When Old School Was New: Nas' 'It Ain't Hard To Tell' : The Record Director Ralph McDaniels takes us behind the scenes and back to 1994, right before Illmatic was released.

When Old School Was New: Nas' 'It Ain't Hard To Tell'

Nas, in a photo from the mid-1990s. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

Nas, in a photo from the mid-1990s.

Courtesy of the artist

Since the heyday of hip-hop, one man has been broadcasting the music videos, the culture and the people in the community all throughout New York City. His name is Ralph McDaniels, and his show, which has aired on public television since 1984, is called Video Music Box.

McDaniels knows everybody. He and his company, Classic Concepts Video Productions, made music videos for musicians like the Notorious B.I.G., Public Enemy and Wu-Tang. Legendary music video director Hype Williams got his start at Classic Concepts.

The man widely known as Uncle Ralph has stories we want to share, so occasionally on The Record he'll pick a classic video and take us behind the scenes. Today we go back to 1994, just before the release of Nas' ground-breaking, career-making debut album, Illmatic. The second single from it was "It Ain't Hard To Tell".


Illmatic is now considered a classic — a masterwork of story-telling, lyricism and beat-making. By the time it was released, in April of 1994, word of Nas' skills had spread all over the music industry. "It was such an anticipated album, and he delivered," says McDaniels. "It was like Derek Jeter — 'I know he's gonna get the hit' — and he hit it out the park with that album."

In the early to mid-'90s hip-hop was at a creative peak, as regional styles were maturing and bleeding into each other. Rappers from New York, who had become used to critical and commercial supremacy based on their lyrical prowess, were confronting the force of California gangsta funk and the seduction of Southern gothic tales. The narratives in hip-hop songs made in the Rotten Apple then turned darker; the sonics were nostalgic and mournful.

"I call it street corner rap," McDaniels says. "It's definitely crack-era rap, too. He's talking about all of the little moves: the boosters coming with the Gucci and selling you stuff, girls setting you up in the club. All of the things that are happening, it's not fantasized — it's all real in Illmatic."

The winter before Illmatic was due to be released, executives from Nas' record label asked McDaniels to make a video package they could send around the media to drum up coverage of the album. The shoot went so well, the 20-year-old Nas asked McDaniels to direct his upcoming video.

Ralph McDaniels: "Nas is from Queensbridge. Nas approached [his record label] Sony and said, 'Look, I want to get this guy Ralph McDaniels who does this show Video Music Box to do a press kit for me. I want him to come to the projects and talk to my friends and all that kind of stuff.'

"So I went out to Queensbridge projects — I was familiar with the area, been out there before. Marley Marl, from the Juice Crew, is from out there. I went to LaGuardia Community College, which is not too far away from there in Long Island City, so I definitely was familiar with the neighborhood.

"I had been familiar with Nas, and he had a big buzz. It was probably the biggest buzz in New York City about this guy named Nas — Nasty Nas, or whatever they called him at the time. So I went to Queensbridge. I got up with him. We shot some stuff with his mom, with his brother, who was also in another group, and we began talking about his project.

"We got all his producers together that were on Illmatic. It was Large Professor, who was the original guy to really work with Nas, and he's also a Queens resident. Q-Tip, another Queens guy who just knew that he had to work with this guy Nas 'cause he had heard some of his lyrics. Pete Rock — classic artist. Pete Rock and CL Smooth made some great, classic albums. L.E.S., who is Nas' DJ and also his friend from the neighborhood. He put some tracks down. DJ Premier. I had worked with him on Gang Starr projects and was good friends with him as well.


"Sony got them to come to Sony Studios, and we did interviews there. And then we started doing this press kit. And it came out so natural because Nas said, 'This is what I want. I want it to feel like when I'm at home watching Video Music Box.' Guys just talked like they were talking to their friends. It was very natural, the conversation. The press kit was very real. It was real comments about Nas; it wasn't overhyping it, or anything like that. It was how they really felt about Nas.

