When Rolling Stone asked Nas to list his 10 favorite hip-hop tracks for a feature in their May 2014 issue, he limited his selections to songs released in the late ‘80s. His choices—which comprise the first 10 tracks on this playlist*—represent a transitional era in hip-hop: the mythical Golden Age when artists like Run-D.M.C., Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy were shaking off the genre’s cheesier disco roots in favor of a sharpened lyrical style.
But beyond the Rolling Stone list, Nas has routinely paid homage to his predecessors elsewhere, mentioning the early innovators that influenced him on songs like Hip Hop Is Dead‘s “Where Are They Now” and Life Is Good‘s “Back When.” With this playlist, we’ve supplemented Nas’ original Top 10 with other personal favorites, based on references the rapper has made on record and in other interviews. On “Back When,” which samples MC Shan and Marley Marl’s 1986 track “The Bridge,” Nas talks about putting up a poster of the duo in his teenage bedroom. But even though, like them, Nas hails from Queensbridge, he’s praised Shan’s Bronx-bred rival KRS-One as “someone that artists need to study”—”The Bridge Is Over,” Boogie Down Productions’ response to “The Bridge,” may have even paved the way for Nas’ eventual diss records against Jay-Z.
Nas hasn’t just studied Golden Age rap; he was raised by it. He grew up hearing fresh voices distilling real New York life onto record through blunt lyricism, a style he would adapt and evolve on his own a few years later. He’s mentioned that Kool G Rap’s “Streets of New York”** was a direct influence on “N.Y. State of Mind.”
Most of Nas’ favorite rappers hailed from one of the five boroughs. But he’s also acknowledged the impact of artists from outside the East Coast, citing Ice Cube’s Death Certificate and Scarface’s Mr. Scarface Is Back as formative releases. Those albums preceded Illmatic by only a few years, but given that Nas was only 21 when his classic debut came out, they were still crucial to his artistic development.
Unlike Redhead Kingpin and the many other forgotten legends Nas cites on “Where Are They Now,” Nas has maintained both career longevity and musical relevancy. He’s been teasing his 11th studio LP since he claimed it was finished on DJ Khaled’s “Nas Album Done” last year, and he still claims that album is coming at some point in 2017. Until then, acquaint yourself with the songs that got Nas started in the first place.
* “Plug Tunin,” Nas’ choice from De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, isn’t on Spotify. “Me Myself & I” has been substituted in its place.
**”Streets of New York” isn’t on Spotify; it’s been replaced by “#1 With A Bullet.”