review: nas’ ‘time is illmatic’ documentary, a signature moment in hip-hop history

April 22, 2014

Today, the seminal hip-hop album Nas’ Illmatic is being re-released with bonus tracks. This is a significant moment for hip-hop as a culture. April 19th marked the 20th anniversary of the album and on that day the documentary Time Is Illmatic headed the 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival. The film doesn’t gloss over the social conditions that influenced the creation of this landmark album. It is an unabridged account of Nasir “Nas” Jones’s life, written and produced by Erik Parker and One9, a multimedia artist, director, editor and producer.

By Priscilla Ward, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Click here to watch the trailer if you’re on a mobile device

Parker first mentioned the idea of creating the film in 2004. “Our first interview was with Nas’ father Olu Dara. Over the course of that 3 hour interview we came away with an understanding of the how the history, music and culture shaped the life not only Nas but the Jones family history,” Parker said at the Tribeca Film Festival screening.

The film is a collection of interviews, snapshots and stock concert footage, used to help us understand 1980’s and 90’s New York, in a state of disturbance due to poor public assistance, “the war on crack” and rampant violence. All of these elements give Nas’ expression of street lyricism and provocative imagery concrete meaning. We are given more of Nas’ backstory than ever before.

When Nas was about 13 or 14 years old, his father, a Mississippi-born jazz musician who went by his “ancestral name” of Olu Dara told him and his brother Jabari that if school wasn’t nurturing them, they should drop out. The young and gifted Nas took him up on the offer. His father thought that Nas and his brother would be better of fending for themselves and gave Nas’ the title of man of the house.

The documentary takes us to the Queensbridge houses, a hotbed for drugs and homicide. “We learn how music has become the vessel that takes Nas out from his environment but also keeps his presence alive as he is considered a voice for the voiceless,” Parker said.

He tells it to us raw, so we understand the conscious decisions he had to make in order to save his life. He played witness to the systematic destruction of the black community. The narrative graphically makes plain how close he was to not making it, if he didn’t commit to his dream.

The film pays tribute to the village that backed him: his friends, mother and uncle. During an art assignment in elementary school his teacher noticed that he knew from a young age how to express himself, and knew that this would take him far.

On opening night at The Tribeca Film Festival, hip-hop namesakes and contributors of the film attended: Pete Rock, Large Professor as well as icons such as Eric B., DJ Kool Herc, Marley Marl, and younger contemporaries such as Wale, Fabolous, DJ Khaled and Alicia Keys.

The story serves as a reminder of why the album that was put on a podium 20 years ago, and still remains tattooed in our memories to this day.

* Priscilla Ward is a DC native and microwaved New Yorker. She enjoys keeping an active pulse on the arts, entertainment and cultural scenes of DC, New York and Philadelphia. She also freelances for Brooklyn Exposed and MadameNoire,com She aspires to one day have her own cartoon. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Macaronifro.