Nas’ Illmatic vs. DMX’s It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. Which Is Better?

One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?

“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.

In the 1990s, an artist could take the Hip-Hop baton in a debut album. Two artists who unequivocally achieved this are Nas and DMX. Both New York MCs had been paying dues since the top of the decade, long before labels or fans took appropriate interest. However, Illmatic and It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot were capsules of pent up skill, perspective, and dissatisfaction with the state of things. While they are “hardcore” in vastly different ways, Nas and DMX were soldiers of the same struggle long before they co-starred in Belly (click one then click “vote”).

illmatic cover

Illmatic by Nas

– First Round Winner (against GZA’s Liquid Swords, 66% to 34%)

In only 10 tracks, Nas mounted a masterpiece in his early 1994 debut. The rugged-yet-introspective 20-year old from the Queensbridge Houses had been plugging away at his debut for nearly three years, constantly refining while studying the masters such as Rakim and Kool G Rap. A raspy-voiced, rhythmic MC, Nas also had esteemed sonic assistance from the likes of mentor Large Professor, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and even manager MC Serch. With less than 40 minutes of album time, Illmatic was born into the universe as a great showing of early ’90s street New York imagery, an actualized Rap dream, and glimmering moments of the culture’s newest microphone prophet. Nasir Jones was clearly a vessel for the late ’80s-early ’90s’ promise, and an ensemble of greats gave this Columbia Records LP their all to ensure that he would be the next great one.

Illmatic delivers on many levels, despite its relatively small confines. Songs like “Halftime,” “Represent,” and “NY State Of Mind” are rugged extensions of the Nas heard on Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, but as his own band-leader. These are the raw Rap tracks where an MC matched his impeccable timing with evocative wordplay about the cruel world as he saw it. “Life’s A Bitch” would prove how Nas could speak to the minds and attitudes of his people, with greater things to say on simple subjects than most. Quickly, the young man from the 41st Side stood as an ambassador for not just himself, but a culture and a generation. This was also true in the mainstream-tinged “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” With a Michael Jackson sample, and Extra P’s surgeon-like arrangements, Nas found a hook to put his ill vernacular in a song that could cross over and grab new ears. Like Snoop Dogg across the country, Nas was at the forefront of his ability to bring an entire village to an album. Whether it was the slain Ill Will, the incarcerated Cormega, or kid brother Jungle, Nas made his project world into a diorama—between the compelling flows and mosaic beats. This was not just Hip-Hop, it was street reporting, and a return to undeniable authenticity when MTV music video era Rap was clearly favoring the sensationalized.

Album Number: 1
Released: April 19, 1994
Label: Ruffhouse/Columbia Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #18 (certified gold, January 1996; certified platinum, December 2001)
Song Guests: AZ, Olu Dara, Q-Tip, Pete Rock
Song Producers: (self), Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., Faith Newman


It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot by DMX

– First Round Winner (against LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out, 62% to 38%)

At a time when mainstream Rap music was getting colorful, approachable, and making its way back to the dance-floor, Dark Man X cast an industry-wide shadow. It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot grabbed the spotlight, duct taped its mouth, and threw it in the trunk of a Yonkers hooptie. Earl Simmons, a veteran since the top of the decade, had studied greats like Tupac, Prodigy, and Scarface. Digesting, he emerged with his own approach: a series of short, direct bars, clinging to the beat, and delivering unflinching sincerity. Songs like the menacing “Get At Me Dog” introduced a bully, who seemingly stood up for not just underdogs, but all dogs. If ‘Pac defined “thug” in his life, and Jay-Z portrayed a hustler, X would be a grimy stick-up artist. His first album, before his status would be coined, found a man who rapped about twilight confrontations (“Crime Story”), successful sidewalk cat-calling (“How’s It Goin’ Down”), and battling demons in his own tortured solitude (“I Can Feel It”).

Introduced as a Def Jam Records flagship act, It’s Dark… featured a sound different than most #1 debuts. DMX favored quirky beats that seemingly few other artists would touch. Songs like the hit “Ruff Ryders Anthem” would introduce the world to Swizz Beatz’ MIDI console. Meanwhile, Earl Simmons was not above blowing his budget, or risking his cool for a grandiose Phil Collins cover. Dame Grease reworked an EPMD loop, as well as another from K-Solo, to project DMX against the early ’90s ruggedness that he clearly carried with him from his days of battling Jay on pool tables. The quadruple platinum effort won because of its authenticity. As Hip-Hop was shamefully moving away from its feuds, DMX was a reminder that listeners still fed on anger, brutality, and self-preservation. X barked and growled at a time when Roc-A-Fella, No Limit, and Bad Boy artists had polished, trademark ad-libs. In the last days of the shiny suit, a shirtless, tattoo-covered X grimaced as he rode by on a crotch-rocket. His rhymes were battle-tested, street-rooted, and his pain transcended obtaining a 4.6 Range Rover or an S600 Benz (both of which he had in videos). It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot is a work of angst, aggression, and an introduction to an MC who barked it like he bit.

Album Number: 1
Released: May 19, 1998
Label: Ruff Ryders/Def Jam Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #1 (certified gold, June 1998; certified platinum, June 1998; certified 4x platinum, December 2000)
Song Guests: The LOX (Sheek Louch, Styles P, Jadakiss), Ma$e, Faith Evans, Drag-On, Big Stan, Loose, Kasino
Song Producers: Irv Gotti, Swizz Beatz, Dame Grease, Lil Rob, P.K., Young Lord

So which album belongs in the 1990s Top 10? Make sure you vote above.

Related: Ambrosia For Heads’ Finding The GOAT: The Albums