Tonight, the premiere of Time Is Illmatic
, the documentary by producer/writer Erik Parker and director One9 which explores the making of Nas' classic debut LP, will take place at the TriBeCa Film Festival. The documentary, which comes the week of the album's 20th anniversary and the day after the re-release of Nas' IllmaticXX
, has been a decade in the making, with work beginning in 2004 around the 10th anniversary of the album. As time went on, One9 and Parker were able to, piece by piece and step by step, speak to as many people involved in the making of the album—as well as Nas' early life—to paint a full picture of what, exactly, went into crafting this album.
"The film gives you a guide to making the album, not just musically, but also a social and political context of what was going on while he was making that album," Parker says. "There are many things we want people to take away from this film, but the one thing for sure that we want people to take away is that Illmatic
was much bigger than just Nas and the great poet that he is; he was telling the story of a people, and everyone who wasn't as good at articulating that story, he did that for them."
With the doc premiering tonight, XXL
spoke with both One9 and Parker about the decade-long process of putting together the film, Nas' reaction to the production, and what the legacy of Illmatic
really is. —Dan Rys
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XXL: How did you get involved in the film?
Erik Parker: We actually started shooting ten years ago, and it's been on my mind ever since—sometimes in the back of my mind, sometimes in the front—but it's always there, knowing that I had to complete this at some point. I was the music editor at Vibe at the time and I was working on the 10 year anniversary of Illmatic. So we were trying to figure out what to do with the magazine—I pitched the idea to do the 10 year anniversary, make a big deal about it—and we did it, but I felt like there was so much more to the story that could have been told. So at that time we just said, hey, let's go out there and start shooting people. So I got in contact with some friends, including One9, and some other friends of ours. We just went out and started shooting people with the camera, and started picking up stories.
One9: I come from a street art perspective—I came from the art side of things, but picked up video over time. So he knew I was shooting video, and he told me that he was going to Olu Dara, Nas' father, his house, and he asked me if I wanted to come. So I said sure, I'll come, picked up a couple audio people for a crew, and we shot his father's interview, which really turned out to be a historic moment for the film. He really gave, not just Nas' background, but the history of the Jones culture, their legacy, and really what they went through as a family growing up. So afterwards I talked to Erik and I was like, listen man, we have a story that's bigger than just the album, it's really the story of the culture, the legacy, the history of the family, and we decided at that point, let's make a movie.
EP: That was in 2004. We thought we were gonna shoot it all and it would be done by the end of the year, and it would just be finished and be a DVD about the making of Illmatic. We thought we could do it that quick; we had no idea. Ten years later, it's just finally finished. [Laughs] It was a passion project, it was fun, and it was a story about Illmatic that we were all just drawn through, and we thought it would be fun to document it.
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XXL: What was Nas' reaction to the idea?
One9: At that point, we both had full-time jobs, and we decided out of pocket to just contact other people for the film, and we wound up connecting with Pete Rock, AZ, Faith Newman and DJ Premier. Faith was pretty instrumental in connecting us; she was really great. From that point on, we cut together a trailer and sent it to Nas' manager at the time. He said, "Let's meet for dinner," and we met him, and he also brought Nas to the dinner table.
EP: So we're all sitting around the table talking about ideas, why we think this would be a good idea, and [Nas] was just looking around the table shaking his head like, cool, cool, cool. And he was like, alright, well, let's talk about it, let's keep the conversation going. He didn't go 100 percent into it, but he didn't close the door, either. It was years later when we finally got to interview him. We continued to interview people around him—it was like we were closing a circle around him—and it was one or two years later before we interviewed him that first time. He was still a little bit like, okay, what are you guys doing. But I think it was our persistence and our passion for the project that made him start to open up a little bit more.
One9: It was really a labor of love, and we started working out of pocket for a few years. But it wasn't a full-time thing; we were just working whenever we had time or resources, and it wasn't until the last three years that we sent further trailers out and we were able to get a grant and quit what we were doing full time and focus on the movie.
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XXL: What did Nas think when he saw all the work you had done already?
EP: He came to our studio one time after we had interviewed him once, and we showed him some of the stuff we had—some rough archival footage, some things that he's never seen before of him, of his father—and he was kind of blown away. And he called [his brother] Jungle—and we'd been trying to get in touch with Jungle forever—and he had Jungle come up to the studio, and we watched it all again. We stayed up there for 4 hours just watching old footage. And I think at that moment he realized, these guys are working on a story that is important, because it was important to him, and we were very passionate about it. I think that started to change how he viewed our project.
One9: He was really blown away from the people we had in the film, the history, the culture; really just the backstory of how deep we went. Not just where his father was born, but we connected with his brother, found rare photos from the time period. We really wanted to go nuts and really tell the story not just of Illmatic but tell the story of the people who were around him, the people who were locked up, the people who are no longer with him. The back story of how he came to be. So I think it really hit him hard, and it's really a powerful story that he feels it's time to share.
