Twenty years after its release, Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, is regarded as one of hip-hop’s most cherished gems. It’s served as a moment of sublime greatness for the Queens rapper, inspiring a 20th anniversary tour that saw Nas perform at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra earlier this year. The unveiling of Nas: Time Is Illmatic, a documentary about the album and its creator, has spawned a similar tour organized by Hennessy V.S. which brought the rapper to the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday night for a screening and yet another performance of the album. The film proved that the story of the album’s creation is as fascinating as its 40 minutes of music.
Directed and produced by D.C. native One9 and written and produced by journalist Erik Parker, Time Is Illmatic opens in Natchez, Miss., where Nas’ father, jazz musician Olu Dara, was born. After moving to New York City, he met Nas’ mother, Ann Jones. Nas and his younger brother, Jabari “Jungle” Jones, were born soon after, and the family resided in the sprawling Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in America.
“The very first interview that we did was with…Dara, and that interview really changed the scope of what we were looking to do with the film,” One9 says. “…Initially, [we] were going to do the music behind Illmatic, but after hearing the issues that the Jones family went through, the history of the blues and jazz, and the culture that was ingrained in the family roots, we decided to open it up and make it a much deeper story about the family history and their socioeconomic conditions.”
The earliest interviews for the film took place in 2004, with production ceasing and resuming several times because, as Parker explains, both he and One9 had full-time jobs and lives. “Life gets in the way sometimes, and it actually worked out for the best, because it gave us the opportunity to really get an understanding and the right context for this particular story, which is much deeper than just music,” he says.
Though the documentary places the album under the microscope, more time is devoted to the outside factors that influenced Nas and his writing. Illmatic is so revered because Nas painted pictures of urban life that were remarkably vivid—-listeners connected because they either related to his experiences or felt like they were walking through the Queensbridge Houses, for the first time, with Nas. He brought that imagery to life. In an email, the rapper told me this ability comes from being aware of his surroundings “as soon as [he] started walking, talking, and being conscious [of them]. At [least] four or five years old.”
Time Is Illmatic follows Nas’ own expert method of storytelling as it recounts the significant moments of his life. One9 says the narrative was broken apart to “relate [the song titles] to a bigger issue.”
“‘New York State of Mind,’ in our film, looks at the history of the housing projects in New York City. ‘One Love’ looks at the jail system and the community around Nas where black men and black boys were being locked up,” the director says. “‘Life’s a Bitch’ looked at the family being torn apart. ‘Memory Lane’ reflects on people in the neighborhood and the people who meant so much to Nas. So it’s one way that we were able to thematically structure how to create a film. Relating it to issues, culture, and history, and then tying the Jones family perspective in. Then you get the opportunity to see why Nas wrote what he wrote.”
In the documentary’s strongest moments, Nas and those close to him speak candidly about their lives. His brother, Jungle, has a lively attitude, the perfect complement to Nas’ laid-back demeanor, and his segments are among the film’s most memorable. It’s he who recalls the day that Nas’ friend Will “Ill Will” Graham was murdered inside of the Queensbridge Houses two years before Illmatic’s release, describing the incident (where he too was shot) with haunting honesty. Parker says it was difficult to get Nas to open up about this, or anything, initially.
“Over the course of time, he began to open up and he began to trust us, and I think he also saw that we were really sincere about telling a story [about an album] that uplifted our generation with Illmatic,” Parker says. One9 says they witnessed Nas’ personal evolution during the making of the documentary, too.
“We started to see a growing period for Nas, but for us as filmmakers and storytellers,” he explains. “So we saw this transformation to Nas the father: He has a daughter, and the birth of his son happened while we were making the film. You see him developing and growing as more of a spokesperson for the culture, and it’s just a blessing to see that growth. He has a perspective now in life where he’s about giving back and having purpose. When we first talked to Nas, his work was just his work. But now he’s more outgoing, and really talks about having purpose with life.”
One9 and Parker include insight from singers like Alicia Keys and Erykah Badu, producer Pharrell Williams, and even leading intellectual Cornel West on the album’s musical and social significance. Rappers Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole, part of the new class of elite MCs who grew up on Illmatic and have drawn loose comparisons to its scribe, appear in the film to explain the album’s resonant effects.
The moment Nas stepped onto the stage after the screening, the entire crowd rose from their seats, cheering loudly upon hearing the spooky piano keys and hard snare and kick from the album’s opening track, “N.Y. State of Mind.” As he ran through the songs that made him famous in 1994, Nas visibly enjoyed himself, dancing as the Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love” blended into his nihilistic classic, “Life’s a Bitch.” He was equally lively during a break from his Illmatic set, grooving to a stripped-down version of Soul ll Soul’s “Back to Life,” which soundtracked the opening scene from Belly, his first foray into acting.
This segued into Illmatic’s “Memory Lane,” where Nas reminisces on his youth in Queensbridge, serving as the voice for the friends who never escaped. He prefaced the album’s final song, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” by basking in the subtlety of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” The latter samples the former, and Nas described the song as a personal favorite.
After performing the album, Nas launched into some of his other popular material, beginning with “Hate Me Now,” his middle finger to naysayers. “Made You Look” kept the energy level high before he slowed things and built them back up with the climactic crescendo of “One Mic.” The concert ended with “Stay,” from his 2012 album, Life Is Good.
“Thank you for watching a piece of my life,” he said before departing the stage. Illmatic was Nas’ life from birth to the age of 20, and its status as a landmark album is why he’s been able to live the last 20 years in a completely different fashion. Because of Illmatic, Nasir Jones has a Harvard University fellowship named in his honor. Not too bad for an 8th-grade dropout.
Photos by Mike James