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.
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"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."