Memory Lane: Noah Uman & Making Nas’ Illmatic XX & The Hip-Hop Reissue (Food For Thought Interview)

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With some competition, in the 12 month radius of its release alone, Nas’ Illmatic is commonly argued as Hip-Hop’s greatest album. The debut from the Queensbridge MC was made in a place and time where the genre of Rap and the album format was changing shape. Surrounded by a council of producers who had forged careers five years prior (Large Professor, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and to a different extent, MC Serch), Nas kicked a script of lyrics that celebrated New York City street life in the last days of the David Dinkins era. The young MC was still “a rebel to America,” ripping up green cards and breaking locks all the while respectful of the culture of Hip-Hop’s history, as well as that of his projects and his family. In less than 40 minutes, with a modest 10 tracks, Nas’ Illmatic lens of the world resonated with multiple generations, and became a lasting landmark of lyrics and production at their best.

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April 19 will make 20 years since Columbia Records released Illmatic, with its scarlet CD and vinyl labels. Their label subsidiary Sony Legacy has extensively labored to pay tribute to the benchmark release in a way that major labels have not, as far as Hip-Hop. Perhaps the reason for that attention is Noah Uman. A New Yorker from the same era as Nas, and a Hip-Hop DJ and label veteran, Noah applied his passion of research and archiving to the seminal release. With demo recordings leaking to the Internet, a handful of early freestyles, and endless interview content already out there, the Nashville, Tennessee-based Uman managed to dust of relics that even Columbia Records did not know existed. Speaking with Ambrosia For Heads, Noah, who also works with Jack White (The White Stripes) at Third Man Records, and taught classes on the music industry at Belmont University, explains why certain songs were omitted on the bonus disc, his journey into Hip-Hop and reissues, and why Sony Legacy and Nas are teaching the rest of the genre how it could (and should be) when Heads salute the classics.

Ambrosia For Heads: The long and winding road question…you’re executive producing Nas’ Illmatic XX for Sony Legacy. What brought you to this point in your career?

Noah Uman: I’ll spare you the long and boring details…Really, what got me into music [is that] I have an older brother. My brother [Michael Uman] used to work for Russell Simmons when he first started RUSH Management, like around ’85. My brother worked in the Art Department. [Michael Uman would later work at Tommy Boy Records on projects by Queen Latifah and De La Soul, including “3 Feet High & Rising’s” cartoon]. He’d always bring me new [projects], “Oh, we’ve got a new group, The Beastie Boys, I think you’ll like them.” So as a young kid, I was always getting turned onto some pretty great stuff.

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Fast-forward to college, I’m interning at Pendulum, Blue Note, Capitol, Matador—tons of record labels since I was a freshman so that by the time I graduated I’d have a job. [Chuckles] I always wanted to do [album] reissues and I always loved the act of archiving something. By the time college was done, a few years later, I was doing a Hip-Hop radio show on WFMU, probably the largest free-form radio station in America. I had a Hip-Hop show there for about seven-and-a-half years or so. In 2004, somebody at Sony [Records] contacted my job; I was working at Sterling Sound, the mastering studio in New York City. They said, “Hey, do you have anybody who knows Hip-Hop? Because we want to reissue the Run-DMC catalog.” They said, “Oh yeah, this guy who works in our library, you should talk to him. He has a radio show.”

So I went up to Sony and spoke to Steve Berkowitz, who was the then-VP of Sony Legacy. He’s like, “We want to do this catalog.” I said, “I’m your man; I know everything about this group, one of my favorite groups, etc.” He said, “Alright, you’ve got the job.” I had no idea what I was doing. [Laughs] Because I liked reissues so much and reading liner notes, I just figured that I should make it look like the R&B and Garage Rock reissues I liked. I mimicked it: finding liner notes, finding somebody to write the notes, finding archival photos, concert flyers. Nobody was really doing this in Hip-Hop at the time. They’re still not, for the most part, which kind of upsets me. There’s a lot of people who have opportunities, and I feel like they are either lazy or just missing the point entirely. There’s a whole pile of Hip-Hop records that either have yet to be reissued or haven’t been properly reissued. The stories need to be told; people want to see the label art of the original, independent single before [the artist] got signed, or they want to see the concert flyers.

