By Matthew Ismael Ruiz
At one point during Time is Illmatic, the new documentary on Nas’ immortal 1994 album Illmatic, his younger brother Jungle recalls the day Nas signed his record deal with Columbia Records. Jungle (born Jabari Jones) was happy to see more money than he had ever seen in his life, but admits he failed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
“I didn’t know that s— meant the world,” he says. “I thought it just meant The Bridge.”
For Jungle, The Bridge—shorthand for the Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in North America—was his whole world at the time. But when Nas’ debut for Columbia, Illmatic, hit shelves covered in the iconic Danny Clinch photo of his ‘hood, the rest of the world took notice.
Time is Illmatic marks the debut film from street artist One9 and journalist Erik Parker (full disclosure: Erik Parker was a former employee at Radio.com). Twenty years after album’s release, it opened this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival with a star-studded premiere at the Beacon Theater on April 16. With painstakingly curated archival materials, extensive interviews and hard-earned access, the film explores the genesis of Nas’ hip hop classic through the lens of the family that birthed its creator, and the community where they lived.
Their story begins in Natchez, Miss., where Nas’ parents met before moving to New York. His grandfather, father, and uncles were all musicians. For a time, Nas (born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) even played the trumpet—just like his dad, the renowned cornetist Olu Dara. Music ran in their blood. Then they move to Queensbridge.
In a brief history lesson, Dr. Cornel West does his best to efficiently encapsulate how racist policies like FDR’s G.I. Bill and the trickle-down ideology of Reaganomics excluded black people from the social programs that built the middle class. As upwardly mobile (and white) middle-class families fled for the suburbs, poor black families were herded into public housing, and there is no more glaring example of what these policies had wrought in New York City than the Queensbridge Houses.
It’s here where we begin to see how a 20-year-old dropout could create such poetry among the urban blight of New York in the crack era. His world-weary musician father, who had been across the seas during a stint in the Navy, had a library of books Nas wouldn’t find in school: Sun Tzu, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and Tao philosophy, to name a few. His doting mother, Fannie Ann Jones, kept Nas and Jungle clothed and fed, and raised them after their father left, doing her best to buy them what they wanted so they wouldn’t be tempted to turn to crime. Jungle laments his mother’s passing. He believes she deserves much of the credit heaped upon his father for Nas’ success.
Though his absence during their childhood is undisputed, the film reveals the true extent of Olu Dara’s influence on their lives. When Nas and Jungle talk to their father about dropping out of school, he shockingly gave his blessing. Having seen the “hell” of the public school system when he first enrolled his sons, he instead encouraged them to “read your own books,” and find their own way.
But in Queensbridge, finding your own way is often subject to survival. In hearing the story of “Ill Will” Graham, Nas’ late childhood friend, we learn the details his relatively mundane tragedy (misunderstanding, argument, retaliation). His death shapes Nas and his music, scarring him with the kind of cynicism reserved for much older men. It’s easy to forget just how young Nas is until Jungle recalls the first words he said to Nas after being shot by the same assailant that killed Graham: “Don’t tell Mommy!”
Despite its shortcomings, Queensbridge isn’t merely home to murderers, drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. A vibrant hip-hop culture had already been flourishing by the time Nas started thinking about music, and local heroes MC Shan and Roxanne Shante put the hood on the map. The legendary beef between KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions and the entire Queensbridge Houses cemented the legacy. So when a rapper from The Bridge—like Nas— steps into the booth in 1993, it’s personal. He’s carrying the entire hood on his back. To this day, Jungle still seems offended by even the idea of “The Bridge Is Over.”
The film shifts in its second half, and Parker and One9 turn to the songs themselves, who produced them, and how they came to work with Nas. It’s a daunting task, as the making of Illmatic has already been exhaustively documented by music websites and magazines at 10, 15, and now 20-year anniversaries of the record’s release. Parker himself even worked on a 10-year anniversary package for VIBE magazine during a stint as music editor—it’s what planted the seeds for this film.
A careful edit of these interviews saves it from being another nostalgia tour. We get anecdotes about Pete Rock’s reluctance to sing the hook on “The World is Yours,” and Nas revealing that when he wrote “N.Y. State of Mind” he “wanted to give you a sense of New York at night.” Q-Tip decodes a couplet from “One Love,” (plus congratulations, you know you got a son/ I heard he looks like ya, why don’t ya lady write ya) explaining how the song is in fact a complex dissertation on the socio-economic effects of the penal system in the United States. He then argues that even so, the underlying message of Illmatic is hope, citing AZ’s near flawless verse on “Life’s a B—-” as evidence: “I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it.”
The archival photos and videos of various quality and aspect ratios are seamlessly woven throughout the film. Some are so rare that they even impressed the MC himself. Parker recently told XXL that after playing Nas some archival footage of him and father that he had never seen before, the rapper called his brother Jungle to the studio so they could watch it all again, for hours.
But it was one photo that provided the most sobering moment in the film. Jungle, recalling the day that Danny Clinch came to the neighborhood to shoot the art for Illmatic’s packaging, remarks that today, a lot of the people in the photograph are either dead or in jail. One by one, he points out figures in the photo and tells of their fate. 15 years. Murder charge. Drugs. Murder. Two of the people he points to are just kids in the photograph. When they tell Nas, he’s taken aback, absorbing the impact of the thought for a few seconds before responding, “If not for music, you might be telling a similar story about that kid in the picture.”
Amid the heart-wrenching tales of ghetto violence, Time is Illmatic is ultimately optimistic. Its rich detail celebrates the unique circumstances that birthed such an influential piece of art as well as the career of its creator. When it jumps 20 years into the future to a press conference announcing the Nasir Jones Hip-hop Fellowship at Harvard University, we don’t need to connect the dots in between, because we can see the circle completed. The dropout has become the teacher—the outcast, the exalted.