I am still on a natural high from seeing the Nas performance at Rock the Bells last weekend. I have been beaming all week. I loved it and continue to tell that to anyone who will listen – including my colleague and homie DJ Eclipse. Upon mentioning to him that this is the show I had been waiting for since I was sixteen-years-old and declared Nas to be my baby’s father he replied, “oh too bad you weren’t around when we were working on Illmatic.”
We??? I was intrigued. I had no idea of his involvement on the album and wanted to know more. Hearing first-hand stories and and inside information is interesting to me as a fan. On the heels of the Illmatic performance at RTB I got the inside scoop on the making of the classic album from someone that watched it all happen first hand. Check out what Eclipse had to say about almost getting on the album, being in the studio with Nas and what the production process was like.
You were there firsthand during the making of Illmatic. How did you come to work with Serch around the time he “discovered” Nas and started the Illmatic project?
It’s kinda like six degrees of separation kind of a thing where at the time I was living in South Carolina in 91. A friend of mine that lived in South Carolina named T-Ray had moved back to New York to work on music. He started getting production gigs and ended up producing half of Serch’s solo album. Serch hit the road to do promo and when he came down to South Carolina he actually stopped at the record store I was working at at the time and I dropped T-Ray’s name and he’s like yeah that’s my boy. So I started telling him how we’ve worked on beats together and he asked to hear some, so I literally went out to the car and played him some beats I had. He liked what he heard, so after he left the store he called me and said he really liked what he heard and we just hit it off from there. He invited me up to New York to DJ for him and also produce for him.
So how did Nas come into the picture?
T-Ray had got a production deal with Big Beat Records and was doing stuff for the Artifacts and actually getting beats out there. I forgot how exactly T-Ray came across Nas but he’s the one that put Serch up on Nas. He told him, “yo this dude Nas is dope and you should check him out.” When Serch was doing “Back to the Grill”, he told T-Ray to invite Nas to the studio. So he came down to the session and ended up getting on the track. So that’s how he and Serch connected. At the same time, Big Beat records was actually interested in signing Nas. At that time Stretch Armstrong and Reef were A&Rs for Big Beat and were already up on Nas and offered him a deal. But Serch met him and asked if he was signed and Nas told him not yet but that he got an offer from Big Beat. Serch told him he could get him a better deal so Nas didn’t take it. So Serch shopped his stuff around, pitched it to Russell but he turned it down because he said it sounded too much like G Rap and didn’t think he’d be anything big. Then, Serch took it to Faith Newman at Sony and she got it, she liked it and the rest is history.
What did you think of Nas when you heard his stuff? What made Serch and everyone else want to work with him?
Lyrically, it was just dope. He can spit. He definitely had a little G Rap in him and some Tragedy influence – just that Queens kind of style. But it was just the stuff he was writing and the way he was kicking it was real poetic and that’s what got the spark going with a lot of people. That’s definitely what captured me and most of the people I knew was that his lyrics were ill.
Were you ever in the studio with Nas?
Yeah, I went to an “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” session. I went to one of them because there were several sessions for songs back then. It wasn’t like today where you meet once and do the joint. Back then they would go in and Nas would lay his lyrics down and then he might go back and change it a few days later. Large Professor actually ended up changing the music for that song several times whether it was different drums beats or different patterns; he switched it up a few times. So, one of the sessions I went there to check them out over at Power Play [studio] and hung out for the session. But usually, at that time I was living with Serch at his place, when we would see Nas it was because Serch would send a car to Queens Bridge to pick him up and bring him to Serch’s crib in Long Island.
You almost had a beat get placed on Illmatic, right?
Yeah. I was always up in the attic working on beats and Nas would come over and hang out with us and I’d play a bunch of tracks and he would listen to them and see if there were any he liked. There was one time when I had played a beat and he started vibing to it and right on the spot he came up with a loose chorus and started saying some ish over it. So he was like, yo I think I want to to fuck with that for the album. So, I was like ok, cool you got it. A little time went by and I guess he decided he didn’t want to use it for the album. By that time Serch had started liking the track and like what Nas had kicked over it so Serch asked Nas if he could use the chorus Nas made and he said cool. It ended up being on an unreleased Serch album that he recorded in ‘92/’93 but didn’t come out till a few years ago. But that was my little five minutes of fame for Illmatic. [Laughs].
You also did a remix for “Life’s a Bitch” too, was that an official remix?
The remix was actually supposed to be an official remix for the single, but out of the three versions that were done (me, Buckwild & Meach Wells/Def Jef) they went with Jef’s version. Which I thought was nowhere near as good as mine or Buck’s. Actually Buck ended up doing 2 different versions and they were both dope. Oh well.
How did the idea for having various producers come about? It wasn’t the norm back then usually it was the one producer and one emcee formula.
Well, that was because there were so many groups that had built in producers – you had Gangstarr, Pete Rock and CL Smooth. So, for the most part, yes a lot of the albums would be heavily produced by one producer. With Nas, his closest connect was Large Professor. That was the dude that put him on the Main Source project and did some of his early demos. But Nas didn’t have someone that that close to him that was a super producer. Large Professor was busy doing Main Source stuff at the time. People were so hyped about Nas they were like how dope would it be to get one track from DJ Premier and one track from Pete Rock, one from Q-Tip – all these people that were kings of production at the time in Hip-Hop. The idea was to have the best tracks ever done and just have an incredible album. We were just all hype over Nas and wanted him to work with the best producers out.
How was Serch able to get the biggest names in production to work with someone brand new?
Well there was already a buzz about Nas from “Live at the Barbeque”; people knew what he was capable of. Then once you tell them we have so-and-so on board then it makes someone else want to be on board. Then during the actual recording process of the album there were joints that people did over like a competition. Like the two songs Premier did – “Memory Lane” and “Represent” – he did them but after he heard what Nas did with some other people like Pete Rock etc. and was like oh shit, I can’t give him what I did, I got to redo it. So he went back and did all new versions of those two songs and those are the ones that are on the album. The original ones were dope but Preme definitely out did himself with the newer versions. But that’s what it was about – wanting to work with Nas because of what could be and also the fact that producers wanted to out produce each other. Everyone wanted to make sure they had the best cut on the album.
The album is pretty short with only nine songs, what was the decision behind that? Were they picked from a bunch of songs made?
Nah that was pretty much it. I mean he had several demos done that he used for when he was shopping for a deal. I think “One Time for Your Mind” was the oldest track on the album. That came from a demo that made it to the album. But everything else was made from scratch. I don’t really remember what the decision was to go with nine tracks, it might have been because it took them a minute to get done and major labels always push you to get your shit out there in time.
So you went to Rock the Bells and saw Nas’ performance, what did you think?
Man it was crazy! It was like being in little kid mode you know, knowing the lyrics to the songs and waving your hands in the air. As soon as New York State dropped it was like you just see a crowd of thousands and thousands of people all singing along, it just gave me goose bumps. For me personally some of the highlights were seeing “Live at the BBQ” with all four original members performing, which was never done live before and seeing “Back to the Grill Again” with MC Serch, that’s what I wanted to see. He has so many dope songs; it was just great to see him do some of the dope ones in our opinion at Rock the Bells. I would have to definitely attribute a lot of that to Premier for kind of being in his ear and saying we should do this, we should do that. He personally told me the direction they wanted to go in and I think they nailed it, it was a great show.
You can follow DJ Eclipse on Twitter @itsdjeclipse
All photos via Robert Adam Mayer