‘Nas: Time is Illmatic’ Documentary Explores Tragedy and Triumph

Nasir 'Nas' Jones  (Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Institute)

Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones
(Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Institute)

Nas: Time is Illmatic is a feature documentary that chronicles the preconditions and circumstances leading up to the making of the rapper’s seminal 1994 debut album, Illmatic. Unlike most music-centered documentaries, which would usually take viewers through the album’s 10-track sequence, lyrical content and creative process, Time is Illmatic abandons this approach to music documentaries.

Instead, visual artist One9 and hip hop journalist Erik Parker use their 74-minute directorial debut to extract issues and themes from Nas’ classic album that are still prevalent among black male youth today.

Time is Illmatic, narrated predominantly by the optimistic, raspy-voiced Queensbridge emcee, interrogates topics like the lack of arts programs in public education, divorce, love, poverty, death, the inner city, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, youth violence, hopelessness and despair.

“It’s something that has a lot of feeling and emotional depth to it,” says Parker via phone. “[Nas] is talking about these issues from a first-hand perspective of living it without preaching.”

Parker, formerly Vibe Magazine’s music editor, was revising a story commemorating Illmatic’s 10th anniversary in 2004. He thought the article lacked depth, so he decided to collaborate with One9 to create something more meaningful.

“It’s easy to get seduced by the poetry of Illmatic and stop there without trying to make an understanding of the messages,” says Parker.

“There’s a lot of tragedy and cases where institutions fail young boys coming-of-age on their way to becoming men. We’ll never really get an understanding of them or their story if we don’t tell it from the inside out.”

Illmatic, with its vivid social commentary, riveting introspection and incredible production, left quite an impact on both recording artists and intellectuals. Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar are heard giving audio testimonials in one of Time is Illmatic’s segments. Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. offer additional commentary throughout the film.

Parker, on the other hand, directly correlates his own life to Nas’ detail-oriented scenarios and cautionary tales about growing up young and black in America.

“[Nas] let us know that his worldview was our worldview, but I wasn’t able to express it that way,” says the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism alumnus. “Art has a way of validating your existence. While we celebrate the great poet, it’s important for all audiences to understand the people for whom he was speaking.”

Shot using Super 8 visual aesthetics, Time is Illmatic is captured in still photographs, live concert footage, virtual tours throughout Queensbridge, candid interviews and archive news footage.

One9, commissioned to create artist iconographs for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, completed the film on-and-off with Parker over a 10-year span. The pair recently donated over 30 hours of footage to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

One9 and Parker built solid relationships with an extremely accommodating Nas and his father, jazz musician Olu Dara. All of Illmatic’s producers gave comments. More importantly, Nas’ enigmatic younger brother, Jabari aka “Jungle,” came on board to provide his insights.

One9 says he came away from making Time is Illmatic with the inspiration to look at all of his relationships more closely. “We learned a lot about our relationships with our communities,” says One9.

“I learned how to tell a story by listening to people’s backgrounds. I wanted to know more about my family history and how I came to be. We’re hoping this film inspires a new generation to look at their roots, culture and identity.”

Parker, referring to his creative partner as a “visual storyteller,” amplified One9’s comments on their approach to the film.

“[One9] knows how to look at things in a different way,” he says. “I focus on trying to get the most out of a story and make sure there is a certain amount of the subject that we need.”

Time is Illmatic, according to One9, was a “trial-and-error process.” The recipients of the Ford Foundation/JustFilms production grant completed a workshop in 2013 courtesy of the Tribeca All Access Program.

The workshop provided the first time filmmakers with opportunities to network with other film industry professionals and flesh out their ideas.

“There are so many deep layers that go into the art of what we really do,” says One9. “We wanted to convey that, but we were learning a lot about how to do it. We had some great people around us that helped up refine our story.”

Time is Illmatic premiered as the Tribeca Film Festival’s opening film this past April. The filmmakers are also extremely proud of Time is Illmatic’s three-track education and community outreach platform.

Forty-eight New York City schools will allow 20,000 students to screen the film and discuss its subject matter. An undergraduate course on research and documentary filmmaking will be offered at NYU and available via live stream. Parker and One9 will be available for a live Q&A.

The filmmaking pair will also tour and screen Time is Illmatic over a year in high schools, prisons, museums, colleges and community centers. Associate producer Martha Diaz chimes in via phone to elaborate more on the community platform.

Diaz, also the founding director of the Hip Hop Education Center, recently joined One9 for a screening of Time is Illmatic before a packed house at A3C Hip Hop Festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary.

“We can’t do this without community engagement,” says Diaz. “We really wanna unpack these issues and have an intergenerational conversation. It reveals another trajectory around black male achievement.”

Parker and One9 are still in disbelief that they’re traveling extensively to show Time is Illmatic worldwide. Two decades ago, the two never would’ve imagined that they would be making a monumental film about one of hip hop’s most seminal works.

The two agree that Time is Illmatic is more than just a hip hop film. One9 hopes the film will serve as the firestarter for emerging filmmakers to create more films of this type.

“We have to tell our own stories,” says One9. “Our culture gets diluted when other people do it. You never know what will inspire the next thing. It’s not just a hip hop story; it’s an American story.”

Making direct references to films made by Ken Burns, Parker agrees with One9 that Time is Illmatic is an American story. He hopes their film will go on to warrant a similar level of respect that Burns’ films have earned.

“We wanted to do something that’s a great American story from our generation that we think everybody should know,” says Parker.

“These stories get a treatment and a stamp that lets everybody know they’re important. The hip hop generation is a great generation, so let’s talk about our time in this world because we have a lot more to offer.”

Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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