Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic

Born To Use Mics

One Love.

From the back cover:

In Born to Use Mics, Micheal Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai have brought together the best and brightest writers of the hip hop generation to confront Illmatic song by song, with each scholar assessing an individual track from the album. The result is a brilliant engagement with and commentary upon one of the most incisive sets of song ever laid down on wax.

As an avid listener to hip-hop, I was gravitated to this book. I first saw the book on the shelf at my local Barnes & Noble store. I read the back cover, quickly skimmed the inside then put the book down. It looked cool but for whatever reason, I didn’t buy it that day. A few months pass and I see it again on the same shelf. I took a longer look at it, pondered the purchase. And after much thought I bought it. Coincidently, that’s the same process almost step-by-step that I took to listen to Nas’ debut album.

And fittingly enough, the same way Illmatic captivated me when I first heard it, Born To Use Mics grabbed me the same way. What makes this book and what makes this in-depth look at Nas’ magnum opus effective is that it digs deep. For whatever reason when talking about anything hip-hop related, people including myself don’t really explain why certain things are. After saying that something is “dope” or “wack” or some other quick one liner, the conversation usually ends there.

What this book does is that the author of each chapter when talking about which ever song is selected uses the song as a catalyst to speak about a topic much larger than the song itself. It could be something political such as the demographics in American prisons and jails or addressing the misogyny in hip-hop to something personal as connecting Nas’ relationship to his father and relating it to another father/son dynamic.

The book has 10 chapters, one author per chapter to write about a song. Then the book also has a “remixes” section that features interviews of Nas and other critical people involved with the creation of Illmatic from 1994. It also has the 5 Star review of Illmatic from The Source and additional authors speak about the album but on a more broad basis.

Honestly, it was a joy to read. I ended up having to stop reading after every few chapters because I didn’t want it to end. Some highlights of mine from the book was Kyra D. Gaunt speaking on One Time 4 Your Mind. As previously mentioned, Kyra uses the song to speak about a topic that is quietly spoken within the hip-hop community: misogyny.

It was poignant, brave, and powerful. She keeps it “hypothetical” by first looking at the major events surround both Nas’ birth year and the year Illmatic was released. Then she goes into arguing that gender roles are fluid rather than static.

Another highlight of mine was Michael Eric Dyson speaking about One Love and how it reminded him of his brother who was in jail. And the connection he made with other people who, after learning of Dyson’s situation shared the same life story.

But in all honestly, each chapter including the remixes are memorable for different reasons. Which is a testament to Nas’ debut album. Having different intellectual minds take individual songs and write about them independently and gather them and organize them in the same order as the album and it working effectively.

Despite the grammatical error that exists throughout the entire book (The book adds an extra S after the apostrophe in Nas absolutely makes no sense), but its a very small blemish. For hip-hop aficionados, this book is a must read. For music fans it will be a good read for them as well. Even if you don’t enjoy hip-hop, you can certainly enjoy breaking down songs on an album.

But I can’t help but remember a quote from the book from Jon Caramanica: “As a result, Illmatic became something of a blank slate on which all sorts of rap thought subsets could inscribe themselves. It became what the listener wanted it to be as much, if not more than, what Nas intended it to be.”

But isn’t that the power of music? Isn’t that the power hip-hop holds? Being able to use one’s stanzas and connect them to a larger idea? Both Illmatic and Born To Use Mics represent the ability of hip-hop.  If you do want to read this book, I highly recommend you go out and listen to Illmatic first.

The book is dope. It ain’t hard to tell.

About ToZ 121 Articles
TOZ is Selective Hearing’s resident Urban music aficionado. He also has a keen interest in K-Pop, sneakers, Star Trek and long walks on the beach.