Matthew Gasteier's Illmatic is a great book that gets off to a very shaky start. After a tiresomely self-referential introduction, in which Gasteier drones on and on about how the book "isn't about him," apologizes for his whiteness (the first sentence: "I am white"), and openly declares "I am not hip-hop," Gasteier proceeds to get a few basic but crucial facts wrong, severely compromising his credibility.
Published in 2009, Gasteier admits to have only been seriously listening to hip-hop for a decade. Perhaps a few years intervened between the book's writing and its publishing, but at best, it would seem that Gasteier was not around to appreciate Illmatic within the context of the time it was released, and that seriously calls into question whether or not he should be the one writing this book. Gasteier further exposes himself as a johnny-come-lately to hip-hop in Chapter 1 by making the absurd statement that "the traditional style of gritty drums and hard hitting samples" was already "on its way out" in 1984 when Run DMC burst on the scene. Really? It hadn't even arrived yet! Run DMC was the first new-school group. Prior to them, old-school artists rapped over disco tracks--the sampler hadn't even been invented! In fact, Run DMC rapped over drum machines and live instrumentation on their debut and second album; "gritty drums and hard-hitting samples" wouldn't debut until the introduction of the SP-12 sampling drum machine (it came out in 1985 but its sound didn't begin to dominate hip-hop for another couple of years, by which time its successor the SP-1200 and competitor the Akai MPC-60 had established the sound Gasteier mistakenly believes was "on its way out").
This is on Page 11, and already Gasteier has blown his cover. On the same page, he clearly mistakes The Infamous as Mobb Deep's debut, too. On Page 23, Gasteier refers to Marly Marl's production on "The Bridge" as "helplessly old school," further cementing the fact that he doesn't know what "old school" means. In Chapter 4, Gasteier repeatedly refers to iconic hip-hop journalist Selwyn Seyfu Hinds as "her" and a "she," when Mr. Hinds is in fact a man, baby. He was editor in chief at The Source, back when The Source was THE source, and her, uh, I mean his picture frequently graced the pages the magazine. This once again draws attention to the fact that Gasteier was listening to rock 'n roll and playing video games when Illmatic actually dropped.
Okay, okay. So I've beaten Gasteier to death here. Well, he more than redeems himself throughout the rest of the book. Once it is no longer about Gasteier's whiteness or Illmatic's context within hip-hop history (the latter of which is a subject certainly worthy of consideration by someone better qualified to examine it), the book is excellent. Chapters 1-7 examine a dualistic nature of the great album: Endings/Beginnings, Youth/Experience, Death/Survival, Individual/Community, Fantasy/Reality, Faith/Despair, and Tradition/Revolution. Gasteier might not understand Illmatic's context within hip-hop history, which makes the Endings/Beginnings chapter largely frustrating, but he does know Illmatic's lyrics like the back of his white, white hand, and he has gleaned insights and double (and triple) meanings to the bars that have eluded me for sixteen years. As a critic of Illmatic's poetry, Gasteier is more than qualified. I've always felt the raw beauty of Nas's lyrics on his debut, but I could never put the why into words. Gasteier truly exceeds even the greatest of expectations at this task.
The final proper chapter, Breaks/Flows, is a departure from the dualistic analysis up to that point, and instead, looks at the making of each of Illmatic's tracks individually. DJ Premier, Pete Rock, executive producer MC Serch, L.E.S., and AZ all seem to have been interviewed specifically for this projects--Large Professor refused. This chapter alone, although not as "high-minded" as the several preceding it, is more than worth the book's cover price, even if it is annoying that Gasteier seems to refer to the music of Illmatic as the "breaks." By this point, Gasteier has more than earned a pass. What he lacks in hip-hopness he more than makes up for in poetic analysis.
I really belabored the book's shortcomings at the beginning of this review because if you're a hip-hop snob like me, you're likely to want to throw the book in the trash before Gasteier really gets his shine on. If you do, it will be at your loss. Listening to Illmatic has brought me immeasurable enjoyment over the past sixteen years, but after reading this book, I have no doubt that the album--which I just purchased my fifth copy of, by the way--will bring me a whole new level of listening pleasure. Thank you, Matthew Gasteier.
on May 12, 2009
It's no secret that Illmatic is one of the most revered hip-hop records of all time, but what makes this book so fascinating is the way it explains its genesis to put the record into context -- both of its own time, and today. Gasteier details how this album affected hip-hop, and how hip-hop's evolving landscape (especially as it pertains to race in America) affected the album.
The backstories surrounding the creation of the tracks, as well as Nas' career are a great peek at stuff most listeners never get to see...such as songs forming like Voltron from demos, tracks being re-laid and remixed at the last minute. A must read for fans of the record and/or hip-hop.
on February 10, 2010
Just picked this book up and I loved the effort. The author appears to be sincere and passionate about Illmatic. The opening chapter on his whiteness and outsider status was a bit of a yawn, but his analysis of some of the albums material was very insightful. I also love how he gets at explaining the duality, paradox and contradiction of Nas's work and how this sits at the heart of great art--particularly Illmatic. However, the author makes a few mistakes that are worth noting, although they do not detract from the main arguments in the book. On page 3 he footnotes Kalefah Sanneh as writing Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop and that book was actually written by Bakari Kitwana. On page 46 he consistently refers to Selwyn Seyfu Hinds as a her, when he is a man--only the former Editor and Chief of the Source magazine and author of a couple of books on Hip-Hop. That said, this book belongs to be read alongside Born To Use Mics. Peace,
Fanon Che Wilkins
on January 7, 2011
Yo, first off if you aren't hip to the hip hop 33 1/3 releases IT'S TIME TO GET WITH THE PROGRAM!! This is the second hip hop book I have read in the 33 1/3 series (the first being Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique) and I must say this is a must read for any Nas fan. I love the fact the author is able to pack so much detail about the creation of Nas' classic album Illmatic into one small book. Literally you can read this book in one bathroom session. Okay, maybe not one bathroom session, but definintely in one day. You got interviews from all the major players behind the creation of this album (Q Tip, Premo, Serch, etc.) except one major person.....Large Pro WTF??? I guess dude didn't want to share his experience with the author of this book. That's too bad, because most hip hop heads would have liked to find out more about their studio sessions. HIP HOP!