Nas, MC Serch & the Business Behind ‘Illmatic’

Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Breaking down the slow-burn success and false narratives surrounding the Queensbridge breakthrough.

This week, Nas made headlines web-wide

On Monday, Hiphopraisedmetheblog reported that MC Serch is selling his holdings of Nas’ acclaimed catalog, including publishing rights tied to 1994’s Illmatic and 1996’s It Was Written.

Days after, Nas announced the release date of his upcoming project, King’s Disease III, set to drop on Nov. 11th.

Despite being considered a classic on all corners of the continent, the folklore surrounding Illmatic exists in a murky space as it relates to the intersections of business and publishing.

Since Jay-Z’s “Takeover,” a diss track off 2001’s The Blueprint , the conversation surrounding the album’s earnings and Esco’s portion of the pie has been led by Jay’s lyrics:

So yeah I sampled your voice, you was using wrong 

You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song

And you aint get a coin n*gga you was getting f*cked and

I know who i paid god, sechlite publishing

In essence, the impact of Jay’s jab suggested that Nas was a bad businessman buried beneath a bad deal.

In actuality, the truth surrounding Nas’s publishing and Serch’s role in his royalties is far different.

With Serch selling his share of the global rights to Illmatic in 2022, Boardroom breaks down the original deal between Nas and the 3rd Bass frontman, the business behind the album’s samples, and why a buyer may want to consider investing in one of rap’s consummate classics.

A Queens Story

In the summer of 1991, Nas had a buzz around New York only Rafer Alston could relate to.

At 17 years of age, the rising rapper once known as Kid Wave caught wreck on “Live at the Barbeque,” a posse cut off Main Source’s acclaimed album, Breaking Atoms. Nasty Nas not only barred up artists several years his senior, but he also elicited a bidding war between hip-hop’s heaviest A&Rs.

Or did he?

While those connected to the city and scene had heard Nas or heard of him since his high school dropout days, executives wondered if he could sell.

Rappers Nas, Tupac Shakur and Redman pose for a portrait at Club Amazon on July 23, 1993 in New York, New York. (Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As the leaves turned to fall that same year, hip-hop found itself in an odd space.

Proving palatable and driving big numbers, acts like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer were cutting tracks with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Addams Family. On the charts, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch were outselling Heavy D and The Boyz.

At that time, Nas’ closest comp, the immortal Rakim, was in legal limbo with his label. Around the way, the R&B sounds of New Jack Swing populated pop radio while California’s brand of gangster rap swept the nation.

As the leaves turned to fall that same year, hip-hop found itself in an odd space.

Proving palatable and driving big numbers, acts like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer were cutting tracks with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Addams Family. On the charts, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch were outselling Heavy D and The Boyz.

At that time, Nas’ closest comp, the immortal Rakim, was in legal limbo with his label. Around the way, the R&B sounds of New Jack Swing populated pop radio while California’s brand of gangster rap swept the nation.

All at once, the 17-year-old sensation had hip-hop loyalists hailing him as The Chosen One while record labels wondered how he’d make it to the radio.

I knew, in the beginning, it would be crazy because it’s the first time you’re signing a contract,” Nas told NPR in 2014. “When you’re a new artist, you really don’t have that much leverage.”

Backed by buzz but battling big-time lawyers, everyone assumed the perfect landing spot for Nas was Def Jam.

Notably, the New York-based record label was responsible for launching LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and more. To believers, Nas packed LL’s brash youthfulness with Chuck D’s fearless IQ.

Then-Def Jam head honcho Russell Simmons saw it differently. He likened the Queensbridge kid to the talented Kool G Rap: an MC with every skill in his arsenal that couldn’t connect with the charts.

Dejected, it appeared the big bag would come instead from Big Beat Records, a local independent built-off dance music venturing into hip-hop.

However, something was off.

“Nas asked me to help him because he was getting a deal at Big Beat that he didn’t think was fair,” Serch told Drink Champs in 2021. “He felt his lawyer was pushing him into the deal and it was a pretty bad deal.”

Gaining a guest feature from Nas while working on his first solo album, Serch stepped in to represent the young rapper. Serch spearheaded the conversations with the Big Beat bosses himself.

“Look, he’s signed to Serchlite now. Let’s give him a fair deal. You’re giving him a foul deal, you can’t expect the greatest MC of our generation to sign a $150,000 deal and take half his publishing.”

