Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic
Hailed as a masterpiece upon its release, and arguably hip-hop’s greatest album, Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic was a game changer, an incredible combination of lyricism and beats that painted a haunting and sometimes redemptive portrait of life in late 20th century America.
Born to Use Mics is a literary remix of Nas’ landmark album Illmatic, bringing together an eclectic group of some of hip-hop’s most seminal writers, journalists, and filmmakers as they offer up unique and fresh perspectives on the lasting significance of Nas’ brilliant debut album.
Featuring pieces by Bobbito Garcia, Mark Anthony Neal, Adam Mansbach, dream hampton, Marc Lamont Hill, Greg Tate, Charlie Ahearn, Jon Caramanica, Imani Perry, and James Braxton Peterson among others, Born to Use Mics is a cipher in book form, as these scribes reflect not only on the history that made Illmatic, but also on the history that it made.
Excerpt of Introduction to Born to Use Mics: “It Was Written” by Sohail Daulatzai
… Coming out at the tail end of hip-hop’s “Golden Age” (1987-1994), in the same year as Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn, O.C.’s brilliant but slept on Word . . . Life, Common’s Resurrection, Biggie’s Ready to Die, and many other great records, Illmatic’s subtle and powerful brilliance rests in Nas’s detailed descriptions, dense reportage, and visually stunning rhymes of the underbelly of the beast. Like the 1965 landmark masterpiece film The Battle of Algiers, which captured the Algerian resistance against French colonialism, Illmatic brilliantly blurred the lines between fiction and documentary – creating a heightened sense of realism and visceral eloquence for Nas’s renegade first person narratives and character-driven odes. And like The Battle of Algiers, Illmatic was about the stories of everyday people caught in the most horrific of circumstances, or as Nas referred to it – “the devil’s lasso.” Though Nas’s narration of life in Queensbridge didn’t have the explicit political project and radical liberationist thrust shown in The Battle of Algiers, Nas’s lyrics captured an urgency and immediacy about life at the tattered edges of the American empire. Through Illmatic you could hear the echoes of secret wars and you could see the picture it captured of a particular moment, a photo that revealed, among other things, the brutal reality of the failure of the post-Civil Rights romanticism, the crack war bum rush, that COINTELPRO worked, and that the new prisons caged the rebel that may have proved to be that messiah…
… All of these pieces make this project a unique collective insight into the possibilities and pitfalls of not only hip-hop, but also the world that we all inhabit. The post-9/11 moment that we now endure has hit the reset button on a whole host of things, erasing so much that has made America what it is, while also centering things that continue to remind us in case we forgot. But hip-hop at its best was always that constant reminder, that battle cry that spoke truth to power. In many ways Illmatic, and hip-hop for that matter, made visible what was not seen, having prophesized so much about where things are at: it had a clairvoyance about America’s penchant for militarism and war, an insight into the country’s cash rules philosophies, and an omen about nation’s gangster ethos. Using Illmatic as our weapon, Born to Use Mics chronicles and probes that American landscape in that war against oblivion, arguing not just for hip-hop’s continued relevance, but also for its urgent necessity…
Get more info on Born to Use Mics.
“This book reaffirms that hip-hop matters, that this art form has said and continues to say so much about the world we live in. Read it. And listen.
“Born to Use Mics reads like a master class for hip-hop purists.
– XXL Mag