Released : 1994
By now we were in rap’s fourth or fifth wave – new things were coming so fast it was hard to keep up – but if the Wu-Tang Clan were Staten Island’s weed-stoked disciples, this generation’s first superstar was made in the Queensborough projects, New York’s largest public housing scheme and a fertile breeding ground for the sort of experiences a young mind could turn into crack-bleak stories.
For Nasir Jones the scars were fresh and as real as they got; two years before the release of debut Illmatic his brother and best friend had both been shot on the same night, the latter not surviving. With it the game was changed; as if they came from a machine, the twenty year old high school dropout’s diamond-sharp rhymes were so evocative that critics began comparing their anthracite core to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Here like the work of Basquiat was the street as an art installation, it’s canvas the brown and red bricks of a place Jones called simply ‘the maze’.
N.Y. State of Mind was it’s crucible. Into it the young rapper poured his lived existence whilst at the desk Gang Starr veteran DJ Premier threw in elements of Joe Chambers Mind Rain and Donald Byrd’s Flight Time; famously now we know that the ‘I don’t know how to start this shit’ introductory line was recognition that he’d just completed the track’s devastating first verse. Equally common knowledge is that once he’d begun the whole thing was completed in a single take. “I never sleep/sleep is the cousin of death” went the words, a motto for those in Queensborough who wanted to keep making it to the next day.