You hear the arthritic rumble of the train. The 100-ton iron horse clacking at 55 miles per hour through the tunnel to nowhere. Stainless steel cars bombed with balloon letters in bubble gum paint. The F Line, pre-Giuliani, packed with rats and villains, foreigners and flummoxed out-of-towners, beggars, bandits, and sweating working stiffs. Third rails everywhere. It stops at 21st street. Queensbridge exit.
The doors crumple open and the passengers vanish up half-lit stairwells into the Bridge. There is no Illmatic without the Bridge. Illmatic is the bridge. Queensbridge Houses, the largest projects in America, brick buildings dun as dead leaves, a six-block maze clotted with 7,000-plus trying to survive. The pissy elevators only stop on every other floor. The neighbors are the rotting East River and the "Big Alice" power plant, its smokestacks hacking up black clouds.
The Bridge is where Nas was raised. He explained the mentality to The Source in April 1994, the same month Illmatic was instantly canonized with a perfect 5-Mic score: "When I was a kid I just stayed in the projects… that shit is like a city. Everybody's mentality revolves around the projects. Everybody's gotta eat. It's just the attitude out there, it's just life. You can't be no sucker."
Illmatic starts with that rumbling of the train. A VHS snippet from Wild Style immediately snarls, "Stop fucking around and be a man!" You hear a cassette tape hissing the verse from teenaged Nasty Nas on Main Source's "Live at the BBQ," 1991: "When I was 12, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus." He anointed himself the "street's disciple." Everyone blessed him as the Golden Child.
The track shifts to "The Subway Theme" from Wild Style, hip-hop's first creation myth, the 1983 film that exposed the routines of the South Bronx to the rest of the world. Nas calls his version "The Genesis", fusing his own story of origin with the culture.
His brother Jungle snaps, "yo, Nas, what the fuck is this bullshit?"...