When I worked on The Fat Boys’ [picture disc pizza box] reissue [of their self-titled debut] with this guy Karma, we sat down and [decided] how to make [it]. If you haven’t seen it, I’m very, very, very proud of that. Even that, there’s still some stuff missing. But the label was like, “Alright, enough already. Hand it in!” I was still trying to get their high school class photos, because [The Fat Boys] met in high school. But I tracked down some incredible stuff that nobody has seen in many years—like the flyers from the concert they got their [Sutra Records] deal at—stuff like that.

That’s kind of my [path]. Doing this work sort of fell into my lap. I was a fan of most genres—a big of Hip-Hop since I was very young. I was also a big fan of doing archival research. I didn’t go to college to be an archivist. I pretty much taught myself what to do, which most people go to university and get degrees in. [Laughs] In those regards, I’m a self-taught archivist.

Ambrosia For Heads: That really helps in setting the context. I have never seen, in Hip-Hop, artist cooperation on a reissue like I’ve seen in the last month with Nas and Illmatic XX. Pop culture watched a few months ago when CNN stopped their news programming to honor The Beatles and the British Invasion. I feel like Hip-Hop artists saw the potential in that. The fact that Nas and Q-Tip are performing a 20 year-old song on “The Tonight Show,” or that Nas is talking to Bill Mahr about this album released on a label that he’s no longer signed to is just remarkable. For you, this project has to be a new Hip-Hop benchmark in terms of an artist doing this…

Noah Uman: I’m really glad that you picked up on that. It’s such a rarity that a label asks the artist to be involved in their catalog…it’s almost unheard of—except at Sony. Sony Legacy, the [label’s] catalog subsidiary, everybody there [works with artists]. This is something that they’ll say to artists a lot when they reach out…the artist will sometimes have a negative response, “You gave me a crappy record deal, you fucked me over, X, Y, and Z,”… their line is, “Those were the old [label] people. We are the new people. We want your consent. We want you to be involved.” The bottom line is, they own this material. But they want it to be approved, and they want artists’ involvement, and they encourage it. The main reason I really enjoy working with Sony, specifically…I reached out to Universal [Music Group] in the past, “Hey, we should reissue your Big Daddy Kane catalog.” They weren’t interested in. This was years and years ago. I pitched them so much stuff, and they weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say. When I was working with Sony, they’re like, “Hey, we need to call Nas’ manager and run this by him.” Or, “Make sure you send the audio to Nas. Make sure Nas gets the test pressing. Make sure Nas sees the liner notes.” Basically, I’m labeled as “producer for the reissue project,” or “reissued by Noah Uman,” but in a sense, Nas is the final say on this whole project—which is amazing to me. It’s “illmatic.” [Laughs] Sorry, that was bad.

Ambrosia For Heads: I’ve spoken to your friends at Get On Down Records, who have told me that some reissues are hard because artists don’t see a tangible financial gain from working on past catalog. As an outsider, I say there is and there isn’t. How many tours and Rock The Bells sets now are based around classic albums? How many interviews and content packages are focused on these albums, these songs, and feelings from yesteryear? This is a cool opportunity for other artists to see what Nas is doing, and he is still a leader in the genre. Look at Mobb Deep, who just this month put out all these unreleased 1994 and 1995 The Infamous session recordings as a bonus disc to The Infamous Mobb Deep, which was also through a division of Sony. 2014 might be the tipping point…

Noah Uman: Definitely. I was actually gonna work on the Mobb Deep [The Infamous Mobb Deep] stuff. I was dealing with them a bit. Neither one of us really had the time to put it together. I got caught up, whatever. But yeah, that’s really exciting that they’re looking into their catalog, ‘cause Mobb Deep has an incredible amount of unreleased material, or even material that was only mixtapes. It’s up there with their studio albums, I think.

It’s up to the label and people like Get On Down to make this better. They’re at fault if it is good, or it isn’t good. In the end, they’re the ones who should be reaching out: the labels, reaching out to these artists. “We’re putting this out, we want you involved.” Even if they don’t have the budget, they should get [the artist] some consulting fee money or re-negotiate publishing rights. We can’t change what you signed in your original contract, but monies are available. Labels should not just say, “Oh, we couldn’t find them,” or “I didn’t have the budget.” That should not be the excuse. They should say, “We tried. We reached out. We exhausted every corner.”

