MCs aren’t known for being quiet, but there’s a moment in the new documentary “Time is Illmatic” that leaves New York City’s Nas speechless. The film celebrates the 20th anniversary of the rapper’s debut project, “Illmatic,” and this moment finds Nas sitting on a modernist sofa in a Los Angeles recording studio. He’s talking about the photo shoot for the album package, which featured a then-18-year-old Nas walking around the Queensbridge housing project where he was raised. In one photo he’s giving dap to his dudes on the corner. But in another (pictured below), he’s standing at a bench surrounded by his friends who have since disappeared.
In the film Nas’ younger brother’s, Jabari “Jungle” Jones tells the viewer about each person’s fate. “He’s gone, he’s gone,” Jungle says as he ticks off the people in the photo. “He just got out, and he’s doing a bunch of time.” When the camera comes back to Nas in Los Angeles, the rapper takes a moment, eyes welling with tears.
To anyone with even a passing familiarity with Nas’ work, this moment isn’t exactly a surprise. Throughout his two decades near the top of commercial hip-hop, he’s often seen as the art form’s conscience — an albeit imperfect one—thanks largely to “Illmatic.” The nine-song album paints a searing portrait of black life caught in the quicksand of crack and poverty, hitting on everything from random shootouts (“N.Y. State of Mind”) to incarceration (“One Love”) and the teachings of the Five Percenters (“It Ain’t Hard to Tell”). It also features production by some of the genre’s most accomplished producers, including Pete Rock, Q-Tip, DJ Premier and Large Professor.
Twenty years after its release, there’s no question about whether or not “Illmatic” is one of hip-hop’s greatest records, but instead who among today’s young MCs can come close to recording an album that reaches its level. Days after “Time is Illmatic” opened the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, I spoke with writer Erik Parker and director One9 about their groundbreaking documentary.
How did this idea come up for you guys?
Parker: In 2004, I was a music editor at Vibe magazine. I assigned a story to do the 10-year anniversary of “Illmatic,” but there was only so much you could capture in print. I had an idea to do something in video some way, so I contacted One9 and a couple of friends. One9 is a great visual artist and storyteller, and I knew he would be the person who could help elevate the story to a much higher level than what we could do alone in print.
So we all got together and said, “Let’s do it.” We were just armed with passion and whatever cameras we could get and whatever contacts for interviews that would speak to us. We used whatever cash we could pull out of our pockets and just started shooting interviews with people.
How long did it take?
One9: We did a few shoots in 2004 and met with Nas that year. He just wanted to see where we were going to go with it. He didn’t really commit at that point. We picked up a few years later, cut a trailer, sent it out, and got a few grants. One was through the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms, which is their social justice initiative. That was so pivotal for us. Orlando Bagwell was not only the head of JustFilms, but he was a mentor who had done “Eyes on the Prize,” someone who believed in the vision of the film. He gave us a research grant, we cut some more [of the film] together and then Ford gave us a production grant. This was over the course of maybe seven or eight years.
Around 2010, we sat down with Nas again with footage that we’d shot with the production grant, and at that point he was really eager to look at what we had. We kept shooting and were able to get something roughly done, and [Nas] looked at a rough draft of some scenes and they blew him away. We really completed the film in about two strong years of really going hard with a full grant from Ford and Tribeca.
Talk about the visuals. There’s some animation. It’s really visually gripping.
One9: Visually, when we shot video, we wanted to do extreme close ups, we used some animation techniques early in the film. We’ve got to give a lot of love to Antibody, the graphics group that did “True Detective.” They worked for us to do the opening graphics for the film. We just had a great team of visual people around us. From a story and content perspective, working with Erik, we were able to deconstruct the album in a way that really highlighted the people around [Nas], the community around him that you don’t usually hear from. It’s what made the movie, and it’s what made the album.
There’s a really powerful moment in the film where Nas and Jungle are looking at one of the group pictures from the original photo shoot for “Illmatic,” and Jungle points out each person who’s no longer around because they’re locked up or dead. What does that signify to you all?
