Around two years ago, while running down a frequent route, I noticed that some bandit had spray-painted on a road block “THE WORLD IS YOU” in plain white paint. I imagine the bandit swagger-walking down the dead-end street, checking his shoulder for witnesses, wearing a backwards Yankees cap (sticker still on), his baggy pants sagging off his ass, pockets heavy with spray-paint cans. What does that even mean? The world is you? When I first saw it, I wondered what went wrong. He had room for “yours”, did he run out of paint? Did someone catch him in the act, so he split early? In my mind all graffitists are well versed in the four elements of hip-hop, clearly this was intended as a shout-out to my favourite track off Nas’ Illmatic, “The World Is Yours”. I keep running, and the Nas song starts playing in my head. “It’s yours!”
Eventually, a kind stranger would help our poor graffitist out and add the RS. Here in Saanich, we know when to help each other out, even when someone doesn’t want it, which clearly they didn’t. It wasn’t long before someone, maybe the original graffitist, spray-painted a heart over the RS, restoring “The World Is You”. At least they did it in a kind way, with the pretty heart, adding a little colour to the mix. But the battle wasn’t over yet. The RS reappeared on top of the heart, and then the heart was repainted covering it. It’s a Canadian Turf War, polite, civil, someone’s getting in trouble for trying to help. As far as I can tell, that square foot of concrete is the most disputed piece of territory in Saanich. Things are heating up. Someone might even write a letter to the editor.
Last week the CIS National Championships were in Edmonton and the two circles of my life, Edmonton and track, collided. But no where in my Venn Diagram of places I call home does life resemble anything like the home Nas raps about, the Queensbridge projects. Although while running past “The World Is You” I too “wipe the sweat off my dome, spit the phlegm on the streets” as Nas does in the song, most comparisons are fruitless or trivial. I have no friends in jail. I can’t hear gun shots from my house. The NARCs don’t raid my neighbourhood. Last year, I did live next-door to a marijuana grow-op, but when a brigade of cops came to investigate after a neighbour complained of the smell, it was a pleasant experience. The cops knocked on our door, asked if they could search our house, we agreed, we wrote sworn signed statements saying “Bro, it totally smells like weed around here, like, more than the west coast already does” and somewhere in process our friendly cop fixed our dryer. It was lovely. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. They’d stake out our neighbours place for a day, and later, when they ran the address it turned out that operation next door was entirely legal – they had a permit to grow medicinal marijuana. Just when you think you’re about to get a bunch of street cred, your drug growing neighbours turn out to be squares. Typical.
So besides at one point being close in proximity to the drug trade, both twenty years old, and ambitious thinkers with an interest in hip-hop, Illmatic-era Nas and I have little in common. Still, I feel like I can relate to him, or at the very least, understand him. Somehow the rap game reminds me of the track game: they are both repetitive and rhythmic, the elements are simple, requiring little equipment, yet hard to master. Big breaks can happen in the blink of an eye. One race, one verse, dropped at the right time is sometimes all you need. For a select group of people at the top of the game, they got into it as a way out of poverty. On top of all of that, although I love them both dearly, I know it’s not easy to be a casual fan, where the details are paramount to the entertainment. It’s more fun when you have a bit of history to go behind the rapper/runner, some one to root for and understand, someone to love and maybe someone to hate. What’s their struggle and how are they changing the game? Hip-hop is steeped in its own history, unabashedly self-referential and intertextual; even veterans could use a tourist guide. So yo, hold up, let me drop knowledge:
It’s hard to address the importance of Nas without mentioning Rakim. When Nas unleashed his style on NY, he was labeled the second coming of Rakim and for good reason – they vibe the same way. Neither of them are battlers or freestylers, they’re writers working within the street-themed traditions of hip-hop, pioneers of new vocabulary and demeanor in the genre. When Rakim stepped onto the scene, hip-hop fans were used to energetic and excited MCs shouting their party raps, but The R was deadly serious. His intonation was understated, perhaps an oral manifestation of his stone-cold emotions. He sounded like someone who had seen a lot of shit, but none of it phased him. He was cool and methodical, delivering his carefully crafted lines, full of ground-breaking internal rhymes, slow and clean. On top of that, he had the voice to boot, as Jay-Z described it, “[Rakim’s] vocal cords carried their own reverb, like he’d swallowed an amp.” Nas brought the same kind of introspective seriousness to his raps too, while pushing the internal rhyming game even further. Although both of them rap about the street life, neither are gangsters, if they must be criminals they’re the mastermind type. Nas self-describes as a “verbal assassin” and Rakim is one too, they’re smooth, they never miss a word or stutter, they don’t need to twist your arm to get what they want. They’re thinkers born in the thick of the ghetto, the criminal violence and imagery used in their songs is more metaphorical, a tool, used to highlight their intellectual supremeness. They’re laid back, rapping from their throne, Rap Kings of New York, both in a New York states of mind (Rakim said it first, on “Mahogany”, which is cut into Nas’ “NY State of Mind”). Even details of their lives are similar. Rakim played saxophone as a kid, Nas the trumpet. Rakim named his daughter Destiny, and Nas copied. In the song of hip-hop, Rakim and Nas are rhyming refrains spaced 6 years apart.
