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'Time Is Illmatic' Explores Nas' Classic Debut Album At Tribeca Film Festival

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Theo Wargo via Getty Images
Theo Wargo via Getty Images

At age 17, Nasir "Nas" Jones stepped onto the rap scene by declaring he "went to hell for snuffing Jesus" on Main Source’s 1991 posse track "Live at the Barbeque."

The classic verse not only gained the attention of industry insiders and hip-hop enthusiasts, it also solidified anticipation leading up to the April 19, 1994 release of what would be the rapper's critically acclaimed debut opus, "Illmatic."

On Wednesday, in celebration of the 20-year anniversary of Nas' seminal debut, co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal opened the 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival at New York City's Beacon Theater with the premiere of "Time Is Illmatic," a documentary on Nas and his best-known album. Immediately following the film’s screening, Grammy Award-winning singer Alicia Keys introduced the hometown hero by playing the iconic piano melody to "N.Y. State of Mind," the first song proper on "Illmatic," which segued into a special performance of the timeless album presented by Beats Music and Hennessy V.S.

Written by Erik Parker and directed by the filmmaker One9, "Time Is Illmatic" delves into how the rapper's adolescent years in New York's Queensbridge housing projects -- growing up with his mother Ann Jones, his brother Jabari "Jungle" Jones, and his father, the jazz musician Olu Dara -- shaped Nas' personal growth and led to the birth of "Illmatic."

"When we really thought about the song 'Life's a Bitch,' it was like, 'Wow, he says time is illmatic,' and that felt like it bridges not just 'Illmatic,' but it talks about a time being a cultural time period from his father's generation of blues, jazz, all the way through the early hip-hop generation of the '80s from the Marley Marl and the KRS-One 'Bridge' battle," One9 told The Huffington Post. "That time was so ill that it really reflected what we were saying in the film."

"We look at 'Illmatic,' but we trace it back to different socioeconomic conditions," the director went on. "'New York State of Mind' looks at the history of the first cornerstone of the Queensbridge houses being laid down and the G.I. Bill. That time was 'Ill.' 'Life's a Bitch' looks at the family being torn apart and how that affected the Joneses, particularly Nas as a kid. That time was 'Ill.' So it's like 'Time Is Illmatic' really connects the generations. And I felt like it's a way that not only summarizes 'Illmatic,' but it connects with the stories that we pulled together in the film."

During the documentary, Nas credits his artistic roots to his father's birthplace of Natchez, Miss., and recalls how living in the environment of the country's largest public housing development made him more appreciative of his parents.

"Queensbridge, to me, it looked messed up. It looked like a buried diamond," the rapper says in the film. "I had a chance to have a childhood for at least a little bit, and then I felt like I had to become a man early to deal with my environment."

"I saw the difference early on, the type of parents I came from. Good people, hard workers," he says. "We had color television, we had a VCR, we had a carpet. We had nice things in our place, compared to some of my other friends who had nothing. Who ate hot dogs for dinner. Who had no furniture, just living bad. We didn't really lack food. My mom was a great cook."

"Everybody wanted to come to our house. 'Ms. Jones cooking? I'm over there!' She had a great spirit. She didn't talk with cuss words. She didn't talk street stuff. She was not like that. If we needed stuff she said, 'I don’t want y'all to go out there and do it [in the streets], find another way to get it.'"

The 40-year-old emcee's vivid recollection of the harsh realities of his poverty-stricken community resonated with fans of "Illmatic," including the film's creators, who decided to highlight the album due to its distinction as one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time.

The film was originally supposed to come out in 2004, Parker explained, but the crew kept finding more and more compelling pieces to add.

"We didn't set out to make a documentary about 20 years of an album. We started out to make a documentary about 10 years and reflect on how great that album was when it came out," Parker told The Huffington Post. "However, it touched us in such a way and it represented our generation in such a way that it is an album that speaks to us and for us in the manner that no other album does of its time."

"Not to exclude any other album, but we chose one that touched us and had so many different layers to it," he added. "If you look at different albums of that time, they're great albums that came out, but they have different textures than 'Illmatic.' 'Illmatic''s layers are very deep and they're very honest and they strike a chord in the people that it represents. And we wanted to tap into that."

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