After putting out Big Beat, Serch sought out Faith Newman, then Senior Director of A&R at Columbia. She wasn’t hard to find.

“I had been looking for him,” Newman told NPR’s Frannie Kelly in 2014.

Since Nas’s lone feature on Breaking Atoms, Newman knew of the teen talent thanks to Main Source star Large Professor. Having just left Def Jam to start a new role at Columbia, she had her heart set on signing Nas.

The stars aligned in Oct. ’91 when her friend Serch came to the Columbia offices and handed her a demo tape straight from the dungeons of rap. The cassette contained an early version of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” as well as an unreleased track, “Just Another Day in the Projects.”

Astonished, the new hire hit the halls in search of her superior David Kahne who headed up the A&R department. With the guidance of Serch, the belief of Newman, and buy-in from Columbia, Nas now had the machine to take his storytelling from the Queensbridge projects to tape decks worldwide.

“I managed to figure out how to do this deal with Serch,” Nas told NPR. “I was like, ‘As long as that Columbia and CBS is in there, we good.’”

Just how good?

“In two days, I got Nas about half a million dollars,” Serch said.

The Months & Months of Making of Illmatic

While $500,000 is a lot of money in 2022, it was way more in 1992.

To make all parties happy at Columbia, Serch structured a deal where Nas not only got good money up-front but also earned the ability to make money on his albums as they ascended without hidden fees. It enabled the young rapper to have more control over his publishing rights, counter to the deal offered by Big Beat

Notably, Serch asked for as many points as Billy Joel – an industry vet and top seller at the time. It worked. Nas saw 23 points an album at retail – roughly 40% of what you make on an album – and an un-recoupable advance.

“Nas was set,” Serch told The Champs Podcast.

At Columbia, a young Nas was now backed by the same machine that had made rock royalty out of Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, and Aerosmith.

Now, it was time for every player to play their part.

For Nas, a lifetime of experiences was to be poured into a book of rhymes and poured out during studio sessions. Already having an ear, Newman set up studio time for Nas with Pete Rock, Q-Tip, DJ Premier, L.E.S., and Large Professor – the best producers in hip-hop at the time.

For his part in the transaction, Serch took on an administrator role in publishing. This meant making sure there was clearance for each of the album’s 28 separate samples.

Ranging from Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” to “Pickin’ Boogers” by Biz Markie, legal sample clearance mattered much in the post-Paul’s Boutique era.

Years prior in 1989, De La Soul’s debut 3 Feet High and Rising had the New York trio heralded as hip-hop’s answer to The Beatles.

Decades later, the group still struggles to earn off their acclaimed art due to mismanaged sample clearing. Not only did Nas have to have the sound he so desired, Serch made sure that it wouldn’t cost them all in the long run.

“He was very particular in the beats that he picked,” Newman told Dad Bod Rap Pod in 2019.

His attention to detail combined with a teenage sleep schedule stretched the timeline on recording Illmatic. It took two years.

Two years was a really long time,” Newman continued. “Even at the state of the industry then.”

All the while, Nas’ name remained hot thanks to Serch placing “Halftime” on the Zebrahead soundtrack in 1992. He also placed Nas as a guest spot on his own single, “Back to the Grill.”

The Serch single saw Nas appear in the song’s music video and on the charts. Over time, the track played on MTV and on the radio, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart.

The buzz was growing and it solidified Serch’s word and the big bet made by Columbia. Better yet, the album was finished; even more importantly, the streets couldn’t wait to hear it.

The problem? They already had.

A Tale of Two Drop Dates

On Apr. 19, 1994, Illmatic dropped in record stores across the country.

For months – and some say years – prior, it had been circulating around New York.

“It leaked,” Nas told NPR.

Reports range on the first week numbers surrounding Illmatic at the time of release. Most sources suggest 63K copies upon arrival while Serch has stated higher marks. Regardless, the sales were underwhelming, especially when compared to the hype.

“It didn’t do very well in terms of expectations,” Newman told Dad Bod Rap Pod. “The reason was because the album had been so bootlegged. And I’m not just talking about the US, even in the UK people had the album. I think that really cut into our first week sales.”

By the end of 1994, Illmatic landed at No. 42 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts. While Nas had hit a home run on his deal, that was now two years in the rearview.