Eighties hip-hop (early Rakim) I find hard to listen to straight up without filtering for historical context, because the beats sound so… simple. Any kid could whip up the sound of some Roland-808 drum kicks like Eric B. does for Rakim in 30 seconds on GarageBand, so where’s the art? Back in the days when hip-hop was just two turntables and a microphone in the park, the DJs had to become vinyl virtuosos to keep party bumpin’ in tune and on time. To loop a breakbeat (the musical foundation of hip-hop) you’d need two copies of the record you’re sampling, each on its own turntable. While one record plays the break through the loudspeakers you’d spin the other record back, muted, to the point the loop begins and, when the first break is finished, you’d release the second record, on beat, sliding the crossfader so the second record plays through the loudspeakers and the first is muted. Go for as long as you like, by alternating which one is playing, and you’ve got yourself a looping breakbeat. Contrast that with clicking the loop button on-screen, or a few copy-pastes. Why do it? Because to the guys who did it, it was the coolest thing they knew. All that work, just to keep going in a circle. Sounds like the track game alright.
Illmatic lands in what I consider to be the golden age of hip-hop production, where the necessary technology had become affordable enough to get into the hands of those making hip-hop, but it wasn’t so limitless that the craft got lost. Sampling was still about digging, finding that one rare soul soundbyte in the basement of a record shop that would take your beat to the next level. More than sliding a well-known hit in, it was about resurrecting something brilliant that had been lost in the annals of recorded history. Of course, no matter how sick Nas could spit rhymes, Illmatic wouldn’t be palatable without the beats, and what a crew Nas had behind him on production. DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, even Q-Tip? Somehow for his debut, Nas lucked out with the all-time greats at their all-time best.
It never seemed like Nas would make it. A school dropout, with only Grade 8 under his belt, he’d sit at home reading books of every kind, scribbling down rhymes by day, and roaming the projects streets by night. This was his training, experiencing the streets while honing his lexical acumen. But Nasty Nas was a little mic shy, preferring to rap around friends and family at home than in front of strangers. Then things changed. Ill Will, Nas’ partner-in-crime, was shot in the Queensbridge streets, right by Nas’ home. Perhaps it was a wake-up call, a reminder that where he wanted to be wasn’t where he was. Ill Will was off in a better place, Nas was in the projects. It might have been the push that Nas needed, to take his raps and conquer the world. He dropped a verse on the Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque”, and all of a sudden he was the talk of the town, and the door opened to modest record contracts. Just that one verse catapulted him from someone no one really knew or cared about, to one of the hottest MCs in New York. Or, as he put it in “Halftime”:
Back in ’83 I was an MC sparkin’,
but I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and
kick my little raps ‘cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand
and now at every jam I’m the fuckin’ man.
According to DJ Premier, Nas’ ink was still drying when they went to record what would be the first rapping track on Illmatic, “NY State of Mind”. Nas was standing in the recording booth looking over what he’d written when the beat comes on and they start recording. Premier’s standing on the sidelines in the mixing room behind a pane of glass, yelling at him and counting him in. This was the first take, he didn’t know what Nas would drop. And right before Nas jumps into the deep end, and spits a verse that solidifies himself in hip-hop history you can hear him confess “I don’t know how to start this shit.” I don’t blame him. No one did. Staring back at him on the page was:
Rappers, I monkey flip ‘em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’, musician, inflictin’ composition of pain, I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine, holding the M-16, see with the pen I’m extreme…
The thing’s a goddamn run on sentence. How could you fit all of that into the span of just a few meters? Compare it to how Rakim kicked off his debut album Paid In Full in 1988:
I ain’t no joke, I used to let the mike smoke,
Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.
