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Nas pays homage to 90’s hip-hop with Illmatic tour

RnB/Hip Hop | Sunday 14th June 2015 | Jason

Last year, to mark the 20th anniversary since the release of Illmatic, Nas filmed a documentary on the making of the album before doing a number of shows performing it from start to finish. I couldn’t make his LoveBox gig last summer and had been kicking myself ever since, so when I saw he was touring again I made sure I was going to witness it. The Roundhouse is the perfect venue to hear an album performed live that I’ve been rinsing every summer since I worked out Eminem wasn’t the only rapper alive.

Nas’ debut album Illmatic was ground-breaking for many reasons. Producing 10 tracks over 39 minutes was revolutionary at a time when most rappers were releasing double albums. The producers Nas managed to enlist through the help of MC Serch were the biggest names in hip-hop: Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier. The Source, the dominant hip-hop magazine at the time, broke its own policy on never giving 5 stars to an album. Most importantly, the substance to Illmatic in terms of lyrical skill, storytelling and poetry set it apart from much of hip-hop music of its time.

(Nas’ debut single on vinyl ‘Halftime’ was released in 1992 when Nas was aged 18)

There were two key things I went to the gig trying to remember in order to manage my own expectations. Firstly, Illmatic is born of a sound that is better listened to with headphones than at a live show; hip-hop acts sometimes struggle to sound good live without rehearsing through an orchestra or band. Secondly, it was 23 years since Nasty Nas released his first single ‘Halftime’. Nas was now aged 41 and probably wasn’t going to be working the stage like Tyler the Creator.

It was a sunny afternoon so the venue was mostly empty until 8pm as people most liely opted for cider in the sun over jukebox hip-hop in a dark room. Tim Westwood warmed up the crowd playing a pre-selected quick mix of hip-hop. The vibe was mostly from thewrong decade for Nas fans, who had come to see an album for its 90's New York sound. Also, it's just uncomfortable to hear a 57 year old man from Lowescroft tell you "we're going in, we're going in" or ask you to "pimp your collar" to 2003 club songs.

One interesting point during the Westwood set was noticing how many cheers were offered to demonstrate how many people in attendance were born in the 1990’s and 80’s compared to the 70’s. It validated the longevity of the album, showing how it resonated so strongly with a crowd who were likely only aged 5-15 when it came out and probably first listened to it years after its initial release. Commercially, Illmatic was a slow burner, taking 8 years to go platinum. 

(Nas’ first verse on record; ‘Live at the Barbeque’ by Main Source)

The main set got underway with a countdown taking us back 23 years with a backdrop of New York streets and subways. This merged into those famous rail road track sounds, ‘Wild Style’ sample and ‘Live at the Barbeque’ verse that kicks off ‘The Genesis’. Nas seemingly stepped straight out of the 90’s in a blue and white striped Fila top, boat hat and gold chain. 

The first beat dropping on ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ was my first ‘goosebumps moment’. To hear the jazz cuts from the DJ Premier-produced track in the flesh was big. The highlight of the song was letting the crowd finish the famous line “I don’t sleep, cos sleep is the cousin of death”. The intimate venue worked and the feeling in the place was live on this retrospective journey. Nas brought his daughter, soon to be 21, out on stage to wish her a happy birthday and make the point of just how long ago this album came out. I got distracted imagining the hassle of going out with the daughter of a man who could be rapping about your relationship on his next album. But he brought it back to the music and showed respect to the golden era of hip-hop with the DJ spinning Big Daddy Kane’s ‘Ain’t No Half Steppin’ into one of my favourite tracks ‘Halftime’. For me, he didn’t let the beat breathe long enough, choosing instead to rap the second verse over the ‘Back to Life’ by Soul 2 Soul beat.

The momentum started to drop towards the end of the Illmatic tracks and there had been some notable gaps in lyrics appearing at times when the crowd were not enthused to fill them. Fittingly, he remembered almost every line for ‘Memory Lane’, which was the most consistently performed of the Illmatic set. On the ‘Time is Illmatic’ documentary, Nas explained how his time Main Source, Eric B, Rakim and Kool G Rap taught him how to craft songs.

Altogether the Illmatic performance was unforgettable for me as a massive fan of the album but I can understand how newer fans could be critical of the performance. There were times when Nas lacked energy and timing in the delivery of his verses.
Initially I looked past it but after a while it started to take me out of the zone. Nas finished the album by thanking Michael Jackson for allowing him to sample ‘Human Nature’ in ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, one of two songs with a video on the album.

(‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ – Nas)

Nas then took us up to date through the anthems of his career, cherry picking songs that seemed to resonate with the crowd better than the earlier songs. The balcony was bouncing to ‘Nas is like’, whilst The Roundhouse roared when ‘Made You Look’ played, with cheers of “Braveheart!” long after the song ended. ‘One Mic’ was performed with surprising energy given how late in the show it was and Nas executed the encore in style with ‘The Don’, rounding off an upbeat finish to the night.

I enjoyed the first half of the gig out of my love for the album but Nas performed the second half better. You can only forgive so many forgotten lines before it feels more like a karaoke than a gig. But then Nas has always been more of an artist than a performer with an incredible catalogue of songs and body of work that stand the test of time. At the end Nas stated that this year felt like the beginning of something new. In the meantime, as a hip-hop fan, this was a performance worth seeing.

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