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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This summer, the rapper Nas is travelling to Texas, to California, even Germany, performing his debut album, "Illmatic," in full. Although it will hardly be the first time fans have heard it. "Illmatic" came out 20 years ago. It's considered a classic.

NPR's Frannie Kelley spoke with some of the people who made it a success.

FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: In the early '90s, hip-hop was just beginning its takeover of popular music. It was landing on the charts but, more often than not, the songs there were novelties.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T TOUCH THIS")

MC HAMMER: (Rapping) Can't touch this. Can't touch this...

KELLY: For the people who took hip-hop seriously, and especially the fans in rap's hometown of New York City, this was a problem.

FAITH NEWMAN: By '91, things had become commercialized. A lot of stuff had. It didn't feel substantive.

KELLY: By '91, Faith Newman was director of A&R at Columbia Records, tasked with signing new acts. One day, she was driving around in downtown New York, listening to a song by a group called Main Source.

NEWMAN: I remember it clearly because that's when I heard Nas' Nasty Nas' verse. Oh my, God, I can even remember like it was a really gray day...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE AT THE BARBECUE")

MAIN SOURCE: (Rapping) Street disciple, my raps are trifle. I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle. Stampede the stage, I leave the microphone split. Play Mr. Tuffy while I'm on some Pretty Tone (CENSORED)...

KELLY: Newman wasn't the only one who heard that verse. At the time, Minya Oh was just a fan. Now she's Miss Info, a radio personality at Hot 97, the most influential hip-hop station in the country.

MISS INFO: It cut through the air. It just sounded so different, but familiar at the same time and a little scary. Because that era was filled with children born from a lot of struggle, and born to express themselves through rhyme. And a lot of what they were seeing and then wanted to say was not pretty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE AT THE BARBECUE")

SOURCE: (Rapping) Poetry attacks, paragraphs punch hard. My brain is insane. I'm out to lunch, God. Science is dropped, my raps are toxic. My voicebox locks and excels like a rocket. Yeah, it was like that y'all. That y'all...

KELLY: Somebody else heard it too: the rapper born Nasir Jones.

NASIR JONES: I'm walking through the projects late one night and I see these older dudes by a car. They're playing the radio out their car and then a record comes on. So I'm like, Yo - that's me. that's me. So, I'm like, Yo, I'm trying to tell them that's me. And they're like: Yeah, alright, alright.

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: But they're not even - so I blocked them out. I'm just in my zone. I'm listening to me. So that walk from 12th Street to Vernon, back to my block, I was in a trance.

KELLY: Nas was then 17 years old. Faith Newman went on a mission to find him, and when she finally did, she signed him to a record deal. Then Nas told her what he wanted to do: assemble a dream team of the top producers of the day.

JONES: Could you imagine? I'm like this I'm brand new. No - you know what I mean? I got like two verses out there. How am I going to get a beat from Q-Tip? How am I going to get a beat from Premier and Pete Rock? Luckily enough, they had been familiar with my verses, so they were interested and I was lucky to have them produce for me at that stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALFTIME")

JONES: (Rapping) Right. Right. Check me out y'all, Nasty Nas in your area about to cause mass hysteria. Before a blunt, I take out my fronts. Then I start to front, matter of fact, I be on a manhunt...

KELLY: It took Nas more than two years to craft "llmatic." He was not hard at work that whole time, but when he was, he was a perfectionist and he kept going over budget. Faith Newman got frustrated. One night in the studio she got mad and Nas walked out.

NEWMAN: But he had left a yellow legal pad there with lyrics on it and I just started reading it. Just like, oh my.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE TIME 4 YOUR MIND")

JONES: (Rapping) But now I know the time, got a older mind plus control a nine, fine. See now, I represent mine. I'm new on the rap scene, brothers never heard of me...

KELLY: Meanwhile Minya Oh had gone from fan to intern at the magazine considered the Bible of hip-hop, The Source. "Illmatic" was becoming the object of such massive anticipation that the editors were worried that their judgment might be clouded. So they assigned the review of it to someone who had a little distance.

INFO: I'm a Korean-American, girl - teenager from Chicago. And those are all different elements that really kind of keep it blind.

KELLY: In the winter of 1994, Oh was handed a cassette with handwritten track names on it.

INFO: At the time I was using a bright yellow waterproof Walkman. And I remember going to the subway. And when I started listening to the album and that intro comes on, "Genesis," and then "New York State of Mind," it felt like somebody dropped a hood over me. And I remember that many trains went by and I was still standing there, listening. And I don't think that I stopped playing it for days.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE TIME 4 YOUR MIND")

JONES: (Rapping) Rappers I monkey flip them with the funky rhythm. I be kicking musician, inflicting composition of pain. I'm like Scarface sniffing cocaine. Holding a M-16, see with the pen I'm extreme. Now, bullet holes left in my peepholes. I'm suited up in street clothes. Hand me a nine and I'll defeat foes. Y'all know my steelo with or without the airplay. I keep some E&J, sitting bent up in the stairway. Or either on the corner betting Grants with the CeloChamps. Laughing at baseheads, trying to sell some broken amps...

KELLY: Minya Oh She gave "Illmatic" 5 Mics, The Source's equivalent of five stars. It had been more than two years since the magazine had bestowed that honor. Oh says she rated it so highly because it took her into a world she knew.

INFO: There's a line about being telephone blown. And it's not about your telephone blowing up. It's about your face being opened up with a razor, which was called a telephone cut because it went from your ear, to your mouth and it was, like, gruesome. And I knew lots of kids walking around - even girls - walking around with these scars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SITTIN' IN DA PARK")

JONES: (Rapping) Here's my basis, my razor embraces, many faces. Your telephone blowing, black stitches or fat shoelaces...

INFO: So those are like little tiny things that make it very realistic. And I think that the bravado that is in a lot of the songs was totally realistic. Everyone had to feel somewhat invincible in order to just not get downtrodden, 'cause that's kind of the only way that you can get through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORY LANE")

JONES: (Rapping) Now let me take a trip down memory lane. Comin' outta Queens bridge. Now let me take a trip down memory lane...

KELLY: "Illmatic" remains the pinnacle of Nas' career. The stories within it, the disappearance of the middle-class, the climbing number of black men in prison could have been written today. So people are asking him to perform it again. He's done it at the chandeliered Kennedy Center in a tux, at dusty festivals, in clubs.

JONES: I'm honored that people would still like it 'cause the content is relevant to today.

KELLY: That's the definition of classic.

Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T HARD TO TELL")

JONES: (Rapping) It ain't hard to tell, I excel then prevail. The mic is contacted, I attract clientele. My mic check is life or death, breathing...

INSKEEP: In a related development, NPR News is going to - this is a surprise for many people - is going to begin rebroadcasting Renee Montagne's hot stories from 20 years ago, to find out how relevant they still are today.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: Can't wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T HARD TO TELL")

JONES: (Rapping) Delete stress like Motrin, then extend strong. I drink Moet with Medusa, give her shotguns in hell. From the spliff that I lift and inhale, it ain't hard to tell...

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