Here at TRU, most of us are a bunch of huge rap nerds, and since you’re voluntarily reading our musings, there’s more than a good chance you’re one too. That means you’ll be the type of person who has a heavy interest in the backstories of how certain classics come to be, the peeks behind the curtains and the demo versions, revealing the process of how the artisanal sausage was made. Luckily for you, the demo songs for the recently turned 20-year old classic Illmatic have been floating around for years. Unfortunately, the collection labeled as the batch of pre-Illmatic Nasty Nas songs, since at least as far back as at least a questionable 2008 bootleg pressing, isn’t that at all.
Well, not completely. It’s been padded out with tracks from various projects and sessions, and to put both these early songs, the genesis of Illmatic and the role they may or may not have had in it in their proper context, we’ve included them all here. We break down their origins, tagged them up properly, and placed them in something approximating chronological order. Let’s go.
The Original Demo
The demo that MC Serch of 3rd Bass (who executive produced Illmatic and signed Nas to his first publishing deal) was shopping around, only had two on it. According to Serch, they were ‘I’m A Villain’ and ‘Nas Will Prevail’. ‘I’m A Villain’ has also been properly mastered for the first time in over 20 years (the version included here is the cassette version), as it’s included on the Illmatic XX reissue. Both those signs should point to it definitely being a legit demo cut from the pre-Illmatic era, but it seems like there might have been two variations of that making the rounds, as Faith Newman, who signed Nas to his deal with Columbia Records, remembers hearing a slightly different demo.
“It was a two song tape, with ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, the older original version, and a song called ‘Just Another Day In The Projects’ she says.” ‘Nas Will Prevail’ is the song that would eventually morph into ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, which isn’t hard to tell by listening to its lyrics. ‘Just Another Day In The Projects’ is a more loose, ostensibly half-written, half-freestyled song, topped off with a short hook utilizing the song’s name. Many of its lyrics would be recycled into ‘NY State of Mind’, which is only one of the top contenders for best rap song ever, so it’s more than understandable Faith Newman was impressed by it. She had only held her job at Columbia for a week by then, but told her superior that even if she’d never be allowed to sign another act, they should let her sign this kid. Her instincts proved themselves pretty well.
Number One With a Bullet
Definitely a pre-Illmatic recording, but not one used to shop for the deal that would lead to the iconic album. ‘Number One With a Bullet’, featuring Whiteboy and Kool G Rap, was an made to court a deal at Cold Chillin’, the label the legendary Kool G was signed to at the time. It’s strange to imagine Nas hopping on a label as closely associated with the previous generation as Cold Chillin’. If Serch would’ve been able to convince a different A&R only a few years earlier, Nas might be seen as the final entry in the chapter on rap’s first golden age and an old school rapper, instead of the second coming of the mic god, spearheading the NY renaissance.
Back to the Grill
As you can see from the video above, ‘Back to the Grill’ isn’t a demo at all, it was even released as a single. It just wasn’t a Nas single, but one of Serch’s own, from his 1992 solo album Return of the Product. Of course, with a young talented rapper kicking up a huge buzz under his wing, it would’ve been strange for Serch not to give a young Nasir a spot on this posse cut, next to Red Hot Lover Tone and Chubb Rock. Contrary to what many people assume though, ‘Back to the Grill’ is not a sequel to Main Source’s ‘Live at the Barbecue‘. The grill in the title refers to a face, just as it does in ‘Kick ‘Em in the Grill‘, a 3rd Bass track which also featured Chubb Rock, on their album Derelicts of Dialect.
Everything is Real
Of all the alleged pre-Illmatic songs, ‘Everything is Real’ is the hardest to pin down. The beat seems to sample Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby, but who made it is unknown, and since that song was released in 1975 it offers no hints to its age either. It feautures a rapper by the name of Shappelle delivering the last verse, who Nas shouts out as a “Queens comrade” by the end of his second verse. Nas sounds mad young on the song and the pitch of the recording is way off, which, coupled with the fact that the song features a friend virtually unknown as a rapper (who also loses the trail of his verse by the end and raps about smoking cocaine) all seems to corroborate that it’s an old recording, possibly even older than the actual Illmatic demo, of which it definitely was not a part. The song is rumored to have been included on I Am… and Nastradamus bootlegs, but it’s not among the thirteen songs leaked from what would’ve been the original tracklisting of I Am… (the one that The Source gave 4.5 mics) and both its sound and sound quality don’t exactly suggest that time period nor the track ever being decently mastered. It’s inclusion, if at all so, is probably due to a bootlegger in the early Napster days going the extra mile and including it as some sort of bonus cut.
This song has been included on tons of mixtapes throughout the ages and is notable for including the first occurence of what would become Nas’ verse on ‘Verbal Intercourse’, from Raekwon’s classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… album. Unfortunately, the sound quality was always utter faeces, had a DJ shouting through it, or even worse, both. 2DopeBoys deserves a huge tip to the hat though, for uncovering a rip of a virtually unplayed acetate record (a test pressing, a.k.a. a dubplate, which deteriorates on repeated plays) of this track a few years back. That version replaces the dusty one in this batch.
