- "Time is Illmatic":A Critical Retrospective on Nas's Groundbreaking Debut
There are indisputable watershed years in hip-hop history. 1979, of course, is the year Fatback Band and The Sugarhill Gang released rap's first singles. In 1984, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons found Def Jam in an NYU dorm; the label would define the sound of hip-hop throughout the 1980s. In 1986, Run DMC signed a million-dollar endorsement deal with Adidas, an early instance of the relationship between hip-hop, fashion, and branding. Yo! MTV Raps debuted in 1988, prompting a more sophisticated approach to the video format; meanwhile, at Harvard, juniors David Mays and Jon Shecter "pooled two hundred dollars to put together a one-page hip-hop music tipsheet which they grandly named The Source" (Chang 410). By the 1990s, that small zine would become the "the bible of hip-hop music, culture, & politics."1
1994 is another watershed year--arguably the most important of all. By then, the gangsta rap genre had started to exhaust itself, inadvertently descending into cliché-ridden self-parody. (Tamra Davis's 1993 film CB4, starring Chris Rock, captures this decline perfectly.) The dominance of the West Coast's musical aesthetic, known as "G-Funk," began to dim in the smoky afterglow of Dr. Dre's The Chronic. In February and May of that year, the Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, and Competitiveness held two congressional hearings on "Music, Lyrics, and Commerce," focusing on gangsta rap's violent imagery, misogyny, and homophobia.2 That year, Wesleyan University Press published the first academic monograph on rap and hip-hop, Tricia Rose's canonical Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America.
Many fans view 1994 as the last gasp of creative breath before media-conglomerates put hip-hop aesthetics on life support. In part, this view is nothing more than hip-hop pastoralism; but 1994 was, in fact, an especially fecund moment in terms of musical production, with the release of several landmark albums: The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Common's Resurrection, Outkast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Scarface's The Diary, Organized Konfusion's Stress: Extinction Agenda, Method Man's Tical, The Roots's From the Ground Up EP, and Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang.3 But no album from that year has received as much attention, then or now, as Nas's Illmatic. It transformed the twenty-one-year-old MC from Queensbridge, New York--who once famously declared that he "went to hell for snuffin' Jesus" (Main Source, "Live at the Barbeque")--into a savior figure.4 Today, the aura that surrounds both him and the album persists.
Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas's Illmatic, edited by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai, is a collection of scholarly essays and historical documents. Given the high volume of books published every year on hip-hop music and culture, it's surprising that Born to Use Mics is the first book of its kind, one dedicated to a single epoch-defining record. In his introduction, Daulatzai explains that the book's primary aim is to demonstrate why and how Illmatic is still "relevant" fifteen years after its release (3)--that is, relevant both to hip-hop's past and future as well as to race relations in America. There are other similarly worthy albums, explains Daulatzai, such as Boogie Down Production's Criminal Minded and Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted (3). But he writes that there's "something" ineffable about Illmatic that makes it different (3).
The table of contents is divided into two "sides," "40th Side North" and "41st Side South." (The street names refer to the location of the Queensbridge House Projects.) The paratextual conceit reproduces the A-side/ B-side format of the album's 12-inch pressing. Each contributor is assigned a single track to analyze. Some essayists use the assigned recordings as a jumping-off point for extended riffs on race, power, gender, and politics. Others...