12 March, 2010@5:58 am
Ok my friends, for tonight’s TRUE HIP-HOP STORY we will once again take a trip back to 1992. Those that were around back then will remember that hip-hop movie soundtracks were all the rage. Often the CD would be more popular than the movie. Such was the case with Zebrahead, a 1992 movie starring Michael Rapaport as MC Serch.
He wasn’t officially named MC Serch, but the character was clearly based on (and consulted by) Serch. The movie focused on an inter-racial relationship and it was not great. Now that I look at Wikipedia, neither was the soundtrack really. But there was one gem, one diamond in the ruff that came out of that project: “Halftime” by Nasty Nas.
Up to this point we only knew Nas from that one KILLER VERSE on “Live At the BBQ” from the amazing Main Source LP. Brilliant lyrical mayhem. “Halftime” was his debut as a solo artist. And it was something special. The boys around ol’ Source office, especially @MatteoGlen, loved it. We were all huge fans of Large Professor’s production work, and Nas really came with the goods over that beat. Excitement was building. So we would listen to “Halftime” over and over, analyzing all the subtleties. Nas’ flow, his cadence, his content all seemed super-advanced.
That soundtrack appeared on Ruffhouse Records, which was based in my hometown of Philadelphia. I knew the guy that ran it, Chris Schwartz. Anyway Schwartz was a Jew, like me. And he did truly love hip-hop. But there was always something a little… off about him. He was just a quirky guy. And while I advanced in the business by being very knowledgeable about rap music, he seemed to……stumble his way to success. Now I must admit, he ended up being MEGA successful with Kris Kross, Fugees, Cypress, so he’s no slouch.
Some of you may have heard the stories of how MC Serch got Nas his first record deal. You may recall Jay Z making a point about this. During the Jay vs Nas beef, Jay referenced Serchlite Publishing, which is obviously MC Serch’s entity. Serch was the 1st true Nas believer.
So Nas was signed to Columbia and had two good songs released, one solo. And Ruffhouse had a deal with Columbia. And we loved this guy Nas. For a long time we heard rumors that Nas was working with the top producers of the day, but NOBODY had it, none of it was leaking to us. Large Pro, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q Tip. Needless to say, we were extremely curious to hear the material. But for several months, nothing.
Then one day I took an Amtrak train from NYC to Philly and stopped by the Ruffhouse offices. I think there were several things to discuss. But my true goal was to hear the new unreleased Nas shit. That was my true mission. The offices were very informal, like many indy labels. Schwartz held court from behind a very messy desk, with a mop of messy curly hair and the air of someone who could not focus on anything. So I went thru the business agenda, whatever it was. And then oh-so-casually asked if he wouldn’t mind playing me some new Nas material?
He looked at me surprised. “Nas? You like him?” It was as if I had mentioned Mr. Magoo or Orville Redenbacher. He seemed genuinely shocked. He had no idea we had spent countless hours listening to two Nas songs over and over, fiending 4 something new we could sink our ears into. So he moves around a few piles of papers and empty coffee cups and picks up a black cassette. “Here,” he says, “you can have it.” This is the amazing part of this story. What he handed me, without any consideration, was the first ruff mix of the ENTIRE ILLMATIC ALBUM. Even tho this was years before I played poker, I was cool enough to keep a poker face. “Thanks man, I’ll take good care of it.”
So with this magical object in my bag, I hurry myself out of there, take a cab to 30th Street and board an Amtrak back to NYC. As soon as I was seated in the train, I took out my Walkman (yes they were still the main listening device) and popped in the tape. I nearly floated in the air with pleasure for the entire ride. Song after magical song, rhyme after magical rhyme, it was pure brilliance. Most of the stuff on there was identical to the final ILLMATIC, but some stuff had different mixes, in particular “Represent”
I cannot believe my good fortune, but I know I have to be careful. His album wasn’t even on the schedule yet. When I got to “One Love” I literally felt (pause) tingles of joy in the back of my neck. That song is so intense, so creative. So by the time I get back to NYC I feel like I have the HOLY GRAIL in my pocket. Like I’m the only one with access to this powerful object.
It’s about 9pm, but we used to work late back in the Golden Era Source days. Mind Squad and all that. So I knew cats would still be there. I get to the office and I gather all the heads in the conference room. I remember who was there: @MatteoGlen @CeeWild @FrozenFiles. We had a pretty shitty system in there but it didn’t matter, I pop in the tape and the powerful musical magic emits from the speakers. Everyone is nodding their heads, eyes wide, mouths open, it’s hip-hop paradise. When those funky/eerie/powerful xylophone notes from One Love come on, I remember @FrozenFiles is literally lying on the floor…He can’t comprehend how good it is. None of us can. It’s the best shit we’ve heard in our lives.
So as it turns out, it would be like SEVEN MONTHS before Illmatic would hit the stores. That’s a LONG ASS time to be holding this power. Internally, we start debating how we’re gonna handle this. I say right away that it’s gotta get a “5″ (the coveted 5-mic rating). All the people that were there for that first listening session agree with me, but a few cantankerous, grumpy people are doubters.
As the months pass, various songs do begin to leak to the streets (but not from me, fo real!) That was a big issue back then, as it is now. We end up assigning the review to a young, sassy, knowledgeable Asian female named Minya Oh, better know to y’all as @Missinfo. And I take on the task of writing about this masterpiece, how it was made, what it means, etc. In the end, ILLMATIC does get a “5″ and now, some 16 years later, I think it’s clear who was correct about that one.
As told on Twitter, by Jon Shecter, original co-founder of The Source Magazine. Follow him @sheckygreen.
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