In 1994, a young emcee from Queensbridge named Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones released an album which would years later be heralded as a classic. Illmatic was a ten track biography of the hip-hop culture in the early 90’s, and the struggles of blacks in the inner city from a firsthand perspective. To encompass the effect of this album on the man and the music, director One9 created the visual Time is Illmatic. Releasing at the Tribeca Film Festival’s opening night, where hip-hop rarely (if ever) makes an appearance, this film looks to give fans of Nas and those less familiar an opportunity to show how circumstance and desire can amalgamate into poetic mastery.
Let Me Take A Trip Down Memory Lane
Watching vintage footage in the pre high-definition era felt like a time portal to 1990, as director One9 captured a balanced blend of street life, the early hip hop scene, and the effects of the socio-economic landscape on Nas as he developed into the young man who would pen a classic. The production team of Erik Parker, Anthony Saleh and One9 find the right sentiments to extract from its viewers with good editing. Musically, they let Illmatic exist as the main soundtrack, while containing interpolations from other artists like Ahmad Jamal and Michael Jackson, whose timeless songs served as Illmatic precursors.
“Verbal assassin, my architect pleases When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus”
Older fans will appreciate the reminiscent nature of Time is Illmatic, as it illustrates the essence of early 90’s New York City and hip-hop. You see Nas’s early appearances with Main Source and M.C. Search, as he utilized attention grabbing lyrics to command the respect of his older peers and to put the rap world on notice that the young Queensbridge emcee was ready for prime time. Classic hip-hop icons like Roxanne Shante, Marley Marl, DJ Hot Day and others are mentioned to attest to the climate of the hip-hop art form pre-Illmatic.
You also see the acrimony shared by Nas and his Queens contemporaries when they relive the battle between KRS-One and MC Shan. The reactions from Jungle and Nas alone were impactful and funny, and should live in meme form on social media in the coming years. Queens is different than most boroughs in New York City, as the towns have their own identity. This is even reflected in the mailing codes, where you address directly to the town (i.e. Jamaica, Hollis etc.) as opposed to borough. As a Queens native, I smiled when hearing the Queens emcees account of those events, as it echoed the feelings of an entire borough, which galvanized to support against the disses laid down by the Bronx.
Younger fans will admire the ambition of a kid, struggling with the pressures of his environment to succumb to the same fates that plague the black community (i.e., incarceration, drugs, and crime). Without the care of a strong mother (Ann Jones) who refused to witness her children condemned to tragedy, and an eclectic father (Olu Dara) who saw the failed educational system as a burden against his son’s future, Nas would’ve never seized the opportunity to follow his dream. In this massive data consumption, instant gratification era, younger fans will see how the generation before them viewed the creation of music, and how pedantic an artist can truly be in order to have their vision represented correctly.
For a Hip-Hop fan like myself, documentaries like Time is Illmatic allow me to learn more detail about artists. I learned more about the relationship between Nas and his childhood best friend Willy “Ill Will” Graham. Any Nas fan has heard Ill Will mentioned all over his entire body of work, but to see the blossoming of their relationship makes the success of Illmatic feel all the more justified. When our loved ones believe in our endeavors, we feel obligated to succeed. Ill Will, Nas’s surrogate brother believed, and his death fueled Nas to finally embrace his destiny as an emcee, lest he suffer the same tragic fate.
My Physical Frame Is Celebrated ‘Cause I Made It
The deification of an artist’s career by their contemporaries and fans usually occurs when they reach a certain pinnacle of success and admiration. While Nas was heralded as a hip-hop messiah pre-Illmatic, the man depicted to us today appears more demure than the braggadocios nature of rap would suggest. Nas shows reticence in extolling the virtues of his own success or personal prowess. He is devoid of hyperbole when discussing his story, and lets the images along with his few yet poignant words impact the message.
Fortunately, the color commentary by the architects of Illmatic assists the viewer in understanding the magnitude of the moment. Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, DJ Premier elicited their perspectives on their respective contributions, and collaborating with Nas knowing even then that the tracks recorded would be something special.
While many hip hop icons and literary legends spoke in this documentary about Illmatic, none came close to embodying the authenticity of the moment like Jabari “Jungle” Jones. Jungle, whom Nas would anoint “the star of the movie” during his performance, was gregarious when detailing the foundation which his family was built upon. His humorous and passionate storytelling reminded me of everyone’s friend in their crew who told the best recap of your classic encounters. This was most evident when Jungle detailed the events surrounding the murder of Ill Will, when his #1 concern while being shot was to make Nas ensure that these events did not get back to their mother. Jungle delivers the realism of family into the equation and steals the show while bolstering the legend of Illmatic.
My Poetry’s Deep, I Never Fail
The omnipotent lyricism of Illmatic is displayed to the viewer throughout the film. Q-Tip analyses the message of One Love, the opus to friends locked away in jail. To limit this song to the musings of pen pals would be criminal, as Q, Cornel West and others explain how the imbalanced justice system and prison have led to the destruction of the black family. This was a love letter of a different sort, and the effect of those words is conveyed to the audience in a clear and deliberate manner.
While many would like to see the more cultural impact of Illmatic, along with more testimonies from current and former artists, I believe at 74 minutes this documentary was succinct yet robust, mirroring the 9 song classic perfectly.
In the end, Time is Illmatic is the story of the American dream. The story of following dreams when nightmares in your life become omnipresent. Where a man arose with the thought that his “people be projects or jail, never Harvard or Yale” would receive a fellowship in his name at Harvard University. After the viewing, Nas spoke on his life, saying:
I rapped ‘Thinking a word best describing my life to name my daughter My strength, my son, the star, will be my resurrection’ and I had a daughter and son in that order. It’s crazy. It just shows that the energy you put out into the world, will come back to you
20 years later, the energy of Illmatic resonates with hip-hop fans and music lovers. Time is Illmatic captures this law of equivalent exchange beautifully. [B+]
Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (opening night), 16 April , 2014.Running time: 74 MIN.
ProductionAn Illa Films presentation in association with Balance of Extremes and Wisdom Body Inc. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Anthony Saleh, One9, Erik Parker.
Crew(Documentary) Directed by One9. Screenplay, Erik Parker. Camera (color/B&W, HD/Super 8mm), Frank Larson; editors, David Zieff, One9, John Kanellids; music, Brian Satz; music supervisor, Scott Verner; sound, Fiona McBain, Daniel Nidel, Eric Perez, Daniel Powell, Ryan Haffey, Frank Coakley; supervising sound editor, Steve Borne; re-recording mixer, Pete Waggoner; associate producer, Martha Diaz.
FeaturingNas, Cornel West, Swizz Beatz, Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys, Olu Dara, Roxanne Shante, Jabari “Jungle” Jones, Marley Marl, MC Shan, DJ Prmeier, Large Professor, Wiz, MC Serch, Faith Newman, L.E.S., AZ, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Henry Louis Gates, Destiny Jones.