The delays and the leaks tanked album sales upon arrival, with lesser touted peers killing in a commercial sense.

Across the city in Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan’s gritty debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) finished 20 spots ahead on the same charts and went platinum by ’95. Down deeper in Newark, a rapping 7-foot center named Shaquille O’Neal cracked the commercial code, shipping platinum on his debut album in a mere matter of months.

All the while, Nas supplemented critical praise to promote his magnum opus to new audiences.

“I started to do in-stores,” Nas told NPR. “I hit the road on a promo side. It took me to Europe and all that.”

Despite dire sales, the fanfare was there.

“Nas didn’t understand why people were, like, worshiping him,” Newman told NPR. “He had his first in-store when the album came out and we drive up and there’s like 1,000 people there. He couldn’t believe it. It shocked him that all these people would come out to see him.”

A young recluse, Nas had hearts and ears even if he didn’t have platinum plaques. Spins from Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito kept him ill amongst rap radio’s most rabid fans. Meanwhile, he acquired a first-ever 5 Mic review from Miss Info in The Source solidifying his craftsmanship.

Slowly but steadily, Illmatic remained relevant. The lack of sales rerouted Nas’ professional path. As he prepared his sophomore effort, he enlisted executive production from Steve Stoute and beats by Dr. Dre and The Trackmasters.

While Nas penned It Was Written, an unsung challenger for King of New York status was listening intently to Illmatic.

Friend or Foe

Still represented by Columbia, the budget for It Was Written remained high as did expectations.

Fending off the sophomore slump, Nas looked to glossier appeal for his second album while still keeping MC Serch in the cut as an executive producer. Over the course of ’95, the Escobar alias took shape as Nas kept his name hot through features on Kool G Rap and Raekwon projects.

At the same time, an independent artist from Brooklyn named Jay-Z was working on his debut.

Discovered by DJ Clark Kent and mentored by Jaz-O, the Marcy Projects prodigy admired Nas’ slick wordplay and clever confidence. The hope was to have Nas guest star on his upcoming album, Reasonable Doubt, but several missed studio sessions kept that from happening

Instead, the good folks at Roc-a-Fella took a page out of the DJ Premier book, using a vocal sample of Nas from “The World is Yours” as the hook for Jay’s first single, “Dead Presidents.”

Also astute from a business standpoint, the brass behind Jay knew it was best to clear it first so they wouldn’t have to pay for it later.

The man in the middle once again? MC Serch who handled administrative duties tied to Nas’ publishing.

“Dame [Dash] and Jay come to my office and say, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta clear this ‘Dead Presidents’ sample, take care of us,’” Serch told Drinks Champs. “I said, ‘Ok, no problem. Give me like $2,500 but just know we’re gonna have 25% of your record on the publishing.’”

On Jun. 25, 1996, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt was released to critical success but lackluster sales. It ended the year at No. 30 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and failed to go gold in its first year.

Days later on July 2, 1996, Nas’s It Was Written dropped to varied fanfare critically but it crushed commercially. In one week, Nas’ second album sold 270,000 copies.

Even better? It peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 and R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts domestically.

The two parallel events set up rap’s biggest rivalry.

A year later, Jay-Z saw the same sophomore surge with the release of In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Not only did he cash in on the appeal of a glossier sound, he doubled down on sampling Nas once again with the clever “Rap Game/Crack Game.”

At once, both homegrown emcees were attaining crossover appeal and platinum plaques while still pandering to purists and sending strays.

The beef came to a head in 2001 with the release of The Blueprint and Stillmatic.

A war of words best epitomized through “Takeover” and “Ether,” the two most talented artists in New York went at it in an era-defining battle. Both won in many manners. First, each artist earned back the critical cache they had lost while pandering to the mainstream. Additionally, the hoopla ensured that all their albums would be selling at a rapid rate.

The beef enhanced the appetite for the early albums in each of their archives. The ill-will spurred Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt to platinum years after their arrival.

Though bars from “Takeover” called into question Nas’ catalog ownership and Serch’s role in said stakes, a look at the liner notes of Jay-Z’s first two albums reveals publishing ownership alluded to Nas’ Ill Will Records and Serch’s Skematics.

Essentially, the same song that was damaging his professional reputation was actually assisting his earnings.

