Growing up in the ’90s in the heart of hip-hop’s resurgence continues to reap benefits more than twenty years later. Two decades ago the rap music scene was just hitting its peak, which for this writer means the east coast sound was at its most perfectly tuned, jazzy best. The sound of the streets was captured in the soul of rap music then, and the album that made the greatest cultural impact was Nas’ 1994 debut, ‘Illmatic’, a soulful, transcendent sound that has now produced a transcendent documentary in Nas: Time is Illmatic.
Unlike the recent (and equally incredible) A Tribe Called Quest documentary, Time is Illmatic isn’t about a rapper’s downfall or a point-by-point look at an album’s creation. It’s a celebration of the seminal album’s 20th anniversary, but also a dissection of the influences that allowed a street poet like Nas to create such an influential album. Directed by former graffiti artist One9, Time is Illmatic is not a comprehensive look at the rapper’s career but a personal story of how he overcame a rough upbringing in the Queensbridge projects where few escaped. More than the threat of violence, societal failures became the impetus for much of the hardship faced by Nas and others in one of the poorest sections of Queens. His father, Olu Dara, was a man of knowledge but also a semi-famous jazz musician and he encouraged his sons’ artistic and intellectual endeavors, helping to forge their minds and spirits. He was willing to drag both his boys out of a crumbling school system to give them a better opportunity, yet despite his obvious influence the tension in the family is obvious. Nas is much closer to his brother, Jungle, who has a prominent role in the feature, adding much of the film’s context. Nas himself remains coldly distant throughout much of it, with a number of his greatest peers filling in the gaps. He brightens up when discussing his mother, a hard-working woman left to fend for herself when Nas’ father split. Hip Hop legends such as Q-Tip, Roxanne Shante, and MC Serch will have old school rap heads grinning as they recount stories of Nas’ emergence on the scene with lyrics that were both braggadocios and professorial. Nas’ lyrics, which commented on the harsh realities of everyday life seen through his eyes, are broken down in ways we rarely see in music documentaries and it’s never less than enlightening.
But it’s the way One9 captures the mood of the era that is truly captivating. While Nas is understandably idolized to some degree, such is the nature of these kinds of films; the ’90s hip hop scene is worshipped even more. It was a time of neighborhood feuds and dis records, from LL Cool J to MC Shan to KRS-One, but with Illmatic Nas was able to quiet all that noise and rep his city with a bard’s skill rather than cheap verbal exchanges. It was a letter of love to the town that forged him but also the people who may have been left behind. In one poignant scene, which basically encompasses the final stretch of the film, Nas returns home and reminisces about the Illmatic album cover, learning that many of his old friends featured on it have not fared so well. While music was a lifeline out for him, the sobering truth is that his love letter to Queens couldn’t pull everyone up with him. It’s just one of many sobering moments to be found in Nas: Time is Illmatic, a film that pays tribute to the rapper’s resilience and continued significance.