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The Story Behind Nas's 'Illmatic' Is Almost as Great as the Album Itself

Nas's vignettes about day-to-day life in the Queensbridge projects are not just paeans to New York City. The songs on his 1994 debut Illmatic give us a sense of the tastes and smells that defined a generation of urban youth.
September 30, 2014, 6:00pm

Nas's debut LP Illmatic is often called the best hip hop album ever made. Photo via Mikamote/Wikimedia Commons

When Erik Parker was an editor at VIBE working on a piece about the tenth anniversary of Nas's seminal rap album Illmatic, he knew his print project wasn't doing the music justice. The MC's vignettes about day-to-day life in the Queensbridge projects aren't your typical paeans to New York City. The songs on Illmatic are so closely tied with specific characters and traumatic memories from Nasir Jones's frenzied adolescence that a true celebration of their greatness required sharing old footage and audio with a new generation of hip-hop heads. So Parker teamed up with graffiti artist One9, and the two spent the next decade crafting Time is Illmatic. The end result premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19 and is finally set for a nationwide release on Thursday.

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At the beginning of the 71-minute documentary, Nas explains that he wanted to give the listener a sense of "what the streets felt like, or they sounded like, tasted like, smelled like" when crafting his debut. Parker, the producer and writer, and One9, the director, rely on interviews with Nas's dad and brother as well as pre-Illmatic performances to present the story of a hip-hop classic in a way that only film could.

The only problem was that they had no money or experience making movies. "We just pulled together a bunch of friends," One9, who's also known for designing BET's Rap City logo, tells me. "I knew a little bit about shooting, but I was just experimenting for the most part. People came in at half-day rates or at no rate."

The story was originally intended to center on the genesis of an album the two filmmakers remember playing nonstop when it first dropped in 1994. It would chronicle how Nas's day-in-the-life debut went from demo to instant classic, nabbing a rare five-mic rating from the Source. Widely hyped for its complex internal rhyme schemes, jazz samples, and gritty tales of urban decay, Illmatic is one of the most influential albums of all time—at least according to Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, and Pharrell, who talk it up in the film.

But after interviewing Nas's father, a jazz musician from Mississippi named Olu Dara whose trumpet can be heard on the album, they realized they had the opportunity to capture a narrative that spoke to the redemptive nature of the hip-hop genre. The charismatic and well-read man who left Nas and his brother's childhood home early on was inextricably tied to the future MC's worldview and helped shape its creation as much as hip-hop groups like Main Source. (Nas’ first star moment on the hip-hop scene was when he spat what was easily the dopest verse on Main Source’s 1991 cut “Live at the Barbecue,” which sparked talk that he was the second-coming of Rakim.)

"We felt like we could just say so much more with the film," One9 says. "We knew we couldn't tell the story of Illmatic without telling the culture around it." Starting from Nas's childhood, the filmmakers realized, would allow them to build a narrative about how the world seemed to conspire against the MC from the beginning. Between the crack epidemic, the lack of a live-in father, the failures of the education system in his impoverished outer-borough neighborhood, and the prevalence of gang violence in his childhood stomping grounds, it's safe to say Nas had it rough.

Mostly through interviews with Nas and his brother, Jabari, One9 and Parker reconstruct pivotal moments in the musician's life, such as the slaying of his best friend Ill Will over a juvenile misunderstanding. The film ends with ninth-grade dropout Nas walking through the doors of Harvard to announce the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship, which funds scholarships for the school's Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute.

Beaming in sunglasses next to Professor Henry Gates Jr., Nas humbly accepts the room's applause. “This is a great honor for hip-hop,” he says. To inspire others through the redemptive tale of Illmatic, producer Parker says he's working on launching an educational supplement to the film so that it can be taught in schools and in prisons.

"It's an amazing story that showed us that Nas's journey isn't just about music," he tells me. "It's an American story."