From the back of a chauffeured limo, a rap legend ponders the long odds that he overtook, transporting him from the struggle and strife of the hood to the halls of cultural immortality, complete with a full-length documentary treatment.
It’s a thing now, for rap legends to be immortalized and their impact contextualized for wide dissemination, back when many still said “rap is crap,” Nasir Jones couldn’t have imagined such treatment for himself.
“Who’da thunk it?,” queried the subject of Time is Illmatic, the recently released film which details the time prior to and during the creation of Nas’s first album, which now stands as one of the most highly heralded albums of its time, and in celebrating its 20th birthday this year, still a source of deconstruction of the both the musical genre it came from and the greater culture of inner-city youth that it is so representative of.
Back to Nas in the chauffeured limo: “I’m a eighth grade dropout, ninth grade? I left school early. You know my mom, I’m sure I worried her a lot, you know me and my bro, you know, worried her a lot early on, not knowing what we wanted, but we didn’t want to become nothing, you know. I didn’t know what my future would behold. (But) there was a little, little hope that came in that darkness.”
Featuring plaudits from people who through varying degrees were influenced by Illmatic — historian/social activist Cornel West, rapper/producer(s) Pharrell, Busta Rhymes, Swizz Beatz, songstress Alicia Keys — Time is Illmatic is buoyed by the testimonials of those most intimately involved in its making, including rapper MC Serch, executive producer of Illmatic, and Faith Newman, the A&R who signed Nas to Columbia Records, who released Illmatic and was his only record label until he signed with Def Jam in 2006.
As expected, the film also includes commentary from the albums celebrated roster of beatsmiths: Large Professor (who was the first to put Nas on record with his group Main Source), LES, Pete Rock and Q-Tip.
Time begins with a montage of shots of video from Nas concerts, pictures of a younger Nas and of police drug busts from the era when crack was king, spliced with commentary by the series of famous talking heads, each attesting to the significance of Illmatic as a groundbreaking hip-hop album and also offering other angles that inform the viewer as to what ended up on the album and why it did and what multiple societal aspects much of Illmatic’s beats and rhymes harken to — Nas and his father Olu Dara chronicle the roots of his ancestral home — Natchez, Miss. — where his father was born.
West tells the history of Queensbridge Projects, which initially was a place of working people, both black and white and ultimately became home for African Americans who moved from the South to New York during the great migration, including Olu, who would eventually marry Nas’ mother, Ann, a relationship that ended in divorce and helped accelerate the maturation of he and his brother Jungle (Jabari), who suddenly were left to navigate life in one of NY’s most notorious projects without a father helping them much of the time.
Jungle, who later gained some notoriety rapping with his brother in the Bravehearts crew, takes another star turn during Time, offering the movie’s most off-the cuff takes on he and Nas’s family life, their both dropping out of school in their early teens (influenced in no small part by their father’s dissatisfaction of the public school system in New York) and their scuffles amongst the high-rises of QB.
No struggles in those early times have become as much a part of Nas’s legend as much as the shooting death of his childhood friend William “Ill Will” Graham, who lived in the same building. As youths Nas and Ill Will made music together and mostly hung out with each other until Graham was shot in 1992 after being involved in a physical altercation with a woman outside of his building. Jungle, who was with Graham, was also shot in the incident.
Jungle cites Graham’s death as the catalyst which motivated Nas to become serious about making music. Already at this point Nas recorded his now-legendary verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” and his effort there helped spark a city-wide buzz for him, spreading to Serch and Newman among others, leading to his getting in with Columbia and Serch becoming Nas’s manager and executive producer of Illmatic.
“I never saw that I would have this day where I come from and made it to where I’m at,” says Nas in present-day footage while in Queensbridge, the place who’s rap fame he helped cement with his success.
“It was a story that needed to be told — Marley Marl, (MC) Shan, Craig G, the Juice Crew, (Roxanne) Shante, Tragedy (Khadafi)…it was already told,” Nas said, referring to Queensbridge’s earlier rap stars. “I’m just an extension of that, you know. They paved this way, they made this happen.”
In Time is Illmatic, as in much of his music, Nas acts as a refined historian, chronicling the history of Queens hip-hop and explaining his own involvement in that history.
At this point of his life and career, Nas fits the role of rap elder well and the film gives him chance to transport all us who weren’t involved in the borough wars of the 1980s to the times and events that influenced him and molded him — the famous beef between MC Shan of the Bridge and the Bronx’s then-champion KRS-ONE and his early recruitment by female MC Roxanne Shante being chief among them.
While full of salient moments, Time offered two that were most were the most memorable: the first, a scene where Jungle lists all of the people pictured of the back cover jacket of Illmatic, identifying all of them as dead or currently serving long prison sentences. In this scene, video of Jungle is cut back and forth between Nas, shown at this moment and through most of the film either in the studio or in the comfort of a modern home.
“That’s fucked up,” says Nas, lamenting and apparently watching Jungle’s postscript for their crew. “I would never want that for any of my friends. What that shows is that without music, that could have been me.”
The other significant scene featured Q-Tip, producer of “One Love” offering his street scholarly take on what Nas wrote on the track, which details letters written back and forth between Nas and an incarcerated friend.
Q-Tip recites one particular bar: “I heard he looks like you/why don’t your lady write you?,” and offers this interpretation: “Those two bars: you look at what happens when we get incarcerated. You’re dealing with an African American disease almost, its incarcerating young black men. Not only do you incarcerate/emasculate them physically, but you incarcerate their manhood, their identity, their spirit.”
Renowned visual artist One9 acts as a first-time director here and produced the movie with long-time music journalist Erik Parker. Both men feature a perspective and wealth of context in regards to the evolution of hip-hop that’s comparable to Nas and their devotion to the film’s subject (evident in their multi-year quest to simply get Nas to sit down to talk for the movie) works well in tandem.
This is a confident music documentary that knows what makes its subject special and timeless and allows each source used in it to patch the story together naturally without trying to manipulate the audience.
The film follows the journey of a how music can take a young black man from humble beginnings to not only fame and fortune, but also being recognized worldwide for creating a piece of music reflective of the social conditions that plague low income African-Americans in the inner city, and showing how music can be used to do more than entertain. It can also educate and uplift.
Time is Illmatic is currently being screened across the country, check the film’s website for screenings in your area, the film is also available on various on-demand and streaming services.
Note: Shouts out to Dave Jennings and Buck Pollard and the crew at the Music Box for their continued hospitality. Check out their website for more on the theatre’s latest screenings and special events.
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