Before Illmatic was release, when Nas sought his first record deal, the Queensbridge emcee looked to MC Serch for guidance, according to the rapper-talk show host. Serch says he told Nas he could help him as long as he signed to his company at the time.
"I knew he had been talking to Big Beat and Craig Kallman, and I knew the guys over there, and I really didn't feel comfortable talking on behalf of an artist that wasn't signed to me," Serch says in an interview with XXL. "So I got them a production agreement that basically said that I represent Nas exclusively for his recording career. And I went over to Big Beat and spoke to Reef and Stretch and said, 'Look, the deal you're offering him isn't a great deal, make it a great deal. Guy is gonna be one of the greatest MCs of our generation. He deserves to have a deal that represents that.' At the time, they wanted half of his publishing. They were really not offering a great deal. And they said, look, this is the deal we're offering. We can't make it any better. So I said, 'Okay. I get it. He's not signing here just so you know.'"
Serch took the demo tape, a collection that featured "It Ain't Hard To Tell" and "Halftime," among other cuts, to Russell Simmons. At the time, Simmons compared to Kool G Rap. "G Rap don't sell no records," Simmons said, according to Serch. "I'm not interested."
Eventually, Serch got Nas a deal with Columbia. Faith Newman, who worked for Columbia at the time, stopped the tape halfway through "It Ain't Hard To Tell." She said she'd been looking for Nas. Newman and David Kahne, an A&R at Columbia at the time, worked to have a deal in place for Nas. "That's how Nas got signed to Columbia," Serch says.
MC Serch Says Nas' Illmatic Was Going To Be Called Word Life
Nas began crafting more selections for what would become Illmatic. At the time, however, the collection had a different name.
"Originally, the album was going to be called Word Life," Serch says. "It wasn't going to be called Illmatic, for about two minutes. I was working with an artist named O.C., who was working on his album. And O asked Nas if he could name his album Word Life.
"I think Nas was gonna [switch to Illmatic] anyway, but he was playing with the idea," Serch adds. "We were at dinner together, we were at a function—me, Nas and O.C.—and they were talking about it. I think they had a conversation, and O was like, 'That should be the name of my album.' So I don't know if it was an official, 'I'll bless you with this' kind of thing, but after Nas put out Illmatic, O.C. put out Word...Life."
MC Serch Says He Knew Illmatic Would Be "The Greatest Album Of All Time"
Nevertheless, Nas' Illmatic was released April 19, 1994. It earned critical acclaim and has been dubbed one of the genre's best albums, a sentiment Serch agrees with.
"I just knew," Serch, an executive producer on Illmatic, says. "I knew it was the greatest album of all time. I just knew, to me, in my involvement, that I might be involved in some great projects...And I was; I think OC'sWord...Life is one of the most underrated albums of all time. It's just an amazing record, and what it took to get that record done was amazing. Working with Marc Ecko, and working with Jay Z, and working with the artists I've worked with—whether it was on the radio promotion side, or whether it was on the brand building side—I always knew that Illmatic was gonna be the one thing that would really stand the test of time, and it would have my name on it. It's amazing. It's really amazing."
Today (April 15), Nas released Illmatic XX. The project earned a 3 out of 5 in its HipHopDX review, which also refers to the original Illmatic as the Queensbridge, New York emcee's "crowning artistic achievement."