If you’re debating about the best song on Illmatic, arguably the greatest hip hop album of all time, it’s hard to imagine not listing “N.Y. State of Mind” as number one, or at least in your top three.
The way DJ Premier architected the beat from two samples – “Mind Rain” by Joe Chambersand “Flight Time” by Donald Byrd – and scratched in Rakim vocals to lay the foundation for Nasty Nas to kick off the album, was just pure genius.
To add to the track’s lore, it was later revealed that Nas performed the epic first verse in just one take. Talking to Complex from the legendary D&D Studios, Premo recalled being a fan of Nas for years before they started working together.
“It was just amazing watching him work because I was already a fan of him when he did ‘Back to the Grill,’ ‘Halftime,’ ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell,’ and ‘Live at the Barbeque,’ Premo remembers. “So when I heard him on those records I was like, ‘Yo, I got to do something that’s on the same level.’”
Nas was in the studio watching Premo flip the samples for the track, and later penned the lyrics in the same session. After he was done, he went into the recording booth and uttered the now-timeless words, “I don’t know how to start this shit.”
“When Nas says in the beginning of the song, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ he was serious,” the Gang Starr producer explained. “When I’m building the beat, I think he’s gonna know to come in. Most rappers know after eight bars to come in; it’s the standard. As I’m doing this, I just happened to look [at him] and he’s just looking down going, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit.'”
DJ Premier: Before he started the verse, I was signaling him going, ‘One, two, three,’ and he just goes in like, ‘Rappers I monkey flip’em, in the funky rhythm.” He did that in one take. After he did that first verse, he goes, ‘How was that? Did that sound all right?’ And we were just like, ‘Oh, my God! The streets are going to go crazy when they hear this!’ It was one take, but he would format it before. He’ll sit at the front, cover his mouth when the beat’s playing, and would mumble it. So we can’t hear what he’s saying.DJ Premier Tells All: The Stories Behind His Classic Records | Complex
“That one right there is one of my favorites, because that one painted a picture of the city like nobody else at that time,” Nas told Rolling Stone in a 2007 interview. “I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time, and the track does that for me.”