Playing like an artful stage production performed on wax, Nas’ Illmatic is a feature away from a one-man show; the classic album a spectacle of lyricism and wordplay. With rhyme partner AZ as his sole co-star, Nas, ably assisted by some of rap’s finest sound designers in Q-Tip, DJ Premier and Large Professor, channels his inner playwright to present us with some striking scenes of life in underprivileged New York – his vivid verses rhymed with all the poetry and pathos of great theatre. Making like a young Arthur Miller, the 40th side of Vernon savant offers us his view from The Bridge, capturing the drama, intrigue and tragedy of street life.
As entertaining and effective as anything on Broadway, Illmatic is an endlessly enjoyable piece of work – a fine drama of guns, drugs, and dreams deferred worthy of a Tony. It speaks to the stoic disaffection, youthful apathy and black angst of the late Lorraine Hansberry’s best work; its acerbic tone and social commentary providing ample material for a George C. Wolfe production.
Taking to the mic booth like a seasoned thesp to the stage, Illmatic finds 17-year-old Nas, the precocious emcee, landing top billing in a must-see show, as he provides us with a lively, dramatic rendering of struggle and toil in Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses; showing up the decay of the rotten apple. A project-housing August Wilson, Nas dramatises the day-to-day of life in QB, spotlighting the ghetto in all its grime and glamour; the cassette covers of his in-demand debut’s Maxells and TDKs looking like picturesque playbills.
Just under forty minutes long, the first act of the album – The Genesis, N.Y. State of Mind and Life’s a Bitch – voices the cynicism of a disenfranchised prodigy; the second – most notably with The World Is Yours – offering optimism and hope; while the third paints a picture of a young man determined to “excel then prevail”, in spite of his surroundings. A wonderfully woven narrative of black clouds, buddha sacks, and jewels dropped where thieves hope to never run it, Illmatic captivates with its lurid lyricism and beguiling story arc; telling a tale so timeless it demands to be engaged with and adapted across a range of mediums and platforms.
It is no wonder, then, that talk of a TV show loosely based on the album has gone unabated; that the epistolary anthem, One Love – the song’s stunning final verse – inspired Hype Williams’ cult classic, Belly; and that a 38-year-old playwright and youth-theatre coordinator named Shaun Neblett decided to actually take Illmatic to the stage.
Based in Harlem – the spiritual and creative home of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neal Thurston – Neblett’s production company, Changing Perceptions Theater (CPT), engages with artists and audiences with plays as entertaining as they are educational; approaching each show staged with a youthful enthusiasm and scholarly appreciation of history.
Combining his love of hip-hop with his passion for story-telling, the New Jersey-born playwright has been recounting a few familiar tales over the last couple of years. Drawing on the life and rhymes of rap’s greats, Neblett and his CPT team have been busy crafting compelling dramas based on classic records and hip-hop lore; the result being his ‘7 Homages for 7 MCs’ series – a suite of plays capturing the spirit of iconic rap albums; the five elements-inspired theatrical run being the natural passion project of a stan with a stage. A playwright’s love letters to hip-hop.
Launched with 2012’s “Homage 3: Illmatic”, each of the 7 Homages plays is intended to honour the legends and legacies of the emcees they’re inspired by, while contextualising their finest work to explore the lives and surroundings of people from the five boroughs. With three productions already staged off-Broadway (including 2014’s “Homage 2: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick” and this year’s “Homage 5: Life After Death”), and four more in the works, it begs the question – just how, exactly, did the idea for the cycle come about?
Neblett explains: “I wasn’t always a hip-hop head. The music that influenced me the most was jazz. While my friends were listening to Biggie, I was listening to Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker. I didn’t get into a hip-hop album or artist like that until I was 19; in 1996, when Fugees came out with The Score. That album brought me into hip-hop culture. It touched me deeply. I was so moved by the record I could’ve sworn my life to that group.”
Bearing such affection for the art-form, rap has understandably played a key role in Neblett’s development as a writer, the penmanship of poets like Nas guiding his pen. “Hip-hop has definitely influenced my work,” Neblett says, the ardour audible in his voice. “Just take the ‘7 Homages for 7 MCs’ cycle. Rap has had a hand in shaping the rhythm of my words; in shaping my use of language. Each of the Homages plays is written as a piece of music, and I’m often told that my productions have a clear rhythm. In fact, when I first started writing I called myself Emcee Sneb because, to me, writing a play is akin to stepping up to the mic and spitting bars.”
Staging dramas based on cultural touchstones like Illmatic, The Adventures of Slick Rick and Life After Death, then, seems logical and fitting. Neblett agrees: “My characters come out of hip-hop culture. The 7 Homages plays utilise themes from hip-hop albums, building off the lines that rappers reel off – lines that become the entire premises of my plays. The use of hip-hop culture in my work is very real to who I want to represent, and my characters are derived directly from the lyrics we talk about in barbershops, recite at parties and discuss for hours after we smoke a little weed and drink our Hennessy. The plays are a continuation of how we analyse lyrics and wonder what a rapper means when he or she kicks a rhyme.”
“I write plays,” Neblett elaborates, “so people will come and see how beautiful and wonderful and invested they are in life – and that’s really what a lot of hip-hop has done for me and the people I know. It’s not a game. We don’t see movies where we are our natural beautiful selves. We don’t have to act like white men and women to present hip-hop on stage. A lot of hip-hop is very much us and who we naturally are.”
Asked about his selection process for the series – specifically, what drew him to Nas, Big and Rick, Neblett is categorical: “The plays address what I want to talk about with the people who come and see my work. For example, with the Illmatic piece I wanted to write something about the spirit of artists who have had to make it through adversity to produce their art. That was the heart of Illmatic to me. ‘Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap, where fake niggas don’t make it back’ are some of the first words heard on the album. The image of a rapper, buoyed by his sense of freedom and determination against all odds to spit rhymes really struck a chord with me, and became a recurring image I tried to convey throughout the play. The Slick Rick piece, on the other hand, is a love story – loosely motivated by the emcee’s famous song, Teenage Love; while my Life After Death homage – which I’m working on now – is inspired by the upcoming 20th anniversary of the classic album of the same name. I’ve always been interested in staging a production with an all-black cast, and Biggie being the favourite rapper of so many brothers I try to represent, the play just seemed to make perfect sense.”
Talking to Neblett, it is plainly obvious that representation is a pervasive theme of his writing and work; a motif many, if not all, of his plays explore. This makes it incredibly pertinent, almost poetic, even, when the playwright outlines what he hopes to accomplish with his homages. “I aim to inspire the next generation of black artists to create art that represents who they are,” he says. “Art that represents what they are about.”
“Art,” the playwright concludes, “that represents life as they see it – through their own lens,” his final statement hitting home and reverberating like a Biggie, Rick the Ruler or Nas rhyme; his words – heartfelt and earnest – echoing the sentiments and lyrics of Illmatic, track 9.