Time is Illmatic: A documentary, deep dive into Nas

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Twenty years ago, Nas released his monumental debut album “Illmatic.” It was the kind of record that became the soundtrack of a generation. The capstone of this anniversary year is the documentary “Nas: Time is Illmatic,” which opened the Tribeca Film Festival and had a special screening and concert at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, Friday night. (There was also a Hennessy-sponsored afterparty at The Underground and Nas performed the entirety of his album “Illmatic” at the concert — a rare treat.)

Fledgling filmmakers One9, a multimedia artist, and Erik G. Parker, a known hip hop journalist, joined forces to make a film that initially was to be about the making of “Illmatic.” But after finally gaining access to Nas, his bluesman father Olu Dara, his brother Jabara aka Jungle and others in the field, including Cornel West and Qtip, the duo realized they had more than a “making of” film. They had a full-scale, history-making documentary.

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The film is poignant, funny and sad at times. Jungle is both hilarious and innocently sad as he talks about the death of Nas’ best friend Will in the same incident where Jungle was shot in the leg. The audience laughs when Jungle remembers telling Nas, “Don’t tell Mommy.” And it is funny, kind of. But it’s also telling. Also telling is Dara’s response to the school system putting his child in a “slow learners” classroom. Nas was already performing on the trumpet by the time he was 7. He’d read “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” and Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” by the time he was 12. He was no slow learner, so his dad told him to quit school and educate himself. He did. The rest is history.

“Time is Illmatic” had a series of single-night screenings in Chicago over the last few weeks, but for the next few days you can catch it at the Loews Country Club Hills. Here’s what the filmmakers had to say.

How did you go from a making of documentary to a whole-life documentary on Nasir Jones?

One9: “In 2004 we started the documentary on the making of the album, but it evolved over the years into something that was much larger. It was a death of rap story, and it turned into the story of an American generation. We spent five to seven years to get as many interviews as ever out of pocket with no money. But it was really the filmmaker who directed “Eyes on the Prize” who gave us a research grant and talked about the importance of telling the story from a greater whole.”

How did you persuade Nas to do this? Did he commission it?

Erik G. Parker: “We didn’t know Nas at all before we started. I did a cover story on him at that time, but Nas was known as a very guarded subject. In fact we sat around the table and we shot a bunch of stuff and put together a trailer and showed it to his manager. Nas came to a meeting once and he said, “OK, keep going.” Over the course of time we got to know him much better. He seemed to open up to us. He saw we were approaching this story from an inside out perspective — even without his original involvement”

He obviously inspired you. What did this film do for him?

One9: That album was the inspiration for us to do the film, and one of the best things that he said [was] the movie inspired him to make more music. That’s incredible to hear. The movie made him reflect back on a time when he was free and really in love with the music and writing about the people around him and the people he cared about so much. I think that’s a great way to pass down artistic friendship to each other.

With the deeper look at the Queensbridge housing projects and how the public education system sometimes fails black boys, is this the modern-day “Eyes on the Prize?

Parker:It will be archived at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. It will have a curriculum attached to it. We’re trying to reach people with the film as a teaching tool. Because we have so many great interviews, the footage with Cornel West and Skip Gates will be archived so the community can go in and check it out.

How did the hip hop community react?

One9: We didn’t have to beg people to talk about this. From the Cold Krush Brothers to Brand Nubian to Erykah Badu. Everybody shows up. Big names like Alicia Keys are promoting the film on their own. We got Pharrell and Swizz Beats and Busta. Everybody was really affected by this film. Kendrick Lamar talks about how it impacted him. JCole was 9 and in North Carolina and [he says] this album gave him a blueprint as to how to maneuver as a young black man in America. We got a Harvard fellowship in his name… We’re really hoping that Nas life story and the film can really give someone a positive look at how to carry themselves.


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