If you know anything about Hip-Hop you know what Illmatic represents. You know it was the first album to achieve the highest rating The Source Magazine can award an album, 5 Mics. It birthed the career of Brooklyn rapper AZ, whose guest verse on the album’s second song is considered one of the greatest debut verses of all time. Artists would claim that Illmatic inspired them to pursue music. 20 years ago, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones forever changed the Hip-Hop world with just nine tracks.
Making a documentary on what many people have compared to Citizen Kane is a daunting task. How could a first time director truly make a documentary worthy of Illmatic’s legacy? The answer was something we were not prepared for. For us, watching Nas: Time Is Illmatic in Queensbridge, the country’s largest housing project and the inspiration for Nas’ first and still most championed work, we witnessed more than just a music documentary. We witnessed a film about romance–a romance between a man and his culture, his family and his neighborhood.
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones grew up on violence, drugs, and Hip-Hop. As a child, Nas had a highly inquisitive mind, reading the many books his father (a Jazz musician Olu Dara) had around their apartment. Even with a desire to learn, Nas and his brother Jungle both dropped out of middle school. His father, a man who believed in self-teaching, allowed the boys to leave a school system that deprived many young black children in the 1980s.
Out of school Nas witnessed the rise of the “crack era” firsthand. Making matters worse, Nas’ parents separated before he dropped out of school, making him and his brother two of many who were raised by single mothers. Compounded with the loss of his closest friend Ill Will, Nas had to grow up early, like many children of the ghetto. Out of school and surrounded by the worst of 1980s New York City, Nas still continued to read his father’s books. He learned that in order to survive, he had to find a way out.
The “out” for Nas came in the form of Hip-Hop. The culture which spawned from the South Bronx was a passageway for Nas out of a predestined future. In the interviews conducted with Nas for the film, the MC still talks about it as if he never left the projects, with passion and excitement. A section of the film focuses on Nas’s reaction to “The Bridge Wars” between Queensbridge’s MC Shan and the Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions. Songs from each of the lyrical combatants is played, with Nas offering commentary for each one.
To listen to Nas speak on hearing MC Shan and Marley Marl’s classic The Bridge for the first time and how it made him proud of his neighborhood is a Hip-Hop fans dream. Later when he discusses the KO blow delivered by Krs-One The Bridge Is Over, Nas’ stunned reaction is priceless and one of humility. Almost 30 years after the war on wax originally started, hearing a group of young teenagers from Queensbridge react to the scathing KRS-One’s diss line of “Queens keeps on faking it!” shows the timeless the appeal and pride that comes with Hip-Hop. It was the need to defend his home turf, to prove that Queensbridge was not truly beaten that made Nas pick up the mic.
Once the story of Nas’ early career comes into the film, it follows traditional documentary tropes and structure. There is nothing overtly wrong with that, but it is the moments that precede it which make the stronger (and fresher narrative). Listening to Jungle talk about growing up with Nas, providing us with a tour Queensbridge are amusing and provide us with a person whose personality is much more relaxed than the always serious sounding Nas. When Nas does appear in Queensbridge, he is less a commercial product and a member of neighborhood royalty, able to walk through the maze that is Queensbridge.
In one of the final moments of the 70 minute documentary, Nas is told what has happened to all of the people photographed in the album’s liner notes. Most of the men are gone, or serving extended sentences in prison. Nas, who has a reputation for being distant in public is brought to tears. It is moments like this one, which make this documentary worth seeing, all the “inside baseball” talk on the album is fine. However, the further it gets away from the music, the more riveting the identity of the man who made it becomes.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic premieres in theaters and VOD October 1st.
He “never sleeps, because sleep is the cousin of death”, to keep him awake, contact the author @ChrisLInoa