Tribeca 2014 Review: TIME IS ILLMATIC, An Illuminating Look Back at the Creation of a Hip-Hop Classic

This year's Tribeca Film Festival got off to a rousing start with the screening (and accompanying concert by its subject) of Time is Illmatic, a documentary by multimedia artist One9 about the making of Nas' immensely influential 1994 debut album Illmatic. Timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of this album, and the attendant release of a tricked-out anniversary reissue, Time is Illmatic gets well beyond the promotional, ready-made aspects of such a project by delving deep into the details of what went into the record's creation. Not only are the musical aspects covered here, but also the emotional details, Nas' family history, and stories of life on the streets of his native Queensbridge which Nas so vividly described on the album. As a result, this has the feel of an honest, lovingly made, and authentic documentary, rather than a shallow, packaged product meant as extra, behind-the-scenes material. The film serves as a quick, 74-minute primer on its musical subject that will help get neophytes up to speed, but will also hold interest to long time fans.

Nas, born Nasir Jones, came from a rich musical heritage, much of it deriving from Olu Dara, his jazz musician father. Nas himself was very interested in the trumpet early on, before he began composing rhymes at age 8. Olu Dara also was responsible for instilling in Nas and his brother Jabari (nicknamed "Jungle") an interest in reading and intellectual development, building a huge library at home of books on the arts and world history. This no doubt contributed to the verbal dexterity Nas would later exhibit on his early guest appearances on tracks by other artists and groups such as Roxanne Shante, MC Serch, and Main Source, as well as the songs on Illmatic. This autodidactic education also served them in good stead when both brothers dropped out of school later on, to their mother Ann's distress. This move was actually encouraged by their father, by then divorced from their mother and largely absent from their day to day lives. Olu Dara saw that the school system, with its lack of resources and uncaring teachers, was not beneficial for his sons, and served as little more than a way station to prison.

By the late 80's and early 90's, when Nas came of age, the crack epidemic was well underway, and was as devastating to Queensbridge as many urban areas around the country at that time, with drug dealing as often the only employment option available. Watching friends and neighbors die was an all-too-common occurrence. But as the film reminds us, this was not all there was; a vibrant hip-hop music scene existed alongside this, with such acts as Roxanne Shante, MC Shan, and producer Marley Marl making a name for Queensbridge in rap music. The excitement and musical creativity of this period is nicely evoked here, with such episodes as the rivalry between MC Shan, representing Queensbridge, and KRS-One, representing the South Bronx (culminating in the devastating blow of KRS-One's "The Bridge is Over"), helping to inspire young Nas' musical development.

But the event that really jump started the creation of Illmatic was the shooting death of Nas' close childhood friend Willie "Ill Will" Graham, an occurrence he personally witnessed and which affected him deeply. After this, Nas threw himself fully into his music, and spent long hours at the recording studio, resulting in the creation of his landmark musical statement, which he completed when he was 20 years old. Nas' musical collaborators on Illmatic, some of whom were the top producers in hip-hop, such as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and Large Professor, offer illuminating glimpses into the creation of the music, and especially Nas' rich lyrical content. Illmatic's opening track "N.Y. State of Mind" detailed with dense, intricate imagery the stress and dangers of life on the streets, while "One Love," which takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison, captures the devastating impacts of incarceration, not only on inmates but their loved ones as well. 

Embedded in Nas' dark street tales are notes of optimism and hope, with the ultimate message to his listeners being, "I made it out of this alive, and so can you." A late scene that shows the announcement of a fellowship at Harvard named in his honor promoting hip-hop scholarship emphasizes this. Unlike most of the neighborhood folks whose photos were used for Illmatic's album cover art, Nas was able to escape the fates of death or prison, and Time Is Illmatic ultimately becomes a moving testimonial to how music literally saved Nas' life.


Time Is Illmatic has one final screening at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 4pm. For more information, visit the festival's website.

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