Parker: One time when Nas came to our studio, we showed him some archival footage that we had, photos he’d never seen before, all the research that we did. We were showing him this stuff before we had a full cut together, just to give him an idea of what we wanted to talk to him about. We realized that he was really intrigued by these artifacts, but he would look at the pictures and say, “Wow, this person’s no longer here.”
He would tell a story about each person in all of the pictures that would be moving, poignant, some of them would be tragic, but there would also be some fun and love in there. There’s a guy they called Convulsion Man because he had a convulsion one time and he fell on a hot grill. [Laughs.] We realized that these were young kids that were coming of age at a time and in a place in America that the world was not paying attention to. In these stories [Nas] was telling, he was relieving these really personal moments , but they were also powerful and this was 20, sometimes 30 years after the pictures were taken.
We realized that these artifacts represented ghosts from his past. We knew we wanted to try to convey that in some way on screen because what it does is it shows that Nas was just one of those people, and those people are who he really wanted to represent in “Illmatic.” So tell the story of “Illmatic” without telling the story of those people would be a disservice.
(Photograph by Danny Clinch, 1994)
One9: We knew that telling those stories was so important explaining what his background growing up was like. We brought him to the same bench and showed him that picture all these years later and he looked it and talked about how important it was for him to be there on that same bench.
But it wasn’t until Jungle looked at the photo that that scene came together. Jungle still resides in Queens so he has a strong connection to the community; he stays in Queensbridge out of love. So he knows what happened to each and every single one of them. He went through the photo and we were just blown away and were like, “Oh my god, this is crazy.” Nas and Jungle were in two separate places at the time — Nas was at a studio in Los Angeles doing some recording and Jungle was in Queens — and we decided to show that footage of Jungle going through the photos to Nas off-camera. It was so emotional for him to see. It was that moment that signified what he was going through and the people he was writing the album for.
Why does that matter now? We’re more than two decades removed from the worst of the crack epidemic.
These situations still occur. The jail systems have gotten worse, the drop-out rate has gotten worse, and we felt like Nas was a voice for the people who are not here anymore. He is becoming now even more cognizant of that. It’s important because you can take that same photograph and you can take it to Compton, you can take it to Detroit, you can take it to Chicago and you’re going to hear the same stories.
We didn’t show this in the film, but there’s a moment when we interview Q-Tip and he pulls his phone out and he pulls out a picture of him and all his boys and he does the same thing. “He’s gone, he’s missing.” We really need to put light on this situation to show that we can’t keep repeating these same cycles
Parker: And it’s extra special too that Nas is in that picture. That’s the point we’re driving home. Nas was one of those dudes on that bench. So we can’t truly celebrate Nas without acknowledging those other people on the bench. That was important.
There’s a lot of talk these days about PTSD in black communities. I feel like some of the staying power of “Illmatic” is that it was Nas diagnosing that in his community 20 years before it became a bigger thing in our culture. Why do you feel like the album is so resonant 20 years later?
Parker: When we started working on the 10-year anniversary of “Illmatic,” I could tell that this had staying power, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it resonated so much until we started to document and open the doors and see what this album meant. We decided to look at the film, not in terms of what happened in the studio, but what are the culmination of experiences that led him to that studio. I think once you look at that body of experiences, even dating back to Natchez, Miss., where his father came from, you’ll understand that it’s relatable to all of us. We all came up from it. It sheds light on the human condition, what young black men were going through trying to come of age in America. And what they still go through. That’s why it resonates. Today somebody could take out a picture and look at it and they could say, “This one’s not here, that one’s not here.” And it’s not just that people have died. They’re either in jail or they dropped out of school or taken away from society in some other way. That’s why “Illmatic” resonates: because it explains how this happens and that it’s happening.
One9: Twenty years prior to “Illmatic” coming out, Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On?” And that album spoke to its community, spoke the honest truths of its community with such integrity that it transcended that time period. “Illmatic” does that now. You have younger generations like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole who are listening to this now and who are being affected. Our hope is that it inspires new generations of people to write their own “Illmatic.”