All The Words Past The Margins
Adam Mansbach and Kevin Coval talk understandable smooth shit
Adam Mansbach: I think we agree that “One Love” is a good place to start this conversation. In many ways, it’s the centerpiece of the album, the most conceptually coherent and complex song. It defines the two poles of Nas’s universe: the Queensbridge Projects and prison. These locales are so encompassing that they erase all others: when Nas leaves Queensbridge for “a two day stay” to preserve his sanity, he doesn’t even bother to tells us where he goes. He takes his “pen and pad for the weekend,” but wherever he takes them is off the map; the song re-starts when he returns to the “haunted castle” of home.
Kevin Coval: Nas’s cinematic-poetic is an aerial view of Queensbridge, and the meta-pronouncement of the record is one love -- for the blocks he walks on and views from his apartment building, a stacked block of its own. Nas “holds [his] cell down single-handed,” which speaks to the duality of feeling isolated and self-reliant despite living in such a densely-populated community. The distinction between block and cell block is intentionally blurred, manifest in the fluidity of reporting to his people on lock about Queens residents who are themselves locked down in a psychologically and physically oppressive housing project, and also about the illegal activities dictated by a rapidly growing and privatizing prision-industrial complex.
AM: One of Illmatic’s themes is that relationship between actual and virtual incarceration: “even my brain’s in handcuffs.” The stress of a constrained life threatens to boil over into some kind of criminality that will result in actual imprisonment. That tension frequently gets translated into and relieved by hyperbole, and those hyperbolic one-liners – “When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus,” “whenever frustrated I’ma hijack Delta” -- are what a lot of cats initially loved (and bit), as far back as “Live at the Barbecue.”
But when Nas addresses incarceration head-on in “One Love,” he does it with the opposite of hyperbole. The realism, the practicality, of that last verse is striking. Nas was coming up during the age of overtly political rap, and later he aligned himself with the legacies of X-Clan and Boogie Down Productions, but there is an implicit critique of their approach in the conversation he has with the twelve-year-old sitting on the bench pumping crack. Keep in mind the physical setting: benches like this sit in the middle of a huge vertical project -- “snipers cold be bustin’ off the roof” -- creating the equivalent of a Greek amphitheater. We’ve moved from epistolaries to stage drama. And Nas plays the teacher.
His pedagogy is subdued, realistic almost to the point of nihilism, but it’s effective because he meets his student on that student’s terms. He knows better than to tell this kid to get back in school, or go march against police brutality. Their relationship is predicated on shared geography and mutual respect, and thus Nas owes him honesty. So the “words of wisdom from Nas” are to make sure you shoot the right dude instead of the wrong dude, and keep an eye out for the cops.
And before he dispenses that advice, he takes “the L when he passed it/this little bastard.” There’s a brilliant instant of tension: Nas has to decide whether to smoke with this old-before-his-time shorty, this kid whose lack of innocence marks him as a member of a different generation even though they’re only a few years apart in age. What this kid represents is intimidating – he’s too caught up in the hustle to mark time through hip hop like Nas does (“before the BDP conflict with MC Shan/around the time Shante dissed the Real Roxanne”), too young to remember the things Nas is jubilant and nostalgic about. Even worse, he has the audacity to tell Nas he “likes his style.”
If Nas takes the blunt, he levels the playing field between them considerably, but if he doesn’t, he loses access. So he decides to become the kid’s peer for a minute, and that allows him to leave “jewels in his skull.” As a teacher, this is a totally familiar dilemma. At some point, your students want to be treated like adults, and you realize that you can’t always be preaching at them. You’ve gotta ease up and take the L when they pass it.
KC: Nas’s representing is not the bended-corporate doublespeak of “keeping it real,” (a term reduced to irony by studio gangsterism and faux-reality rappers), but the confirmation of his participation in the poetic legacy of Urban Realism, from Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks to the New York School’s Frank O’Hara to the Black Arts’s Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni. The hip-hop poet-reporter is rooted in the intimate specificity of locale. By naming streets, people, crews, infamous drug dealer celebrities, utilizing indigenious borough slang, and vividly sketching the corners and boulevards of Queensbridge, Nas is scrpiting the world as he sees it: writing portraits and vignettes of a community under fire.
Nas’s world and worldview are criminal and criminalized. Hence, he uses metaphoric violence as a central trope of his poetic: “musician, inflictin’ compostion/of pain, I’m like Scarface, sniffin’ cocaine / holdin’ an M-16 , see with the pen I’m extreme.” Nas articulates “the thief’s theme,” not necessarily as the criminal breaking the laws himself, but as the counter-narrative historian of the war on drugs, on young black men’s bodies, and on the communtities they inhabit.
Nas is the “young city bandit” because he humanizes and gives a voice to the most feared community in America, the housing project, thereby simultaneously challenging and reinforcing the white supremacist hegemonic imgaination by scribing and re-(in)scribing its fear. This makes sense when the writing and reading of a people have been made illegal. Black folks by law are supposed to have access to literacy, but in practice creating a counter-narrative makes you an outlaw.
