BLACKFILM – SEPTEMBER 29, 2014: “Speaking With Nas: Time Is Illmatic’s Director One9 and Writer Erik Parker” by Wilson Morales
Speaking With Nas: Time Is Illmatic’s Director One9 and Writer Erik Parker
Coming out this week from Tribeca Film is the documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which will be available in select theaters beginning October 1 and on nationwide VOD and iTunes/digital platforms beginning October 3.
The documentary is directed by multimedia artist, One9, written by Erik Parker, and produced by One9, Parker, and Anthony Saleh. It follows the trajectory of Nas’ 1994 landmark debut album, Illmatic — widely considered one of the most important and revolutionary albums in hip-hop. Featuring interviews with his ‘Illmatic’ producers (Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., and DJ Premier) and musical peers (including Pharrell Williams and Alicia Keys), NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC is a thrilling account of Nas’s evolution from a young street poet to a visionary MC.
Blackfilm.com spoke exclusively with Nas: Time Is Illmatic’s Producer/Director One9 and Producer/Writer Erik Parker about the long journey of putting together this doc on one of the greatest albums ever and what it represented.
How did this project come about?
Erik Parker: It came about in 2004. We started working on what we thought would be the ten year anniversary of the making of ‘Illmatic;’ but as we started shooting, we all knew that this was much bigger than a regular music doc. At the time, there were several of us, me, One9, and three other friends that started out on this passion project because we appreciated ‘Illmatic’ and we thought we could something surrounding ‘Illmatic’ because so little was spoken about it. We started that way.
With ten years in the making, when did Nas become involved with the project?
One9: Well, our first interview was in 2004 with Nas’ father Olu Dara and from that interview, we gained insight into the history of the music, the culture, the legacy, the books, the knowledge, and the whole wisdom as what the whole Jones father was about. It was a lot more than we anticipated. We were really going to make a ten year anniversary DVD. We left there and thought to ourselves that we have something much bigger. We have a generational story and we now need to expand on that. We’re out of pocket for the next six to seven years. We were shooting off and on for every couple of months, whenever we could. We had full time jobs and it came to a point that we decided we were going to send some trailers out. That got to different people in the community and eventually made its way to The Ford Foundation. We got a call back from Orlando Bagwell, head of Just Films at the time. We spoke and he eventually gave us a research grant. The film really took on new legs after that point. We also had some other resources to keep on working. We made about 3 to 4 scenes and he gave us a production grant and that for us, it was all we needed. We had been doing this out of pocket but now someone is giving us resources to work with. We quit our jobs and got Nas more involved at that point. Prior to that, it wasn’t really solidified that he was going to be involved to what degree.
With documentaries, there’s no timetable from start to finish. How long did it take to complete this?
Erik Parker: I think it took a couple of years. The benefit is that when we started in 2004, we did a lot of shooting. We put it down and pick it up over the years. With a lot of shooting, we started to form our story early on. When we went into it with one direction as One9 mentioned, we interviewed Olu Dara and it expended our story, we knew we had something bigger. We had all that time and some footage to play around with and build our story in our minds and on paper when we didn’t have money and we didn’t have anyone to shoot. We were ahead of the game by the time we got money and had an opportunity to leave our jobs and get an office. We could go full steam ahead and interview the people that were left out, the story direction we wanted to go in, and the timeline it would take because we had all that time throughout the years to think about it and making it right.
Was there a challenge from your financiers as to the story you wanted to make as opposed to typical music doc we see on TV?
One9: That’s the beauty of working with grants. With Orlando from The Ford Foundation, and he also directed Eyes On The Prize, his background was all about importance and cultural relevancy and the integrity of your film. “Don’t make it commercial. Make the film you want to make” is what he would say. The mentorship we were getting from him as well as Tribeca, as we became part of the Tribeca All-Access Program, was to make an important film and not to make a commercial viable product. Illmatic itself wasn’t a commercial viable album. It was something he did for integrity. He did it for his peer group, his friends, and the culture. For us, it was a matter of representing a film in that same language. We wanted the film to be told through the lens of Nas, his family, and people who spoke to core issues. There was nothing we really looked at other than that to make it commercial at all.
Was it easy attracting talent to come on camera?
Erik Parker: The thing about Illmatic and the people who have any connection to Illmatic and who came up under the Ilmatic generation is that the producers and the people who were influenced by it, the one thing they love to do is talk about Illmatic. So once you have a conversation with them and tell them that our intention is to honor the depth and layer of this piece of work, it wasn’t that difficult to get them to speak. They were happy to spread the word and be our ambassadors of this piece of art and they want the world to know that. People were really happy to talk to us.
What makes this film different from any doc people may have seen on MTV, VH1, or BET?
One9: Well, this film is a human story. It’s not a music documentary. We didn’t go about in making anything about the music. We wanted to make a film about survival issues, and its relevance to culture. Some of our inspirations growing up was ‘Hoop Dreams.’ It was a basketball film but it related to issues first and foremost. Our film related to issues and core struggles that were going on in the community and we really wanted to wrap Illmatic and for us, it’s not a viable film that can related to any film that’s played on those networks, although we’re fully supportive of what they do. We wanted to make a film that mattered to our community and our culture.
At 75 min and with 10 years of research, what got left out?
Erik Parker: So much was left out. We have so much footage. The process of deciding what was left out was a difficult one, but once we got the idea of the direction we wanted to go in, it clicked. When people hear Nas: Time is Illmatic and they hear ‘Nas’ and ‘Illmatic,’ they know it’s the legendary rapper and his first album. They think it’s a music documentary. A lot of what was left was just the making of the music. That’s what people see in traditional music documentaries. A person goes in the studio and they tell little anecdotes of what happened in the studio and how this person came up with this record and what they chose to use this rap instead of that rhyme, and a lot of that was left out. We just wanted the genuine human story that relates to us all. Everybody who sees this film won’t be a fan of Illmatic but they should walk away with the understanding of what those young boys were going through as they were growing up in America at a certain time in our history.
One9: In the state that we live in now with the digital age, we feel that we made a 75 minutes film, but that doesn’t mean that any of that footage ail be left out. We’ll be archiving all that footage and it will be made available to school systems and we’ll be sharing it with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem so people can look at the raw footage and all the uncut footage.
How was working with Nas?
Erik Parker: Going in, we didn’t have much of a relationship with Nas. Our relationship was that we loved Illmatic and other works he’s done, but Illmatic spoke to us on many different levels and he was the person who made it. I had interviewed him when I was at the Source years ago, but we didn’t have a relationship. Over the course of making the documentary and we interviewed everyone surrounding the album with thoughts and we continued to do so without Nas’ blessing or input. At that point, he wouldn’t say if he would do it or not. It wasn’t until much later when he came to our office and we showed him some of the clips that we put together and some video that he hadn’t seen before as well as some photos he hadn’t seen in years. He then realized the story that we were telling and spent two hours looking at the stuff and asked if we had anything else. Another hour goes by and he calls his brother Jabari who also goes by Jungle to come up and watch. There were no cameras on at that moment, It was just the four of us sitting in the room looking at the clips and from there, he told us he would give us complete access to him whenever we needed him. Over time, we developed a rapport.