"As a kid back then I felt everyday was one step closer to the end," remarks Nasir "Nas" Jones in Time Is Illmatic, a film that tackles the societal and cultural influences that went into the making of the hip-hop star's iconic debut album Illmatic.
Like most of us passionate about hip-hop as a culture and as a musical art form, Illmatic hit something in all of us no matter the race or economical lines that it crossed. Whether it was the themes rooted from his life growing up in the Queensbridge Housing Projects or the pure lyricism coming from Nas on Illmatic, it was an album that was the heart of a golden age of the culture back in 1994 when it was originally released. Twenty years have gone by and hip-hop has reached mainstream peaks that no one could really forsee, and even though much of the aspects of hip-hop that made it so rich have been marginalized to the underground, Illmatic still stands up as one of the timeless pieces from that period along with albums such as Mobb Deep's The Infamous or Dr. Dre's The Chronic, just to name a few.
With Time Is Illmatic, the filmmakers Erik Parker and One9 set out to tell a deeper story of this classic album and how it related to the family life and community that Nas was surrounded by. Even within the 74 minutes that Time Is Illmatic clocks in at, that still isn't enough time to tell the full story behind the making of Illmatic, so the film stays on the path of asking what was happening in Nas' life growing up that affected him so much to write these lyrics the way that he did. "When we first started it was initially just be a music DVD, a homage to Illmatic the album," explains Time Is Illmatic director One9 in a recent phone interview about how the film got started. "Eric had interview Olu Dara, Nas' father, so once we able to really sit down with his father and listen to the depth of the history of where the Jones family came from, the depth of the blues and the jazz, and social conditions and so forth, it really shaped a new way us looking at the film so we knew that Time Is Illmatic had to be a bigger story."
The story in Time Is Illmatic deconstructs the album itself and ties in historical information to paint a picture of what was really going on in the Queensbridge Housing Projects, and really set the tone that the themes of Illmatic were bigger than the artist himself. Like anyone growing up in a project community, Nas was affected by the environment he grew up in, but Illmatic is told from such an open observational perspective it's as if the 7 year old Nas that dons the album's famous cover was telling the stories. "It was the interview with Olu Dara that set us on the path to understanding Illmatic in a different way," says Time Is Illmatic screenwriter Erik Parker on the making of the film. " What we did was model the film after the album. The songs opened up the themes we talk about, like "Life's A Bitch" to talk about the family break up or "One Love" to talk about the prison system. We use "NY State Of Mind" to talk about housing projects being built in some parts for the black migration. We used the album as an open leg and explored what Nas had already laid out as the blueprint."
While Nas himself and his father Olu Dara are the groundwork of Time Is Illmatic, the heart of the film lies in his brother Jabari "Jungle" Jones. Throughout the film, Jungle takes us right through to ground zero of Nas' childhood, the Queensbridge Housing Projects, and unapologetically opens up about what he and his brother experienced growing up, and how that tied into Illmatic. In the film, Jungle isn't just a sideline character in the story of a rap star, he represents the soul of the album and represents the black men whose story has been told through this album for the past 20 years.
As One9 describes:
"We met him in Queensbridge. We had no idea what to expect from him. He gave us the tour of everything that Queensbridge meant to him. The places where he grew with Nas. He took us to the bench photo where Ill Will was killed and walked us through his perspective. It was so candid, so forthcoming, it was heartfelt. He talked about issues that really reflected so much that is going on not just in Queensbridge but those issues relate to what's going on around the country. What's going on in Chicago, what going on in Philly, what's going on in Detroit, to a sense what's going on in Ferguson now. Jungle is a reflection of what's going in inner cities right now to this day 20 years after the fact that Illmatic came out. He's very forthcoming about really expressing himself about his true feelings about how he dealt with his mother, how he dealt with his father. Jungle wears his heart on his sleeve."
Time Is Illmatic isn't your regular behind the scenes look at the making of an album with tons of studio footage or the epic "do or die" moment or dramatic setback. Every moment that took the 20 years for Nasir Jones to create Illmatic was an important piece of the puzzle, and is a microcosm of what has been going on around the nation for so long, and still stands up 20 years later not only culturally, but musically.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic screening and full album performance goes down on Thursday, October 9th, at the Fillmore Detroit. Screening starts at 8pm with performance directly after. The movie opens in theaters the next day October 10th, and will be showing at the AMC Star Fairlane at 18900 Michigan Ave in Dearborn. Please visit timeisillmatic.com for more information. There will also be a screening of Time Is Illmatic earlier in the day at 3pm at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History at 315 E. Warren in Detroit followed by a panel discussion with the flimmakers. This event is free but seating is limited. RVSP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (313) 494-5856.
(Photo Credits: Danny_Clinch and Frank Larson)