The elements that shaped the perfect hip-hop album are chronicled by an impassioned documentary: By Andreas Hale
One of the most significant scenes in journalist Erik Parker and director One9’s new documentary captures Nas’ younger brother Jungle, as he is shown a picture from the disc sleeve of Illmatic, his older sibling’s supremely perfect, undeniably classic 1994 hip-hop album. The photo features Nas surrounded by friends, posed in the Queensbridge Projects. Jungle proceeds to run down where everyone is today, reeling off what seems an impossible list of misfortunes.
“Some of them people gonna catch murders, some of them people gonna get beat up, some of them people gonna go to jail, but all them people gonna have a story,” Jungle says as he points out each person in the photo, some of them children when it was taken. “He’s doing 15 years. He’s fighting a murder. He’s doing life in prison. He just got locked up, no bail. He just did a shit load of time in North Carolina, bricks, crazy ass life. He do a bunch of fucking time, in and out of jail. This shit is real, this the projects.”
The meaning begins to sink in: Nas is the only person who rose above the perils of these projects to become a legendary hip-hop figure. Nas is then shown in a more recent setting, watching film of Jungle listing the fate of each person in the photo. As the camera lingers on the stoic rapper for an uncomfortably long period, eventually his hard stare softens and he visibly struggles to muster, “that’s fucked up,” as Jungle concludes his story.
“Those emotions you see from Nas are very sincere,” said One9. “Those are his friends and peers that he grew up with. To hear it firsthand from his brother exactly how many years they were doing or where they are now was devastating for him to see. He allowed us that access to capture that unfiltered emotion.”
“When I made Illmatic, I was trying to make the perfect album… I was trying to make you experience my life. I wanted you to look at hip-hop differently. I wanted you to feel that hip-hop was changing and becoming more real. I gave you what the streets felt like, sounded like and tasted like all in that album and I tried to capture it like no one else could.” – Nas, Time Is Illmatic
In the eyes of many, Nasir Jones accomplished everything he had set out to do with his 1994 debut album. Now celebrating 20 years since its release, the set has become required listening for any individual that claims to be part of hip-hop culture. From its intriguing title to its meticulous sequencing, Illmatic is the yardstick that all rap albums are measured against. Nas’ inner-city version of Shakespearian lyricism was inspired by the poetry of Rakim, molded into a new language art. Illmatic has not only aged like fine wine, but it is the very grape that all wines are manufactured from.
All of this is why journalist Erik Parker and director One9’s documentary, Time Is Illmatic, released by Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film, is essential viewing. The film satisfyingly answers the question: How did Nas do it? Rather than a masturbatory visual rambling on the greatness of Illmatic, what the filmmakers achieve is a tightly-woven narrative, deconstructing Illmatic to focus on the fundamental elements that contributed to its creation.
“A lot had been written, but nobody made anything visual about Illmatic,” screenwriter Erik Parker explained to Cuepoint, describing a production process that took nearly a decade to complete. “When we interviewed [Nas’ father, jazz musician] Olu Dara, the conclusion that we all came to was that we couldn’t tell the story of Illmatic without telling something bigger about Nas and the world around him.”
Originally planned as a DVD released on the 10-year anniversary of the album, it is perhaps more fitting that the film spent another decade in production. The filmmakers realized that this wasn’t simply about the music, Time Is Illmatic would be about documenting the circumstances that help shaped the perfect hip-hop album.
Deniro introduced Time Is Illmatic at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year
“We thought we could make a 10-year anniversary music DVD but we realized we had much bigger stories that dealt with issues in society in a way that helped shaped the Jones family and told their musical and cultural history,” One9 said. “All the music on Illmatic stemmed from a condition and we wanted to tell the story inside and out from someone who lived that culture and understood the social conditions.”
Making a film about Nas’ seminal opus is one thing, but getting his blessing and his involvement was something else entirely. Once the filmmakers succeeded in snaring the attention of Nas and began rolling out their vision, support from the rapper came naturally.