By “writing in [his] book of rhymes/all the words past the margins,” Nas brings the fringes and the forgotten to the center of public discourse. The margins of society are made visual and visceral. All the words, faces and bodies of an abandoned post-industrial, urban dystopia are framed in Nas’s tightly packed stanzas. These portraits of his brain and community in handcuffs are beautiful, brutal and extremely complex, and they lend themselves to the complex and brillantly compounded rhyme schemes he employs.
Form and function are synonymous here. Fluid, multi-syllabic compounded rhymes, internal half rhymes, masterful assonance and ear-bending enjambment elevate the structure of dense sound to song. Part of the reason there are no real hooks on the record, I imagine, is due to Nas’s fresh-out-the-rhyme-book type of presentation. Illmatic to me is one epic poem, with stanzas pieced together to match the sonics constructed by his all-star cast of East Coast underground beatmakers. It’s as if Nas, the poet-reporter, brings his notebook into the studio, hears the beat, and weaves his portraits on top with ill prescision.
AM: I’ve been thinking about some of the less obvious reasons this album is considered a classic, and you just touched on one. In the late eighties and early nineties, albums were usually dominated by one embedded producer or production team – think Wu-Tang, Jeru, The Pharcyde, all the Native Tongues groups, Dr. Dre’s whole camp, Cypress Hill, Gangstarr, Main Source, Special Ed, Stetsasonic, Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, Ultramagnetic MCs, EPMD, X-Clan, all the Juice Crew artists. The psychological impact on the listener of having all these elite producers – some of whom, like Q-Tip, really weren’t known yet for doing outside production work at all – coming together to lace the debut of this kid from Queensbridge was tremendous. And so was the way their contributions came together so seamlessly. It was this sublime moment in which an aesthetic coagulated. And in the next couple of years, recruiting a stable of hot producers became the template for the high-impact debuts of artists like Biggie and Jay-Z.
I, too, am struck by Nas’s absence on the choruses. He barely contributes – it’s just music, it’s AZ, it’s Q-Tip, it’s Sadat X on the “One Love” remix, it’s Large Professor on “One Time for Your Mind,” it’s a scratched-in sample, it’s a posse chant. It’s as if Nas can’t be bothered; his job is done when the verse ends, and there’s a purist’s sensibility to that. I mean, shit, even jazz horn players come back in on the chorus. Similarly, the standard three-verse format often gives way here to two long verses, whose lengths are determined by whim and content rather than structural concerns – and it’s notable that the two oldest songs, “Halftime” and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” are the most conformist.
All this points to one of the most profound things about the record, which is that Nas leads with his art. Sounds simple, but in the hip hop landscape, it’s actually a very bold move. Although I agree that it’s deeply political to represent your community, I also think that Nas is resistant to the kind of polemics, and even the battle-centrism, that dominates other albums. The ritual slaying of The Sucker MC is not happening here. Other cats were much more preoccupied with defending their rights to claim artistry – and to claim it is not to lead with it.
Think about a song like BDP’s “Poetry,” the opening salvo from another classic ten-cut debut album: it’s KRS-One demanding that he be recognized as a poet, because he presumes a resistance to that notion. Look at the opening track on his next album: KRS demanding you understand he’s a philosopher. Nas bypasses this kind of declaration, and takes for granted that both you and he know he’s an artist. As the son of a musician, and also somebody whose poetic ambitions were validated from a very young age, he’s able to take much more for granted.
Nas shouts out a lot of his producers, but Illmatic’s most unacknowledged contributor is one of the most significant: Olu Dara, Nas’s father, whose ethereal trumpet comes in at the end of “Life’s A Bitch.” Later in his career, Nas will do songs that are explicitly about or in collaboration with his pops – “Papa Was a Player,” “Bridging the Gap” -- but here Olu is very much in the background . Hovering just close enough, you might say, to keep an eye on his boy. And it’s the presence of all these benevolent elders –his father and the cadre of big brother producers steering the album – that empowers Nas to rest comfortably in his identity as an artist and an inheritor of tradition, and thus find the space to innovate.
KC: And it is his art, his cinematic-poetic, which begins to raise the bar for MCs on the tail end of the hyper-literate era of popular hip-hop, when understanding artists like Chuck D, Brother J and Wise Intelligent meant running to the library to check out alternate histories and historical figures and unknown words. You had to engage in a deep read of Nas’s lyrics too, but in a new way. His protraits and descriptions of places, people and interactions required a second and a fifth listen. He moved from punchlines and hot lines to whole thought-pictures mainfest in rhyme form.
