Creators of Nas’ ‘Time Is Illmatic’ Give Details on Film, Rapper’s Influence [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
When Nas dropped his debut album, ‘Illmatic’ in 1994, hip-hop was inching its way out of its adolescent years, gaining a sense of identity in New York that was unique in its subject matter and delivery. Twenty years later, we’ve lived through the maturity, diversity, death and resurrection of the genre. The content and production have changed but the formula that made Nas significant remains the same for great hip-hop: Observe the world around you and tell a story.
‘Time Is Illmatic’ is the story of that story. The documentary explores the Queens, N.Y., phenom’s thought process while recording the album, presenting a riveting look at how his surroundings informed his art. Written by journalist Erik Parker and directed by multimedia artist One9, the film kicks off the Tribeca Film Festival on April 16 — just in time for the 20th anniversary of ‘Illmatic.’ Also dropping this week is Nas’ ‘Illmatic XX,’ a revamped edition of the album featuring remixes and unreleased material.
The project has already received numerous accolades, including the Candescent Award, all before a trailer had even been released (a short preview became available early last week). All the hype reinforces this very theory of ‘Illmatic”s relevance. “We’re extremely honored and it’s so unexpected,” Parker tells The Boombox of the prestigious award designed to support socially conscious documentaries. “It’s like you’re in a cave and you surface and this happens.”
Parker and One9 started working on ‘Time Is Illmatic’ an entire decade ago, aiming to produce a project that they hoped would highlight the magnitude of the album’s influence. “When we started the documentary, it was a passion project. We came out of pocket. I was still [an editor] at VIBE,” Parker says. “When we started shooting, we found that it gained prominence and even more cultural significance over the years. We began by appreciating the music and poetry and then applied the social context.”
One9 describes how relevant Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin On’ is today because it speaks to the conditions the artist was enduring at the time. In a similar respect, he believes that Nas’ first studio album persists because of its honesty and “raw and gritty approach to what he was feeling, living and seeing at the time.” “Anytime an artist conveys a message with integrity and truth, it stands the test of time. That was one of reasons we wanted to make this film,” One9 states.
Watch Nas’ ‘Time Is Illmatic’ Teaser
A literary buff might consider the album an equivalent of a great American novel, replete with engaging narrative and character development — full of accessible reflections that resonate. However, there are those in hip-hop who hesitate to hail Nas as the genre’s Toni Morrison because the industry is obsessed with the new, the marketable and the perfect amount of edgy. Commercially speaking, it’s concerned with the perfect beat and a catchy hook.
That kind of thinking may have prevented ‘Ilmatic’ from being a breakout commercial success when it first dropped — the album didn’t go gold until 1996, and didn’t see a platinum plaque until 2001 — but nonetheless it became the benchmark for a great hip-hop album. Why? “It was about truthfulness, rawness and realness, not marketing,” explains One9, regarding production and working with other artists for ‘Illmatic.’ During filming, he learned of the integrity of Nas’ process, which involved collaborating with AZ off the strength of his content, flow and delivery (Nas rhymed with him over the phone and liked his style). “It came about organically. Back then, it was through a spiritual level and connection. Everything from the producers he chose to [collaboration with AZ] was important to him.”
According to Parker and One9 ‘Illmatic’ is worthy of reverence because of lyrics and beats as well, but also because of the manner in which it has moved fellow MCs. “Nas has such an influence on hip-hop in this generation,” says Parker. “J. Cole professes to the influence. Lots of people think of Kendrick Lamar as well, in relation to Nas. ‘good kid m.A.A.d. city’ does now, what ‘Illmatic’ did for the previous generation.”
Parker refers to the Compton rapper’s sharp perception of the world around him and his penchant for making an album flow like cinema. Much like Nas did, Lamar relied on his atmosphere for the track’s motifs, introducing characters and conflicts that are accessible not because they are simple, but because his formula for storytelling is. The beats on ‘Illmatic’ and ‘good kid’ — though years apart in creation — both serve as soundtracks, containing a keen awareness of the trajectory of the albums.
In the album and on film, Nas discusses the condition of young black men growing up in America — a coming-of-age story, according to Parker. While the music provides a sketch of Nas as a philosopher or cultural critic in this sense, the film shows his journey and the people who helped build the foundation of his artistry.
Much of Nas’ creative process is chronicled in ‘Time Is Illmatic,’ highlighting his link to the blues via his father, musician Olu Dara who’s featured on ‘Life’s a Bitch.’ This very glimpse into the structure of the album reveals more than just its shaping, but the social condition and cultural significance.
‘Time is Illmatic’ also provides a voyeuristic look at what lay behind the poetry for Nas, (“We’ve moved beyond the music,” One9 says) at what drove him to write about heaven and hell at age 20 and what those lines mean to his life now. Parker’s background in reporting promises extraordinary insight on uncomfortable truths about “black boys becoming men and the type of emotion that gets wrapped up into the process.”
One9 describes one interview with Nas’ second grade teacher as research for the film. “She told us about a class exercise where every kid had to express his emotions by drawing a mask,” he says. “Nas was going through a tough time and she said that she remembers his drawing to this day. He knew how to capture his emotions perfectly. And he always has.”
For those who are familiar with ‘Illmatic,’ the film is a welcome reminder of its power and poignance, while adding insight on the village that raised hip-hop’s native son. For everyone else, ‘Time Is Illmatic’ introduces a classic body of work and perhaps injects the same sense of hope Parker and One9 strived to capture.