"So that went so well that they said to me a day later, or two days later, 'Ralph, can you do a video for the first single for Nas, "It Ain't Hard To Tell"?' And I said, 'Sure! Yeah, I'd love to do it.'"

McDaniels and his crew shot the video all over New York — just nowhere in Queens. Viewers from outside the city assumed that the scenery in the video was Nas' neighborhood. But, for good reason, they were wrong.

"I went and talked with Nas about it, and he said to me, 'I don't want to shoot in Queensbridge.' I said, 'Alright, that's fine.' I've dealt with that before with artists. They may have some beef at the time in their own neighborhood — they really don't want to get embarrassed. You know, bring a crew out there, something happens ... it's the projects. Anything can happen.

"So I said, 'Alright, no problem. Let's shoot it in the band shell on the Lower East Side, where they shot Wild Style. We'll shoot over there and we'll shoot in Brooklyn.'

"We shot a major part of Nas' 'It Ain't Hard to Tell' in Coney Island. You don't see the rides, but that's where we shot it at. Under the boardwalk, by the beach. So people — for years — thought that was Queensbridge, if you didn't live in New York City.

"It was wintertime, snow out there. Nobody was out there, which was what made it great, so we didn't have to worry about people getting in the shot and all that kind of stuff. In hip-hop, winter gear is always cool. Big North Face jackets, or Triple F.A.T. Goose, or whatever it was. Hats to the side, you know. Cool boots, Timbalands or whatever it is now. Winter gear is always cool for hip-hop."

McDaniels says he wanted to make a smooth, visually appealing music video, to match Nas' fluid delivery and pretty face. But as hard as he tried to avoid trouble, an inopportune gunshot on set inserted an element of Nas' street roots into the final product.

"The thing about Nas when I first met him was — I see this good-looking kid, definitely going to appeal to women. We want to get some good shots of him where women can see who this guy is.

"The guys are gonna hear his lyrics, and the song was very melodic. I wanted to create this kind of flow with the visuals. Everything kind of flowed into each other. We weren't trying to make it hardcore in any way.

"Even though there is a scene that we shot at this club on 80-something street with a friend of mine, Maria Davis. Jay-Z used to hang out at her club. Nas, Jay-Z, all these different people used to hang out there.

"We shot this scene at her club, and she was like, 'Ralph, I don't want no problems. These kids be comin' in here, and they be actin' up.' And I'm like, 'No, Maria, this is gonna be cool. This is something for the record company we're shooting.' And she's like, 'Alright, I don't want no problems in here.'

"We're shooting this whole little scene, and I'm standing on the stage and I'm kind of, like, directing the cameras. Nas is performing the song. And one of Nas' boys shoots off a gun. In the club. He was literally standing right next to me, 'cause my ears are ringing. I saw the flash but I didn't see who did it.

"The club clears out, like 'Aaaaah.' Everybody's running, falling over each other, they're clearing out. I said to myself, 'Why did he do that?' 'Cause I knew it wasn't somebody else — it was somebody that was down with [Nas].

"There's a scene in the video where there's goose feathers of somebody's jacket flying. [Eds: Starting at 1:46.] I think it's just because they were running and probably just cut their jacket open by mistake, but that's when that happened. Because people are running!

"In the video — because I'm having this flow going on — the goose feathers are flying. Which, as a hip-hop person knows, either somebody just got shot, or somebody just got stabbed, and their goose feathers are flying in the air. Hip-hop knew what that was.

"So much for it being a flow and a nice video. That was our hardcore scene. I called Nas all night.

"I was like, 'He's gonna pick up this phone.' I called him from 12 to like, six in the morning. And finally, around nine, he picked up and was like, 'Yo Ralph, I'm so sorry man. I'm so sorry [for] what happened.' I was like, 'Yo, that was your crew that did that, man! And he was standing right next to me!' Nas apologized for it, and we continue to still be good friends."