AM: You had to rewind a KRS rhyme to dissect whatever new style he was flipping, a Rakim rhyme to unpack the abstraction. A Nas rhyme required situating yourself in the narrative point of view, then working through the density, the emjambment, the combination of realism and metaphysics – I’m thinking of the beginning of “Life’s A Bitch,” when he says “I woke up early on my born day, I’m 20 it’s a blessing/the essence of adolescence leaves my body now I’m fresh an’/my physical frame is celebrated cuz I made it/one quarter through life…” We always link Nas to Rakim, but the differences are also interesting: Rakim is always in control, gliding effortlessly through his physical environment and “thinking of a master plan.” Whereas Nas admits his vulnerability, tells us how “The streets had [him] stressed somethin’ terrible.”
Linguistically, while Nas was influenced by Five Percenters, he wasn’t deep inside of that community like Rakim was, so their language and philosophy tinge his rhymes but don’t dominate – he’s inventing more of his own vocab, in some ways. Take a line like “beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined.” It sounds like an MC trying to write a Rakim line – and it ends a verse in a song that uses a Rakim quote for the chorus, so in some ways it has to mesh with Ra’s vibe – but it’s not quite a Rakim line. The mysticism is there but it floats, unsure of itself. That lack of certainty unlocks a lot of vectors.
Even the idea of a “New York state of mind” means something different when Ra originates it in “Mahogany.” To him it connotes smooth focus, cosmopolitan worldiness. Nas “thinks of crime” and tells hectic, truncated stories about out-of-control situations.
KC: If anything, Nas is knowingly (re)building the tradition of Queens MCs, most notably redeeming the Juice Crew, which was defunct by 1994. In “Memory Lane,” the samples of Craig G and Biz Markie point to Nas’s lyrical forebearers and around-the-way influences. He is repping his borough’s hip hop canon.
AM: Illmatic also comes out at a time when 12” singles are still a major site of creativity, a place for b-sides and remixes – the producers he was working with were all masters of that lost art, as the richness of Tribe and Main Source and Gangstarr 12” singles prove. And Nas makes brilliant use of the opportunities for public revision. I remember hearing the remix to “The World Is Yours,” for the first time, and bugging out at the amendments he’d made: it was spring now, and he switched “suede Tims on my feet” to “Nikes on my feet:;” “chipped tooth smile” became “gold toothed smile.” He slipped in a line about “Giuliani is 666” that freaked the whole song. It was this way of working against your own text to create new meaning, retaining the exact rhyme pattern but subbing in new words. The shit was fresh. It reflected such an understanding of where his fans were at in their ability to digest his words, and also a whole new confidence about himself. When I think of Illmatic as an album, I think about the 12” cuts as well. Not to mention the mixtapes that were out, or the unreleased songs that Stretch Armstrong used to play on WKCR at three in the morning – the version of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” with completely different lyrics, and so forth. Illmatic for me is not just ten songs, but another ten remixes and shadow-versions, too.
KC: It is more than coincidence that Paul Beatty’s seminal book of poems, Joker Joker Deuce, was also published in 1994. Seeing and reading Beatty’s verse for me was an astounding generational moment, as was hearing Illmatic. In Beatty’s verse, hip-hop poetics appear on the page for the first time. He was forging and figuring out the poetic response to the sonic and visual and physical aesthetic innovations hip-hop cultural elements provided, in ways similar to Black Arts writers transcribing a jazz aesthetic a generation earlier.
They’re very different writers – Paul is a punner, hilarious, somebody for whom postmodernity is the source of humor and anxiety – but they form the poles of a hip hop literary aesthetic. They’re both second generation hip-hop listeners whose universes are populated with the young culture’s influences. Beatty and Nas emerge together in a collective poetic consiousness, formulating a sincerely innovative ars poetica for hip-hop generation writers. It is from this point on that style, techinique and craft merge with collage/pastiche, braggadocio, stark portrait-painting from the magrins, frentic, fun and funny word play, and the rupture of linear storytelling schemes. These become tropes in a burgeoning school of American letters that’s moving toward an aesthetics of hip-hop poetics or a hip-hop poetica, if you will.
* * *
Adam Mansbach is the award-winning author of the novels The End of the Jews (Spiegel & Grau/Doubleday, 2008), Angry Black White Boy (Crown, 2005), and Shackling Water (Doubleday, 2002), as well as the poetry collection Genius B-Boy Cynics Getting Weeded in the Garden of Delights (Subway & Elevated, 2002). The founder of the ‘90s hip hop journal Elementary, he has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Vibe, JazzTimes, Wax Poetics, The Best Music Writing 2004 (DaCapo), Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop (Basic Civitas) and elsewhere. He teaches writing at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Kevin Coval is author of Everyday People (EM Press, 2008) and Slingshots (a hip-hop poetica) (EM Press, 2006), which was nominated for a Book of the Year Award by The American Library Association. Poems and critical essays have appeared in The Spoken Word Revolution and The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux (Source Books), Total Chaos (Basic Civitas) I Speak of the City: New York City Poems (Columbia University Press), The Chicago Tribune, Crab Orchard Review, and can be heard regularly on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and National Public Radio in Chicago. Coval is a faculty member at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, poet-in-residence at The Jane Addams Hull House-Museum and Minister of Hip-Hop Poetics at The University of Wisconsin-Madison.