Nas’ debut album, Illmatic turned 20 this year and in celebration of this monumental event in hip hop, the documentary Time is Illmatic was released earlier this month.
Arguably one of the greatest rap albums of all time, Illmatic was essentially a chronicle of the life of a young black man growing up in Queens bridge Projects, as only the lyrical genius Nasir Jones could depict it. The same way Illmatic took us on a journey through Nas’ life, Time is Illmatic gives us a closer look at that journey: introducing us to his influences, telling old stories, and giving us a tour of the birthplace of a legend.
Nas tells the story of how female rapper and ‘Juice Crew’ member Roxanne Shantae gave him his first shot to perform at a rap show and how the influences of Marly Marl and MC Shan gave him pride to be from Queensbridge Projects. The film adds a mix of testimonials and recollections from friends, family members, and musical peers. The first part of the film explains Nas’ early upbringing and focuses mainly on his parents: jazzman Olu Dara and his wife, Ann Jones, who raised their two sons (Nas and younger brother Jabari, aka “Jungle”) in a house hold of art, books, and music very different from the gritty Queensbridge norm. After a brief childhood flirtation with the trumpet, Nas gave it up quickly to begin writing rhymes by the age of 8. Maybe one of the oddest parts of the film is when Olu admits that he encouraged both his sons to dropout of school and find themselves. Although that may have seemed to be in poor choice, they obviously came out of it for the better.
Old School hip hop fans will take delight in the film’s tale of the Queensbridge versus South Bronx rivalry that played in the form of tracks like Marly Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s “South Bronx,” and helped spark young Nas’ creative fire. (The opening cut of Illmatic featured a prominent sample of the seminal 1983 hip-hop feature “Wild Style,” also excerpted here.) Returning today to the old neighborhood, Nas reflects emotionally on how most of his friends that appear on his album booklet are dead or off doing a bid somewhere, and how he too might have become another victim if it weren’t for hip hop.
The second half of the film shifts gears and brings light to the recording of Illmatic with Nas and his team of legendary producers giving insightful track-by-track break downs of what, when, where, why and how all of these flawless tracks came to life.
Now although Nas might have inspired the film, it was his brother, Jungle who truly stole the show bringing an unexpected comic relief to an otherwise lighthearted film. He was able to give us a look into this world that only the brother of a star could.
Now although there’s never been such an in-depth look into Nas’ music and life before, I still walked away wanting more. The film barely talks about how the record was received and what it led to. Perhaps I was expecting too much, and maybe the film was just meant to focus on the build up and making of the album that changed the landscape of how a hip hop album should sound. After it’s release, Nas reached immortality in the hip-hop world and the film closes with him at Harvard, where the Nasir Jones Fellowship will promote hip hop scholarships. The irony is the rapper who once rapped “projects or jail, never Harvard or Yale” is now giving classes at the universities he once said he’d probably never step foot in. That being said, the project is a great film and what I took from it is all Nas wanted to do was paint a picture of where he came from. What he showed us, however was much more. He was a well-rounded kid raised with street smarts, a great musical background, and grew up to become a great wordsmith with influence from a number of iconic artists before him such as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell. Weather you’re a Hip-hop purest or a casual music fan you will walk away understanding what he meant when he rapped “Nothings equivalent to the New York state of mind.”