Twenty-one years later, Nas’ narrative where publishing plays out has reentered the chat.

Def & Taxes

In Oct. 2005, the rap world was turned on its head when Jay-Z took the stage at the ominously titled I Declare War concert.

“It’s bigger than I Declare War, it’s like the motherfucking president presents the United Nations,” Jay told the crowd. “So, you know what I did for you hip-hop? I said, fuck that shit. Let’s go, Esco.”

Fans assumed they’d witness a reheating of the beef. Nas ascended down the steps to perform his sampled section of “Dead Presidents II” with the same artist he battled for years. Suddenly, their relationship was more than just bad blood and a cleared sample. A path had been paved to do business together and write a new narrative for a global fanbase.

All that beef shit is done, we had our fun,” Jay continued. “Let’s get this money.”

Now serving as president of Def Jam, Hov signed his former foe to a four-album deal. Reports estimated the advances and recording budgets for each album to be in the millions. The new deal also allowed for Nas’s imprint, The Jones Experience, to sign other artists and build its own brand.

Over his tenure with Def Jam, Nas would release a Greatest Hits compilation album with the now Sony-owned Columbia. On the project’s opener, “Surviving the Times,” an older Esco reflected on his original signing story, citing his boy MC Serch and additional help from Ruffhouse.

Ironically enough, basketball superstar Chris Webber produced the track – an icon of the same era who’d seen his star rise and likeness commodified.

Following a slew of Jay-Z collaborations and albums that saw both critical and commercial success, Nas began charting a new path in business by way of investing in Mass Appeal Media. He put in a reported six-figure worth of funds in 2013, taking the title of Associate Publisher.

“I knew that this was down the road,” Nas told Forbes at the time. “I didn’t care to interrupt me being a creative musical artist … I said I’ll be more of a businessman down the road. I’m down the road now.”

A publisher then, a publisher now, another fork in the road awaits.

Illmatic‘s Eternity

As illustrated, Nas made major money off Illmatic before it ever came out. His Columbia contract engineered by MC Serch has kept royalties and revenue steady for almost 30 years with the 3rd Bass frontman now selling his share.

“I have decided to sell all of the rights, including the global rights,” MC Serch told AllHipHop on Monday. “I started conversations with several companies a few months ago. For 27 years, it has provided for my family through good times and bad. Now it’s time for a new chapter.”

Over time, Serch has earned long-term ancillary income off his 5% administrative fee for both Illmatic and It Was Written, signing off on uses Nas approves.

He’s long stated that the money he makes off the catalog is ‘very humble.’ From an optics standpoint, Serch’s company formally known as Skematics in the ’90s has since changed names to Serchlite Publishing and now operates as 4MC MultiMedia.

As AllHipHop notes, Richard Blackstone, Roger Miller, and Stephen S. Sidman will conduct the catalog sale. Serch previously stated that Illmatic and It Was Written combine for over 250M streams a year, while Nas has more than 8 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone.

Additionally, tracks off each of Nas’s first two albums have seen placement in multimedia. This includes everything from episodes of The Last Dance to Tony Hawk video games.

From film to the world of Web3, the longtail licensing opportunities for whoever buys a stake in Nas’s catalog come with continual revenue.

While “Takeover” lyrics once smudged the narrative on the publishing position of Nas, Hov has since admitted on wax that he had Illmatic on bootleg back in the day. Just as leaks damaged Week 1 sales for the debut back in ’94, Nas’s success since has kept the project selling and streaming.

Since 2018’s Nasir, Mass Appeal – for which the QB native serves as an artist and a co-founder – has served as some part in each album’s publication. In 2021, Nas won his first Grammy Award for Rap Album of the Year for King’s Disease. In 2022, Nas partnered with Royal to release Polygon-based NFTs tied to singles “Ultra Black” and “Rare.”

As Illmatic and It Was Written each approach their 30-year anniversaries, both albums will have extended life through streaming, reissues, Web3 initiatives, and other licensing opportunities. Whoever buys Serch’s stake will not only benefit from that ancillary income but will likely have a say in just how the catalog is positioned and profited from for years to come.

Not only does the Nas brand benefit from the business behind both of his first two studio albums, but he also still holds publishing rights to his own records, in addition to selections from the catalogs of Jay-Z, Will Smith, and his Mass Appeal roster.

It may seem hard to tell, but it was written all along.

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