NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC Tells The Story of a Great Escape

When I fell in love with music, around the myopic age of thirteen, I almost exclusively fell in love with nu-metal. I was obsessed. You could maybe even say “fanatical.” That wouldn’t be an exaggeration. I had started to build a religious doctrine…around nu-metal. I can’t quite recall the specifics of my spiritual revolution, but what I do remember is my seething hatred for rap in those days. My thoughtless outlook on the genre was mostly made of all the same crap you are used to hearing from silly people like my former self. “It isn’t music.” “It’s just guys saying stuff that rhymes.” “Some other guy just pushes buttons to play the music.” “It’s all about bragging and drugs and beating women.” Some of that might be true. Of the true things, only a few of them are that uncomplicated. No matter what was true, imagine that garbage coming out of the mouth of a middle class white kid in small town Iowa who thought Fred Durst was a genius.

My taste, as well as my understanding of music, has grown (hopefully a lot) since those days, and although I have devoted significant amounts of time to hip hop, I must admit I had only recently paid much attention to Nas. I don’t know what took me so long to get to him, but as soon as I did, his landmark album Illmatic instantly made an impression on me. I’m still no hip-hop aficionado, but his words and musicality seemed to have a depth and density that I had rarely experienced before. Twenty years after that album’s release, Nas: Time is Illmatic, a new biographical documentary, tells us so much more about how the record came to fruition, and just how important it is.

Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones was born in 1973 to good parents. As children, he and his brother had more than most in their neighborhood of Queensbridge in Queens, New York. He talks about how having carpeted floors, a color television, and an impressive library of literature and reference materials were unheard of in the projects. It was this early self-education that allowed Nas to write his way out of the natural doom of living in his extremely tough neighborhood. His father had left, his friends were being murdered, and he had dropped out of school once it became clear his teachers cared as little as he did. In the late 80s, he started making a name for himself in New York as a distinct new voice for his generation, and in 1994, Illmatic was released to the collective head-explosion of all who heard it. Two decades later, Nas, a number of other rappers, producers, and industry professionals reflect on him and the album, and Nas returns to his old neighborhood.

Seeing Nas interviewed in a relaxed setting is a joy. I had only ever seen him speak without a beat one other time. Charlie Rose had an awkward chat around the time the documentary was hitting the few theaters it could find. The rapper, now in his early 40s, seemed totally confused by everything Rose was asking. He was out of his element, and maybe wondering if this was all an elaborate prank. In Time is Illmatic, he speaks freely in his own words about his compelling life, and his approach to creating his exquisite rap music. He speaks at length on how, the minute Columbia Records gave him the chance, he had to make the projects so real for his audience that they could practically smell it while they listened.

When I listen to hip-hop, most of what reaches me is the rhythmic relationship between voice and beat. Lyrics don’t always grab me quickly in any genre, so hearing Nas and his admirers talk about his rhymes lyric-by-lyric is powerfully informative. It was also not until watching this documentary, when Nas and his brother are talking about a photograph taken for the Illmatic album, that I had the most intense understanding of how difficult growing up in the projects can be. In the image, Nas sits on a park bench with a bunch of people from the neighborhood. Today, including two kids, maybe age nine, every person in the photo other than Nas is dead, on trial, or doing time. He is the only one who made it out. That really brings the whole film together in a way I wasn’t expecting. I know the advantages I was born into, simply being a white male in a safe place, but sometimes it takes that kind of flooring visualized statistic to really make me appreciate it. If the documentary doesn’t change your perspective on rap, it will get you thinking about the difficulties so many young men and women grow up with in the “wrong” side of town, if that thought hadn’t occurred to you already.

Previous post Scream Factory Presents a Campy Vampy Double Feature!
Next post JOHN CARPENTER’S LOST THEMES — So Happy He Found Them