelin’ Pt. I (The G.B.E.).” That track featured production from disco innovator Jimmy Castor. Primarily known for his work as a radio DJ, Byrd released a sole album in 1972, Presenting The Gary Byrd Experience, though he reached his commercial peak in ‘76, when he co-wrote two cuts on Stevie Wonder’s classic Songs In The Key Of Life.
The segue into Illmatic’s b-side, “Memory Lane,” is built atop a sample of Reuben Wilson’s “We’re In Love,” a cut from his 1971 Blue Note Records release, Set Us Free. DJ Premier sampled multiple elements from Wilson’s original composition, including the organ, percussion and distinctive wordless backing vocals. The seldom-sampled track is now irrevocably tied to this classic East Coast jam.
The sampled-and-scratched refrain is courtesy of hip hop’s ‘clown prince,’ Biz Markie. The phrase, which first appears at 1:26, is taken from Markie’s “Pickin’ Boogers,” a single included on his Cold Chillin’ debut, 1988’s Goin’ Off. The first five tracks on that record, including “Pickin’ Boogers,” were penned by Big Daddy Kane, who was working on his own legendary debut. The sampled-and-scratched vocals are in keeping with DJ Premier’s signature style: he’s also used vocal elements as refrains in his work alongside acts such as Jeru the Damaja and Rakim.
The second phrase inserted into the refrain – “comin’ outta Queensbridge” – is courtesy of emcee Craig G and producer Marley Marl. The phrase was included on Marl’s “Dropping Science,” a cut included on the superproducer’s debut album, In Control, Volume 1. The stacked LP featured performances from members of Marl’s Juice Crew, including Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Roxanne Shante.
The drums that kickstart “One Love” are taken from Parliament’s “Come In Out Of The Rain.” That track was released as a single in 1972, though it was later included on reissues of the group’s first LP, 1970’s Osmium. The drumming on the track was provided by Tiki Fulwood, an integral member of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective throughout the ‘70s. He died of stomach cancer in 1979, aged 35.
The distinctive licks throughout the track are courtesy of The Heath Brothers, an obscure jazz quartet out of Philadelphia. “Smilin’ Billy Suite Pt. II” was included on their debut LP, 1975’s Marchin’ On!. Q-Tip samples the piano and double bass from the track, though the most notable inclusion is the distinctive mbira, or thumb piano, which loops throughout.
The final sample on “One Love” is an interpolation of an early hip hop single from new school act Whodini. The Brooklyn trio’s “One Love” was included on their third studio album, Back In Black, released in April 1986. The cut was produced by Russell Simmons collaborator and Run-DMC producer Larry Smith, who also played bass on Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” the very first Gold-certified hip hop single.
You might remember this very track, Jimmy Gordon and his Jazznpops Band’s “Walter L,” from “The World Is Yours.” Though that outfit released just one album, 1969’s Hog Fat, Jim Gordon is one of the most prolific studio drummers of his time. Though his career only lasted 17 years, Gordon played drums on The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” one of hip hop’s most fundamental breakbeats, as well as on classic records from George Harrison, The Beach Boys, The Byrds and Steely Dan.
Nas interpolates a lyric from “Nas Will Prevail,” a 1991 demo version of eventual Illmatic closer “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” Nas recorded the demo for Columbia, with whom he would release every record up to his controversial 2009 album, Untitled. The interpolated lyric appears at 2:44, where Nas spits: “hold a Mac-11, and attack a reverend…”
The drums are lifted from George Clinton’s “I Didn’t Come Rhythm,” a brief instrumental cut included on his 1993 release, Sample Some Of Disc – Sample Some Of D.A.T Volume 1. The unique record contains more than 100 different sound effects and breakbeats, collated and produced by the Parliament-Funkadelic leader, himself no stranger to being sampled. Clinton was previously sampled on “One Love.”
The distinctive bells throughout the track are taken from Lee Erwin’s “Thief of Bagdad.” The 1974 composition was inspired by the famous 1924 film of the same name, a silent Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. Other tracks included on Erwin’s Sound Of Silents were inspired by silent films such as Buster Keaton’s The General, romantic comedy My Best Girl and inaugural Academy Award winner Wings.
