Time Is Illmatic: The Inside Story of a Hip-Hop Landmark

Nas (right) and the Queensbridge crew, early 1990s
Nas (right) and the Queensbridge crew, early 1990s
Danny Clinch/Tribeca Films

Nas: Time Is Illmatic, the new documentary about the rapper's seminal 1994 debut album Illmatic, is moreso a story about New York City's infamous Queensbridge public-housing development, its inhabitants and how one family's thoughts and beliefs were shaped there, and more.

The stories about the album have been told repeatedly. It's the landmark early-'90s New York rap album; the one mythical project that has become a ghost in its own right. However, the people and forces that helped shaped the project, from Nas' brother Jungle to his father, his teachers and his upbringing seem far more personal, more disarming.

Released in April to coincide with the album's 20th anniversary, Time Is Illmatic focuses on the time period before and during the creation of that album. Its fascination with the period also flows with the mass release of the film in a one-night-only sense. After the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, tonight Nas' Houston fans get one shot at catching something that feels like a rite of passage.

Nas on the set of Time Is Illmatic
Nas on the set of Time Is Illmatic
Photo by Frank Larson/Tribeca Films

Director One9's idea of a documentary is to focus not only on old clips, stock footage and key subjects, but to dig into the gravity of voices, pavement-deep sounds that sound more like gunshots than the most common instrument man has. All of this is centered around how one rapper whose father gave him his blessing to drop out of school and eventually created New York's first shock-and-awe rap release since Public Enemy.

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Much like the shapes that eventually create the puzzle that is the Queensbridge projects, Nas' lyrics act like equations here when attached to the film. Suddenly, all of those mythical moments you hear, from the screeching on the subway train to the close of "It Ain't Hard To Tell," fit.

The most sobering aspect of the film, one that reaffirms the same life that Nas and his brother Jungle escaped, is when Jungle pulls out the wide-camera shot of everyone from the album insert. Without flinching, Jungle begins pointing out how many people are serving long jail sentences. How does Nas respond? Fittingly, with a single quip: "that's fucked up."

Nas and his father, musician Olu Dara
Nas and his father, musician Olu Dara
Tribeca Films

Interviews span plenty of figures from the era, including Nas' father, respected jazz musician Olu Dara; the charming and engaging Jungle; and classic heads from Queens like Marley Marl. In its 75-minute brevity, certain moments are stretched farther to gain higher importance. Nas' upbringing, including the weight of losing his best friend, shapes the rapper into a completely different individual.

A cynic through and through, he rapped in 1991 about going to hell for killing Jesus, about aiming guns at nuns in 1992 -- subjects that would easily raise the alarms of parents across the world. In 1991, it was the words of a teenager who had absolutely zero to live for or live with.

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"I didn't trust anything," Nas says of the time period. "I didn't trust anything outside the world that I lived in. I didn't care about politics, I didn't care about America that much. I didn't care because I didn't believe that it believed in me."

The early portions of the film are the hallmark of Time Is Illmatic. The story about Roxanne Shante threatening Nas and his crew to get better or else she'll beat them is the sort of comedy usually reserved for coming-of-age films. Once Illmatic is released, the film segues farther into the creation of select records: Texas' own DJ Premier scoring "N.Y. State of Mind"; producer L.E.S. flipping "Devotion" the creating the jazzy "Life's a Bitch," featuring a trumpet solo by Nas' dad; Pete Rock's booming voice of God detailing the loop that became "The World Is Yours"; and Q-Tip breaking down "One Love," the postcard-from prison-message that blooms into a full breakdown of the prison-industrial complex; and more.

One9's film is more of a tour of Queensbridge then and now. It surmises the same look that Nas had as the five-year-old depicted on the Illmatic album cover. Even then he was wise man before his time, one that even finds hope when he finds out a kid in Queensbridge today now shares his name.

Time Is Illmatic: The Inside Story of a Hip-Hop Landmark

Nas: Time Is Illmatic screens tonight at Sundance Houston cinema in Bayou Place; AMC Studio 30 (2949 Dunvale); and both Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park and Vintage Park.

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