These days, it seems like rappers pride themselves on recording music in the shortest amount of time possible. Westside Gunn took a week to record his fourth album, Who Made the Sunshine, according to an interview with The Ringer; while Young Thug famously declared he can create a perfect song in 10 minutes.
But for a 20-year old Nas, when his debut album, Illmatic, dropped on April 19, 1994, it was a four-year journey in the making. As a teenager growing up in Queensbridge, Nasir Jones was always pursuing his dreams of becoming a rapper. He initially adopted the rap name “Kid Wave” before switching over to “Nasty Nas.”
Nas: The first time I grabbed the mic was at my man Will’s house -bless the dead. He lived right upstairs from me on the sixth floor, I was on the fifth. So I used to go up his crib and shit, in the morning, when his moms go to work. He used to hook his shit up, speakers and shit. We used to rhyme on “White Lines” and that old shit. Then later on, he bought equipment, like turntables, fader, we was makin’ tapes like that.The Second Coming | The Source
At the age of 15, Nas connected with Large Professor, from the neighbouring Flushing, Queens, and made his debut record appearance on “Live at the Barbeque” off Main Source’s 1991 album, Breaking Atoms. The 16-year old’s appearance was a revelatory moment in hip hop, rap fans were quick to declare Nas the second coming of Rakim, and his guest verse has gone down as one of the greatest of all time.
“Everybody that really know hip-hop will always remember that record ‘Live at The BBQ,’ said DJ Premier in a 1994 Source interview. “Just hearing how his flow was on that record let me know that he was destined to be out here to last for a while.”
Nas followed up his appearance on “Live at the Barbeque” with his debut single “Halftime.” Released on October 13, 1992, the song featured thumping production from Large Pro and was featured on the Zebrahead soundtrack.
“When I heard “Half Time,” that was some next shit to me,” Premier continued. “That’s just as classic to me as ‘Eric B. For President’ and ‘The Bridge.’ It just had that type of effect. As simple as it is, all of the elements are there. So from that point, after Serch approached me about doing some cuts, it was automatic. You’d be stupid to pass that up even if it wasn’t payin’ no money.”
While the hype and acclaim was certainly real, it wasn’t until almost two years later that Nas would eventually finish Illmatic and release it to the world. While the album failed to make any significant commercial impact, it debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 63,000 copies in its first week, Illmatic was instantly acclaimed upon its release and is often viewed as the greatest rap album ever made.
“I realized, writing the first album, you’ve been writing it all your life until that point,” Nas said in an interview with Songfacts. “I’m sure you’ve heard that before. So I’d been writing it since I was 9 years old, in a way. But when I narrowed it down to what would be album material, it probably started at 16 years old. I got a record deal at 18 and then finished the record at 20.”