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Matthew Gasteier's entry into the mostly excellent and informative 33 1/3 book series tackles the Holy Grail of hip-hop, Nas's 1994 debut, Illmatic. Gasteier does a commendable job detailing the importance of the album (and its "genesis," to borrow a track title) and sets the tone thusly: "This is not a book about me. I won't tell you when I first heard Illmatic, or what it has done for my life, or why I couldn't have made it through a tough period without the record by my side." By stating that he won't make the book a personal experience, he actually sort of is, but this approach is a cheeky shift from another hip-hop entry in the series, Shawn Taylor's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. In that book, Taylor focuses exclusively on the impact the titular A Tribe Called Quest album made on his teenage self, and it resulted in an overly nostalgic, uninformative and rather pointless read. Gasteier instead traces Nas's trajectory from his youth in the Queensbridge housing projects to his questionable post-Illmatic work with Diddy, with a fascinating track-by-track breakdown of the classic album, complete with quotes gathered from those involved in the production.
He's also a white guy, and admits to and sort of apologizes for this from the get-go. "I am white," the book begins. "How could I pretend that my life paralleled the lives depicted in [hip-hop]?" Gasteier references Rakim's line, "It's not where you're from, it's where you're at," but also spends the entire introductory chapter exploring what it means to be a Caucasian hip-hop fanatic, and the greater global/universal/multiracial identity of hip-hop. This may not be entirely necessary, but he works it in it usefully, ultimately tying it into the work at hand: "It is this complexity that Illmatic represents so well, and that I aim to capture from the outside looking in."
Just as engaging are the dichotomies the points out in almost every one of Illmatic's songs, sometimes in the same line. One minute the artist is switching his motto from a despondent "fuck tomorrow," to the next where's he's decidedly more goal-oriented, "winning gunfights with mega cops." Gasteier attempts to decipher Nas's intentions in chapters categorized thematically with comparative titles like "Fantasy/Reality" and "Faith/Despair," to hammer home his take on the rapper's reality. But it's the nuts and bolts, the previously unknown tidbits, that co-conspirators and mentors Pete Rock, MC Serch, DJ Premier, and AZ reveal about the writing, recording, and production of songs like "Life's a Bitch" and "The World Is Yours," that form the meat of Nas' story and the incentive to read a book like this in the first place. SEE ALSO: www.nasgreatesthits.com
SEE ALSO: www.33third.blogspot.com
SEE ALSO: www.continuumbooks.com
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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