Monday, March 3, 2014

Sony Finally Releasing the Nas Demos!! ...Kinda, Sorta

Due to be released on April 15th, a promo copy of Sony/ Columbia's upcoming 2-disc set of Nas's Illmatic XX has just landed on my desk. Illmatic XX is the 20th anniversary re-issue of Illmatic... which was last reissued in 2012 by Get On Down as a "Gold Edition." And before that in 2006, and before that was the 10 year anniversary "Illmatic Platinum Series," and before that in 1996 (and that's not including the many, many bootlegs and unofficial pressings). So, basically, since its initial release in 1994, this has never been out of print and you could pretty much pave the streets of the world with Illmatic CDs. Which is cool because it's a great album. But since everybody under the sun must A) already own Illmatic or at least B) have access to a bajillion cheaper copies of the many former pressings, the natural question: why would anybody spring for yet another reissue in 2014?

The exciting answer: they've finally included the demos!!

Well, kinda sorta, partially.

Illmatic XX is a 2-disc set. Disc 1 is Illmatic, just like it's always been. All the same songs, nothing new except, admittedly, some extensive liner notes. But 2 disc is all new (kinda) - the Demos, Remixes & Live Radio disc!

Unless you're copping the vinyl. Illmatic XX is a double CD, but only a single LP, so... the vinyl is just another in a long line of completely redundant, generic Illmatic reissues. Woo.

But oh well, so sad, let's talk demos already!  Nas demos have been floating around, taunting collectors, for decades.  Hand labeled cassettes have sold for crazy money on EBay. One Leg Up Records announced a demo EP of the demos in 2009 but then closed up shop. Complex listed it in their "30 Greatest Hip-Hop Demos" aggregation article, and they had audio because... low quality dubs have appeared on rip blogs and Youtube for years. In other words, we've all been anxiously waiting and salivating for these to be cleaned up, mastered and officially released for years and years.

And Illmatic XX finally delivers.... one. Yup. Just one of the songs. Admittedly, many of the songs floating around as Nas "demo" seem to just be unreleased tracks from early in his career, but still after he was signed and working for the label. So, in other words, not strictly speaking his demo songs.  But that doesn't make them any less desirable to us fans, since they're still great and unreleased. Like, did they think we wouldn't want "Number One With a Bullet" because it was intended for an unreleased Kool G Rap project instead of his demo tape? Crazy talk!

And even if you're going pointlessly strict about ruling out anything that isn't strictly from his original demo, we all know there's two OG demo tracks out there, the other one being "Nas Will Prevail," a sick early version of "Ain't Hard To Tell" with an alternate instrumental and alternate lyrics. It's pretty great, in fact. But it ain't on here.

The sole demo joint we have here is "I'm a Villain." Yes, it says "Demos" right on the packaging; but that should actually read just "Demo." But at least it is a great demo track, produced by Jae Supreme (according to the liner notes... I know the popular theory is that Large Professor made it, but Sony says no) using some lyrics that later found their way onto other Illmatic tracks, and freshly remastered (albeit still still full of pops; I guess they sourced this from a vintage acetate?) for this release. They got this one song right, but where's the rest?

The rest of disc 2 consists of a Stretch & Bob radio freestyle... the "Live Radio" part. And the rest are just the remixes from the old 12"s singles... most of which were also included on the 10 Year Anniversary Illmatic Platinum Series. They go a bit further this time, though, including two of the weaker remixes that were made exclusively for the UK 12"s. They're not bad. But then they also don't include other bonus tracks that were on the 10 Year Anniversary Platinum Series, "On the Real" and "Star Wars." So they give and they take away, making neither version definitive... devoted fans will have to buy both.

Now let me guess. If we want "Nas Will Prevail" and "Number One," we'll have to wait for the 30th anniversary edition. Then maybe "Just Another Day In the Projects" on the 40th anniversary. This feels exactly like the mess of that Natural Elements CD, which was also an "anniversary" edition, where they pulled off the jewels we all wanted to make room to re-sell all their biggest songs we already owned. Sony's just dolling out these tracks one to two at a time, something they can keep pulling out of their hat to sell you more editions of the basic catalog disc. Eventually, our grandchildren will have all of the songs remastered - along with a thousand identical CD copies of the main Illmatic album they can shred and build owls out of - and compile them onto one bootleg vinyl. And finally we'll have a really great, worthwhile release I can get behind. In the meantime, you'll have to decide for yourself how badly you need the one unreleased track to buy this CD set or not.

1 comment:

  1. Both Jae and Large Pro have indeed confirmed that it was Jae who did the beat for 'I'm A Villain'. Next to the tracks you mentioned, I'd love to see 'Life is like a Dice Game' and 'Understanding' get a properly mastered release. That Stretch & Bobbito freestyle was already featured on their 'Aged to Perfection' compilation years ago btw.