“We first sent it to Nas’ manager who came by the studio and was blown away by what he saw,” One9 said, reflecting on the moments leading up to Nas’ seal of approval. “He was texting Nas in all caps saying that he needed to come and check it out. So when we did get the email that Nas was coming, he said he only had about 20 minutes. He comes up to the studio and we show him a few scenes and all these old video clips that started to really get engaged. He started asking a lot of questions and he didn’t want to leave. His 20 minutes turned into two hours.”
But it wasn’t the only blessing they would receive on that night.
“Then Nas called his brother Jungle to come and watch it. So now Jungle is there and they are watching footage for 4 hours,” he continued. “Nas said he believed the film was going to be special and unique. He wanted to finish the film and said that anything we needed from him, we could have. He saw it as something that not only inspires people who grew up in hip-hop, but another generation entirely.”
Two decades allows a certain amount of space and time, and past lives can feel like a different universe. In 1994, the pager was the preferred form of communication, the Internet was something only your rich friends had and the only way to catch up on missed television shows was a VCR. Information on how an urban community outside of your own survived was obtained through the narrow lens of mainstream news outlets or a new generation of street poets that Chuck D famously coined “Black America’s CNN.” In 1994 Nas’ tales resonated in a deep and profound manner that couldn’t be duplicated in today’s fast and furious information-driven culture.
In the years since, Nas has released 12 other albums and recorded countless songs. He’s been married and divorced; his daughter is nearly of legal drinking age. Hip-hop occupies a totally different space than it did when Nas first entered the music industry. The elapsed time has only helped Nas tell his stories with more clarity, in a manner that proves hindsight is 20/20.
“Nas has put enough space between him and Illmatic to where he can actually reflect on what went into making that album,” Erik Parker explained. “Sometimes it’s hard to even understand the impact you’re having while you’re having it. Now he can understand what he did for the world and where it came from.”
Time is Illmatic not only serves as fine art, but it also is indicative of the environment that influenced a teenager (read: a teenager) to pen poetry that opened a window into the Queensbridge projects like nothing else ever could. Throughout the visually striking documentary, Nas recalls some truly fascinating stories that have never been given life: from Nas and Jungle’s admiration of their mother—who they feel doesn’t get enough credit for giving them to tools of knowledge — to the chilling account of Willy “Ill Will” Graham’s death by gunfire. From the climate of the Queensbridge projects that eventually bled from Nas’ pen to the notebook where he wrote his rhymes, Time Is Illmatic is much more than a film about an album. It also served as therapy for Nas and Jungle.
“Nas has never been known as the most talkative person and that contributed to his mystique,” Parker explained. “I think there was still some difficulty for Nas and Jungle to relive these stories but it wasn’t as difficult for them to be honest about it. They were discovering that they were working through their personal issues at the same time and a lot of it was still raw. They also wanted their story to be told properly so they were willing to speak as honest and open as possible.”
Director One9 highlights the pivotal scene, described above, where Jungle revealed the turbulent lives of the original Queensbridge crew.
“Originally, our plan was to find those people and put them in the film,” he explained. “When we pulled that sleeve from the album and showed it to Jungle, he knew everyone in that picture and the backstory of where they are now. As he went through the story of each individual it was devastating to hear. We had absolutely no idea what he was going to say.”
Of course, the film includes the perspectives of the legendary producers who worked on the album and anecdotes that outline some of the more memorable moments of Illmatic, but we’ve read the praise before. As the film closes with Nas discussing Harvard University’s establishment of the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship, ones understands that the cliché “it’s bigger than hip-hop” holds true. What Illmatic did for a generation 20 years ago is the same effect Erik Parker and One9 hope Time Is Illmatic can sustain another two decades from now.
“Illmatic inspired us to make a film and we’re hoping that our film inspires a new generation to tell their story,” One9 said. “We’re hoping that not only does our film live as a movie for others to see, but also as an educational tool to get people to care about our culture and the issues that surround it, in ways that kids can be inspired to make their own media documents. We want them to tell their stories and give us an outlook on their situation.”
Follow Andreas Hale on Twitter @AndreasHale
The post How ‘Illmatic’ Saved Nas appeared first on .