My review of the documentary Time Is Illmatic
“My poetry’s deep; I never fail.”
Twenty years after the release of Nas’ seminal debut album Illmatic, Time Is Illmatic offers us a peek behind the curtains of its creation. Unlike other documentaries of its ilk, this is not the standard fare of the “let’s cram as many famous people as possible to sing paeans to the artistic genius” oeuvre. In his feature directing debut, the former graffiti artist One9 directs this not like a wide-eyed fan boy eager to deify Nas but like a museum curator, looking to recreate a piece of history all hip-hop fans, regardless of their position on Nas, would be curious about. Nas describes Illmatic as a record whose intent was “to make you feel that hip-hop is changing, becoming more real.” He wanted to offer a cinematic look into Queensbridge, New York, of the 1990s. Whether Illmatic is *the* hip-hop record of all time is an irrelevant question; few records have come along that have clearly changed the trajectory of their genres and left an indelible mark, regardless of whether they were the first to do so or the best to do so. Illmatic to hip hop is what DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is to turntablism.
Time Is Illmatic does not require that its audience pay homage at the feet of hip hop royalty and instead offers a hushed-breath-reverance-free look at the making of one of the important records in hip-hop history.Time Is Illmatic starts with a look at Nas’ upbringing, which had a momentous impact on his career as an emcee. His father, jazz musician Olu Dara and his mother, Ann Jones, raised Nas and his younger brother Jabari, a.k.a. Jungle, in an Afro-centric cocoon of art, books, and music quite divergent from the typical Queensbridge household. Nas himself explains that he did not grow up in need. He eloquently speaks about the impact that his father’s library and worldly orientation had on his rhyming; even his name was a reminder to take pride in his roots (“Nasir. That’s the name of a king!”). His mother nurtured him and taught him to work hard. Even though Nas’ father is often cited as the more artistically influential part of his life, Jungle identifies their mother as the anchor and protector.
Time Is Illmatic does not rely on pundits to analyze the social circumstances Illmatic was borne out of, save for a short cameo by Cornel West who discusses the origin of the projects and why so many African-Americans were forced to live in them. But it nevertheless paints a vivid picture of the milieu. For example, Olu Dara describes enrolling Nas into school as “enrolling him into hell. This was not a nurturing school system.” Their father encourages both Nas and Jungle to drop out of school after the eighth grade, despite protests from their mother, because he wants them to follow their entrepreneurial dreams and be men rather than boys. Nas and his upstairs neighbor Will Young, aka Ill Will, start making music in a serious way in between intense bouts of “baking brownies and taping videos” (how’s that for a hip-hop confession!). The hip-hop scene at the time is fresh, colorful, rich.
Fans of old-school hip-hop will also revel in the film’s coverage of the neighborhood rivalries and MC battles on tracks like Marly Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s “South Bronx.”Featuring interviews with Illmatic producers Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S., and DJ Premier, Time Is Illmatic certainly knows how to create the setting in an organic way. They bring to life Queensbridge in 1994 and paint a vivid picture of the “N.Y. state of mind.” Hip-hop has always had a close relationship with space and Illmatic is well-established in that pantheon. Illmatic is a look inside a neighborhood ravaged by crack and violence, one where “any and everybody made money by crack or was impacted by it.” Time Is Illmatic is the story of the Queensbridge projects as much as it is the story of Nas. He reflects emotionally on the personal losses he has suffered and on how most of the people from back in the day are either dead or in jail. Q-Tip also makes an appearance, in which he reflects on the poignancy of “One Love,” which takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison: “Congratulations, you know you got a son. I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?” Nas’ dissection of what the system of incarceration does to a community – the damage it inflicts on families and not just the person in jail – is trenchant.
Time Is Illmatic lovingly and honestly chronicles the making of an album that would influence many generations after its release. Like Olu Dara’s jazz staccatos, it has a clipped, vintagy, Wild Style-esque ethos that has an authentically poetic cadence. By allowing Nas and his family to narrate, it offers a richness that could not have been unearthed in any other way.