AXS – OCTOBER 4, 2014: “Time Is Illmatic documents the rise of Nas and the community that built him” by William Pankey
Time Is Illmatic documents the rise of Nas and the community that built him
By: William Pankey AXS Contributor Oct 4, 2014 2 days ago
Ah, 1994. That cherished year unreconstructed hip-hop heads look back on most fondly. An era of Timberland boots, Guess jeans, and a purring New York rap bubble that was looking like it would never pop. It was also the year in which hip-hop reached a creative and artistic apogee, a period where the classical sounds that defined a genre were forged and perfected.
There was no doubt that this was a turning point. Up until that time, hip-hop was drenched in the aesthetics of the Reaganite ’80s, where everything was gaudier, including politics, film, sport, and of course hip-hop.
This all changed in the ‘90s. In the wake of perhaps an escalating War on Drugs, rampant poverty and the fracturing of the black family through mass incarceration, a meaner, aggressive, and more technically complex hip-hop came down the canal.
It is in this particular fold of hip-hop history that we can locate Illmatic, and 20 years later, the album still feels like a time capsule of what it was like in those halcyon days. Things went from the ludic good times of the early rap days, to a sort of collective flexing of verbal and intellectual muscles. The template frothy rap records of the past were phased out and in their wake was only the faint hissing sound of jazz samples and twelve guys on a rainy day under some East coast aqueduct gargling complex rhyme patterns and wearing hoodies.
As a reminder that perhaps the greatest rap album of all time was unleashed 20 years ago, Time Is Illmatic, a new film about Nas and his debut album was just released. The film is a glossy documentary directed by One9 featuring interviews and scenes of an early Nas, as well as a tour through his Queensbridge neighborhood and glimpses into the influences of a juvenile Nasir Jones.
During the intro of the film, Dr. Cornel West, Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys, and Pharrell extoll the virtues of the Illmatic manual. Luckily the documentary quickly veers clear of fawning from his peers and instead we see Nas sitting in a plush limousine being chauffeured around as he stares intently out the window, musing about his life journey so far.
It is standard documentary fare. But what makes Time Is Illmatic stand out is not really much of what Nas says, and instead what his brother and father, Jabari “Jungle” Jones and Olu Dara, bring to the film.
Both men convey a sort of world-weary view to the proceedings, especially Jungle, as he saunters around Queensbridge telling stories about Nas and his family, proving to be the most engaging figure in the film. Olu Dara on the other hand provides insight into Nas and Jungle both as children, and how his own work as a musician spurred Nas into becoming another prominent musical figure within the family.
The documentary eventually moves towards the making of the titular album, and for the most part it is a complete recounting of what went into creating it. Most of individuals involved in the production of the album are present here, with Large Professor, Pete Rock, MC Serch, Q-Tip, Faith Newman (who signed Nas to Columbia Records in the early ’90s), and DJ Premier all making brief cameos.
Yet the anecdotes about the actual making of the album are a surface exploration at best, and the film doesn’t even examine all individual tracks from the album in detail. Still, one gets the sense that that isn’t the point. Yes this is a film that surrounds the much-feted album, but what the film shows best is hip-hop as an art that is grounded in the pursuit of stitching together a wider community, and is a union of people faced with only the harshest realities. 20 years down the road it is a spectacle to see Nas and Illmatic still standing firm, central components of the hip-hop universe, as vital and essential as ever.
Read more about the AXS article here: http://www.axs.com/time-is-