Time is Illmatic

by: Michael Shields

A new documentary explores the penetrating story behind the making of a hip-hop classic…..

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In 1994 an album was released whose impact was so large and whose effects so resonating that the album was considered an instant classic. With twenty years of hindsight, it has become even more apparent today that Nas’s Illmatic isn’t simply ten solid tracks of music, but rather a powerful and important piece of art defining a tumultuous time in our nation’s history. Time is Illmatic, is a recently-released documentary1 commemorating the genius of Nas’s first album, now hailed as one of the finest ever recorded. Few albums are worthy, or consequential enough, to demand a documentary detailing the inspiration behind the music, how the album came to fruition, and the influence it had on artists in its wake. But Illmatic is no regular album. Twenty years after Illmatic’s release, Time is Illmatic immortalizes this masterpiece by exploring all the despairing and profound stories which spurred its creation.

Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones is the son of Olu Dara, a blues musician from Natchez, Mississippi and Ann Jones, a postal worker from North Carolina. When Nas was just a kid his parents relocated him and his brother Jabari to the Queensbridge Housing Project in Long Island City, Queens, a bustling and dangerous neighborhood that provides the backdrop to the documentary. Director One9 and writer Erik Parker (a former music editor at Vibe and The Source) justly focus much of the documentary on Queensbridge for to understand Queensbridge is to begin to understand Nas, and thus to know Illmatic. In this way, Time is Illmatic varies distinctly from a traditional music documentary, transcending itself to the level of a highly-affecting character study of a talented young man and the perilous environment where he found his voice.

Time is Illmatic helps us understand the anger and sorrow which resonates between the lines of Illmatic’s meticulously vetted bars. It ushers us back to New York in the 80s, where hip-hop was on the come up and crack was king. It walks us through that fateful night where Nas’s best friend, Willie “Ill Will” Graham was shot and killed, a loss which has affected Nas profoundly. And it introduced us to Jungle, Nas’s dynamic and impassioned brother.

Although younger than Nas, Jungle appears about ten years his senior, an embattled veteran of the streets worn from years within the war zone that was Queensbridge. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that Jungle steals the show with his forthright, authentic, and often humorous takes throughout the film. In one heartbreaking scene, Jungle produces a picture of their old crew assembled on the benches outside Queensbridge. He then works his way through all those gathered, divulging everyone’s fates. Nearly every single one, excluding Nas, is serving time in prison or dead. “It’s fucked-up,” Nas solemnly professes in a cutaway shot. “If not for music, you might be telling a similar story about that kid (motioning to himself) in the picture.”

Nas, in Time is Illmatic, waxes poetically about how growing up in Queensbridge shaped Illmatic and how the album gave a voice to the underprivileged. Nas is nothing short of a scholar of the streets, who at the ripe young age of 21 forged the treacherous experiences of survival in a often violent housing project into a hood-manifesto, a declaration of what is happening in forgotten, impoverished neighborhoods throughout America. And something so unique and special about Illmatic, as Q-Tip sagely points out in Time is Illmatic, is that hidden within all the anguish somehow lies a silver lining, a message of hope which shines resolutely throughout even the album’s most desperate tracks. Nas and his family never stopped fighting, and Time is Illmatic is the story of this fight.

I was naive. I went into Time is Illmatic thinking we would be spending the length of the feature with Large Professor, Pete Rock, Premiere, Q-Tip, and L.E.S. (the album’s producers), recounting how the album blossomed to life within the studio, and certainly that was examined at length. But things got heavy, something I should have seen coming being all too familiar with the weighty issues discussed throughout this modern masterpiece. The filmmakers didn’t just do a good job of discussing Nas’s rise as a rapper, but they cut right to the core of who Nas really is – as to tell the story of Illmatic you have to tell the story of Nas. The film, like the album, took you deep into Queensbridge, into the crack epidemic of the 80s, and all the pain and suffering born of broken homes and shattered lives. The film seamlessly bounced amongst the good times that come with a rise to prominence, and the trauma that was the backbone to it. Time is Illmatic is a brilliant documentary. A worthy companion piece to Nas’s infallible album.

  1. Time is Illmatic received the grand honor of opening up this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. []

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