Here, the sentence matches the meter syntactically. The pauses, breaths, emphasis and rhymes fall in an obvious place on the beat. But somehow, Nas fits “Rappers, I monkey flip ‘em” in, and as a result, it’s rhythmically like nothing you’ve ever heard.
To Nas, the end of the line isn’t always the end of the line. Often his sentences roll over into the next, rhymes aren’t just bookended but scattered around his verse. It’s part of what gives Nas his unique flow. He grabs a riff and runs with it as it carries momentum, but at any time he can stop, and flip it around, all the while looking cool, like a basketball player dribbling up court, changing it up with a deke and draining the jump-shot. Nas knows tricks on the mic, and always comes across smooth and in control. Even when Nas chooses not to rhyme, it still feels right, which is maybe a better measure of a good MC. He’s so smooth at piecing together rhymes you could forget he’s rapping as in “One Love”, a song written as series of letters to friends in prison: “Yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece? Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach.” That’s a real sentence, it’s a real sentiment. It’s a real thing you’d write to a friend locked up. And, it just happens to rhyme, multiple times. Nas makes it looks easy, but there’s the rub: making it look easy is what everyone works so hard for.
If any hip-hop album should be treated as a work of literary merit, as bona-fide poetry, it’s gotta be Illmatic. I know, I used the p-word, and I really mean it. When most people listen to rap music, they’re really hearing the stress patterns and word choice in the rhyme scheme, the musicality, not the content of the words. But, when they first encounter what they call “poetry”, it’s on written on a page in middle-school class and they’re expected that the find the meaning, what the poem is “actually” about. No one ever seems to approach poetry just for fun, with only the sonic qualities in mind. But Nas functions in both ways, sounding slick, and capturing something meaningful to the culture and generation he came from.
The style of rapping, the beats and subject matter, Illmatic is the peak of a form that a generation had spent twenty years developing. Trace the evolving styles of rap from hip-hop’s genesis and you end up here. Hip-hop and Nas were born around the same time and grew up together, at times Nas’ struggles, hopes, dreams and desires seems to represent the generation’s, like the repeated line in “The World Is Yours” which morphs from “I’m out for Presidents to represent me” to “I’m out for Dead Presidents to represent me.” Not only is the wordplay witty, but its the same shift hip-hop itself experienced from “Presidents” to “Dead Presidents” from political roots to commercialization. (“Dead Presidents” meaning money, referring to the faces on American bills, while also carrying the murderous vigilante motif).
It’s kind of a shame that Illmatic was Nas’ first album, because everything he’s released since is compared to the Gold Standard. Illmatic rings classic through and through, even the iconic (and often imitated) cover – an image of a seven year old Nas superimposed on a photo of the project streets – feels as rough and raw, serious and introspective as the music itself. It’s hard to top, not only for him but for every other rapper in the game. It’s a problem for critics too, and there’s discussion surrounding it, when we decide if something is “classic” are we really just comparing it to Illmatic? Why aren’t the things we say are important, the same as the things people seem to enjoy?
In the 60s and 70s there was some correlation, but now critical acclaim and album sales rarely align. It’s hard to believe, since no other album of his gets a quarter as much attention: Illmatic is not Nas’ best selling work. In terms of sales, it sits just off the podium, fourth. It took over two years to sell half a million copies, seven years to reach a million, and at the time of writing it sits at around 1.6 million. It was a slow-burner at the record store, and this is important: this means that the bulk of the sales were in a time where it was likely bought and digested as an untouchable classic, rather than just album detached from the mythos that surrounds it. I don’t think the importance of this can be understated, because it changes the way you hear the music. When you hit play it isn’t just the first time you’re listening to a hip-hop album, but the first time that you’re listening to Illmatic. Approach, that’s what Nas changed, how we approach listening to hip-hop, and how rappers approach making it. He redefined what a (critically applauded) hip-hop album should be.
This reminds me absolutely of Usain Bolt.
