What makes a timeless classic? It's got to be honest, it's got to be made with passion, and it has to bring something to the table that's never been done.
It's a daunting task, and sometimes, it's better done when you're not really trying. Nas was able to do it at 19. He was an 8th-grade drop-out, barely signed to a label, rapping about the life he knew. It was an unlikely mix for success, but he was real, he was gifted, and even though it didn't spawn a hit single, his debut album Illmatic remains one of the greatest in hip hop history.
As it's been 20 years since Nas gifted Illmatic to the world, it's the perfect time to look back and release another classic. This time, a documentary ten years in the making that's not just about the album but the spirit of the age which made that artist. Time is Illmatic hits theaters in a special screening this weekend, and it's subject is as relevant now as it was then. The story Illmatic tells is everyone's.
"We found that it was the context of the music that really added to what made Illmatic special," says the film's producer Erik Parker. "We had this path of discovery, and once we figured out that the album didn't start with Nas walking into a booth but with his father in Natchez, Mississippi, and even before, then we knew we had a story that could actually unite generations and explain a bit of American history."
Time is Illmatic steps outside the usual boundaries of a music documentary just as Nas did 20 years ago on his songs. When the kid from Queensbridge stepped to the mic, he ripped verses about the only life he knew, the struggle of coming up in a system stacked against you, kids turning to violence for power, and the drug trade for a career not because they wanted to, but because it seemed the only realistic option. By now, the story is familiar to hip hop heads, but Nas turns it into pure poetry that rings true even to our jaded era.
"You look at what's going on across the country with a lot of police brutality, the prison lock-up rate, the drop-out rate; those issues are still relevant now and even more so," says the film's director One9. "We wanted to make a film that not only looks at those issues but raises some sort of awareness without preaching it. [We're] just telling it from a firsthand perspective, through Nas and his family's voice."
Thought-provoking and serious as it is, Time is Illmatic is, at the end of the day, a tale of triumph. Illmatic set Nas up for a long and storied rap career and is more celebrated now, 20 years after its debut, than ever, but Parker and One9 would argue that victory is not Nas' alone.
"We want to make sure that when people look at this film, they're not just looking at the success story of Nas," Parker says. "If you just look at that aspect, you might neglect the greater picture of all those people who made it possible for Nas to make it to where he is, and that's what Illmatic is about."
Parker and One9 spoke to many of Nas' family members, friends, and associates over the course of their ten-year process. They talked to old teachers, old mentors, and hip hop icons to get the picture from all angles. We see the progression of these folks just as we watch Nas rise above his lot.
"To a larger extent, that's what Time is Illmatic helps people to understand," Parker says. "Nas is a great artist, he's a poet, he's a genius, he's exceptional, but most of the kids who grew up in Queensbridge may have been average ordinary kids. [They could be just] like kids that's grew up everywhere else, but through their circumstances, there are lots of elements working against them."
Nas had the talents to get himself out of his situation, but not everyone can be so lucky. The real matter is, luck shouldn't have to play such a large role in the life of a child.
What makes two men spend so much time on a film? Why dedicate a decade of their lives and all the money they could muster to tell the story of one rapper, one album, and a generation of kids mostly forgotten? For Parker and One9, it's more than just hip hop history, it's personal. They were raised in the same era, the same situations, and they remember the ray of light Nas shined with Illmatic and how hopeful it made them feel.
Nas is no longer that kid from Queensbridge. He's a huge international figure, and it took a while to gain the artist's trust. If it weren't for the pair's personal connection, the film more than likely wouldn't have been as successful.
"That belief in us was so key," One9 says. "[Nas] realized we were making the film from the inside out. We grew up in the culture. We're from the culture. We live the culture. We weren't looking at it from the outside in, and he gave us complete trust. He said 'you guys are making art, and I don't want to interfere in the process.' Having that validation really solidified our trust in him as well, so we knew he was giving us everything that was honest to him and true to him, and in return, we were giving the culture a film that really reflected that reality."
Even as the scope of the film broadened, the heart of it remained true to the spirit of the music.
"Illmatic has a certain feel to it. It has a certain honesty and integrity that makes it stand out today, 20 years later," Parker says. "We can look at Illmatic and see that it has so much more layer, so much more complexity than when we first heard it, and we didn't understand all the layers that went into it. I don't even think Nas, as a 17- or 19-year-old boy who was making the music, understood the complete context of his own words."
Capturing those feelings and complexities that continue to inspire artists today was of the greatest importance not only to Parker and One9, but also to the original author.
"Nas said to One9 and me that this movie felt like, to him, the visual representation of the album," Parker says. "That was the highest honor, because what we wanted to do was to reflect the honesty, the integrity, the art that went into Illmatic. We wanted to do the same thing in the visual film as storytelling way."
Having put so much of themselves into the film, seeing it come to life is more than rewarding. It doesn't hurt that Nas has taken the film on as his own, touring the film and pairing it with performances of the full Illmatic tracklist, from start to finish.
"We started the film many years back. To see it premiere here at the Beacon in New York, with Nas doing the Illmatic concert, that to us was a pinnacle in itself, but the journey is not over," One9 says, "We're seeing the film now go global. Here in the states, Nas is doing a tour with the film, which is beyond anything we could have ever imagined."
"It's validation," he continues. "We feel like the film can live on its own and do what it's intended to do, and that's to reach new audiences and inspire new generations. To us, it's just an amazing feeling."
Whether you're a huge Nas fan or not, if you've listened to Illmatic more times than you can count or never before, there is something to be gained from watching this doc. Any fan of music or history will find something special in this film, and any conscious American will feel it's message resonate. Just like the album at its focus, Time is Illmatic is about more than just hip-hop, but hip hop is at the heart of it nonetheless.
"We would hope that Nas fans would bring their parents to see the film and parents would bring their children to see the film, grandparents can have an opportunity to see this film and get something out of it," Parker says. "It's something that all generations can relate to and find some common ground, and that's what we really hope will happen with the film when people walk away from it."
Nas: Time Is Illmatic. Directed by One9. Presented in Miami by Sweat Records. Thursday, October 2 to Sunday, October 5 at O Cinema Wynwood. The screenings start at 9 p.m. and tickets cost $12. All showtimes are sold out, except Sunday. All ages. Call 305-571-9970, or visit o-cinema.org.
Follow Kat Bein on Twitter @KatSaysKill.
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