Today Illmatic’s status is set in stone as a hip-hop benchmark. An album that managed to encapsulate the socio-political perspective, spirit, and collective frustration of young black men searching for a voice in America. For anyone considering themselves a hip hop head, ‘Time is Illmatic’ is a must see documentary. Nas had already painted a very real and vivid picture of his environment and state of mind through his music but the addition of visual media that provides further insight and understanding into his experiences is something that just can’t be passed up. Nas spent most of 2014 commemorating the 20th anniversary of his landmark debut album, opening the celebrations with a deluxe reissue of his debut and a world tour in which he performed the album in its entirety.
One9 and writer Erik Parker began working on a ‘making-of project’ centered on ‘Illmatic’ a decade ago, for the album’s 10-year anniversary. The feature length documentary ‘Time Is Illmatic’ explores the history, production and social conditions that lead to the creation of the 1994 project. The film offers a backdrop of the Jones’ family musical legacy and moves to examine the social and environmental conditions that influenced Nas’ worldview. Identifying the obstacles faced in receiving a record deal coupled with the support of his neighbourhood, ‘Time is Illmatic’ features interviews from not only the producers of ‘Illmatic’ but also contemporary artists influenced by the album provide inspiring account of Nas’ evolution from a young street poet to a visionary MC.
Successfully tracking down just about every living person who may have had some contribution towards the making of the album, One9 and Parker’s style of interviews along with the videography result in a surreal but compelling snapshot of a moment, of Nas and of QueensBridge. Every aspect of ‘Illmatic’ is examined and explained, from the album’s iconic cover to the choice of production.
‘Time is Illmatic’ effectively contrasts the dark and bitter nature of life in the Queensbridge projects with the imagery of hope and life. The colour with which Nas described his childhood leaks out throughout the documentary even as his brother, Jungle explains the fate of men as well as children he knew in particular; either death or prison. Nas’ want for a better life elevated not only himself but a whole culture as well, the ending a visual of Nas, an eighth-grade dropout now the namesake of a fellowship at Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive.
Despite the purpose and focus of the documentary being centred specifically on ‘Illmatic’, I couldn’t help but want more; the trials and tribulations that came after the release of the album, his perspective on hip hop and his standing within the culture today. However in the same breath I feel that the decision to avoid stepping behind the scenes of the music industry was a smart move by One9 and Eric Parker. All in all as this student of the culture, ‘Time is Illmatic’ definitely proved to be fulfilling, providing a whole new perspective and a fresh set of ears with which to listen to the revolutionary album.
Words: Kitan Ogunfeibo