Perhaps the most instantly recognisable sample on the entire record, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” makes use of Michael Jackson’s Thriller single, “Human Nature.” Large Professor makes use of MJ’s wordless vocalisations and the track’s ethereal Quincy Jones production. Though the track had been interpolated prior, it wasn’t until 1991 that DC rapper Stinky Dink directly sampled the instrumental for “One Track Mind.”
The drums sampled throughout are sourced from the opening to Stanley Clark’s “Slow Dance,” a track included on his 1978 solo album, Modern Man. Clarke, a jazz bassist, was a member of Chick Corea’s pivotal jazz fusion outfit, Return to Forever. Outside of that ensemble, Clarke played in rock-oriented outfit Animal Logic and composed soundtracks for films such as Boyz N The Hood.
The yell woven into the dense soundscape at 0:02 is amongst the most popular in sampling history. The oft-sampled live rendition of Mountain’s “Long Red” was recorded at Woodstock in 1969 and included on 1972’s Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On. The ad-libs appear on almost 700 songs, including works by J Dilla, Eric B. & Rakim, Common, Thundercat and Lana Del Rey.
The recurring horn burst that punctuates the opening is taken from another oft-sampled cut, this time courtesy of Kool and the Gang. “N.T.” was included on 1971’s Live at PJ’s, the group’s third overall album and second live recording. In an uncommon move, the funk outfit debuted new music via live albums early in their careers, though it wasn’t until 1973 that the group impacted the mainstream. This same track was earlier sampled on “N.Y. State of Mind,” though DJ Premier used the breakbeat instead of the hook.
Nas interpolates the titular phrase from his 1991 demo, “Nas Will Prevail,” from which he previously sampled elements on “One Time 4 Your Mind.” He also adapts a later lyric from the demo, incorporating “’cause I be packin’ like a Rasta in a weed spot” into the mix. It’s surprising that so much of the track is new, considering the instrumental similarities between the two tracks.
A New Approach to Production
Illmatic was unique in that it featured a roster of big-name producers. That might not seem like a particularly inspired approach, but at the time, production on hip hop records was usually handled by just one or two producers. Public Enemy rolled with The Bomb Squad, Ultramagnetic MC’s relied on Ced-Gee, N.W.A was helmed by Dre, and even Wu-Tang, who debuted just months before Nas, were inextricably linked to RZA’s sound.
Despite these distinct producers, there’s a clear sense of collaboration throughout Illmatic. It can’t be coincidence, for instance, that the only two samples of Jimmy Gordon and his Jazznpop Band’s “Walter L” crop up on this one record. Large Professor samples the break on “One Time 4 Your Mind,” and Pete Rock uses an instrumental passage on “The World Is Yours.” This suggests that there was, at the very least, a shared pool of samples from which they pulled. This helped cultivate a cohesive sound, despite the unorthodox approach to production.
Behind the Sample Choices on Illmatic
Old habits die hard, or so they say.
It’s easy to imagine that, when your craft is predicated on the hardly consistent art of crate digging, you find yourself becoming particularly attached to certain sounds, genres or artists. These affiliations sometimes form the backbone of a producers style (take Dre’s penchant for Parliament-Funkadelic, or Pete Rock’s taste for jazz). With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the patterns––both within the record itself and within the greater catalogues of the producers––that help further illustrate their styles.
On Illmatic itself, both DJ Premier and Large Professor sampled elements from Kool & The Gang’s “N.T.,” a cut from 1971’s Live At P.J.’s. Though that may seem like an esoteric selection––the song itself is certainly obscure––it became a popular source of samples, particularly breakbeats, throughout the late ‘80s. This reputation as a reliable and malleable sound was likely enhanced by an appearance on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series, which helped define the sampling canon. Ice Cube sampled it on JJ Fad’s 1988 Roxanne Shante diss, Dre employed it on N.W.A’s “Gangsta Gangsta,” Marley Marl worked it into a Kool G Rap & DJ Polo jam and The Bomb Squad utilised it on one of Public Enemy’s most relentless instrumentals.