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XXL: What was the toughest part of pulling the movie together?
One9: Financially; I'm sure everyone knows that with documentaries it's hard to get funding, and because we were doing it with the really raw passion of a love of hip-hop, a love of the album, we had a lot of great people volunteer, and we were able to pull that together. Really just the passion, the vision of what we were doing, people started to see that this could be something big. It made it into the grant world, and we really had to give it a strong shout to TriBeCa All Access and the Ford Foundation for really believing in our vision and helping us with the funding to get through it.
EP: In any documentary, the biggest challenge is to tell the most honest story you can that has meaning. It's not honesty just for honesty's sake, here—in our case, we were telling a story that has meaning outside the album itself. We know there are fans who love Illmatic who can recite every word of the album, but if you don't understand that the album is about more than the words and the sum of its parts, you might miss the point we were trying to make with the film. When you explore the making of the album, you realize it's really about people, young boys becoming men, navigating the system in America the best they can.
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XXL: What were some of the biggest things you learned along the way?
One9: How the Jones family comes from a level of integrity and hard work, and is really skilled at what they do, whatever they do—artists, teachers, musicians—they did it all at a high level. Olu Dara wasn't just a trumpet player, he did it at such a high level, he was one of the best musicians in the world. Every one of their family members keeps a level of integrity and honesty, and they do something at the highest grade; I really felt a warmth and spirit talking to all the family members we spoke with, as well as Nas' friends. They keep their head above things and don't worry about the small things.
EP: One of our very first interviews, we interviewed Olu Dara, Nas' father. We interviewed him and he opened up doors that we had no idea we were looking for. And he started talking about Natchez, Mississippi, and his own musical upbringing, and his education, and his world view, and how that changed when he came to New York. He showed us things that we didn't know we were looking for. I think that was a major turning point, and it was a surprise that there was so much more to Illmatic than what went on in the studio. It had to do with where he came from, the things he saw, where his father came from, where his mother came from, and their life trajectory. His life was more than the studio.
One9: We learned early that [Nas] had learned to play the trumpet and was really good at that. But really just the early stories of him reading from doctor's books, or having rhymes at 7 or 8 years old talking about God and the devil. Hearing about the books he was reading; we had Nas and Jungle talk about the books they had on the shelves, just to get a sense of the reading material they had at a young age; Tao philosophy, African-American history, Egyptian philosophy, Sun-Tzu; a lot of things that you can hear in Nas' lyrics that really had an effect on him.
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XXL: What's your favorite song on Illmatic?
One9: I have a few, but probably the song I keep going back to just for the sheer storytelling and wisdom and just the way it's put together is "One Love." There's something about that that speaks on the raw, gritty, visual storytelling. Just the way it comes across, it's a brilliant piece of work to me. It's so raw and honest and that comes from experience. A strong concept executed at the highest level that will live forever.
EP: You know, it used to be "Life's A Bitch," but after making the movie it's "One Love." When we look at "One Love" in the movie, we deconstruct the lyrics, and when you look at it closely, you start to see the layers of complexity in that song, in that poetry. It's all so blunt at the same time poetic and poignant. It gives you an inside look at their world that they had to navigate, and if you really allow yourself to buy into that world, you'll understand a lot more about what's going on in America.
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XXL: What is Illmatic's legacy?
One9: I think Illmatic's legacy will be, generations from now, people will always consider that album one of the, if not the, best hip-hop albums ever made. I think it will inspire generations. I think now you can listen to what J Cole and Kendrick Lamar say about Illmatic and how it affected them. I think it will have a long-lasting effect in the lineage of classic albums; I'll take it back to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? to Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. It's something that spoke on many different levels and transcends space and time in many different generations.
EP: I think Illmatic is an album that gave a voice to the voiceless for a generation. It articulated the angst, the worldview, and everything that this generation was going through that a lot of people overlooked through the eyes of this young boy, Nas, who happened to be a poet. It was told through Nas' eyes, but it was about a generation of boys and men and people who were coming of age in America. And I think that's the legacy; there's compassion, there's people that are living in America that want to be heard, and there are people out there who are trying to make a way in the world, and this tells their story.
The film gives you a guide to making the album, not just musically, but also a social and political context of what was going on while he was making that album. So you'll understand why "One Love" was so important to him, because he's talking about all his friends who might not make it, but he did. There are many things we want people to take away from this film, but the one thing for sure that we want people to take away is that Illmatic was much bigger than just Nas and the great poet that he is; he was telling the story of a people, and everyone who wasn't as good at articulating that story, he did that for them. We wanted to honor the people that he's also rapping for and about on that album with this film.
time is illmatic nas cover documentary