LONDON Many in the crowd at the Lovebox Festival in London this weekend were not yet born when U.S. rapper Nas released his groundbreaking “Illmatic” two decades ago, but they seemed to know all the lines anyway.
The New York-born hip hop star took to the main stage as the sun began setting on Saturday in East London's Victoria Park, giving the performance as one of a series to celebrate the anniversary of his debut record, widely considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time.
"I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death ... I think of crime when I'm in a New York state of mind," Nas rapped to the crowd through an unusually hot and humid London air.
Loved by hip hop purists who did not buy into some of the more commercial material in Nas's subsequent albums, "Illmatic" features some of the most celebrated lines in hip hop history.
As Nas performed his track "One Love", revellers mirrored the rapper by pointing their index fingers in the air, to his obvious delight.
"Half of you weren't even born when I made this album!" the 40-year-old rapper shouted to the crowd, who cheered back enthusiastically.
Daniel Fisher, a 16-year-old Londoner, went to the festival, which also featured British singer M.I.A. and goth-indie band The Horrors, especially to see the hip hop star.
"I love Nas – I've been listening to him since I was little," Fisher said. "It’s that sort of hip hop – that conscious type – that you don’t get so much of nowadays.
"I do appreciate party tracks but I just love Nas. Even though it's old, I still love it – I can relate to everything he says."
On Twitter, fans praised the rapper’s performance.
"Nas is killing #Lovebox right now" tweeted Melody Kane, a DJ for youth broadcaster SB.TV.
Nas wore a T-shirt emblazoned with "Queensbridge North Houses" in tribute to the public housing project in New York i which he was brought up – the biggest such estate in the United States and which provided much of the inspiration for the album.
With "Illmatic", Nas portrayed a tough, bleak picture of life in the projects at a time when smooth R&B and party tracks dominated the charts. The album was released the same year as R&B hitmaker R Kelly’s smash "Bump n Grind" and West Coast rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg’s party anthem "Gin and Juice".
Nas's music served a different purpose: these were not songs to dance to, but words to hear. Rather than being driven by catchy beats, the production on "Illmatic" - slick but minimalist - allowed the lyrics to take centre-stage.
He was followed on the main stage by M.I.A., who put on an energetic performance but was left frustrated by technical issues and finished her set early, throwing her microphone on the ground as she exited the stage.
It was Nas who seemed to dominate the chat among the Hackney crowd as they drifted into the night.
"Look at the number of people that turned out for him," said 16-year-old Fisher. "Nas is a legend."
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Jeremy Gaunt)