In his essay “‘Memory Lane’: On Jazz, Hip-Hop, and Fathers,” Mark Anthony Neal provides context for Nas’s seminal debut, Illmatic, by considering the musical journey of his father Olu Dara. He writes, “Dara’s oldest son, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, was born in the place affectionately known as ‘the Bridge,’ not so ironically, at a time when the ‘gumbo’ that Dara sought in his music was simmering throughout the five boroughs of New York City.” The “Gumbo,” which symbolizes Dara’s Mississippian roots as well as the melting pot of South American, Caribbean and African residents in Queensbridge, New York City’s largest public housing projects, also fits the aim of Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas's Illmatic, in which editors Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai assemble top hip-hop scholars to dissect Illmatic into its cultural, political, literary and global components.
Needless to say, much more than celebrating hip-hop’s most canonized opus, the essayists, which include Mark Anthony Neal, Marc Lamont Hill, Greg Tate, Imani Perry and others, analyze the ars poetica of Illmatic, examining the album through the bifocal lens of music and poetry and deconstructing it like a hybrid between Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Their close reading serves as a springboard into the tangential topics of fatherhood, urban decay, prison and post 9/11 New York City—the very dilemmas that make Illmatic such a stalwart work of social commentary.
Almost none of the scribes in Born to Use Mics, feels reserved about elevating Nas to the level of chief ghetto scholar as evidenced by their intense decomposition of his lyrics. Marc Lamont Hill goes as far as to label Nas a celebrity Gramscian, a term borrowed from Mark Anthony Neal. In his essay, “Critical Pedagogy Comes at Halftime,” Hill writes, “Through his lyrical representations, Nas functions as an informal ethnographer by consistently offering an on-the-ground counternarrative of day-to-day ghetto life.” Hill links Nas’s storytelling rhymes to a stark but necessary kind of grassroots urban journalism.
Though no discussion in this book takes precedence over another, Sohail Daulatzai’s “A Rebel to America: ‘N.Y. State Mind of Mind’ After the Towers Fell” places Illmatic within the most contemporary post 9/11 conversation. In this analysis, Daulatzai equates the first full song on the album with Gill Scott Heron’s “New York City.” Both offer the city as a symbol for the country at large. Daulatzai reiterates the common view of New York City as “the blessing and the curse, the American Eden and the forbidden fruit,” the latter of the two descriptors Nas adopts when he raps, “I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.” The city is also, to bring Nas’s lyric further, the target of anti-imperialists who view New York as the figurehead behind unwarranted expansionism according to Daulatzai.
Perhaps Mark Anthony Neal’s hip-hop “gumbo” can also refer to the triad of social issues (fatherhood, prison, and urban poverty) that surface in this collection. On the topic of prison, Dyson pens “ ‘One Love’ Two Brothers, Three Verses” which doubles as a companion to Nas’s memorable Q-Tip-produced track and a firsthand account of his own brother’s jail-time woes. As for fatherhood and urban poverty, the writers in this book don’t or, rather, can’t limit conversations on these matters to one piece, leaving these issues to be in infused into every piece in some form or another.
Just as Nas creatively played with the cassette tape medium in 1994 when he substituted the A-side and the B-side with the 40th and 41st side, (sections of the Queensbridge projects in which he was raised), Born to Use Mic divides its writing into the 40th side, 41st side, and the remixes. Perhaps the spiciest section, the remixes, includes an original 1994 Rap Pages interview with Nas, who calls out interviewer Bobbito Garcia for passing him up on Def Jam. There is also a testimony of Tupac’s love for Illmatic rendered by Dream Hampton, and a brief exposition on Illmatic’s relevance to the movie “Wild Style” and other emblems of Hip-Hop’s nascent stages by Charlie Ahearn.
This socially poignant compendium of essays transforms its essayists into emcees themselves who use their scholarly quills to tell the story of one of hip-hop’s most enigmatic albums. As Imani Perry writes, “the narrative form is a classic in Hip-Hop.” In Born Use to Mics, both the rapper and the thinkers are the ones dropping knowledge.