Nas Premieres ‘Time Is Illmatic’ at Tribeca Film Festival, Performs Debut Album [EXCLUSIVE]
“‘Illmatic’ came out 20 years ago,” Robert DeNiro said Wednesday night (April 16) onstage at Beacon Theatre in New York City. “It’s been 20 years since I was 20 years too old to admit I was listening to rap.” The actor then spoke of the impact of Nas’ artistry on the city at opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, which DeNiro co-founded in 2002. His words prefaced the premiere of ‘Time Is Illmatic,’ a documentary that explores Nas’ thought process in crafting his lauded debut effort. “The film is about the making of an album and the making of an artist here in our hometown.”
Guests as well as many New York hip-hop heavy hitters filled the theater to celebrate the opening of ‘Time Is Illmatic.’ Producers and contributors to the album — Pete Rock, AZ and MC Serch to name a few — came out to show their support, creating a vibe reminiscent of an era before 2 Chainz, when hunger was the driving force for a debut album — not thirst.
Outside of those directly involved in Nas’ first LP, the audience was studded with his supporters and fans (many falling into both categories) such as Wale, Marley Marl, Alicia Keys, actor Nate Parker and cultural critic Toure.
The film’s creators, Erik Parker and One 9 (writer/producer and director/producer, respectively), graced the stage with a brief and humble introduction of the film, thanking the Jones family and the Queensbridge community before the lights dimmed.
‘Time is Illmatic’ begins with an exploration of Nas’ musical roots through the narrative of his father, jazz musician Olu Dara. With a compelling tale of Nas’ influences and surroundings, the film captures the multi-faceted approach he took to telling his personal story on ‘Illmatic.’ Other valuable voices lent to the film are those of Nas’ brother Jungle, as well as Q-Tip and Dr. Cornel West, who both offer insight on the socioeconomic and emotional challenges that young men like Nas dealt with at the time in the early ’90s.
The film is sprinkled with tender anecdotes and moments of inspiration. Nas goes into detail about the artists and songs (the territorial power struggle between MC Shan and KRS-One on songs like ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Bridge is Over,’ respectively) that opened his mind to potent elements of hip-hop. Watching him recall those first moments of hearing songs like Boogie Down Productions’ ‘South Bronx,’ and admitting he liked the track proved he was a student of the game, regardless if the subject matter was shifting focus away from his Queensbridge projects.
Reflecting on his family life, he reveals how the deaths of his best friend, Ill Will and his mother affected his music and his worldly view. Even in the more poignant moments, the film is laced with honest humor, such as Jungle’s first thought (“Don’t tell mommy”) when he gets shot in the leg during an altercation in the neighborhood.
His early rhymes get shine when ‘Illmatic’ executive producer MC Serch (who delivered Nas to the woman who had been searching high and low to sign him, Columbia Records’ A&R Faith Newman) calls out his lines on ‘Back to the Grill’ (“This is Nas, kid, you know how it runs / I’m waving automatic guns at nuns”) to showcase how frustrated the rapper was with the system and the environment around him, which carried over into his first LP.
Other standout moments include Nas’ dad advising him to quit school because the system was faulty (he was just a teen at the time), Nas describing the moment he looked up at the roster of artists on the wall at Columbia Records and saying to himself, “You were waiting for me to get here,” Large Professor first hearing the young rhymer and realizing he was a “dream come true” and Pete Rock’s memory of reluctantly singing the hook to ‘The World Is Yours’ upon Nas’ urging.
Directly after the film’s credits ran, Alicia Keys hit the stage with a short but sultry interlude to open up the DJ Green Lantern-moderated concert featuring Nasty Nas. The MC performed ‘Illmatic’ in its entirety dressed in baggy black cargo pants, a black T-shirt and beanie, clutching the neck of a bottle of Hennessy — a classic stage uniform nostalgic of his 20s. Riffing with the audience between verses, the 40-year-old shouted out many of his peers in the crowd.
Nas brought his two young nephews, as well as Jungle, onstage for ‘Represent’ and concluded the concert with ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell,’ shouting out DJ Kool Herc — the godfather of hip-hop — as one of his inspirations.