Here’s a prime example: I reached out to D-Nice to reissue [Call Me D-Nice]. First, he was into it, “Okay, who’s doing it? What’s it gonna be like?., etc.” And then he just had no interest. He never said why, but I did make the effort. I wanted to interview him. [The reissue] came out; I wasn’t really thrilled about it. It had a few bonus tracks, but it was something that could have been something much better. Unfortunately, because the artist was not involved, it wasn’t.

Ambrosia For Heads: Illmatic is so wild because the “Halftime” single came out in ’92, almost two years before the album. There were so many sessions, producers, people involved, with all these stops along the way. What was the biggest challenge you encountered in this undertaking?

Noah Uman: I don’t know if you’ve seen any of these over-the-top Miles Davis reissues. There’s been some 40th anniversary reissues of Bitches Brew…insane: hardbound book, extensive liner notes. That’s what I wanted Illmatic [XX] to be. The reality of it…I couldn’t make it as over-the-top as I wanted. The main challenge—and this may sound lame to a lot of people—was samples. People might not understand that when they say, “Why wasn’t this song on there? Why wasn’t that song on there?” It’s the samples. The samples cost so much money to get cleared. I had a couple extra songs. I had the original “Represent” version—I got it from [DJ] Premier. A couple of the songs [sampled made] it going to cost over $100,000 to clear. At some point, you have to look at the project: are we going to lose money? Is it gonna recoup? Is it gonna be a write-off? Is it gonna make a difference? I so badly wanted the original version [of “Represent”] to be included, as well as some of the other tracks.

I had four radio freestyles from before [Nas] was signed. They sounded incredible! It boils down to money, really. It’s so expensive. These records were made when you didn’t really have to clear a sample, or you didn’t have to pay a lot money to clear a sample.

Ambrosia For Heads: It’s gotta be wild too, ‘cause whatever instrumental record Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito or whomever happened to drop the needle on could be the difference between $100,000 and $20,000 22 years later, almost by happenstance…

Noah Uman: Yeah. Big time. The reason I included the one Stretch & Bob freestyle was because that was an originally-produced track by Stretch [Armstrong]. That way, we’d only have to clear the samples he used. In the beginning, [Nas, Jungle, Bobbito, Grand Wizard, 6-9, TT, G-Wiz, and Big Soup] are talking over [MC Shan’s] “The Bridge” at the beginning of the track. So I had to go get the original cleared, and I think I had to get it cleared through [“The Bridge” producer] Marley [Marl] as well. If I was gonna do that with all the freestyles, the samples, as well as the composition, so it gets tricky. That’s the one thing I hate about Hip-Hop: I love sampling, and I’m totally pro-sampling, but I hate that it’s become such a money-pit. It’s great for the original artists, that they’re finally getting some money, but it makes my job difficult, and it makes it impossible for the public to hear these great songs, especially if they weren’t around [when they originally happened].

Ambrosia For Heads: I think of these remixes that folks only heard on the vinyl, or the radio freestyles. To what extent do you think releasing it now, in this major format, legitimized the work that went into those moments, whether from Nas or Large Professor, Stretch & Bob, etc.?

Noah Uman: These components, in a sense—and this goes for every reissue—do not affect the original album. They did not have an impact on the original album. The original album stands on its own, and is able to stand the test of time as well. It’s a classic, solid record. Like most Hip-Hop records should be, it was simple: 10 tracks. It doesn’t have a double LP, loaded with throwaway records. But, having said that, including these remixes that were made, at that time, in promotion of this record, in this era of his career, I think it’s crucial to include these songs. Like I said: it doesn’t make the album. But in telling the story, now that we’re celebrating this record, it’s great to say, “Well, this was also made. This was also made. This was also made. Nas freestyling right before his album dropped. This is the demo that got Nas signed.” Having those things included, and tracking down photos of Nas in the studio, rhyming with Premier and Large Professor at that time, is amazing. People haven’t seen that. You know an album, but you don’t know what it looks like. Now we’re getting access.