Though Preemo was no stranger to sampling Kool & The Gang – see 1989’s “DJ Premier in Full Concentration” – Illmatic marked his first time sampling this particular staple. The same can be said for Large Professor, who made use of the outfit on Apache’s “Wayz of a Murderahh” and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Bad to the Bone (Street Remix).” Both these cuts were released in 1992, the same year Large laid “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” demo “Nas Will Prevail.”
Preemo was similarly enamoured with a very particular break from George Clinton’s Sample Some of Disc – Sample Some of D.A.T.: Volume 1. A compilation of sounds and beats tailor-made for sampling, the record included the “I Didn’t Come Rhythm,” which the producer first used on Gang Starr’s “Blowin’ Up The Spot” just a month before Illmatic. That wasn’t the end of it. The same breakbeat appeared on The Crooklyn Dodgers’ “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers” and Gang Starr’s own “Above the Clouds.” To this day, only three producers have used this particular Clinton break: Preemo, Dre and Buckwild.
Elements of “Droppin’ Science,” the legendary 1988 collaboration between Craig G and Marley Marl, were scratched into the hook on Nas’ “Memory Lane (Sitting In The Park).” That’s typical of Preemo, who frequently assembles entire refrains from cut-and-paste fragments. It’s easy to see why he chose this track––it shouts out Queensbridge, reflecting Nas’ heritage and characterising him as a successor to emcees such as Craig G, Tragedy Khadafi and MC Shan.
As suited as the sample is, it doesn’t seem as though Preemo needs a reason. “Droppin’ Science” has appeared on three other Premier productions: 1991 Gang Starr track “Precisely The Right Rhymes,” ‘94 Gang Starr b-side “The ? Remains” and ‘96 Jeru the Damaja cut “Revenge of the Prophet (Part 5).”
In what seems to be coincidence, Queensbridge producer L.E.S. – who helmed “Life’s A Bitch,” his first ever LP production credit – later revisited The Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love,” though not by his own volition. You’d think that producing a track that classic would endear you to the entire hip hop scene, but Leshan Lewis maintained a low profile, aligning himself with Nas and continuing to produce for him until as recently as 2006. In 1997, however, he linked up with one Will Smith to produce “Yes Yes Y’all,” on which Smith interpolates elements of the 1980 R&B cut.
A Legacy of Supreme Illness
Nas once said that “time is Illmatic,” but what does that mean? In a 2009 interview with XXL, the emcee himself defined the word as “supreme ill… a science of everything ill.”
The undeniable illness of Nas’ debut is indeed the most immediate take away, but the “supreme ill” contained within is itself a compendium of the human experience––detailing life, death and the ambiguous states between the two. It’s comprised of Nas’ astute observations and values: the one love that bridges the worlds of Queensbridge and Rikers; the urge to represent the borough and projects that had shaped his experience; the fierce distillation of the New York state of mind; and the melancholy trip down memory lane, littered with the spectres of former friends and family. Of all these insights, perhaps the most optimistic is the acknowledgment that whilst life’s a bitch, a helping of ambition and perseverance renders the oft-inhospitable world one’s own. It’s this philosophy that fuels Nasir Jones’ inspired debut which, in keeping with the outlook, cemented him as a once-in-a-generation talent and lifted him to the forefront of hip hop. In a personal sense, the record was the genesis it aspired to be, the formative moment that moulded one of the greatest emcees of all time.
Even with all these components, the record comes back to that singular word, an offbeat invention now tied to a watershed moment in cultural history. Twenty-five years on, Illmatic remains a exemplar of the craft. Hip hop might have become the most popular genre in the United States, and many emcees may have arrived in the interim, but the deft lyricism Nas brings to the project is virtually unmatched. Time is Illmatic, and the record, like the tales within, are just as electrifying as they were the day they first graced tape decks and radio shows across NYC.
It’s high time to drop the needle on some vintage Nas and remember one of his most pertinent lessons: “stay static,” because if anything’s for certain, it’s that “life’s a bitch, and then you die.”