Q&A: California Rapper Fashawn on Remaking Illmatic, Nas's 1994 East Coast Classic
"All the shit Nas was experiencing as a 21-year-old in 1994, I'm experiencing that shit now as a 21-year-old in 2010."
In 1994, a 21-year-old Queensbridge resident calling himself Nas made a svelte, ten-track album that he titled Illmatic. Over beats concocted by a dream team of New York producers (DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor), his vocals refined rap. The album was certified an instant classic on release, and Nas was loftily anointed as the second coming of one-time reigning god Rakim. Now, in 2010, a 21-year-old out of Fresno City, California named Fashawn has completely re-made the sacred artifact-a move that will either cement the audacious arrival of a precocious new rap wordsmith or come over like the hip-hop equivalent of a particularly zealous member of the congregation self-publishing his own revamp of the Lord's best-selling book. "I know this project is a big statement," admits Fashawn, perched at the bar of Coco 66 in Greenpoint, "but I'm confident that I've done justice to all the songs." Titled Ode To Illmatic, the record finally landed last Friday. (Download it at XXL.) Here's Fashawn's justification for doing it:
When did the idea to re-make Illmatic come about?
It was three years ago when my buddy originally suggested that I do it. This was during the time when there was a craze for mixtapes and he suggested I do something different instead of going the typical route and just rapping over beats from this and that person. He said I should go in and re-do Illmatic. I brushed the idea off at first, but then when I said the idea to my manager the spark went off in his head.
Did you consider re-making any other albums instead of Illmatic?
Yeah, actually, I nearly did AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted by Ice Cube. That was definitely a thought in the back of my head.
How long did it take to re-write all the songs?
It was a real fluid process, so I wrote it in like a week when I finally got around to it. I was living in Santa Monica and I ended up recording it at Evidence's house. Then when I got back from tour with Ghostface I spent a couple of days finishing it up.
What was the hardest song to pull off?
"Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)," just because of the rhyme patterns and techniques Nas was using. They were incomparable and I haven't heard anything like that since. It was hard to do those patterns but not repeat anything that he was saying.
How did you approach "One Love," where Nas raps as if writing a letter to a friend in prison?
I got a homie who just got locked up so it wasn't hard for me to touch on that topic. Then for the last verse, where he stops with the letter-writing concept, I just talked about how people misjudge each other and hate each other for no reason and how it should be like one love. But the whole project wasn't me having to go out and search for ideas because all the shit Nas was experiencing as a 21-year-old in 1994, I'm experiencing that shit now as a 21-year-old in 2010.
What about the music?
That was through Green Lantern. He was DJing for Nas on the Rock The Bells tour and managed to send me over the instrumentals, which I didn't even think was possible! Like Nas' DJ is giving me the instrumentals-are you kidding me? But I had them in my email a week later. Well, all of them except for "One Time 4 Your Mind," which was produced by Large Professor. He was supposed to re-do the drums for me, 'cos no one else has that instrumental. So I hit Large Pro up on a text message: "Yo, I need that, man, you the only one that has it, that's your shit."
For many people Illmatic is considered a holy grail of hip-hop albums. Is there a chance that what you're doing will be seen as sacrilegious?
I thought that's how people would react to it, especially people in New York. I expected to be hounded, like, "What are you doing? Why are you even touching that record? What you're doing is like re-writing the bible." But when I put out the first song, "Memory Lane," it was the total opposite and everyone was welcoming of the idea, even in New York.
Does being a West Coast artist putting his stamp on an East Coast classic add to the pressure?
Yeah, of course, and me being from Cali was a big shadow over my head when I was making it. But I don't feel like I'm stepping on anyone's toes. I relate to the shit Nas was saying. Same shit going on in Fresno as in Queensbridge.
Someone hearing about Ode To Illmatic might be cynical of its merits, considering Illmatic is such a near-perfect album in itself. How would you convince them of its worth?
I know people are going to want to judge, and everyone's entitled to their opinion, but if you love and respect hip-hop then just give it a listen. If you're a hardcore Nas fan then decipher it and study it and see if you like it for what it is and not hate it for something it's not. I genuinely enjoyed revisiting Illmatic and hopefully people will enjoy what I did with it. Everything I recorded was meant as a homage to the original album, which is one of the greatest rap albums ever created. I also wanted my new fans, the young ones, to know about the music that inspires me.
Which other rappers would you like to hear re-make Illmatic?
I heard Elzi, from Slum Village, was also planning on re-doing it. I'd love to hear his take on it, coming from Detroit and the gritty environment they got out there. Guilty Simpson, too, he's ill.
Are there any rap albums that you'd consider off-limits to try and re-do?
If we're talking completely untouchable then maybe Paid In Full, by Eric B & Rakim. But history repeats itself, that's what I heard, so everything can be re-touched. If I can re-touch Illmatic then let's see what happens in the future with the same idea.
Being that Green Lantern DJs for Nas, does Nas know about your project?
I don't know, I don't even know if Nas knows about me! It'd be cool if Nas even knows who I am, to be honest.
You've were also chosen this year as one of XXL's Freshmen Ten. Were you surprised they chose you?
Definitely. I was shocked, like, "Are you sure you got the right guy? Fashawn, right?"
XXL's picks last year didn't fare too well after appearing on the cover. Charles Hamilton was dropped from Interscope, Asher Roth got in trouble via Twitter, Wale's album recorded low first week sales, and Ace Hood became a recurring joke on the internet. Are you worried?
Haha, well anything is a gift and a curse, but you've just got to try and avoid the curse. Fame and recognition open doors, but it might open too many doors to hatred and envy, so you've just gotta take the good with the bad. You've gotta expect a backlash if you want to rise to the top. I'm happy it's my first cover.
So what's the best piece of hatred you've heard about you being on the cover?
The funniest was something somebody said in regard to the freestyle I did to go along with the cover. They said that not being born was greater than my freestyle. They used the 'greater than' symbol. That was hilarious, I giggled at that one.