For an unbiased perspective on how Nas’s 1994 debut album Illmatic changed the rap game, don’t bother looking up the original reviews in The Source or the flood of think pieces written for the record’s celebrated 10-year anniversary. Instead, simply log onto Wikipedia.
Most albums worthy of their own Wiki page get a few paragraphs, typically the personnel involved in the recording, the performance on the charts, and the critical reception. Illmatic’s Wikipedia page has no less than 18 in-depth sections which break down the record’s themes, legacy and influence, lyricism, and intellectual response. The debut from the man born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones isn’t just a genre classic, it’s an important cultural touchstone.
No one knows that better than Erik Parker, writer-producer of the new documentary Nas: Time is Illmatic. Along with director-producer One9, Parker takes a refreshingly different approach to breaking down Nas’s groundbreaking masterpiece. Rather than trot out an endless parade of talking celebrity heads and record executives, the filmmakers focus on the family, friends, and rappers who coloured Nas’s world view when he was growing up. Parker and One9 also devote plenty of screen time to explaining where Nas came from, namely Queensbridge, a tougher-than-leather New York City housing project in Queens.
Reached in New York, the two acknowledge that Time Is Illmatic takes a decidedly unconventional path in its quest to explain the backstory of a classic rap record.
“Me, One9, and a couple of other friends of ours were big fans of the album Illmatic,” Parker says. “We wanted to record the making of Illmatic in the way that many traditional documentaries are done—where you delve into what happens in the studio where the magic is made. But one of our first interviews was, fortunately, with Olu Dara, who happens to be Nas’s father. He had a wealth of knowledge that he let us in on, and that actually opened up the scope of the film. His interview served as a gateway into the true influences of Illmatic. We went beyond the studio-making, and found that the magic and the legacy was in the Jones family, and in the generations that came before Nas.”
Queensbridge was integral to the story. The largest of its kind in North America, the project is famous for spawning a large number of hip-hop stars, including MC Shan, Mobb Deep, Big Noyd, and Roxanne Shanté. During Nas’s childhood, it was also a neighbourhood ravaged by crack and the ’80s economic policies of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. What Nas saw on the streets on a day-to-day basis—shootings, beatings, unemployment, drug-dealing—would provide no shortage of lyrical fodder for Illmatic. It would also give him the determination to get out and make a better life.
That desperation still resonates with the rapper today. One of Time Is Illmatic’s many incredible moments has Nas studying an old black-and-white photograph taken in the hood around the release of Illmatic. As is pointed out by Nas’s brother, known as Jungle, many of those in the 8 x 10 are either in jail or dead, rendering the rapper temporarily speechless. Getting to the point where Nas was willing to show such vulnerability took awhile.
“That scene was one of the last shoots that we did, probably the second-last,” One9 says, joining the confernce call. “One thing that people overlook in the film is that Erik did a lot of the interviews. He’s a great interviewer—he gets people comfortable to the point where they can laugh. That whole session was us showing Nas clips from the movie, and him commenting. We had his brother talking about growing up in the home, and also about the photograph. We were saving that stuff for last because it was an emotional shoot.
“We were extremely comfortable with Nas, and Nas was comfortable with us,” he continues, “ there was no one else in the room for that moment—it was just an empty studio, Erik, myself, the cameraman, and audio. It felt like we were friends talking, and that’s how we really approached this film. It only works because everyone is completely honest and raw with their answers. No one was holding anything back.”
What might made Parker and One9 happiest is that the making ofTime Is Illmatic seemed to give Nas a new perspective on his master work. Forget Wikipedia—their documentary is now the best way to get a perspective on the record’s importance.
“I imagine that Nas recognized that, on some level, he was moving the needle for music fans, primarily hip-hop fans who really understood his story,” Parker suggests. “But he was so young, I think he was just making an honest piece of art, and probably had no idea of the cultural impact of his work. I can’t imagine that he could have understood what it [Illmatic] meant to the rest of us, even today. What really helped this documentary is that me and One9 really saw a transformation from the time we first sat down with him in a restaurant to talk about the film. Our passion for the album, and that of his peers, probably started to reveal itself to him in a way that he probably didn’t fully appreciate when he was initially in the moment.”
Nas: Time Is Illmatic screens at the Rio Theatre, October 3 (9:30 p.m.)