It may have been the most New York moment in years.
Robert De Niro, onstage Wednesday night at the Beacon Theatre, introduced Time Is Illmatic, the new documentary on Nas‘ 1994 landmark debut Illmatic, to kick off the Tribeca Film Festival. “Twenty years ago, I would’ve been 20 years too old for this music,” quipped the actor and festival co-founder to a boisterous crowd of fans, media and seemingly every important hip-hop figure in mid-Nineties New York.
Unlike music docs that attempt to deify or elevate the obscure — Anvil, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Last Days Here — Time Is Illmatic faces a more difficult task: convincing people to care about an album that has, for years, been enshrined in the musical canon and audibly tattooed on nearly every hip-hop fan’s brain since its release. It succeeds by both contextualizing the album (and its creator) among its past Reagan-era, crack-filled environs and revealing more about Nas’ early life than ever before.
After glowing early testimonials by Pharrell, Swizz Beatz, Alicia Keys and Busta Rhymes, the film shifts to Natchez, Miss., where Nas’ father, jazz cornetist Olu Dara, meets postal worker Fannie Ann Jones. The couple move to New York, eventually landing in Queensbridge Houses projects, and have two sons: Jabari and Nasir. The latter would become a voracious reader whose later pre-teen precociousness outweighed his ambition. Dr. Cornel West (curiously misspelled in the film as “Cornell”), details the history of housing projects, contrasting the rapper’s curiosity and propensity for learning against more prohibitive outside elements. “I had a passion for creating,” the rapper says at one point. “And that was going to be my way out.”
At an early age, Dara left the family, but stayed in contact with his sons. “Enrolling them into school was like enrolling them into Hell,” said Dara, who, against his family’s wishes, encouraged Nas and Jabari to drop out of school. While Nas was educating himself, the then-pre-teen had already been a veteran of late Seventies block parties and park jams and became fascinated with hip-hop after listening to fellow Queensbridge native MC Shan’s ode to Queensbridge “The Bridge.” When Nas recalls hearing Boogie Down Productions’ Queens-baiting diss track “The Bridge Is Over” for the first time, his look of shock and disgust elicited the loudest applause and laughter of the night. “I had two options,” recalled the rapper. “Block that shit out or tear it down. My choice was to tear it down.”
Writer/producer Erik Parker and director One9 go into uncomfortable, yet necessary, detail on one of the rapper’s most formative pre-fame experiences: the death of best friend Willie “Ill Will” Graham. Nas’ brother wrings gallows humor when recreating the night in 1992 when he was shot and Graham was murdered, an event that Dara said made Nas irrevocably more cynical and filled with sadness. But as the film deftly shows, it was Graham’s death, coupled with everyday life in Queensbridge, that led to the writing of one of hip-hop’s masterpieces.
The second half of the film shifts the story from general human interest piece to rap nerd fantasy, employing Illmatic producers (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor, L.E.S.) alongside key early Nas supporters (MC Serch, Columbia Records executive Faith Newman) to recount the album’s history. Weaving interviews, current live performances of Illmatic tracks and Nas’ description of each song, Time Is Illmatic smartly creates a 360-degree view of the classic, from Nas’ first time in a recording studio to his debut verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” to the album’s release. The filmmakers chose to focus on the creation, rather than the effect, of the album, missing an opportunity to explain its impact and influence on a generation of rappers. Still, this will probably be the only movie at the festival where chyrons of underground radio DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia get as big an applause as the filmmakers themselves.
Like Illmatic itself, Time Is Illmatic shifts tone quickly, presenting a complete view of the complex rapper. Nas has never been known as a gregarious, life-of-the-party extrovert like his other A-list peers. His appeal lies in his mystique; the allure of the smart, quiet guy in the room whose thoughts and conclusions drastically outweigh his words.
But a scene where he returns to Queensbridge, running into old friends and local neighborhood characters, shows him at his most unguarded and jovial. Here, among the people more interested in Nasir Jones than Nas, he’s the smiling, joke-cracking hero; the hometown boy makes good returning to his old block that, in some ways, hasn’t changed at all since the rapper’s childhood days. It’s a rare side of the rapper, captured naturalistically by the filmmakers.
On the flip side, the film’s darkest moment shows Jabari and Nas looking back on photographer Danny Clinch’s original photos for the album. In one shot, Nas is surrounded by Queensbridge residents as Jabari reveals that of the two children in the photo, one is now in jail for life and the other is facing charges of murder. The camera stays on a speechless Nas for three excruciating seconds before the rapper reveals, “If it wasn’t for music, you would’ve told a story like that about me.”
Parker and One9 have been working on Time Is Illmatic for more than a decade, but, shockingly, it was only in the past few months that Nas agreed to be involved in the film. “They never begged [for me to be involved] ever,” Nas told Rolling Stone before the screening. “They were never pissed about it. They were really cool and because it was a passion project for them and they were doing it without me, it wasn’t until I started hearing so much about the legs that was getting underneath it that I realized this thing is something that people care about. I didn’t want to be an asshole and not participate.” Like almost everyone else in the audience, Wednesday’s screening was the first time the rapper saw the film completely.
After the screening, Nas performed Illmatic from front-to-back, opening with Alicia Keys singing while playing the melody to Illmatic track “N.Y. State of Mind” on keyboard. With only DJ Green Lantern accompanying him, the rapper turned the 35-minute set into a spontaneous VH1 Storytellers, telling more stories about each track and shouting out audience members Pete Rock, Marley Marl and Large Professor, among others. Like the homecoming scene in Time Is Illmatic, the rapper was surrounded by old friends from the neighborhood and family members (Jabari came onstage with his two children at one point to playfully take the rapper’s Hennessy bottle). Nas may have been the one celebrated in the movie. But on stage was Nasir Jones, smiling and basking in his victory lap.