Ambrosia For Heads: You’d be hard pressed to find a Rap album that’s been reissued as many times, in a label system, as Illmatic. There’s the original, the 10th anniversary platinum reissue, Get On Down’s 24-karat audiophile reissue, and now Illmatic XX. Why do you think it is Illmatic to achieve that feat?

Noah Uman: First of all, and this is no disrespect to Get On Down, but Nas did not approve that reissue. Nas was not involved in that reissue. And again, this is no disrespect to how they handle their product, but there was nothing new added. There’s no bonus material, it wasn’t remastered—even though some blogs say it was remastered. There’s no contemporary interview; there’s no thesis at somebody looking back and re-examining it. They just use an interview, which is good interview. They use the original press photos, which are cool, but they’re [easily accessible]. There’s that. Then there’s the 10th anniversary [reissue], which I think is awful…on every example. There’s nothing positive about that reissue, to me, as a Hip-Hop fan. The bonus tracks were contemporary remixes, which I personally feel were awful, and unnecessary. It’s like those John Lennon piano songs, when they added new music onto it. It’s blasphemy to me, in a way. Granted, the [concept of a] remix is different, but I like to use stuff from that period, that era. The bonus songs were recorded after Illmatic; they’re not even from Illmatic-era. That knocks off two reissues.

To try and answer your question though, it’s definitely an album that should be re-examined at the 50-year point, again. Or the 40-year anniversary. Sometimes with reissues, I just wish labels would do one solid reissue, and not make me have to go buy it again. [Laughs] So many Rock reissues… “it’s getting remastered again! The digital remaster! Mastered for vinyl!” Too much. You don’t have to have six different versions for the public to pick over. That, to me, is a mean thing to do to the consumer. Led Zeppelin reissued a concert…five different formats or something. It’s a greedy thing that labels do, and it pisses me off.

There’s only a handful of Hip-Hop releases that deserve the same treatment as Illmatic. Just as crucial, just as important. Some of them will never be able to be properly re-realized, because of samples. Like [The Beastie Boys’] Paul’s Boutique. They can never make that record again, commercially, and they could never include the bonus songs that were made, or the demo versions—because of samples. Same with [early music of] Public Enemy; they have vaults and vaults of material. We’ll never hear it.

Ambrosia For Heads: Is part of your job to take audit of what groups, or who has what?

Noah Uman: In the reissue world, when somebody’s brought on as “producer” of that project, it is their job to theoretically know everything. They basically connect the dots. “There’s six different photo sessions that happened. Find them.” I tracked down a person, through [Mass Appeal Editorial Director and ego trip co-founder] Sacha Jenkins, a photographer that shot part of the recording sessions of Illmatic. Nobody had used her photographs before. [Laughs] One of her photos, I think, was in a documentary. There’s so many people like that out there, that have the stuff that people aren’t looking for. Again, as a producer, you have to know the scene, know what’s there. A lot of times people get handed these projects to work on, and they’re either not passionate about it or they just don’t know. To me, as a fan and as a producer, you need to know: who has that flyer, that photographer, or that DAT [cassette tape].

The “I’m A Villian” demo, I found the producer. Sony didn’t even have it. It was submitted to them, originally. Again, back then…people get fired, re-hired, move around, leave. Archives at record labels are so poorly documented—mainly in Hip-Hop too. It’s awful in Hip-Hop.

Ambrosia For Heads: Great segue-way to my last question: so many artists in the contemporary Hip-Hop era, whether or not they’re using computers or studios, are just making tracks like Jackson Pollack paint splatters. I would venture to bet that all of them hope or aspire to be as celebrated as Nas, and make something as classic as Illmatic. As an archivist, what advice on their material and catalog would you give them, for later on, when it counts?

Noah Uman: That’s a lot of thought… [Laughs] Bottom line is, just catalog everything you do. It’s important for artists to document their careers. That’s their legacy. That’s their work. Whether or not you make it in your lifetime, it’s important to have it. Don’t just throw it away, and delete it.

Noah Uman would like to specially thank Large Professor, Sacha Jenkins, and Faith Newman.

Purchase Sony Legacy’s release of Illmatic XX by Nas.

Related: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Nas’ Illmatic