The track’s producer is Chris Winston, a relatively unknown producer who at the time worked as an assistant at Sony Music Studios in New York. Nas went there to record and Chris played him a beat of his after a session. Nas apparently liked it and later sought him out to lay down vocals on another beat, which became ‘Déjà Vu’. Winston revealed in an interview back in 2009 why the track is so rare and often heard in such poor quality: “He laid down a verse then wanted it erased the next day… I kept a DAT for myself and never leaked it because I respected him and I don’t do people like that. Also let me say that speaking of masters, I have the only version of Deja Vu on DAT (digital tape to you youngsters) in existence. Everything I’ve heard on YouTube and mp3′s leaked are from a cassette tape Nas took after the sessions. So when people talk about “quality of production” they are critiquing a CASSETTE tape. If they heard my DAT they would know that it was post Illmatic.”
Understanding / Life Is Like a Dice Game
Two tracks that have been mixtape staples ever since they first surfaced in 1996. Columbia Records released it as a white label that reportedly received distribution mainly in the Japanese market. Markings on the run-out groove reveal it not to be a bootleg, as it has both a catalogue number for Columbia and a reference to the plant that manufactured it. Presumably, the label wanted to test the waters for these tracks from the It Was Written sessions. They’re not exactly single material or club bangers, and they were obviously left on the cutting room floor of the album, but both tracks have turned into much sought-after fan favorites since.
Understanding dates back to somewehere in 1995, as evidenced by what Large Professor told Complex about its creation: “So I hooked the beat up, and we went to the Greene Street Studios, and knocked it out. We never mixed it or took it through the whole process, it was just a flinger. But Grandmaster Vic was there, Biz was there, AZ. Raekwon came through [to hang out]. Nas was just starting to work on It Was Written. Those were sessions between Illmatic and It Was Written. That was one of the first sessions when he started getting in the swing of working again.”
A date for ‘Life is Like a Dice Game’ is a bit harder to place, but it is defintely not from before Illmatic, as Nas can be heard shouting out his daughter, born on June 15 1994: “From the Northern Hemispere of the earth, Peace to my seed and thanks for her birth,” before adding “Destiny, that’s her name.” Seeing how it’s included on the same 1996 white label 12″ as ‘Understanding’, that places its recording somewhere between the summer of 1994 and late 1995. Vintage Nas, but not as old as some’d have you believe, and strictly speaking, not even demo songs.
On The Real (original version)
The story of how ‘On The Real’ came to be is a strange one, but it does explain why there are three(!) versions of this track, with the most popular one, the OG edit, never officially seeing the light of day. Despite the third version being included on the Illmatic ten year anniversary remaster, the track was never part of the sessions for that album and was recorded well after Nas’ debut had dropped. Before the track saw its first release on QB crew Screwball’s debut Y2K The Album (take a guess when that dropped), it was a track Marley Marl had recorded with a Nas vocal on it. According to what producer K-Dek told Unkut a few years beack though, it wasn’t actually Marley Marl who was behind the beat: “I used to do the radio with Marley on pirate, I played that break [from The Soul Children’s Move Over -TRU] for the first time and Marley had recorded that radio show and looped it up and then put Nas’ vocals on it.”
Nas wanted to work with Marley Marl to create a “street album” with the hiphop pioneer, as a follow-up to Illmatic, as he told Complex: “I went in there and we went to work but Marley lives kind of far away. It always seemed like a mission to get there for me. We didn’t work every day, we picked the weekends. I didn’t [always] get out there either—I was getting in a little trouble here and there around my ways.
Perhaps Marley Marl gew frustrated with the slow process and lack of results or believed the project was stillborn. He decided out ‘On The Real’ with the one Nas verse on it when KL and Solo, two Screwball members who also performed as a duo under the moniker Kamakazee, visited him to record a track. KL’s cousin and fellow Screwball Blaq Poet tells how it went down: “Marley was like “Yo, I got some shit with Nas. Y’all cool with Nas, right?” “Oh yeah, yeah. Nas is our man.” They jumped on the track, then Marley played it and motherfuckers was loving it. So when it was time to put the shit out, Nas was acting funny like he didn’t wanna put it out, so we was like “Fuck it. He don’t wanna get on it, he don’t gotta get on it.”” Nas apparently never wanted that version to come out because he wanted it to be a solo track for his own album and still intended to return to it: “I was coming back to finish it and before I could, I’m hearing it on the radio with people rapping on it. I couldn’t understand that. I was hurt and I knew I couldn’t work like that.” Disgruntled with the result, Nas was taken off and replaced with Cormega and Havoc, which became the first official release of the song, as included on Y2K The Album.
The collabo Marley cooked up became a heavily sought-after unreleased Nas track though (a recurring phenomenon where his discography is concerned), and gained so much popularity, Nas apparently figured it was time to release it as well. For this release however, rather than put out Marley Marl’s version, all other rappers were left off in favor of more Nas verses, which is how the world ended up with three different interpretations of ‘On The Real’. The solo edition is probably the one closest to Nas’ vision, but the version included here is the unreleased OG edit, recorded somewhere in the earliest stages of what would eventually become It Was Written.
So that’s it, (almost) everything uncovered about the (alleged) demo that pretty much became the definitive rap album for at least the next twenty years. Yep, we’re a bunch of rap nerds, it ain’t hard to tell.