Approaching its 20-year anniversary, Nas’ debut masterpiece Illmatic has no doubt stood the test of time. Longevity has made the classic album an earnest subject of numerous discussions, many of which transcend the boundaries of hip-hop and enter the realm of academia and socio-economics. Inspired by the work, director One9 and writer Eric Parker present Nas’ opus in this light in the film Time Is Illmatic, set to premiere April 16th at the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, further proving how far the album and hip-hop have come since 1994. The film takes a critical look at the social circumstances that bore the album, in addition to its musical, and lyrical content.
“I can’t wait for everyone to see it,” says One9. “I know it’s ready. We mixed the audio and I was like, ‘Man, this is gonna hit people in their chest.’ Nas loves the film…it really means a lot to him.” Life+Times caught up with One9 to discuss Time Is Illmatic and the legendary album.
Life+Times: You’re a multimedia artist and this is your first feature film. What kind of work do you do and how did you become involved with the film?
One9: I grew up in the DC area, and I was doing a lot of street art, graffiti art, early pieces around the city. I got a job teaching, doing murals around the city with kids. From that, there was a [BET] show called Rap City that did a story on it and they covered some of the pieces we were doing. I went to pick the tape up and the art director offered me a job doing their logo, so I wound up doing logos and graphics for Rap City. This was, I think, 1999. From there, I learned the early stages of production, editing, shooting, and graphics. I relocated to New York in 2000, and from there I went on to do a couple DVDs – sports DVDs. One was called Born To Ball, it’s a basketball DVD and it was NBA players’ high school highlights with music by 50 Cent. It was a lot of streetball DVDs, and at the time, I met Eric Parker who was a journalist at VIBE who was doing a ten-year anniversary of Illmatic. He came to me and asked if I wanted to shoot some stuff and we wound up shooting Nas’ father, Olu Dara. Then we realized we had a much bigger picture than just the music itself, it’s really a generational story. So that’s how it started.
L+T: Expand on that. What is the film comprised of? Is it older footage, recent interviews?
One9: Well, from there we went on to shoot most of the people from Illmatic – Premier, Pete Rock, AZ. Then we sat down and sent it to Nas’ manager at the time. It was just a rough trailer. He actually brought Nas to the meeting, we discussed it and realized that we wanted to make a movie. So we went ahead ourselves and did everything out of our pocket really, off and on for a couple years, and started collecting as many photos and things as we could from people we knew. We sent the trailer out and if got around to different people, and it actually got to people in the grant world. We got a call from a guy at the Ford Foundation, Orlando Bagwell, who created Just Films, a social justice initiative at Ford. He’s also the director and producer of Eyes On The Prize. He really loved the film and what we were doing at the time, so he gave us a research grant and asked us to continue, after he saw an updated version he went on to give us a production grant. So the film itself is a combination of interviews with mostly Nas’ perspective and voice told with a lot of archival footage. We met with a lot different people who had footage of Nas growing up. The focus is mostly on the social conditions that Nas went through from Illmatic. We broke that album down into chapters, so “New York State Of Mind,” we’re looking at the history of Queens Bridge houses in New York; “Life’s A Bitch” looks at the family being torn apart; “One Love,” looks at the prison industrial complex and being locked up. How these things related on a bigger level, on a socio-economic level, how it affected families, and particularly, how Nas was affected. So you really get a bit of history, a bit of insight, as well as a musical breakdown from the producers. Illmatic-heads are gonna love it, hip-hop heads are gonna love it, and for historians, it has a lot of educational things as well. It really crosses generations, we think.
L+T: Doing all this research on Nas, Illmatic and the surrounding circumstances, was there anything you discovered that surprised you?
One9: We really appreciated the whole Jones family’s openness. They really talked to us, especially Olu Dara, his father. His father had such a great musical history and legacy of his own, that I really saw how the connections were made for Nas to really create a flow. The musicality that was in the house – Nas said, “We didn’t have toys, we had musical instruments in the home. Music was always in the house.” They have stories of Olu traveling in and out, going to Europe and back, hearing stuff outside the block and outside the neighborhood that you didn’t really get in most households. I just saw the insight that Nas had, and what I really saw that helped them a lot, to me, was the books they read. Nas discovered a lot of knowledge from the old books that they read. We discuss those books, I thought that was really important to give a little insight into the mindset. I also found that Nas was a visual artist. He drew a lot. I think you see the connections of the pictures he paints lyrically, and the mindset of a visual artist. I was able to relate to that part being able to paint myself.
L+T: What’s your personal relationship with Illmatic? What place does the album have for you in terms of your perspective on hip-hop and life in general?
One9: Yeah, that album, when I first heard it, I think I played maybe about a dozen times. I don’t even think I made it through the album on the first play, I think I just stopped at the first three or four songs and was like, “Man, I gotta listen to that again.” I grew up listening to lyrics, my early inspiration before that was Ultramagnetic. I was always into the hardcore, grimy hip-hop – BDP’s Criminal Minded, etc. Lyrically, the musicality of what I heard on Illmatic – I grew up listening to a lot of music outside of hip-hop also. I listened to a lot of jazz, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, my range was out there. Visually, I was painting what I was hearing, so I was a really abstract artist. When I heard [Illmatic], I included a lot of that work into the pieces I was painting. I think I was literally listening to it while I was painting. I was listening to “New York State Of Mind,” “Represent,” different tracks. It just opened me up in a different way. To this day, you still hear different things that connect. Lyrically, it’s like a wildstyle burner to me. I connected to that essence of it and it’s deep. As a kid at 17 or 18 years old, the way he was able to put those words together is really prolific.
L+T: Obviously, most albums can’t be made into a documentary about social conditions. Based on people you’ve interviewed and your own thoughts, what is it about the album or Nas that’s made it so special and allowed it to transcend hip-hop? It’s really a social commentary.
One9: In a few words, I fee like it’s extremely honest, it’s raw and it’s timeless. Every few generations has an album like that. I can probably compare it to – this is my own opinion – Marvin Gaye’s What Going On? which represented for that time period. It was just honest. It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about trying to sell records, it was about opening yourself up and doing it for the craft. It was just expressing what you felt inside. Before that, [you can compare it to] Miles Davis Kind of Blue, which is more of a spiritual album, same with John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It’s something you do purely for the love of the craft and it transcends space and time. No matter where you’re from, it connects. I feel like that album is that voice, that music that really connects. It’s timeless.
L+T: Is that where the title of the film came from?
One9: Yeah. We were looking for a title and I was listening to the lyrics on “Life’s A Bitch,” and came across that and was like, “Wow, that really represents what we’re saying.” It’s the times. No matter what generation, from Olu’s generation in the ’30s and ’40s to Queensbridge in the ’90s to the hip-hop that preceded it from Marley Marl and everything that came before it, the time was illmatic. I feel like that connected to what we were saying in the movie.
Keep up with Time Is Illmatic here.