Diggin’ in the Crates: Illmatic at 25

Nothing makes you feel old like a seminal album from your past becoming a classic. I think everyone knew that the debut Nas album Illmatic was important on its release. But 25 years later, with the benefit of retrospect and being able to see how hip hop has panned out since 1994, it’s true: it really is a classic.

“I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of death” he said on NY State of Mind and we all made out like we shared that sentiment but of course we didn’t cause we had GCSEs to take and Saturday jobs to do to earn enough money to spend on timberlands and blunts and share bags of weed and going to the Korean supermarket near the railway bridge to get authentic 40oz’s. So we went to bed on time and didn’t have to worry about gang violence or being robbed for drugs. Our life was so far removed from the QB projects that Nas walked us through but which he described better than any documentary ever could.

A few years later, away from a comfortable spell in the suburbs and these formative years listening to New York rap for fun, Nas’ words would be amongst many that would inadvertently prepare me to conceal my naivety in the face of a different way of living. Catapulted back to the city, a different one this time, and I wasn’t living the life I should have been. 

I got myself into trouble, I was around people who lived a certain way, and in a predictable cycle of inevitability, got myself into more trouble. But I’d learnt enough to know that this wasn’t a game; this wasn’t a tape you could eject in your friends car and go home to a safe normal life anymore. This was it. 

It wasn’t as intense or permanent as what Nas had taught me growing up. Not for me, the luckiest person I know. And by the time Nas had evolved from this raw 20 year old artist who burst forth with Illmatic into a still unsmiling but more polished version of himself (Bravehearts, on screen in Belly, married to Kelis) I knew I had to change too. The last straw came one Sunday, a day I’d try and invite friends round to eat who had lost contact with their families, didn’t have the means, or were too busy on road to spend time cooking when they could be out doing what they do. ‘G’ from upstairs arrived, the most beautiful young man I think I’d ever seen, with girlish eyelashes, glowing skin, and a diagonal scar running the length of his face. He was destined to play college basketball in America before getting involved in organised drugs. It wasn’t just me who had fucked up some good chances. 

I’d visited him in prison, even when the screws didn’t let him out to see me and would lie to my face and say he didn’t want a visit. When he was fresh home I picked him up from the gate, gave him a white kidskin bible and give him some money to get him going. The money he refused but the bible he took and kissed me on top of my head, more or less the only sign of affection that he ever instigated. I would cook for him and take him to church on the odd occasion he’d agree to come. I lent him my car even though I knew what he used it for. We would talk about music and agree that people who preferred Jay-Z over Nas didn’t know what they were talking about. I had the best music collection in the block and he would regularly draw for Illmatic even when I’d long stopped listening to it myself.

There were things we didn’t talk about; things he didn’t want me to know about so that neither I nor he could get into more trouble. He was the first person I’d ever met who wanted me close and pushed me away at the same time.

On this Sunday I opened the door to G as usual and asked him in. You never saw him unready. Always dressed. Always in shoes. Usually in his Avirex leather. He used to joke he didn’t sleep, cause sleep was the cousin of death. I’d roll my eyes but suspected there was truth in it. I never saw him day to day but he would be there like clockwork for his Sunday dinner with me when I came back from church. 

I welcomed him with a hug and felt it in his waistband. I knew then he hadn’t changed and I couldn’t allow him to bring this kind of trouble across my threshold anymore. I told him I couldn’t have it in the flat; not on a Sunday when he was amongst friends to share a meal. He apologised and said he understood. Then he asked for a plate. He’d rather eat alone than walk without it.

I worked hard until I got a decent job, went back to college, moved out of one of the most deprived areas in the country, and left that life and the people in it behind. Some in prison, some in graves, some where I’d last seen them doing what they do. 

I would never see G again. He never came back for Sunday dinner. Six months later he was shot dead.

RIP G. At least now you got some sleep x

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