Before Bolt, sprinting was serious. When Ben Johnson won the Olympics in ’88, and he crossed the line with a finger in the air, his victory lap more an assertion of dominance than a celebration of winning. He didn’t dance, as Bolt does, he didn’t smile, as Bolt does. The look of a killer never left his eyes, even standing on the podium. This was the image of a sprinter — tough guys with bigger egos, walking with a stiff swagger — these were the winners. But before Bolt steps into the blocks he’s enjoying himself, he’s an awful lot of fun, and he wins. I don’t need to describe to you who Bolt is, you’ve already seen him dancing in his victory lap. At the Beijing Olympics, Bolt changed the game, in a sort of opposite way that Rakim and Nas did, taking it from serious to fun. It’s not that any of them changed the content, eight sprinters are still running 100m in a straight line out of blocks, and raps are still filled with braggadocio rhymes, gang violence, drug use, and analysis of the status of blacks in America, but the approach to the content is different. That’s where there the heart is.
At the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, the post-Bolt world, you can almost tell the age of the sprinter by how serious they are on the line. Oldsters Dwain Chambers and Tyson Gay have tough-guy-focus, but the young ones show the influence of Bolt. Even former World Record holder Asafa Powell, who historically fell into the “serious” category, is uncharacteristically trying to make fun out of the event. Before the race in Berlin, Bolt and Powell are playfully shadowboxing with each other, Daniel Bailey mimes cleaning the camera’s lens, Bolt is his charismatic self, playing peak-a-boo with his smile, miming the takeoff of a jet, and telling the camera “I’m ready. Are you ready? Let’s go.” Powell even jokes around putting his hip numbers on his face. Everyone wants to be Bolt, from the fans in the audience with foam “Bolt arms” to his gold-medal-winning peers. In what for me is the most cringe inducing moment of the London Olympics, Taoufik Makhloufi, after winning the 1500m, celebrates with Bolt’s archer arms. I can’t think of anything more disappointing than winning the Olympics and acting like someone else. It stumps me. Did he never think of what he’d do if he won? I know I do, and I’m not exactly an Olympic medal contender. My running bio in one sentence reads something like an up and coming runner coming runner-up, but I still think through interview questions in case I’m interviewed. What’s it like living in Team House? Who do you need to thank? What would your dad say if he were here right now? For all of us, it should mean more than just coming first. We know what we’ve sacrificed to get here. There’s more to it than just a break-loop, but it’s tough to figure out exactly what it is.
Even though I don’t like the guy, I’ll cut Makhloufi a little slack. Unfortunately for us runners, the most important moments in our careers will come when we’re at our most exhausted and least coherent. I have troubles stringing together sentences after a race, but no matter how tired I was, I certainly wouldn’t act like Bolt or whoever the big name is at the time. When you win the biggest race there is the world is yours, no one else’s. Celebrating like Bolt, you resign the 1500m to a consolation prize. You say, “You can win the biggest 1500m race in the world, but you’ll never be as good as Bolt”. But the medal that hangs on Bolt’s neck is the same that hang around Makhloufi’s. We decide which holds more weight.
Maybe that’s what “The World is You” means. If you’re good enough at something, that part of the world can become synonymous with your name. The classic hip-hop album is Illmatic. The track world is Bolt. Could your average person name any other track star? No, but the paradox is they are runners. From Olympians to kids in gym class, the mid-life crisis marathoner to a student chasing after the bus, if you can put one foot in front of the other, in such a way that, for a moment, you’re flying, with no foot on the ground, you’re a runner. Running, like music, is a universal language we all speak, but we do hear it differently. Ireland, Switzerland, Kenya, New Zealand, Jamaica, any where you go, the world is running, not just a niche section of it. To win running is to win the world, and it’s our job to go after it.
Sometimes, as I run past the graffiti on the streets, I feel like I own them. Flying up and down hills, hurdling logs and mud puddles, jay-running across traffic, moving through space from A to B, when it all comes together and I feel like a big hand’s pushing me from behind, I look at people standing at the bus stop like they should fear me. With that kind of self-claimed power, it’s easy to feel like you rule the world. Certainly no one in sight is found on the hit list of people who can outrun me, which is getting shorter every day. The future’s bright. I roll with the best crew, and we run these streets, and beyond them. So who’s world is this, Nas? It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.