“I didn’t think it meant the world, I just thought it was the bridge.” Those words spoken—by legendary rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones’ brother Jabari, referencing their infamous Queens bridge neighborhood— were not only reflective of the surprising tenacity of Jones’ 1994’s pivotal debut Illmatic, it’s also emblematic of what hip-hop has become and its mutually beneficial relationship with Nas through the twenty years since its release; On Wednesday, April 16th¸ that relationship was celebrated at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre with the documentary premiere of Time is Illmatic.
Kicking off the Tribeca Film Festival, the biopic delves into the making of one of the most important pieces of hip-hop’s discography, from the carefully selected beats, to the stories behind the lyrics, and the relationships between the legends in their fields who produced it such as Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and L.E.S. The credit of ensuring Hip-Hop fans and non-Hip-Hop fans alike remained interested, goes to director One9 and writer Erik Parker; With they’re editing that present moments of joy as well as those of despondency and their poignant introduction—which had attendees enthralled before the title (taken from a lyric on the album) even appeared on the screen. The production ensured people could grasp the significance of every lyric by featuring them as text along with the soundtrack. Even more significantly, audiences are provided a full sensory experience into what created the man who created the masterpiece and the gritty elegance that is Nasir Jones. Beginning with his musical roots starting in Mississippi with Jazz musician father Olu Dara, to the failings of the New York City public school system and the devastating knowledge that comes with losing loved ones at the hands of those you’ve most likely once played with as children. Hoards of Nas followers sat, captivated—some with original Illmatic vinyl copies in hand—as they watched Nas explain how the crack epidemic shortened his childhood and the resentment that came from his younger brother, when their mother kept them in the projects even after Jungle was shot. It’s in these scenes it’s clear—as Jungle jokes, that although he was grazed and his friend lay dead that his first instinct was to hide the wound from his mom—that in their neighborhood levity was often lined parallel with devastation, as a means of survival. It was the utilization of this survival tactic that allowed Nas’ loss of his best friend and musical partner Willie “Ill Will” Graham to only push him to work harder.
The film then begins to explain that for its time, Illmatic acted as a textbook for what inner city life was becoming for kids, with its many references to children having to become adults before their time, case in point on N.Y. State of Mind:
“And it was full of children probably couldn’t see as high as I be/….It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger N*ggas pulling the triggers/Bringing fame to they name…”
The rare lyrical abilities of Nas, were highlighted as well when his acapella raps were played, showing how melodically he rhymes even without a beat. In addition his peers discuss his differentiating inflections, rhyme cadences, and multi-syllabic metaphors to exude his frustration at government assistance programs which encourage broken homes, the misappropriated minority population in prison institutions, that seem to break up families as well (as he explains on the Q-Tip featured One Love:
“I heard you got a son/ I heard he looks like ya/why don’t your lady write ya?/ I told her to visit, that’s when she got hyper”
and living in a society where the homicides of your peers are considered mundanely symptomatic of being a minority living in housing projects.
The movie was followed by the veteran New York MC performing the classic album in its entirety to a crowd so in-sync with every line, breath and ad-lib, one would assume they had producer credits in the liner notes. However, this crowd was simply the representation of your average Nas fan. His fans are true, because Nasir Jones is true. Unlike in the cases of other popular rappers such as Jay-Z, Dr. Dre or Common, there has never been the grumbling from Hip-Hop fundamentalists that Jones conformed somehow. And inversely, there isn’t a blind loyalty that prevents fans from critiquing Nas. They will always hold Ether (the legendary Jay-Z diss record) in the highest esteem and respect him enough to honestly admit when Jones is off (For instance his haphazard response to 50 Cent’s Piggy Bank). For these fans that waited with baited breath to relay the breakthrough album he is the most intelligent and educational of the rappers in the long-debated “Top Five, Dead or Alive” conversation and the answer to the question of what happens when an artist of the caliber and struggle of a Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain or even the ever admitted and committed fan, Amy Winehouse (See: Me & Mr. Jones) gets to see their potential play out along the course of decades.
Twenty years later Nas is still educating generations, continuing to make us more conscious of the way we raise our daughters, churning out relevant street anthems and reminding us: “The World is Yours.”