There are times when hip-hop can make those of us who chronicle it very proud. For me, someone who has been in the game since the days of Grandmaster Flash, the most recent occasion was this past Wednesday when the annual Tribeca Film Festival unveiled the much-anticipated documentary Time Is Illmatic. A stunning film that devolves deep into the creative grittiness of Nas’ debut masterpiece, the film rates, at least for me, beside the greatness of Wild Style.
Sitting in an audience that included legends Kool Herc, Marley Marl, Pete Rock and many others, the film opened the festival. Directed by Washington, D.C. native One9, who began his career in graphic design and fine art, Time Is Illmatic takes the viewer on a wonderful back in the day journey that examines the life, art and history of one of rap’s greatest MCs.
Raised in the battlegrounds known as the Queensbridge Housing Projects, Nas was reared in a caring home by a loving mother and his jazz musician father Olu Dara. From early on, Nas had a balance to the dark side that many of his friends didn’t share. Even when Nas’ father deserted the family, leaving behind countless books (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, From Superman To Man) that the budding lyricist read constantly, he knew, “I didn’t want to be nothing.”
While the Queensbridge landscape could be bleak—especially during the 1980s-1990s crack years when many young men in those notorious pj’s were only leaving the hood in handcuffs and body bags—Nas discovered an alternative to the trife life of those mean streets. Inspired by the local hip-hop posse who called themselves the Juice Crew, which included producer Marley Marl along with rappers Roxanne Shanté, MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Kool G Rap, he began writing his own rhymes.
Along with his brother Jungle and best friend Ill Will, they planned on conquering the world. However, when Will was killed after an argument, Nas had no choice but to make the journey alone. After hooking up with producer/Main Source MC Large Professor, who supplied him with beats for free and put him on down on the classic posse track “Live at the Barbeque,” the kid who started calling himself Nasty Nas was on his way to a brilliant career.
Produced and written by noted music journalist Erik Parker, this brilliant film was ten years in the making for him and One9, but well worth the wait. Like Nas himself, the film has a duality that carefully balances artiness and rowdiness, painting the decay of the streets with the flair of Jean Michel Basquiat sharing a blunt with Hype Williams. With the eye of a homeboy auteur, One9 captures stunning images while also teaching the world a lesson or two about the history of public housing, the brutality of the Ronald Reagan years and the b-boy beauty of hip-hop. The film also features candid interviews with the now-40-year-old Nas—still at the top of his game—Cornel West, Olu Dara and others; even one of Nas’ elementary school teachers tells her story.
Time Is Illmatic is a love letter to the streets of New York City. It might’ve been a jungle sometimes, but it could also be a magical place where one kid’s dreams came true, and a young boy from the hood created a lasting memorial to the world that guided him from conflicted man-child to a genius man. His hasn’t been an easy road, but unlike many others, Nas is still here.
After the screening Nas confessed to the more than thrilled audience, that he almost opted out of making the film; I’m sure I’m not the only one glad he changed his mind. Indeed, Time Is Illmatic is an instant cinematic hip-hop classic (if it was a record spinning on my turntable, I’d give it a XXL) that is absorbing, educational and entertaining. In other words, it represents, son. —Michael Gonzales
Previously: 6 Big Takeaways From Nas’ Time Is Illmatic Documentary Premiere
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Nas’ Time Is Illmatic Documentary Has Been In The Works For 10 Years