Nas' 'Illmatic' Gets A New Sound When Performed With National Symphony Orchestra

Jan 30, 2018
Originally published on January 30, 2018 10:20 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The album "Illmatic" is widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made. It's an eloquent look at life in New York City's Queensbridge housing projects by the rapper Nas. "Illmatic" came out more than two decades ago. Now it's getting new life on PBS' "Great Performances" with the National Symphony Orchestra. Even in that formal setting you'll hear a lyric that might offend. NPR's Ted Robbins has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: It might seem a little incongruous for a rap album to be played by an orchestra, but it was Nas who brought the project to PBS. And he says symphonic music, opera and hip-hop, they're all connected.

NAS: Music is music. There's no barriers, really, with music. I look at that as old hip-hop from centuries ago. It was the hip-hop of its day.

ROBBINS: The concert was recorded at the Kennedy Center in 2014. The album came out 20 years before. It was Nas' debut, an intense take on life in the projects. Nas' father is a jazz musician, and that influence is strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT PERFORMANCES")

NAS: This is his horn part right here he wrote. Can we hear the horn?

Good, the bad - I wanted it all on that record. You know, I didn't leave no stone unturned when it came to making a good album. I wanted to give my very best. And I think people can appreciate that. Or they can see it, sense it, smell it, taste it with that record. It was, like, raw.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT PERFORMANCES")

NAS: (Rapping) Life's a bitch and then you die. That's why we get high, 'cause you never know when you're going to go. Life's a bitch...

ROBBINS: Nas is now in his 40s. He usually performs in T-shirts, hoodies, sweatsuits. But here he's on stage in a tuxedo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT PERFORMANCES")

NAS: I feel good up here.

I felt older. You know, I felt like - I felt a lot more mature. I felt a lot more experienced, cultured, seasoned.

ROBBINS: The "Illmatic" broadcast is interspersed with old photos and new interviews, including National Symphony conductor Steven Reineke, who says he was challenged.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT PERFORMANCES")

STEVEN REINEKE: Because this was the first time me as a classical orchestra conductor was going to branch out into the realm of doing, you know, hip-hop music and rap music. And...

ROBBINS: The orchestration, beats and melodies are rich, but "Illmatic" is really acknowledged as a masterpiece of lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT PERFORMANCES")

NAS: (Rapping) What up, kid? You look this rough after you slid. When the cops came, should've slid to my crib - black, no time for looking back. It's done. Plus, congratulations, you know you got a son.

ROBBINS: It can be tough on first listen to catch it all, but "Great Performances" executive producer David Horn says they opted not to use subtitles.

DAVID HORN: I think it's just - it - they would just blaze by so fast that you wouldn't be able to see them.

ROBBINS: Horn says people can record the show, look up the lyrics or turn on closed captioning. He knows the audience for "Great Performances" is older than the typical rap audience. But Horn hopes opera fans will tune in along with "Illmatic" fans. Nas says you'd be surprised who watches PBS.

NAS: I grew up watching PBS. And I learned - I certainly learned a lot watching PBS. So maybe there's something to be learned about this on multiple levels. There's something that can be learned about the things I'm saying or just these two different worlds colliding together. I learned from PBS, so I'm now teaching on PBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT PERFORMANCES")

NAS: (Rapping) It ain't hard to tell, I...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Excel. Prevail.

NAS: (Rapping) The mic is contacted.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Inaudible).

NAS: (Rapping) The mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper's breath. Exhale the yellow smoke of Buddha through righteous steps. Deep...

ROBBINS: Class starts Friday evening. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT PERFORMANCES")

NAS: (Rapping) Hit the Earth like a comet - invasion. Nas is like the Afrocentric...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Asian. Half man, half amazing.

NAS: (Rapping) In my physical I'll express through song, delete stress like Motrin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.